Victoria & Albert’s is one of Florida’s most celebrated restaurants. It holds the highest honor from the Mobile Guide and has earned five diamonds from AAA 10 years in a row -- that’s enough diamonds for a new tiara for the queen.
But instead of a crown, the folks at V& A have given her a new room: The Queen Victoria Room. Disney’s Culinears refer to it as the “third option.” The first option is the main dining room, a small, intimate and romantic space with tables surrounding a domed area. This is where most people dine when they visit Vicky & Al’s.
The second option is the wildly popular and nearly-impossible-to-book chef’s table. The table is in an alcove off the main kitchen and provides a front row vantage point into executive chef Scott Hunnel’s kitchen. His crew is a well-oiled machine (extra virgin olive, I’m sure) and visitors are usually surprised at the relative quiet and calm that prevails. There are no Gordon Ramsay-like rants in this kitchen, but die-hard foodies love the four-hour-plus experience of watching a master at work, and having each of the courses -- anywhere from 10 to 14 -- explained by Hunnel himself.
The newly established Queen Victoria Room, the third option, offers a dining experience that more closely mimics the menu of the chef’s table but is served outside the kitchen, in a side room that heretofore was used as overflow space for the main dining room.
As with the chef’s table, the tables in the Queen Victoria Room have only one seating per evening, though the seatings for each table -- as many as four -- are staggered 30 minutes apart. The cost is the same as the chef’s table, too: $200 per person plus $95 for wine pairings with each course, plus tax and gratuity. So you’re probably looking at $375 per person at the end of the day. (Or night, as it were -- plan on your dinner taking at least four hours.)
Also like the kitchen chef’s table, the menu in QVR is separate from the table d’hote in the main dining room. What’s different between the chef’s table and the Queen Victoria Room, besides the setting, is that each course served at the chef’s table is introduced by the chef. In QVR, you’ll probably see the chef only once, at the end of the meal to thank you for coming, just as he does in the dining room.
To compensate for the active participation of the chef, and to keep it special, the Queen Victoria Room experience features several tableside preparations, many of them performed by maitre d’hotel Israel Perez, who also is the restaurant’s lead sommelier.
I was invited to experience the Queen Victoria Room recently. I was part of a group of eight but we sat four and four at two tables on either side of small room separated by a central sideboard.
We started our culinary adventure with an amuse bouche of soft-poached quail egg topped with Galilee caviar, a single Gulf shrimp with a popcorn coating on the tines of a fork that rested on a cork, a panna cotta fashioned out of smoked salmon and garnished with salmon eggs, and crispy buffalo mozzarella. Each morsel was a one- or two-bite delight, the quail egg being the standout among them. The accompanying wine was a blanc de blancs brut from Ruinart in Reims, wonderfully dry but with full fruit flavor.
Next came the first tableside preparation. It was a salad of sorts featuring peeky toe crab served in a caviar tin with DeSietra caviar. The preparation was for the croutons to top the salad. Each guest was asked to choose from among three oils -- French or Italian olive oil or pinenut oil -- and pair it with one of three salts. Our choices were heated in a small copper pot with the cubes of bread. I have to say I found this a bit silly, but we all had fun trying each other’s croutons. (The Italian o.o. was much better than the pinenut oil that I selected.) What wine goes with fresh croutons? A 2007 Michel Redde Sancerre “Les Tuilieres” from the Loire Valley.
Cold “smoked” Niman Ranch lamb followed, this one served with a bit of Disney magic. It featured bite-sized bits of lamb, warm on the outside but, as billed, cold on the outside, served with thin shavings of heritage apples. They were placed on a white plate with holes in the bottom. The servers poured liquid through the holes, activating dry ice underneath and sending a haze of “smoke” over the plate. A neat little trick. A Mosel region kabinett, Maximin Grunhauser Abtsberg Riesling, added no smoky notes.
The fish course was king salmon cooked tableside on slabs of Himalayan salt rock. The pink slabs were heated so that when Perez placed the fillets on top of them they sizzled quietly. He cooked them to medium-rare and served them atop a small stack of bamboo rice, edamame and bok choy. The salmon was impossible tender with a mouthfeel so rich that even butter couldn’t match it. The Japanese-influenced dish called for chopsticks and a sake from Kanbara.
Holland white asparagus followed with beurre noisette hollandaise (what else would you serve with asparagus from Holland?) served with chardonnay from Hyde Vineyards in Napa Valley. It was followed by a Minnesota elk tenderloin with a braised red cabbage tart paired with a 2004 Patagonian pinot noir and malbec wine from Familia Schroeder.
Then came the piece de resistance: true Japanese wagyu beef tenderloin. It has become commonplace to see references to wagyu or Kobe beef on menus. A lack of regulation allows for a wide interpretation of what that means, and many -- indeed most -- of those touting wagyu beef are offering a domestic version, or one from, say, Australia. (Our server asserted that only about 20 restaurants in the world have this quality of wagyu.) You may have tried one of the others and wondered what all the fuss is about. But if you taste true wagyu beef from Japan, you’ll understand. It was accompanied by a pureed potatoes topped with baby vegetables and an oxtail reduction -- four days in the making -- that was absolutely superfluous; the meat needed nothing. a 2005 Torres “Perpetual Salmos” from the Priorat did its best to match the quality of the dish.
A 2003 port from Quinto do Crasto was offered with the cheese course, which was presented on a magnificent tray of spalted maple. This was followed by two dessert courses, created by master pastry chef Erich Herbitschek, including green apple mousse with hazelnut cookies, and Tanzanie chocolate mousse with white chocolate gelato, the latter served in whimsical chocolate “eyelashes.”
The Queen Victoria Room is behind closed doors from the main dining room, but the harpist is just outside the door, so the dulcet tones easily waft into the room. The decor is, as you would expect, ornately Victorian and, with the exception of a really cheesy portrait of Vicky and Al, tasteful. The portrait is over a working fireplace. It may have been because the fire was lit that the air-conditioning was on full tilt prompting servers to offer shawls to the ladies (nothing for the gentleman at the table, although I was offered a tableside tuffet for my bag).
As is the custom for anyone dining at Victoria & Albert’s, guests are presented with a personalized menu for remembrance and ladies are offered a long-stem rose. Even better, valet parking is validated and the restaurant will call to have your car waiting.
Given the choice, I think I still prefer the chef’s table. I enjoy watching a team of professionals like Hunnel’s crew working together. But I’d take the Queen Victoria Room as a second choice. As far as I’m concerned, the main dining room is now the third option.
With the new room comes a new, dedicated Web site for the restaurant at Victoria-Alberts.com, and a special reservation phone number, 407-939-3862.