The Ritz-Carlton at Grande Lakes Orlando recently opened its newest restaurant, Highball & Harvest, which takes the place of the Vineyard Grill. Besides getting a new name — which we'll discuss in a moment — the space was also completely remodeled and redecorated, which means that somewhere there's a closet full of tacky plastic grapevines and wooden trellises.
The new restaurant, on the lower level of the luxury hotel, downstairs from the main lobby, is vast, yet features multiple spaces for more intimate dining, plus a lounge area for solo or communal dining. In addition, there's a chef's table area that resembles a country kitchen.
The country decor follows the modern Southern theme, and chef de cuisine Mark Jeffers has designed his menu along those lines, too. And while many restaurants today tout the use of local ingredients, Jeffers can boast hyperlocal sourcing from the resort's on-site garden, Whisper Creek Farm.
With the farm nearby, it's easy to figure out the Harvest part of the tongue twisting name. You might assume the Highball that precedes the ampersand has to do with cocktails, too, but you'd only be partially correct. The term highball does indeed invoke the image of an alcoholic drink in a tall glass. But it's also a railroading expression meaning to travel at full throttle. The justification for the name, then, is that it is meant to be a reference to the Florida network of railroads that delivered the state's fresh produce to the rest of the country. Though you'd think you'd Harvest first and then Highball it north, but what do I know?
Either way, the folks at the Ritz-Carlton would rather you get to know the restaurant simply as H&H. And since that legendary New York bagel bakery went out of business several years ago, the nickname is there for the taking.
During a media preview dinner, I had the chance to sample several of Jeffers' dishes, and I liked all of them quite a bit. The repetitiously titled Beets, Beets, Beets is an apt description of the starter course that features different types of beets (three types, by my count) as well as hearts of palm, goat cheese and toasted pecans. If you're one of those people who turns a nose up at beets, these will convert you. Delicious.
The crab cake and fried green tomatoes was another winning first course, a prettily stacked plate that also featured Cajun remoulade and corn chow-chow.
Because H&H must also serve as the hotel's three-meal venue, there is a separate breakfast menu. But one of the signature dishes, the Pig-n-Potatoes, is available all day long, and it's worth having breakfast in the evening for this one. It features a potato hash with tender, juicy pork cheeks and a poached egg on top, dribbled with rich hollandaise. And to give it a bit of spice, a dousing of H&H's signature hot sauce.
I also liked the smoked lamb brisket, served with boiled peanuts standing in for baked beans; and chicken and dumplings with chewy mushrooms and a thyme tinged gravy.
Dessert includes a sort of do-it-yourself donut filling kit, a brown paper bag with sugar-coated baby donuts and a squeeze tube of chocolate hazelnut to squirt inside (or just drizzle over). A cute gimmick, but I preferred the Key lime tart so beautifully constructed by executive pastry chef Stephane Cheramy.
For the Highball part of the name that does indeed refer to cocktails, the bar menu features several creatively crafted drinks (Kris Soto is listed on the menu as the "beverage guy"). I especially liked the Last Wish, with whiskey, spiced cola syrup and tobacco bitters, and the Doc Holliday, although I was initially hesitant about the blueberry jam listed as an ingredient with the vodka, ruby grapefruit and house-made ginger beer.
The staff were all eager and animated, clearly pleased with the product they were presenting.
H&H is a nice addition to the Grande Lakes collection of restaurants, which also includes the estimable Norman's just upstairs and Primo by Melissa Kelly at the JW Marriott next door.
Highball & Harvest is at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, 4012 S. Central Florida Parkway, Orlando. It is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily, the bar until midnight. The phone number is 407-393-4422.