It seems inconceivable that Hemisphere, the restaurant at the top of the Hyatt Regency hotel in the main terminal of Orlando International Airport, is nearly 30 years old. My first review ran in the Orlando Sentinel’s Florida magazine in November of 1992 shortly after it opened.
Three decades later, I still remember the impression of stepping off the elevator on the 10th floor and taking in the expansive view from the two-story high windows as I descended a curving stairway to the dining room below. It was quite grand.
It still is, though there have been changes over the years, most notably in 2016 when the space underwent a three million dollar renovation. But even before that the restaurant had gone through evolutions. For one thing, the elevator stop had changed from the 10th floor to the ninth, eliminating the Scarlett O’Hara at Tara entrance. (Then, as now, accessing the restaurant does not require stepping foot inside the airport’s terminal; more on that in a moment.)
It also lost some of its poshness, but that was the result of a shifting definition of what fine dining meant.
The cuisine has change, too. It was originally an Italian restaurant and in the early 2000s it was more Asian themed. Today, the menu is more global, befitting the restaurant’s name.
A more recent change is more of a return. Jason Moltz was the chef de cuisine when Hemisphere reopened following the renovation five years ago then moved to oversee the hotel’s banquets division. He returned as chef de cuisine when Shelby Farrell moved to assume that role at the new Four Flamingos.
And not all of the menu is new. I chose as my starter course a cup of crawfish chowder, which the menu noted has been “our specialty for over 25 years.” It was new to me but I can see why it would be kept on. It was a thick stew – though somehow gluten free – with a spicy little kick and chewy nubbins of crawfish.
My companion chose the panko oysters, unusual in their flatness but yet still juicy. Hailing from Wellfleet, the oysters had a crispy crust and were served with a remoulade made with Kewpie mayonnaise, so it also had a bit of heat, a salad of yuzu kosho citrus and chilies, and salty capers.
For my entree I chose the seared scallops, four perfectly cooked, well seasoned and tender pillows in a puddle of saffron tinged sauce. They were accompanied by squid ink pasta (from Trevi in College Park) that had a satisfying coarse texture. There were also bits of prosciutto and sausage, a crispy tomato tuile, and romanesco broccoli.
My guest chose the short rib, described on the menu as having been brined for six days. The meat had a firm yet tender structure and was accompanied by a sauce of whole grain mustard. The dish also had delicious polenta cakes with seared crusts and sweet al dente Thumbelina carrots.
For dessert we shared the dark chocolate tower, a devil’s food cake with mousse filling, a smear of blackberry gelee to match the blackberry sorbet and a cashew crumble for a bit of crunch.
Service was first rate, and our server told us she had been with the restaurant since 1995, which is quite a feat.
Although it is no longer white-tablecloth posh, it’s still an impressive space with unmatched views of the runways in the distance and the ever-moving shuttles to the airside terminals directly below. The decor pays homage to vintage days of air travel with large murals of old prop planes and a bar, where once there was never was a bar, that appears to be fashioned out of an engine housing.
Don’t let the airport location deter you. You can drive directly to the Hyatt Regency’s entrance, drop your car with the valet (it’s complimentary for dining guests) and take a few steps to the elevator that will whisk you to the ninth floor without ever having to dodge travelers rushing to catch a flight.
And once you’re inside the restaurant, do stroll up to the 10th floor and walk down the staircase to imagine what it was like when Hemisphere opened 30 years ago.
Hemisphere is at the Hyatt Regency Orlando International Airport, 9300 Jeff Fuqua Blvd., Orlando. (map). It is open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday. The phone number is 407-825-1344.