If I hadn’t been able to look out the front windows of Scratch to see the very wide Fairbanks Avenue and the cars whizzing by at great speeds, I could have believed I was sitting in a bistro in New York’s West Village. There’s the bohemian decor, to be sure, the eclecticity of the room, with myriad styles, cluttered gewgaws and handwritten specials on a chalkboard and the walls. There’s also the buzz of the young crowd, most of the guests sitting on barstools, which number about as many seats as there are at the few tables along the wall. And even the kitchen is what you might expect to find in Manhattan, impossibly small and seemingly slapdashed in a corner, open to the rest of the small room.
And then there are the people working in that space. They exude a seriousness about the food they are preparing, and it shows on the plate.
Scratch presents a tapas menu created by executive chef Dustin Haney, assisted by Adam Novak. The two worked together previously as co-sou chefs at Crackers in Norfolk, Virginia.
I wish we could get away from the tapas name. Can we just reserve that word for the Spanish dishes it was originally meant to designate? I’d prefer something like small plates or maybe rational plates (rational rations?). Frankly, the portions at Scratch were not miniscule. I found them to be more than sufficient.
Of course it helped that each packed a flavorful punch.
The pork belly adobo actually made me moan. The meat was soy glazed, which gave it a slightly salty note, and had a bit of calamansi juice and was served atop delicately diced carrots and a pad of black rice. It was sprinkled with micro cilantro, which did not look at all like cilantro but had that unmistakeable bright flavor. The belly was sufficiently fatty and all of the flavors worked together.
I also had the loup de mer, or wolf of the sea, which you might also know as branzino. It was marinated in citrus and thyme and sat upon a bed of hash fashioned out of potatoes and fennel. The sauce was a “beer blanc,” sort of like a beurre blanc but with one of the bar’s microbrews added in. What really made the fish stand out was its crisped skin. If you’re the type who immediately peels the skin off of the fish before you eat it, this deliciously brittle skin will convert you.
I’m looking forward to returning -- and I plan to many times -- to try the shrimp & grits, or the pan-roasted duck breast, or the Scratch fries, or just about anything else this kitchen has to offer.
Besides the two men in the kitchen, the rest of the staff seemed to consist of only two other people who shared hosting, bartending and serving duties, and did them with poise and graciousness. It’s not a big place, as I said. I counted maybe 28 to 30 seats in all. (They need to remove the living room furniture in the front of the space and put in a couple more revenue-producing tables.) Besides the beers, Scratch has a thoughtful wine list with some lovely selections.
When those of us who write about Central Florida’s restaurant scene are asked about to name “the best,” whether it be a restaurant or the chefs that cook there, we -- OK, I -- have a tendency to name the usual suspects, the Hunnels, the Fonzos, the Blakes and Petrakises and the others whose names are often mentioned as James Beard Award potential.
But what is often missing from the discussion is Who or What is the next to make it on to our list of the best that the area has to offer.
The answer is at Scratch.
Scratch is at 223 W. Fairbanks Ave. (between Park Avenue and New York Avenue), Winter Park. It is open for dinner Tuesday-Sunday. Plates are $4-$12. The phone number is 407-325-5165.