HUE, the still-popular restaurant and drinking spot on the corner of Central Boulevard and Summerlin Avenue, is now in its 10th year. Hard to believe, isn’t it?
When it first opened in early 2002 it was one of the most anticipated restaurants of the year, and it became an instant hit among hip urbanites. It was a good enough restaurant, but it had some issues that kept if from being a better one.
One of those issues was the name itself. Originally, HUE was intended for a development project called China Glass Warehouse that was to put loft apartments in an old building on Colonial Drive next to the railroad tracks. That project never really got off the ground. (That’s odd -- who wouldn’t want to buy an expensive condo next to the railroad tracks?) HUE was to be the restaurant on the ground floor of that building and would be themed as an artists’ lounge. Hue, artists, color -- it sort of made sense.
Instead, the restaurant was moved to another project that Urban Life Management was developing called Thornton Park Central. Also loft apartments, sans locomotives out the window, TPC would also have a restaurant on the first floor, so HUE moved in with its name attached.
But that name was no longer associated with an artistic concept. When I first reported on the project’s new home, I was told it the name was an acronym for Hip Urban Environment, which one of the principals later denied (others involved have since told me that was indeed the case).
So then you had this word, which some people pronounced hyoo and some pronounced hway, which might be found on some of the Vietnamese menus a few blocks away. It’s always been the former, never the latter. But confusing the matter was the restaurant’s menu, which seemed to focus on Asian style dishes, causing more people to think that it was pronounced hway.
So there was an unofficial mix of styles and themes, none of which blended or fused very well. This confusion didn’t prevent people from frequenting the restaurant, but it didn’t allow it to develop and identity.
So now, as it faces its 10th anniversary, HUE has undergone a makeover. Urban Life Management Restaurant Group, under the direction of Craig Ustler, asked fans and customers for recommendations and implemented many of them, including some that I had made in writing. It isn’t an entirely new HUE, but it’s one that now has focus and direction.
One of the best changes is that HUE now has an executive chef. Eduardo Remusat, a native of Brazil, brings something the restaurant has lacked since day one: a personality with whom the guests can interact and identify as the person in charge of their meal. Blame it on our Food Network culture, but if you think of the top restaurants in Central Florida, almost all of them have a recognizable chef attached.
Of course the chef has to be more than a figurehead, and Remusat is showing that he has a talent for creative cuisine firmly rooted in the basics.
I sampled three of the appetizers, or small plates, as they’re listed on the new menu. The tuna
tartare was balanced atop a firm-tender slice of avocado and spiced with just a drop of Sriricha sauce (not all the Asian touches have been removed). Crispy oyster was a big fat one with a light jacket, beautifully fried and topped with jicama slaw. Octopus ceviche, perhaps an influence of Remusat’s homeland, featured lightly grilled and tender pieces of octopus with a pleasant bit of chewiness decorated with thin slices of watermelon radish. Remusat gives as much attention to the appearance of the food as to the taste, and the results are most satisfying. It always seemed as though the standard garnish of the old HUE kitchen was to squirt some brown balsamic vinegar onto the plate.
I also sampled a high-stacked salad of arugula and spinach with tangy bits of feta cheese buried within. The leaves were dressed in a light vinaigrette, and the plate was decorated with balsamic vinegar. (Well, I suppose they had some left over and had to use it somewhere.)
I liked the grilled hanger steak entree, topped with a coarsely chopped churrasco vinaigrette. It was served atop mashed potatoes infused with tomatoes and herbs,and accompanied by sauteed mushrooms and spinach.
I also had the duck breast with cranberry reduction, served with a risotto flavored with butternut squash and amaretto. The duck was quite good, but I could have made a meal of the risotto alone.
Remusat’s training is as a pastry chef, so he is attuned to the dessert list. Best of the desserts I sampled was the red velvet cheesecake, which is made in-house by one of kitchen staff. It was sufficiently velvety in texture and rich in flavor.
By the way, fans of a good bread basket will be delighted to know that HUE has done away with the wontons and added an honest-to-god bread basket with ciabatta, focaccia and wafer bread. And real butter, too!
The space has undergone a renovation, as well. The bar is still the focal point, taking up the large
center space with two dining “wings” to either side. The walls have been brightened and the artwork hanging on them is more colorful. Even on the outside, the fabric that surrounds the corner-wrapping patio has switched from black to a lighter, um, hue.
It’s all still very hip and urban, but also modernized to reflect the changes in the downtown area. When HUE first opened, it was pretty much the only place of its kind for young downtowners. Now, with no fewer than three new restaurants set to open within one block in the next few months, the area will have many more opportunities. HUE’s redo will give the veteran restaurant more than a chance to compete with the young ‘uns.
HUE is at 629 E. Central Blvd., Orlando. (Parking is available in the garage behind Thornton Park Central (no validation available), or on the street where allowed.) It is open for lunch and dinner daily, brunch on Sunday. Entrees range from $20 to $29. Click this link to download the dinner menu. This link will take you to huerestaurant.com, which has also been given a fresher look (and which no longer plays music when you open it). The phone number is 407-849-1800.