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Makis Place interior

Here’s one of those little clues that can tell you you’re in a restaurant where the staff really doesn’t give a squat.

The restaurant is empty, even at the height of lunch hour. The sole person in the front of the house (not that you need more than one in an empty room) is sitting down when you come in. She tells you to sit wherever you like, and you choose a booth that has on its tabletop four placemats with information about the restaurant and the dining experience. And the placemats are upside down.

With nothing else to do, you’d think that an enterprising staffer would make sure the tables were properly set and waiting for guests, should any happen to arrive. But no, not here. Not at Makis Place.

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salamanders interior

I’d been hearing some good things about Salamanders, a sports grill in Winter Springs, so I suggested it as a meet-up place to talk business over lunch recently.

The things I’d been hearing about it had to do with its food. According to the website, “At Salamanders, we make everything from fresh ingredients. From our hand-cut fries, to the bleu cheese dressing, our food is never frozen or pre-packaged.” That’s pretty impressive for a sports bar, so I figured it was worth the drive from downtown Orlando.

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Pulapaka and PetersPulapaka, center, with wife, Jenneffer, and sous chef Derek Peters in New Orleans Friday. Photo courtesy Hari Pulapaka

Finally! A Central Florida chef has bested the cooks of New Orleans.

Hari Pulapaka, chef and co-owner of Cress in DeLand, won the first Chefs Taste Challenge as part of the Farm to Table International Conference, which winds up Monday at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in the Crescent City. According to the F2T website, the conference “explores the cultivation, distribution, and consumption of food and drink sourced locally.”

Pulapaka was one of nine chefs who competed Friday at the sold out event (a 10th contestant dropped out due to illness). The participants were charged with creating a dish from a list of supplied ingredients that the contestants selected in a sort of draft. Pulapaka selected whole redfish, green chilies from Hatch, NM, and eggplant.

Pulapaka, assisted by sous chef Derek Peters, presented a dish he called NOLA, for New Old Latin Asian, which featured redfish ceviche on top of Hatch green chile panna cotta, with a smoked redfish branade and eggplant mussaman, a mild curry. (Pulapaka is a native of Mumbai.)

Two highly regarded New Orleans chefs, Frank Brigtsen of Brigsten’s restaurant and Matthew Farmer of Apolline Restaurant, also competed. Other chefs included: Carmen Rodriguez, Lake Arrowhead Resort & Spa, Lake Arrowhead, CA; Craig Baker, Locale Eatery & Pub, Indianapolis; Joel Navejas, the Farmhouse, Fort Collins, CO; Joshua Calliano, Companion Bakery, St. Louis; Richard Jones, Green Door Gourmet, Nashville; and Rocky Durham, Santa Fe Culinary Academy, Santa Fe.

Judges for the Chefs Taste Challenge included: Sue Zemanick, chef at Gautreau’s in New Orleans; Brad Barnes, director of CIA Consulting at the Culinary Institute of America; Gary Prell, vice president of culinary development for Centerplate; Kevin Belton, chef at the New Orleans School of Cooking; and Izabela Wojcik, chef at the James Beard Foundation in New York.

It’s the James Beard Foundation’s annual chef awards, of course, that continually overlooks Central Florida chefs, usually in favor of those from New Orleans, which competes with Florida in the South Region category for Best Chef. While several local chefs, including Pulapaka, have been nominated for an award as semifinalists, none have made it to the finals, let alone take home the award.

With this win, perhaps the Beard Award judges will finally start taking our chefs more seriously.

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James Julie copyFIRST ON SJO -- There’s more information coming in about the restaurant planned for the former Harvey’s Bistro space in downtown Orlando that I told you about in a previous article.

The name will be Dovecote, a French word meaning pigeon house, and it will be a brasserie, according to James Petrakis. “Not a super classic brasserie,” he told me Monday, “but some semblance. Certainly Balthazar-esque,” he added, referring to a popular brasserie in Manhattan. The menu will deifinitly lean French, he said. Squab, perhaps? Petrakis and his wife, Julie, pictured at left, owners of Ravenous Pig and other restaurants, are partnering with chef Clay Miller and cocktail entrepreneur Gene Zimmerman in the new venture.

Drew White, who designed Zimmerman’s downtown bar, The Courtesy, will take on the task of redesigning the space on the ground floor of the Bank of America building. No small feat that — the original design of a cold, severe bank lobby has never fully been overcome in the other restaurants that have occupied the address. Besides Harvey’s Bistro, 390 N. Orange Avenue has also been home to Terrace 390 most recently. The first restaurant to occupy the space was Bakerstreet. Gomez Construction will handle the buildout. Petrakis said the partners have been getting a lot of support from the owners and managers of the building.

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The restaurant space on the ground floor of the Bank of America building in downtown Orlando, the space that is more fondly remembered as the home of Harvey’s Bistro but whose most recent tenant was Terrace 390, has been acquired by a partnership that includes chefs James Petrakis of the Ravenous Pig and Clayton Miller, who opened Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton, and the owner of The Courtesy cocktail bar, Gene Zimmerman.

Miller told me that the team has signed the lease to take over the restaurant but that the name and the concept had not yet been finalized. He said they’ve been working on the deal for about six months, but he doesn’t expect the restaurant to open until 2016. “Best case scenario is eight months,” he said, “worst case, a year.”

Miller will serve as the managing operating partner for the enterprise and will be the restaurant’s executive chef. Petrakis, Miller said, is an investing partner but will be very much involved in the operation. “We’re going to try to use a lot of synergy between his existing businesses and ours,” Miller said of Petrakis. Besides the Ravenous Pig, Petrakis and his wife, Julie, also own Cask & Larder and Swine & Sons Provisions in Winter Park.

Zimmerman will oversee the restaurant’s beverage program. His Courtesy bar has a good reputation as a destination for people who enjoy well crafted cocktails.

Miller most recently had been with 50 Eggs, Inc., in Miami, the group that operates the popular Yardbird. Prior to that he had been the executive chef at Wit & Wisdom, a Tavern by Michael Mina, at the Four Seasons in Baltimore. Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsma credited Miller with improving the quality of the restaurant, which he said faltered under the previous chef. “The situation turned around with the arrival of Clayton Miller, who previously made Trummer’s on Main in Clifton worth the drive. Visit Wit & Wisdom these days — and you should — and you’ll taste what I mean; Miller is a chef who makes something special out of the routine,” Sietsma wrote in a 2012 review. Miller told Sietsma at the time he left Wit & Wisdom that he was going to Florida because his wife's family lived in Orlando. 

The restaurant, at 390 N. Orange Ave., has had many restaurant tenants of varying degrees of quality. One of them, Ettore’s, still ranks as one of the worst I’ve reviewed locally. Harvey’s Bistro, which was a concept from Manny Garcia, Enjoyed many years of popularity until it closed in February of 2009, along with Garcia’s fine dining restaurant on the building’s top floor, Manuel’s on the 28th, following a dispute regarding rent with the management company at the time. The Manual’s space is now a real estate office  security broker dealer.

The team of Miller, Petrakis and Zimmerman is an impressive, and the restaurant’s will undoubtedly be among the most anticipated of 2016.