It had been a while since I'd dined at Chatham's Place -- five years, I think. And that time I was someone else's guest so I wasn't officially "working" and I wasn't paying close attention to what was going on. I do remember the food being quite good, as it always has been in the past.
Chatham's Place has gone through some changes, and much more than the fact that there are no members of the Chatham family involved in the restaurant. That's not an issue; Louis Chatham, who served as executive chef, and his mother, Bettye, who ran the dining room in those first years, sold the operation years ago to Chatham's sous chef, Tony Lopez, the maitre d', Maurice Colindres, and a hostess, Carol Conwell. The three of them kept it going as strong as ever, perhaps stronger. It was clear that this was an operation of love for the three of them, and they worked together to make it a continued success.
Late in 2006, Carol Conwell died. Lopez and Colindres have kept the place running pretty much the way it has always been run, as a fine dining restaurant with a small but versatile menu served with professionalism and grace in a romantic atmosphere.
Many of the dishes that became signatures back in Louis Chatham's days remain on the menu, including the Florida black grouper ($34), which has been one of my favorite Central Florida entrees for many years. It features a fresh fillet, thick and white, lightly sauteed and topped with pecan butter and scallions, dusted with just a soupcon of cayenne pepper. The pecan butter places the dish firmly in the south and the pepper points it towards New Orleans. But with the use of Florida black grouper I think we can just claim this one as one of our native dishes, don't you?
My companon had the rack of lamb ($34), another long-time favorite, this one distinguished only by its high quality meat, pan-roased to a flacid medium-rare, and served with rosemary infused jus.
Appetizers weren't as stellar as in the past. The lobster bisque ($7/cup) was heavy and with too little lobster flavor. Crabmeat en croute ($19.50) featured a very large puff pastry with jumbo lump crabmeat and shiitake mushrooms dressed in a garlic and Cajun butter sauce. The puff pastry overwhelmed in this case.
Service is still stellar, with Colindres handling the bulk of the dining room duties. It doesn't appear that much has changed in the decor, which is tastefully elegant with white tablecloths and red napkins in the intimately small dining room. The window into the kitchen, however, has never offered much of a pretty view.
When Conwell died, Colindres told me that it was the intention of the remaining partners to keep the restaurant open in her honor. They've done her memory proud. It's still one of the gems of Restaurant Row, and I hope it will continue to be for many years to come.