Dave Shula is quick to point out that neither he nor his father is an actual restaurateur, even though the family name adorns a couple of dozen restaurants around the country, most notably the highend steakhouse called Shula’s.
But from the beginning, with the first Shula’s in Miami Lakes and subsequent openings, including the estimable Shula’s Steak House in the Dolphin hotel at Walt Disney World, the restaurants have operated as licensed franchises approved to use the famous name. None is owned or operated by anyone associated with the Shula family.
But that doesn’t mean that the Shula’s, pictured at right, are detached from the operations. While Dave Shula doesn’t consider himself a restaurateur he very much is a franchisor and keeper of the name as president of the Shula’s company. His more famous dad? The Shula’s Web site lists him as “successful restaurateur” as well as “writer, speaker, motivator.” But it’s fairly safe to say that Don Shula’s role in the operation is more as figurehead. And what a figure, with a lionlike visage that surely could have earned him a career as a matinee idol or at least as a stand-in for Kirk Douglas, that is if he had ever needed something to fall back on. You know, if it didn’t work out for him to become one of the winningest coaches in NFL history.
How many wins? Three hundred forty seven to be exact. And that’s the number that is referenced in the company’s newer line of restaurants, Shula’s 347 Grill. A Shula’s 347 has opened recently at the also-new Westin Lake Mary Orlando North hotel, and both father and son are in town to promote it. I joined them Monday for a media luncheon in one of the restaurant’s two private dining rooms.
(Note: the restaurant has been open for five weeks, but the official grand opening is this evening, December 15, 2009. The reception is by invitation only, but the restaurant will open to the public for dinner at 7 p.m.)
Simply based on the names, you would expect Shula’s 347 Grill to be different than Shula’s Steak House. And it certainly is, both in atmosphere and in menu. The restaurant sits at the front of the hotel and has lots of floor-to-ceiling glass looking out to International Parkway (and also a patio where seating is available). But while it is more casual, it also has touches of quality: tufted booth backs, a polished wood floor, well-placed lighting. A tall glass and chrome wine cooler serves as a room divider between the lounge and dining room. Tabletops have a rich mahogany finish.
Shula's 347 Grill menu, which is written on a more conventional paper-based medium and not an official NFL pigskin, as at the steakhouses, is more diverse than just beef, although Dave -- the younger Shula, who also had an early career as an NFL coach, did all of the business-related talking at the lunch -- said that it was beef that brought the Shula restaurants fame and beef would be a large part of what they do at the grill.
But the filet mignon I sampled at the lunch was the least of the items I tasted. It was cooked past the requested medium-rare and did not have the vibrant beef flavor that a steak at one of the steakhouses proper almost always delivers. Though it should be mentioned that a filet at the steakhouse would probably cost cost more than $32 asking price here, and wouldn’t come with mashed potatoes and green beans.
The crab cakes were far better. (Before joining the Dolphins in 1970, Coach Shula led the Baltimore Colts, so a good crab cake was important, his son said.) The two cakes in the $24 entree were large and mostly crab with just a bit of binder, sauteed so the outside had a wonderful golden crisp.
I also liked the pecan-crusted salmon, even if the pecans looked like pistachios. The fish was thick and firm and fresh-tasting.
Seared ahi tuna was also good, thick fillets with a quick-flash sear leaving the inside a gorgeous ruby red. The only thing I cared for about the fried ravioli was the presentation. The hard little pockets with an indistinct filling were beautifully arrayed on a shock of flash-fried rice noodles.
For dessert there was an impressive wedge of cheesecake (the announcement earlier that it would be part of the meal brought a cheer from the Coach), close to a ricotta version but a bit creamier, served with a totally unnecessary raspberry coulis.
Flourless chocolate cake was nicely done, a sufficiently rich mouthful of chocolatey goo. But the Key lime pie was much too sweet. (The same principle of a crab cake from Baltimore should be applied to a Key lime pie in Florida.)
Besides the entrees, which range from $18 to $33, the menu also has an array of sandwiches and burgers, all available any time of the day, ranging from $10 to $15, so a meal here doesn’t have to include the full nine yards.
Servers showed a little nervousness at serving a legend (stop it, you know I mean Coach Shula). But I saw signs of both proper training and egregious mistakes of basic service standards. I’ll hold judgement until the next visit.
Shula’s 347 Grill has its own entrance, so you needn’t traipse through the hotel to get to it. That might get some more of the Lake Mary / Heathrow denizens to give it a try, as I think they should. If the steaks can be improved upon -- only three cuts are offered -- it could save a drive to Lake Buena Vista. But even if they don’t quite figure out the steak angle, there are plenty of other tasty options.
Shula’s 347 Grill is in the Westin Lake Mary, Orlando North at 2974 International Parkway, Lake Mary. It’s open for lunch and dinner daily. Reservations at 407-531-3567 or through OpenTable. For more information, visit the Shula's Web site.