As part of the annual gala celebrating the opening season of Orlando Shakespeare Theater in Partnership with UCF, I offered myself as an auction item. Well, not really myself -- after all, the idea here was to raise more than a few nickels and dimes for the organization.
So I offered dinner with me at Luma on Park, the trendy restaurant that first opened on Park Avenue four years ago. But more than just dinner, I offered to let the winning bidder help me write an updated review. The bidding didn’t take long. In fact, it was stopped cold shortly after the first guests began to arrive when one of them, Bobby Mandell, founder and former CEO of Greater Homes Inc., stepped up to execute the option to buy the silent auction item outright. (Two other groups also expressed interest in buying another dinner; I’ll be telling you about those soon.)
The dinner was arranged through the largesse of Luma’s manager, Tim Noelke, who agreed to the terms that my dinner guests’ comments would not be censored. Joining us was Mandell’s fiance, Julie Walker. I was pleased to be having dinner with such enjoyable companions who know good food and don’t mind expressing an opinion.
I’ve become a fan of Luma myself, but I did not start out that way. When it first opened in 2005, Luma, a partnership between Concentrics Hospitality of Atlanta and Brian France of NASCAR, made a big splash. The atmosphere was hip and vibrant -- and still is -- but the food was rather boring and predictable. I couldn’t help thinking at the time that the opening chef, who was brought in from Atlanta, figured he didn’t have to try very hard because this was just Central Florida, and what do we know about food?
That chef returned to Atlanta not long after my initial review in November 2005. Taking his place was Brandon McGlamery, a talented young chef who did not feel he needed to dumb down the food for the audience. Instead, he created a menu that challenged diners to experience flavor combinations and develop an appreciation for high quality ingredients.
On our recent visit, McGlamery sent a bowl of popcorn to our table. But this was no mere Orville Redenbacher microwaved corn. These were big, fluffy kernels misted with truffle oil to give it an exotic scent and dusted with freshly grated parmesan cheese. We all noshed hungrily as we contemplated our selections.
We began the meal proper with bowls of the roasted fennel and chestnut soup, which also had a bit of truffle essence. But it had other flavors as well. “It’s a little peppery,” commented Walker, “but I kind of like it.” The texture was smooth, and a dollop of creme fraiche was a perfect topper.
Another appetizer was an unusual presentation of fresh Alaskan king crab meat baked in a small iron skillet in the restaurant’s brick pizza oven. The sweet-tasting crab was prepared atop a bed of bay leaves and Meyer lemon slices. The bay leant its characteristic aromatics and the lemon the appropriate citrus note. And we all loved the freshness of the crab. “It may be the first time in a long time that I’ve had Alaskan king crab that wasn’t frozen,” said Mandell. “The last time I was in Alaska.”
We all liked the fried Apalachicola oysters, served with ginger and Asian pear with kimchi fashioned from Napa cabbage. “Best I’ve had in a long time,” said Walker. But her yellowfin tuna paillard was a bit overcooked. We decided it was because it was served on a very hot plate and thus continued to cook as it was being served.
The swordfish was a bit overcooked for my taste, as well, but a pleasing preparation with chickpeas in a cioppino style broth.
One of my guests had the Bynum pork schnitzel, which was served with polenta, lemon verbena and poached peaches. The breading on the schnitzel was perfect, and I loved the pairing with the peaches. “I liked the schnitzel,” Walker agreed.
Mandell and Walker offered to serve dessert at their Winter Park home, so I told our waiter that we would be skipping Luma’s dessert selection. But before we could leave, McGlamery’s pastry chef, Brian Cernell, sent out a batch of hand-crafted root beer floats. What a delightfully refreshing way to finish off a wonderful meal.
We all agreed that service was sufficiently attentive and accommodating. The dining room can be a bit noisy. No, the dining room can be downright loud, but that’s partly because it is on most nights pretty busy -- even in today’s economic climate. The decor is still modish even after four years. And the automated restrooms, with their sliding glass doors and confusing wash basins, still annoy me. (Faucets that have a hidden activation device cause people to leave the restroom without washing their hands, not a good thing in any setting, much less so for a restaurant. Hint: the infrared sensor is activated at foot level.)
But overall Luma on Park now fulfills the expectations we all had when it first opened. It is a jewel not only among the restaurants that line Park Avenue, but under the direction of Noelke in the front of the house and McGlamery in the back (which can be seen from the front) it has become one of the area’s best restaurants period.
Luma on Park is at 290 Park Ave. S., Winter Park. The phone number is 407-599-4111. The restaurant’s Web site -- which is one of the most infuriatingly difficult to navigate -- is lumaonpark.com.