New restaurant in Apopka (yes, Apopka) is a contender for list of Best Restaurants in Central Florida
Tell someone you’re going to Highland Manor and you’ll likely be met with a blank expression. But add, “It’s where Townsend’s Plantation used to be,” and they’ll probably nod in recognition. Of course, that only works on people who have lived in the area more than 12 years. Townsend’s Plantation, which as far as I know was never an actual plantation, has been closed since 1997.
A number of businesses have tried to use the sprawling property, including an assisted living facility that was planned but never opened, and other restaurants. The latest was Captain and the Cowboy, the oddly named seafood and steak house whose food was not up to filling the large place.
Now comes Highland Manor, which, in its own way, is just as oddly named. (In fact it sounds more like an assisted living facility.) But it would seem to me that for the first time in a very long time -- possibly ever -- the kitchen of this storied establishment is turning out dishes that not only are worthy of attention from those in the Apopka area but also so creative and expertly prepared that lovers of fine food throughout Central Florida should consider the journey. This is truly a fine restaurant.
My guest and I were treated to a sampling menu prepared by chef and co-owner John Mooney. He started us with an amuse bouche that featured a quail egg in a dainty puddle of bearnaise fashioned out of corn juice and topped with osetra caviar and a tiny sprig of tarragon as garnish. No, not as garnish, as another thoughtful component in this bite-sized morsel that highlighted the richness of the egg yolk and the saltiness of the caviar. And let me just say, anyone who can come up with a bearnaise based on corn juice is someone worth noting.
The appetizer course was tuna carpaccio, pounded into a round thinness and marinated with lime juice, soy sauce and tarragon. The soup course featured asparagus and pistachio dolloped with creme fraiche. The flavor was as intense as the deep green color.
Grilled swordfish came next but it was served on the “platform” of the menu’s soft-shelled crab, that is, using the same preparation and ingredients but substituting the fish for the crab. It included a firm piece of swordfish on a bed of tomatoes, shaved fennel, hazelnuts and bits of grapefruit.
The seared diver scallops were just a tad gritty but otherwise a pretty wonderful thing to happen to a scallop. They were served with creamed corn (Mooney does like using corn, not that I’m complaining), hen of the woods mushrooms and seafood broth with a bit of chorizo and just a touch of salt.
The scallops offered a master class example of how a proper pairing of food and wine can enhance the experience. We were served the 2005 Tablas Creek Rousanne from Paso Robles. A sip of the wine before the course was served brought a shrug of indifference. The wine had no discernible characteristics. But one bite of the scallop dish and the wine positively blossomed and revealed flavors of honey, pears and citrus.
And let me also take just a short aside to praise Mooney’s use of an under-utilized seasonong: salt. He uses it skillfully -- including on top of the delicious house bread -- but never overwhelmingly.
A salad course of stone fruits allowed the restaurant to showcase its lettuce, grown hydroponically on the property and in fact visible to diners seated near the window.
Next came buttermilk fried quail, a wonderful upgrading of a standard southern-fried chicken. The delicate bird was soaked in buttermilk then breaded and fried until it was crispy but not greasy. I didn’t care how inelegant I looked, I picked it up and ate it with my hands, the only way to get every little morsel.
(And by the way, fancy variations on a fried chicken theme are currently a national trend. We usually have to wait a while for trends to find their way here -- this one is being showcased right now, in Apopka of all places.)
Dessert included a Sunset Sandwich, which had house-made graham crackers with banana ice cream, and a rum fudge cake with bittersweet ganache.
Service was exceptional, with perfect menu knowledge and attention to fine details.
If there is a drawback to Highland Manor it is that the facility itself is rather large and impersonal. I was seated in a porchlike side room that offers a modicum of intimacy, not to mention a lovely view of the grounds (at least before sunset; outdoor lighting would be nice). But much of the rest of the place maintains a “hired hall” feel. However, this is a case where the food and the service are so much superior that the surroundings don’t seem to matter as much.
It’s been a while since a meal in a Central Florida restaurant has impressed me as much as this one. It’s been an even longer time since I was so thoroughly surprised by one. Given the history of this location I admit to having low expectations.
But make no mistake: Highland Manor is a fine dining restaurant, and one that deserves to be included in anyone’s list of the area’s best.
Highland Manor is at 604 E. Main St., Apopka. It is open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Brunch is served Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The phone number is 407-886-6226. Here’s a link to the Highland Manor Web site.
Have you been to this restaurant? Write your own review and give it a rating. You must first log in, then click here to be taken to the listing where you can tell us what you think.