Like all Ritz-Carltons, Orlando's luxe hotel is known for its fine dining. The food will still be fine at the RC Grande Lakes' newest restaurant, but a different kind of fine. Instead of frou-frou, the new restaurant, Highball & Harvest, will go for earthy. The menu will be thoughtfully created and the foodstuffs carefully sourced. But the offerings will be relaxed, more like a farm-to-table restaurant and less like a sophisticated coffee-shop-slash-steakhouse. The dining room tables will be stained hickory.
This sign, in the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes, lobby, informs visitors of the restaurant being built.
This is a railroad spike than has been transformed into a logoed bottle opener.
I was lucky enough to get a menu preview of Highball & Harvest, which won't open until at least August 2014. The space will be built by then -- I had my tasting at the golf club restaurant -- and the menu will be tweaked, for sure. Here's my takeaway so far: The menu is being crafted by seasoned chefs (and a passionate food and beverage director who was originally a food scientist) by a bunch of folks who are wildly enthusiastic about their creation.
The restaurant will have a main dining room that can be divided into three sections. In addition, it will have two outdoor areas, a lounge with TVs, and a special table for cocktail tastings. The decor won't be themed, per se, but it will honor the railroad days of yore. We're talking Southern Chic in general, with servers in jeans and, perhaps, plaid shirts and/or thin leather suspenders, and the dishes creative twists on down-South classics. In the words of one chef, the menu will represent "Creole-style to Low Country to Savannah and Charleston."
First we'll discuss cocktails. Bottom line: They will be fun. In fact, ice will be shaved and cut at the bar from a 300-pound block every day.
This cocktail is made with gin, lemon juice, elderflower liqueur, cucumber and fresh dill. It's refreshing and doesn't have the bite often associated with gin beverages.
The Cranberry Cobbler, alcohol-free, is like a raspberry lemonade with freshly muddled berries. Honey and cranberry add subtle flavor.
If you order bread as a starter, you'll get this modern-day take on old-timey Parker House rolls. Here the rolls are made in-house with a flour that has not been genetically modified. It's covered with grains descendent from ancient Egyptian grains. People with gluten sensitivity can often eat these rolls. They're served with apple butter and herb butter.
Most of the appetizers are meant for sharing, a la "small plates." The crab cakes are layered with fried green tomatoes and served with a green tomato chutney and Cajun remoulade, plus a salad of microgreens.
Crab cakes with fried green tomatoes.
This presentations wows me. It's a smoked-fish dip (super-flavorful) with a pimento cheese dip (a bit mild for my taste) plated with grilled bread, housemade crackers, and pickled gardens, much of it from the hotel's onsite garden.
Dips with pickled vegetables.
Sweet and savory are all tossed together in this salad. It's made with kale and quinoa -- superfood overload! -- plus pecans, apple pieces and golden raisins. It was incredible, more so due to a bit of bacon. It's tossed with a light vinaigrette.
Kale and quinoa salad
Highball & Harvest may be trendy, but it's also the hotel's three-meal-a-shop. It serves breakfast all day long. This dish may be called Pig and Potatoes. It's a Yukon Gold potato hash with peppers and onions plus pork belly topped with a poached egg and hollandaise sauce laced with spicy Tabasco.
Dessert will be calorie-worthy, based on my samplings. Donuts will be served warm, in a paper bag, for tossing in sugar. Lemon cream, caramel and Nutella dips will accompany them.
We sampled the strawberry shortcake in shot glasses, but yours will probably be a whole slice. It's super-fresh. The truffles were just a treat for us journalists.
It's clever of the Ritz to get the word out before the restaurant opens. How can we critics trash an eatery that doesn't exist? Based on this tasting, I can say I'm confident the restaurant will be good enough that locals will want to dine there. Valet parking will be free, so if you live in South Orlando or Hunter's Creek, this may well become your newest hangout.