Update: Shortly following the publication of this review, Posto 9's management discontinued the "no tipping" policy described here.
Who knew Lakeland could have such a wonderful restaurant?
Not to demean Lakeland, but I’ve never thought of it as a dining destination, rather a place one passes through on the interstate on the way to the coast to check out a new restaurant in Tampa or St. Pete or somewhere down the coast. Lakeland, I’d surmised, was the sort of place you’d find Harry’s, the Florida chainlet “seafood bar and grille” that indeed sits on a corner across from downtown’s Munn Park.
But just around the corner, in the middle of a block on Main Street, you’ll find Posto 9, a destination-worthy restaurant with charm, atmosphere and very good food.
It bills itself as a Brazilian gastropub, which isn’t helpful if your image of Brazilian restaurants has been shaped by the numerous churrascarias in the area.
But there are no gauchos brandishing sword-length skewers of meats to slice tableside here. Instead, the menu, under the direction of executive chef Michel Revy, offers a sort of fusion of American and Brazilian, and it has one delectable entry after another.
There are appetizers of Paulista Bone Marrow, Roasted Chicken Hearts, and crispy meatballs served over grits with sofrito, called Gaucho Meatballs, the only gauchoan reference in the place.
And entrees of Short Ribs braised in coffee, Long Bone Pork Milanese, Chicken on Cheesebread Waffles and, yes, a bevy of meats grilled Brazilian churrasco style.
I went whole grouper in my ordering. I started with the Grouper Cheeks Waffle Bruschetta, which featured sizable hunks of the sweet fish meat soaked in buttermilk on platforms of spongy waffles and topped with a slaw of papaya. An aioli infused with malagueta pepper added a nice spice. The cheek meat was wonderful and had been pan-crisped just right. I could have easily made a main course out of this starter.
Instead, I moved on the the Moqueca, or Revy’s stylized version of the classic Brazilian fish stew. The moqueca is offered in three versions: vegetarian with bananas and vegetables, a more classic melange of seafood, or with black grouper.
I chose the latter and am convinced I chose well. The fillet, perfectly cooked and sitting atop a fluffy mound of jasmine rice, was topped with a stack of chopped onion, roasted tomato, peppers and ginger. It was brought to the table dry and the server poured the stew portion, a thick and velvety coconut tinged broth, into the bowl around and over the fish. The moist and big flakes of the pearlescent grouper would have made a fine meal itself. With the rice and stew it was over the top.
For dessert I had the Roasted Banana Crumble, with caramelized fruit under a crust sprinkled with cinnamon and nuts, with doce de leite ice cream (a Brazilian version of dulce de leche) topped with black sea salt. (I liked the kitchen’s use of black salt, it was also on the sweet butter served with the bread at the beginning of the meal.)
I was invited to visit Post 9 by its owners, Marco and Grace Franca. Marco explained to me that the name is a reference to the lifeguard station on Ipanema, the Rio de Janeiro beach of fame. In fact, the rooftop bar on the three-level building is named Ipanema.
The dining room on the main floor features moodily lit brick walls, comfortable chairs and banquettes and tables draped with runners that double as placemats. The walls feature the colorful artwork of Brazilian pop artist Romero Britto. The kitchen is open and provides a pleasant thrum for the dining soundtrack.
Service was pleasant and accommodating, which is an appropriate time to mention that tipping is not allowed. Following a lead of some well-known restaurateurs, notably Danny Meyer of New York’s Union Square Hospitality Group, Posto 9 pays its staff a higher wage from the sales of the food, which is reflected in the menu prices. (Keep that in mind when you look at the prices.) A note on the table states that any gratuities left will be donated to a local charity.
Mine was a thoroughly pleasant experience at Posto 9, and I left with only one regret: I wish that it was located in downtown Orlando instead.
Posto 9 is at 215 E. Main St., Lakeland. It is open for lunch and dinner daily (brunch Sunday). The phone number is 863-499-0099.