Kathleen BlakeKathleen Blake and Brandon McGlamery are Central Florida’s only nominees for a Best Chef award from the James Beard Foundation in the South region. The two were named with 18 others on the preliminary ballot mailed to chefs Wednesday.

Blake, the chef and owner of the Rusty Spoon in downtown, has been nominated 4 times. No Central Florida chef has ever advanced to the final ballot. McGlamery, who has also been nominated previously, is the executive chef for Luma on Park, Prato in Winter Park and the newly opened Luke’s Kitchen + Bar in Maitland. He is nominated for his work at Luma.

“I think it’s amazing,” said Blake about her fourth nomination. “It’s a great honor.”

Florida chefs in the South region compete with chefs from Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Puerto Rico. Historically, Louisiana — and New Orleans specifically — dominates the region.

“We’re in stiff competition with New Orleans,” Blake said. “I’m in downtown Orlando and I don’t campaign [for the Beard Award] and I don’t have a marketing team.” She said it’s a privilege to be nominated.

Judges, primarily food journalists and critics from around the country, will select up to five names from each category. Judges may vote for any chef whose food they have eaten or any restaurant they’ve visited regardless of their geographic designation. The final ballot, whittled down to five finalists in each category, will be announced March 15. The winners will be named in a black-tie gala ceremony on May 1.

Other nominees in the South region are:

Zora dining room

I’ve written a few times about the sixth sense that a critic develops over time, that feeling that you get when you walk into an unfamiliar restaurant and a voice in the back of your mind that says — no, screams — run!

But there’s a diametrical feeling — a seventh sense? — where you enter a restaurant and you know immediately that you’re going to like it. That’s the feeling I got when I walked into Zora Grille in Altamonte Springs recently. Just for a moment, I had that niggling feeling that something might be off. Perhaps it was the fact that the place had no customers even though it was the height of the lunch hour.

But the aromas of the charcoal grill in the back of the open kitchen soon enveloped me. And almost as immediately a young man stepped forward with a warm and genuine welcome. I took a seat.

 

Mia Market

This may be one of the best things to ever happen to a Winn-Dixie.

The W-D that had occupied the corner of East Colonial Drive and North Bumby Avenue was closed and has been taken over by an Asian food store called Mia Supermarket. It’s a fascinating place to wander about.

I first visited it when I decided I wanted to make kimchi. There were certain ingredients — kochakaru (Korean red pepper powder) and saeujeot (Korean salted shrimp) — that you just can’t find at your local Winn-Dixie. Or Publix for that matter.

I couldn’t even find those items at a couple of the older Asian markets in the Mills 50 district. So I gave Mia a try, and I’m glad I did.

Not only did they have the kochakaru and saeujeot I needed for my recipe, they also had a trove of fresh produce (including the daikon that the kimchi also called for) and aisle after aisle of exotic ingredients (at least to a typical Westerner) that had me thinking about trying other Asian recipes.

 

The Bistro on Park Avenue has been voted Most Romantic in our Foodster Awards for Independent Restaurants. Second place went to Cress in DeLand and Victoria & Albert’s at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa is third.

In voting for Bistro on Park, reader Gary Diehl commented, “The ambiance is truly romantic. The added decor sets a great setting to share with your loved one. And the food is exceptional.”

Terry Spires wrote, “Love [owner] Erika Boesch and The Bistro on Park Avenue. Lovely venue, great wine , fantastic fare and first class service. She is the ‘Heart’ of Park Avenue!”

Regarding her choice, Jeanne Rasi said, “Love Cress for all special occasions. They never disappoint. The food is delicious and fresh. The wine choices are wonderful.”

And Lyn Cook weighed in with, “Victoria & Albert's is the epitome of elegance, decor, service and of course the food. You are prepared by your servers to enjoy every course and each course offers something unique and delicious. Everyone who enjoys a very special experience should plan an evening at Victoria & Albert’s.”

Bistro on Park Avenue, of course, is the charming cafe in the Hidden Gardens just off the avenue. That secluded locale makes it ideal for a romantic rendezvous — definitely not for the “see and be seen” crowd.

The Foodster Awards for Independent Restaurants celebrate the best of Central Florida restaurants with three of fewer locations — no chains. Current active Foodster campaigns include Best Breakfast, Best Irish Pub and Best Sushi. Be sure to vote for your favorites. Click here to visit the Foodster pages.

Norman dinner norman

1921 by Norman Van Aken, which opened last fall, presented its first wine dinner event recently with Van Aken himself serving as host. I was invited to sit in.

The dinner featured the wines of Fèlsina, a Tuscan winery, with winemaker Andrea Bonivento also in attendance.

Even though the boss was in town, chef de cuisine Camilo Velasco oversaw the dinner, a five-course feast that highlighted, as the restaurant always does, locally sourced ingredients.