Wolfgang Puck is back in town after a very long absence.
And by that I mean a lot longer than just the closing of the former Wolfgang Puck Cafe. That was the big, two-story restaurant that opened in 1996 in Downtown Disney’s then-called West Side, about the same time as House of Blues and Bongos. Puck was one of the first celebrity chefs to have a presence in Central Florida, and the first iteration of his cafe was quite good, especially the dining room on the second level that was supposed to be an approximation of his Beverly Hills hangout Spago, although it couldn’t be called that because of licensing restrictions.
Oh, here’s a fun bit of trivia: When the Ritz-Carlton was in development to open at Grande Lakes, it approached Puck to open a restaurant there. But because of a noncompete clause in his agreement with Walt Disney World Resort he was unable to consider it. So instead, the Ritz pursued a Miami chef who had recently won a James Beard Award to recreate his popular Coconut Grove restaurant. Norman Van Aken accepted, and that’s how Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton came to be. (The Coconut Grove restaurant closed many years ago.)
At the height of Puck’s popularity, he sold the cafe concept to Chicago’s Levy Restaurants, and the quality of the Disney restaurant plummeted dramatically. After I wrote an updated and largely negative review of Wolfgang Puck Cafe in 2004, I had occasion to speak to Puck by phone on another topic, but I brought up the quality of the local restaurant. He was aware of it and told me that at one point he considered asking the owners to remove his name.
Which brings us now to Disney Springs, the dining, entertainment and retail project that subsumed Downtown Disney, Pleasure Island, Disney Village and the former West Side, and one of the newest restaurants to open there, Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill. It does not stand on the old site — scorched earth, perhaps — and it’s removed in another substantial way: The food and ambiance are as good and enjoyable as when his old restaurant first opened in ’96.
The newly constructed restaurant was designed by Tony Chi of tonychi studio in New York. Chi has designed restaurants for Alain Ducasse and Michael Mina, as well. The restaurant’s website says the design is farmhouse, but it’s more like a farmhouse inside a big barn, but I mean that in a nice way. It’s a large open space with capacious ceilings and soaring, bulky beams connected with black bolted fasteners. Simple framed windows look into the open kitchen where the cooks, directed by executive chef Michael Tiva, work under large black and white photos of Puck.
Especial attention was paid to the lighting, which not only includes large wagon-wheel chandeliers with hanging globes but also directional spots that add dramatic highlights.
The website also admits that the dining experience is meant to be Spago-like, though, again, they chose not to name it such, even though there are now five Spagos worldwide.
Whatever. I knew that I had to try the Schnitzel, which was a favorite of mine from the last not-Spago Spago dining experience at the old upstairs cafe. Here featuring chicken, the schnitzel had a wonderfully crisped golden jacket, subtly seasoned, and accompanied by cucumbers in a dilled cream sauce, wedges of marinated tomatoes, chilled but undressed potatoes, and a mâche salad. A fine tribute to Puck’s native Austria.
I also knew that I had to try one of the pizzas, because it was his designer, California-style pizzas that popularized Puck with the rest of the country. Baked in a large copper-clad oven in front of the bar area, the pizzas have the characteristic thin, noncrispy platform with a puffed crust edge and simple but ample toppings. I had the pepperoni version, which was not as exciting as some of the other options, but I enjoyed it.
For appetizers, my guest and I shared the Roasted Meatballs, densely packed orbs, well seasoned, coated lightly with tomato sauce and topped by a dollop of ricotta cheese and a basil sprig garnish.
We also had the Tempura Shrimp and Calamari, thin coated and crisply fried, served with a roasted lemon and lemon aioli. The seafood was topped with flash-fried basil that had a nice salty note.
We were gifted with a couple of desserts, including a deconstructed apple pie, served, or reconstructed, if you will, as a sundae. And a Spanish style cheese cake with a delightful drier texture than conventional cheesecakes.
Servers showed training if not polish. Someone might suggest to the young fellow at the outdoors host stand that “Hi’ya, fellas” is not an appropriate way to greet guests.
Unlike in the mid nineties, Puck is not alone in his celebrity chefdom at Disney Springs. Masaharu Morimoto at Morimoto Asia, Rick Bayless at Frontera Cucina and Art Smith at Homecomin’ preceded him. So did Tony Mantuano at Terralina, owned by Levy Restaurants, which in recent years found renewed interest in making good restaurants. But there’s always room for one more celebrity chef-owned restaurant, especially when it’s done well.
Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill is at Disney Springs, 1514 Buena Vista Drive, Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. The phone number is 407-815-2100.