Get a room.
That way you can spend the leisurely pace a meal here demands without the worry of the drive ahead, the concern about whether you can have one of the craft cocktails before dinner or enjoy the carefully selected wines to accompany the fine cuisine during. And an after-dinner drink with the freshly roasted coffee and exquisite desserts isn’t given a second thought.
This highly anticipated restaurant from one of Florida’s most celebrated chefs is, to be a bit trite, a feast for the senses. The restaurant occupies an old house, built circa 1921, across the street from the Modernism Museum in the quaint downtown. In partnership with the museum and Main Street Leasing, which is listed as the “presenter” of the museum, 1921 becomes part of the artistic complex that also includes the museum’s shop (every museum has to have a shop), which shares an adjoining patio with the restaurant.
And as part of the partnership, the restaurant is enhanced with works of art that might otherwise be packed away in a warehouse. So the walls are covered with paintings and sculptures. Light fixtures and chandeliers are expressive bursts of colors, and even the very chair you sit on and table you eat at may be a museum piece. (Several of the wood pieces are by the artist Nakeshima.) The art deserves your time strolling through the various rooms. (It also deserves better illumination than the standard halogen track lighting, especially some of the darker paintings.)
By opening the restaurant in Lake County, Van Aken made a commitment to source products from farms and purveyors in the surrounding area. He chose Camilo Velasco as his chef de cuisine to oversee the culinary operations. (Van Aken divides his time among operations in South Florida, his restaurant in Orlando, Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton, and, now, Mount Dora.)
Velasco was also chef at the Orlando Norman’s, earning the top post there at the age of 21. Scott Geisler, who serves as general manager at 1921, was also dining room manager and sommelier at Norman’s. He joined the 1921 team after a time as manager of the Ravenous Pig, so don’t be surprised when you visit if you recognize servers and bartenders from the Winter Park restaurant.
The menu is a thoughtful blend of traditional and modern, just like the museum. My guest and I were invited to sample a chef’s tasting menu on our recent visit, and it was a treat from the first bite of ceviche to the last plunge of the French coffee press.
That Ceviche featured wild Florida cobia in passionfruit juices with cubes of “torched” sweet potatoes. As good as the fish was, the juices were even better. I lifted the glass bowl to finish every drop. (I had to lift the bowl because the spoon that was supplied was too large for the dish. Much of the flatware, I was told, was found at the local Renningers antique market. That fits in nicely with the overall ambience, but utility should also be a concern.)
Anyone who claims not to like beets should have the Roasted Beet Salad here. Fork one of the firm cubes with a bit of the creamy-firm burrata and it will change your outlook.
Spiny Lobster & Rock Shrimp Dumplings featured shellfish that used to reside in Titusville, now found in a dashi stock flavored with country ham. Some deliciously chewy shiitake and lobster mushrooms floated nearby.
An appetizer of White Shrimp had a large shrimp with head and tail intact served on Anson Mills grits with a meaty ‘nduja vinaigrette.
The fish course featured Barrelfish, a so-called “trash fish” usually hauled in by commercial fishers as bycatch. In the right hands, it can be as flavorful as grouper (which some mongers try to market it as). Here it was presented over a corn purée from just down the road in Zellwood, with out-of-the-shell mussels nubbins, bits of chorizo, and a black sauce fashioned from cuttlefish ink.
Pan-roasted Duck Breast looked almost like a piece of rare steak. But the delicate flavor was unmistakeable. It was served with duck confit, sweet potato and mole poblano, with trumpet mushrooms and a jus made of ancho and guava.
Pastry chef Gloriann Rivera went a bit out of the area for our dessert, but when you can get Georgia peaches like this, grab them. She made a shortcake and surrounded it with peach custard, all of it pleasantly light but sufficiently sweet. The coffee beans are roasted in a prep kitchen above and behind the gift shop. Both Velasco and Geisler are also former Barney’s Coffee and Tea employees, so they have an affinity for a good brew.
Geisler provided pairings from his list of carefully selected wines. A highlight was a Viña Bosconia 2004 red reserva from Rioja, perfect with both the fish and the duck.
Given Geisler’s experience with fine dining, I wasn’t surprised that the serving staff was well trained. I might have dressed them in something other than jeans and denim work shirts, however, to more appropriately match the elegance of the art.
In fact, I noticed that many of the guests, especially the women, were taking advantage of having a restaurant to dress up for. Probably locals. Lucky devils.
1921 by Norman Van Aken is at 142 E. 4th Ave. Mount Dora. It is open for lunch Wednesday through Sunday and for dinner Tuesday through Sunday. The phone number is 352-385-1921.