Restaurants have not been able to keep up with the growth happening in Lake Nona. Along with the Medical City that is rising there, with the UCF medical school, research centers and various hospitals, Lake Nona’s homes are filling up and new ones being built to house the people who will work there.
They need places to eat, too, and those have been slow in coming, especially from the private sector. Only a handful of independently owned restaurants have opened in the past several years, and those have had varying degrees of quality and success.
Maybe that’s why Nona Blue is so jam-packed most nights.
Nona Blue Modern Tavern opened last month and has been been keeping the tables filled ever since. The first time I visited was a Monday, and the place was doing the sort of business that some restaurants in town would cherish on a weekend. Part of that, of course, is the newness and part is the aforementioned scarcity. And some of it has to do with the allure of Graeme McDowell, the golfer, who is one of the owners (along with Joe Davi and Bill Bona). Whether they will keep coming is yet to be seen, but with a few tweaks here and there -- especially in the area of service -- they should be able to keep those seats filled.
I liked what I saw when I first walked into the place (once I found the front door, which is not easily spotted). I liked what I smelled even more. The air was infused with the aroma of hickory smoke, and it had me immediately craving something wood-smoked.
The menu makes full use of that grill. There isn’t anything particularly daring or innovative on it, just your basic tavern fare. You’ve got your burgers, your steaks and seafood offerings. And quite a long list of appetizers, called shareables on the menu, some of which are priced as much as some of the full entrees.
The fire grilled artichokes were on that list. Similar to those found at Houston’s/Hillstone, they had tender bits among the chewy leaves and were ultimately more trouble than they were worth (and they were not worth $12).
I liked Ray’s pate much more, a chicken based pate sufficiently rich and deliciously fatty. Wonderful when spread on the just-crispy-enough toast points.
From the playfully named Nona Blue plate specials list, I had Mama’s Double Staked Meatloaf. Meatloaf is a surprisingly difficult item for restaurants to pull off. It often turns out either over processed and more akin to a slab of terrine or it comes our coarse and dry. Nona Blue’s was just right. The meat was moist but held together well, and the barbecue sauce glaze added a grace note to the flavor rather than overwhelming it. It was accompanied by mashed potatoes that had been given the blender treatment and were a bit too whipped. I liked the creamed corn that was also presented, served in its own ceramic bowl and topped with a thin layer of toasted cheese. And the whole plate was offered at a much more reasonable $14.
I also liked the Nona Blue Burger ($11), a thick patty cooked to the requested medium-rare, crisscrossed with two thick rashers of smoky flavored bacon and a substantial layer of melting blue cheese. It was garnished with crispy lettuce, a thick slice of tomato and rings of raw red onions and placed upon a toasted brioche bun. It came with a stack of fries that the menu said were seasoned, but I didn’t get much sense of the seasoning.
The restaurant was designed by Ray Schaefer of Orlando’s Maverick Architecture & Design. Although new, it has the warmth and familiarity of a long-established neighborhood tavern, with lots of dark woods and brown leather seating. Booths, high-tops and conventional tables are seating options. Between the bar and the kitchen, only partially obscured, is a large, gathering height captain’s table that can serve as a chef’s table or a place for a large party to dine.
The bar is a large free-flowing structure that dominates the room. There are three rounded protrusions, one of which meets a dining area on the far wall. There, curtains can be drawn for a makeshift semi-private space, one with direct access to the bar. Very smart. Another nice touch: although the beer list features 16 beers on draught, the taps are not an imposing row, but rather are unobtrusively placed in a small block in the center of the bartenders’ space and easily overlooked (and looked over). I also liked that the televisions, for the most part, are visible only to those seated at the bar.
The memorabilia on the walls are not too golfy, so you don’t feel like you’re visiting a clubhouse.
On one of my visits I sat at the bar and was impressed with the tender who also served as waitress. She was easy-going, friendly and welcoming. But the four (4!) young women at the host stand who apparently were hired because each owned a black dress saw no need or advantage to thanking guests as they were leaving.
That’s the sort of thing that can leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. Luckily I had some leftover meatloaf with me to remind me that it was overall a very favorable experience.
Nona Blue is at 9685 Lake Nona Village Place (at Narcoossee Road). It is open for lunch, dinner and late night daily. Here is a link to nonablue.com. The phone number is 407-313-0027.