When we talk about the top chefs in the Central Florida culinary community, the name Justin Plank rarely comes up, and I don't know why. I may be as much to blame as anyone.
It's not that he hasn't been around a long time or that his cooking hasn't been critically received. And it isn't that his name hasn't been bandied about. You may recall that in the early 2000s, Park Plaza Gardens actually changed its name to Chef Justin's Park Plaza Gardens to celebrate the hiring of Plank as its new head chef.
Following a stint at Lake Port Square in Leesburg, Plank joined the Levy Restaurants team as the executive chef at Disney Springs' Portobello, handpicked for the position by Tony Mantuano, the Chicago chef who advises and directs the Disney restaurant. Portobello then promptly closed so that it could be remodeled and rebranded.
It's now Terralina Crafted Italian and Plank has stayed on at the helm. While much of the menu was initially developed by Mantuano, Plank says that his suggestions for changes have all been given the go ahead. I stopped in to sample some of the menu recently and to see how the restaurant has developed. Everything I tasted -- some of which was offered to me and my guest to try -- was really quite good.
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With Maria & Enzo's, Enzo's Hideaway and now Terralina, don't be surprised if Disney Springs starts getting known as Orlando's Little Italy.
OK, not everything was wonderful, so let me get this out of the way right now: I've had much better negronis from French restaurants, and this is a drink that cries for large format ice cubes, not the small bits that are served in Terralina's version. And frankly, the ciabatta wasn't very distinct and the giardiniera wasn't an appropriate accompaniment for the bread.
But all was forgiven when the Littleneck Clams came out. Dotted with crumbles of spicy Italian sausage and seasoned with thyme, the chewy nuggets sat in a buttery liquor that could have been slurped with a spoon as a fine soup.
My appetizer of Burrata was served with hefty cubes of beets that served as a nice counterpoint to the creaminess of the cheese. The kale salad that was also on the plate at least looked pretty.
I had the Gnocchi as a pasta course. The firm nuggets were submerged in a delicious and thick pork ragu.
For my entree I chose the Slow-roasted Beef Short Rib, which is usually made available only for two (at $42 each) but which Plank offered as a single serving. The single serving could have fed four people. The tender meat was served resting on the large rib -- it had long ago given up its hold to the bone. The honey-balsamic glaze had more of the former in the crust of the short rib.
My guest chose the Seafood Cannelloni, a veritable fish feast with salmon, swordfish, shrimp and scallops in the pasta, all baked in a rich lobster cream. The top of the casserole had been singed just right to give a crisped crust.
For dessert there was a creamy Lemon Panna Cotta, garnished with a candied sprig of thyme.
Service was courteous and showed proper training.
This space, of course, started out as the Portobello Yacht Club from the days of Pleasure Island. There are multiple dining areas, each with its own distinct decor touches. It isn't as upscale as it once was but it isn't ultra casual, either. It can be a bit noisy, however.
The design and menu are supposed to reflect Italy's Lake District, and the restaurant does sit on a waterfront. But you're more likely to see the personal touches of the chefs in the food than the classics of, say, Lake Como. But that's just fine when we're talking about the culinary creations of Mantuano and especially Plank, one of Orlando's top chefs.
Terralina Crafted Italian is at Disney Springs, 1650 Buena Vista Drive, Lake Buena Vista. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. The phone number is 407-934-8888.