I was surprised when I was told that Frontera Cocina, the Disney Springs restaurant from chef Rick Bayless was celebrating its third year.
I was even more surprised that the man who told me was Bayless himself.
It seemed like no more than a year ago that Bayless, the well-known Chicago based chef and restaurateur, was on hand to open the Disney Springs venue. I figured that would be the last we’d see of him in Central Florida. Certain celebrity chefs are known for putting their names on restaurants and then practically forgetting where they are.
But Bayless, I’m told, is at Frontera Cocina at least once a quarter, usually to help roll out a seasonal menu. That was why he was there talking to me last month as part of a media preview of the winter menu.
(By the way, Bayless isn’t the only celebrity who visits his restaurant at Disney Springs. Art Smith is at Homecomin’ frequently, and I heard recently that Wolfgang Puck was working the dining room at his WP Bar & Grill.)
We started the evening with a seasonal appetizer of Shrimp Ceviche Tostadas, which featured crisped corn tortillas with Florida pink shrimp on a bed of pureed avocado and topped with jicama, olives, chilies, onions and fresh cilantro. The shrimp had a citrusy flavor and it was all quite refreshing.
Winter Green Ensalada had shaved black kale, arcadian lettuce, grilled pineapple, toasted pepitas, cotija cheese, red onions, jícama, and a roasted tomatillo- serrano vinaigrette. A lot of stuff there, but it was still kale.
The first of the seasonal entrees we sampled was the Swordfish al Pastor, grilled fillets seasoned with garlic, achiote and red chile and topped with a smoked pineapple salsa heated up with a bit of chipotle. Very nice.
Here’s something else that surprised that visit: Bayless and his Orlando based team, headed by executive sous chef Christian Torres, are not dumbing down the spicing of the food to appeal to — or to not offend the palates of — the general dining public. The heat of the salsa was dominant but not inappropriately so.
The other entree was Pork Belly Tacos, a do-it-yourself kit of thick belly meat with a crisped crust served with black refried beans, queso fresco guacamole and a salsa fashioned out of three types of chilies and agave. Warm corn tortillas were provided to assemble a taco, but really is was just fine as a knife-and-fork dish.
The side vegetable for the winter menu is Three Chile Roasted Brussels Sprouts with bits of bacon and cotija cheese. I’ll take Brussels sprouts over kale any day.
I’ve never found the Frontera Cocina ambience very appealing. It feels a bit too much like a corporate lunchroom.
But the food is definitely first rate — even better than when it first opened — and it’s always nice when the CEO is in attendance.
Frontera Cocina is at Disney Springs, 1604 E. Buena Vista Drive, Lake Buena Vista. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. The phone number is 407-560-9197. The spring menu will launch April 30, so look for Bayless to be back in town then.