I recently revisited Highball & Harvest, the Southern styled restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes to see how it is faring under its new chef de cuisine.
As I’d previously reported, opening chef Mark Jeffers, who transferred to a company-owned property in California, was replaced in July by Nathan Hardin. In a departure from recent personnel changes, the folks at Grande Lakes went outside the company to hire Hardin, a Tampa native, who most recently had been executive sous chef at Yardbird Southern Table & Bar in Miami Beach. I thought I should stop back in and check out the state of Highball & Harvest and to see if Hardin was continuing to offer the same fine quality of food.
The answer is yes.
I was joined at the dinner by the successful bidders of a silent auction item to have dinner with me that was offered at the September gala for Orlando Shakespeare Theater in Partnership with UCF. The dinner was donated by the Ritz-Carlton, and the winners — John and Rita Lowndes and Mike and Marian Peters — were tasked with helping me to write this review.
Much of the original menu is intact and unchanged. One notable addition is the Roasted Bone Marrow that Hardin introduced. It was a canoe cut, lengthwise down the shank, sprinkled with sea salt. It was served with toasted bread topped with oyster mushrooms, caramelized onions and thin, crispy slices of green apple. The bread could have been eaten as a sort of bruschetta, but I preferred to scrape the toppings off and replace them with the creamy, fatty marrow. Yum.
Everyone loved the Spicy Watermelon Salad that for some reason is not included in the list of starter salads but rather under the heading of “Fixins,” as though it was a side dish. “The spicy watermelon was spectacular,” said Rita. “Just the right amount of spice and perfect with the little sea salt on top of it.” I agreed, the spicy seasonings were a nice counterpoint to the cool, sweet melon.
John declared another starter course best. “The Fried Green Tomatoes,” served with a crab cake, “was my favorite,” he said. “The crab cakes were really quite good.”
Those of you who have dined at H&H in the past will be relieved to know that the Pig-n-Potatoes, which quickly became a signature dish, is still there and as delicious as ever. It features smoky flavored pulled pork over hash fashioned from Yukon Gold potatoes, and topped with a poached egg and drizzles of the restaurant’s own hot sauce.
A few of us chose Booker’s Skirt Steak and no one was disappointed. “The steak,” gushed Rita, “I loved the seasonings on the steak. It was special.” Marian agreed that it was perfectly seasoned, “But also the salad that was with it, an outstanding argula salad — it was divine.”
Mike had the Duck + Andouille Gumbo as an entree and loved it. “It was fabulous,” he said. “I will now order this every time I come here.”
We shared an array of desserts, but of course the crowd pleaser continues to be the Baby Donuts, or what I refer to as the veal of the pasty world. Not really. They’re little sugary donut beignets presented in a toppled paper bag and served with a tube of hazelnut spread for the diner to squeeze into the donut. What’s not to love?
Mike also explored the list of craft cocktails and immediately chose the Doc Holliday. “Doc Holliday is buried about 30 miles from my house in Colorado, so I thought I’d go back and tell him that I had his drink,” he said. He had two.
Service was as able and polished as in past visits. We were seated at what is considered the chef’s table, though it is part of the vast dining area. Still, it was set apart a bit from other diners, so we felt extra special.
It was good to see Hardin keeping the quality level high and the rest of the crew maintaining a dining experience fitting to the Ritz-Carlton. I’ll let John Lowndes have the last word: “I thought the whole thing was quite nice.”
Highball & Harvest is on the lower level of the Ritz-Carlton, 4012 Central Florida Parkway, Orlando. It is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. The phone number is 407-393-4422.