While we were having dinner at Harmoni, we asked the hostess if she or the chef had any suggestions for another Slow Food-friendly restaurant for dinner the next night. The hostess checked with the chef and came back with a simple answer: Primo at the JW Marriott at the Grande Lakes Resort. Talk about a “duh” moment.
Primo chef/owner Melissa Kelly’s early career included stints under Larry Forgione at An American Place in New York and under Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. From that background, Kelly became a strong proponent of fresh, local ingredients and dishes based in simplicity.
Kelly and her now husband, Price Kushner, opened the original Primo in a restored Victorian cottage in coastal Maine. Primo in Maine features its own kitchen garden with a full-time gardener plus close relationships with local farmers and fishermen.
Kelly and the story of Primo appeared in Michael Ruhlman’s third book, The Reach of a Chef. Ruhlman documented her passion as a chef and the difficult decision she was faced with when given a chance to open outlets of her beloved restaurant in Orlando and Phoenix.
Expanding from a single iconic restaurant to an empire of sorts is fraught with dangers. The direction set by a hands-on chef can go astray without the leader there. And can that special, almost alchemical brew even be duplicated in a new place?
Some of my favorite restaurants are in restored Victorian homes, so I was interested to see how that feeling would translate to the rather plastic world of Orlando. Pulling into the Grande Lake Resort, I was already wondering as I looked across 500 green acres toward the soaring JW Marriott and the shorter, but no less grand, Ritz Carlton. Still, I was picturing green meadows leading down to the sea, so I was fine.
Driving along the sprawling golf course, I was fine. Actually, the course made me feel better. Signs proudly announce that all the grounds are watered with reclaimed water. But I already knew that Chef Kelly does not allow that water to be used on her garden on-site because she is dedicated to organics, and that water might contain chemicals. Chef has her own garden in the new place, so not only are her fresh ingredients there, her spirit is there as well. I was fine.
It was the traffic circle that made me worry. To the right, the Ritz and the spa, straight ahead, the Marriott and the golf club. All fine, but then there was the fountain. I knew I wasn’t headed to the coast of Maine, but had I needed one, the three huge stone panthers climbing the fountain in the middle of the traffic circle were a stark reminder of just how far this place is from your average cottage.
Crabby Squirrel had the same feeling. A bit later, standing in the lobby overlooking the huge Edwardian lounge and sushi bar, he asked, “are we sure we know what we’re getting into?”
Primo features soaring ceilings, inlaid marble floors, a tropical veranda overlooking the gardens, and a gorgeous walnut and marble bar. Every foodie I know, however, would skip right over all of this and focus on the tables interspersed throughout the restaurant. Tables laden with loaves of bread, large hunks of Parmesan under glass, serving baskets and plates, bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and pepper grinders. Tables as welcoming as the warmest smile.
That’s not to say that we weren’t warmly greeted. Our servers gave us both a jovial table and a gracefully presented meal. Like Mama Squirrel, our primary server seemed to sense right away that I am a sucker for a pretty face and a full plate. When she asked what we thought about the menu, I told her I was torn between the skate and the lobster. “Oh, we have an appetizer portion of the lobster,” was her reply. I knew I was in trouble.
Our amuse was a tiny, delicate potato croquette with a small amount of olive tapenade. Yes, I was definitely in trouble.
We started with the slow braised local pork terrine. The pork was tender, succulent and seasoned with restraint. The grainy mustard and cornichon gave each bite a little kick. Grilled slices of some of that fresh bread on the tables around us made the dish a warm fun excuse to lick your fingers. My only disappointment came after the dish was finished. I asked Crabby how he liked the head cheese. All I got was a blank look. Crabby wasn’t aware of head cheese and its negative reception by many diners. All he knew was that the pork was good.
Next came the lobster. Half a lobster rests on two large butternut squash ravioli. Of course the sauce was buttery decadent. It seemed only fitting that Crabby got the claw along with his share of the tail. Once again, we both loved the dish.
For his main course, Crabby went with the roasted chicken “under a brick”. The chicken was not spatchcocked. Rather it was bone-in, but still pressed flat by the brick to roast evenly. The accompaniments were three bean salad, wilted greens, charred Vidalia onions, pancetta, and polenta. Crabby thought that the greens were too tough, but he declared the rest of the dish superb.
Confession time. I have never had skate, hence my strong desire to try it. Learning that the skate, like our lobster, had been swimming the day before just added to my desire. I suppose it was the thought of graceful manta rays soaring on ocean currents that had my expectations going toward a light dish. The skate turned out to be very hearty meat, but the flavor had the delicacy I expected. The skate was paired with haricots verts, roasted baby purple potatoes, and capers. At first glance, I thought the potatoes were overdone, but, taking a hint from our amuse, I paired the potatoes with the capers. The flesh of the potato had cooked down to a buttery richness, and the capers provided a pop of oil and saltiness to bring the goodness of the potato out. That combination was my favorite flavor of the evening.
Of course I had to try the cheese plate. Again though, I was playing tourist, not journalist, so I could not take notes. I can report that the cheese plate was a delight.
For dessert, Crabby continued his chocolate binge, choosing a chocolate cake with homemade mint chocolate chip ice cream. He thought that the cake was good but a bit dry in comparison to Harmoni’s ganache filled wonder.
Mama Squirrel is allergic to bananas, so I rarely have banana in anything. I decided to make the most of my opportunity by selecting the caramelized banana chocolate caramel tart. The banana was sliced almost paper thin and arranged in a ring atop a disc of caramelized sugar. The disc was placed atop the tart. This crispy treat would have been enough, but the tart was a thing of beauty as well. A layer of dark chocolate keeping in a layer or rich caramel put my sweet tooth into overdrive. Alas, my large meal was catching up to me and half the tart went sadly uneaten.
After dinner, during our leisurely trek back to the car, Crabby praised the meal. And it was a meal that deserved praise. Now I need to arrange a trip to Phoenix to see how that meal turns out. Or better yet, Maine.
4040 Central Florida Pkwy
Orlando, FL 32837