The number one question a restaurant critic hears is "What is the best restaurant in [insert critic's town here]?" Sometimes it varies to "What's your favorite restaurant?" or "Where do you like to go when you're not working?"
The truth is, the answers to all of those questions change frequently. As they should. The "best restaurant" should be challenged constantly for that top spot by other restaurants improving their own game. My answer does change from time to time, as well.
But if we're talking about a pure restaurant experience, where the food is always top notch, the service impeccable and the atmosphere respectably quiet and serene, there really is only one answer: Victoria & Albert's.
It's pretty much the first restaurant I mention when someone is looking for a place to celebrate a special occasion, depending, of course, on whether the asker truly appreciates fine food -- this isn't a place for steak and potato aficionados -- and is willing to pay for it, 'cause it ain't cheap.
And if it's a really special occasion to be celebrated, I recommend the person seeking advice try to book Victoria & Albert's Chef's Table. There is, quite simply, no other culinary experience like it in the Southeastern United States.
So when I was tasked with finding a restaurant for a very special -- very big -- birthday celebration, I followed my own advice and booked the Chef's Table for a party of eight. (We had been a party of 10 -- the table's capacity -- but lost two diners at the last minute.) We arrived at the Grand Floridian at 6:30 p.m. and straggled out approximately five hours later.
In between we had been treated to 10 or so courses prepared and served by chef de cuisine Scott Hunnel, paired with wines selected by maitre d'hotel Israel Perez, and attended to by the able staff of skilled and highly trained servers.
Here is a rundown and gallery of our dinner:
The amuse bouche featured Scottish salmon, king crab and Siberian caviar. We sipped Billecart-Salmon Blanc de Blanc Grand Cru (NV) Brut.
First official course was Spanish Octopus with Iberico Ham and Sherry Vinaigrette. We all loved the perfumery ham but the accompanying tomato water was a big hit with everyone. That wasn't meant to be the pairing beverage; it was the Domaine de Hermitage Le Oratoire Rose from Bandol, 2013.
Hot "Smoked" Niman Ranch Lamb with Fuji Apple and Curry Dressing was a bit of a suprise to me. I've had Hunnel's food many times over the years but this was the first time I'd experienced a cultural shift, this one being toward India. The curry flavors were wonderful with the gamey lamb, and the "Smoked" reference in the dish's title refers to the way it was served, under a glass dome into which had been pumped smoke to be released at the table. Joh. Jos. Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr 2011 Kabinett from Mosel had a delightful sweet note to counter the spice of the curry.
Fennel-crusted Diver Scallop, served in its shell, and Abalone followed, accompanied by Chateau Rahoul Blanc, Graves 2011.
The Poached Chicken Egg with Corn and Crayfish was one of my favorites. There were so many tastes and textures at play in the small dish, and they all got along wonderfully. And it was paired with one of my favorite pinot noirs, the Sea Smoke Ten, 2012, from Santa Rita Hills.
Veal with Chantarelles and Truffles followed, accompanied by Vajra Albe Barolo, 2010.
Australian Kobe-style Beef with Potato Turnip Gratin was the second meat course. Although not true Kobe, the meat was as buttery and melt-in-the-mouthy as the real thing. A full bodied 2004 Viader Cabernet Sauvignon somplemented.
A cheese course followed, appropriately paired with a 1970 Warre's Porto. Then a Citrus Timbale with Violet Sherbet put us into master pastry chef Erich Herbitshek's hands. It was chased by a Peruvian Chocolate Timbale with Roasted White Chocolate Gelato.
Some coffee -- still the best coffee service in town! -- and some sweet friandises, then downstairs to the waiting driver that I had hired for the evening to take us home.
Yes, Victoria & Albert's is still the best restaurant in Central Florida. Not inexpensive: plan on around $450 per person with the wine pairings. But if you're looking for an unforgettable food and wine experience, it's a bargain.
By the way, the Chef's Table and Victoria & Albert's is due to undergo renovations, so if you're looking to book it, do it soon.