With Prickly Pear, FMI Restaurant Group has introduced a new category of restaurant to the area: Southwestern cuisine. No, not Tex-Mex, with its glops of melted cheeses, salsas and chips and sizzling fajitas. And not chuck wagon, not in the sense anyway of eating cold beans and drinking unfiltered coffee out of tins.
Think New Mexico and Coyote Cafe. Think chile peppers, but subtle, used as accents rather that tastebud shockers. Think cowboy kitsch (or is that kowboy kitsch?). Some of the flavor combinations might be new to some diners, but most will be familiar. All should satisfy.
And although this is not Tex-Mex, some of the dishes have names that sound as though they could be. The smoked duck quesadilla, for example, but I haven’t seen a quesadilla like this served in your average Tex-Mexery. It featured the requisite folded tortilla, but this one was buttered, and inside was a thick portion of juicy duck meat, redolent with hickory smoke, and just enough melted jack cheese to supplement but not overwhelm.
I also enjoyed the black & white soup, portioned in one bowl in a yin-yang design. The black was a bean soup puree, full flavored and well seasoned; the white was melted jack cheese, this time taking on a co-starring role.
My favorite entree was the cowboy steak, an impressively large bone-in angus ribeye, rubbed with a blend of coffee and chile peppers, which gave it an earthy note, and grilled to a beautiful medium-rare. It was served leaning on a mesa of mashed potatoes and topped with sauteed squash. Enough for an ample lunch of leftovers.
The duck breast entree was also good, especially with the crispy bits of chopped bacon and spicy pepitas that accompanied the whole breast. (It was refreshing to see it not served sliced and fanned as at so many other restaurants.)
For dessert, the ‘smores were an haute version not likely seen around any campfires. It featured a thin graham crackery platform with a thick and gooey chocolate concoction that seemed to be part cake, part fudge, topped with a slight bit of melted fluff.
Prickly Pear takes over the space at the Sanctuary condominiums that originally held Graze. The layout, including the central thrust bar, remains the same, but the decor is now upscale Southwestern, with wagon wheels, ostrich leather and an illuminated wall sculpture of the namesake succulent. But it is hardly rustic. With linen tablecloths, the overall feel is upscale casual.
Although the staff were all friendly, I was a bit disappointed with the service, especially when our entrees were auctioned to us tableside. That’s bush league, and not typical of FMI Restaurant training, and when I said to the fellow that I was surprised he hadn’t been instructed in pivot-point service (a technique that assigns seat numbers to each table with orders entered on the check accordingly), he said that he had been, but he didn’t have the check with him. Another server repeatedly reached in front of a guest at a different table, even though he could have walked around, causing the guest to lean back. I had to request an ice bucket for our bottle of white wine, and then the waiter placed the bottle on top of the ice instead of down in it where it could do some good. And when guests arrive without a reservation, saying “I’ll see if I can fit you in” never makes them feel welcome. Usually I assume training was not applied; here it appears there was training but it isn’t being followed. Unemployment is at 10 percent -- there would seem to be an easy solution.
But even those deficiencies won’t stop me from returning. I like the food, and I like the atmosphere. It’s a comfortable place to have either a full meal in the dining room or a substantial nosh at the bar, with a margarita made with prickly pear juice, of course.
Prickly Pear is at 100 S. Eola Drive, Orlando. It is open for dinner daily and Sunday brunch. Street parking is hard to find; valet is $5 and worth your sanity. Here is a link to the Prickly Pear website. The phone number is 407-781-2539.