When it opened, just over two years ago, Txokos Basque Kitchen was one of the most anticipated new restaurants of 2014 (partly because it was expected to open in 2013). It was the first inland project by respected New Smyrna Beach restaurateurs Michele Salgado of Spanish River Grille and her husband, the James Beard Award nominated chef Henry Salgado.
And despite a confusing tongue-twister of a name (say CHO-kohs) and a focus on the cuisine of Spain’s Basque region, it became a hit. The restaurant, the only full-service venue at East End Market, was often filled to capacity as guests dined on pintxos, listened to music and watched the entertainment of the open kitchen and the separate wood-fired grill in the main dining area.
Then, in September of 2015, the Salgados sold the restaurant, saying at the time that they wanted to focus on their first restaurant and new projects in New Smyrna Beach.
And in the few short months since that sale, Txokos has been sold again. Armando Castelluci and Ricardo DiSilva have owned the restaurant for about five months, and less than two months ago, Gina Bugayong signed on as the chef. Bugayong had previously owned Fresh cafe on New England Avenue in Winter Park, where Mynt currently resides.
In a message, Bugayong said that she has been making changes to the menu, mostly to focus on regions beyond Basque country (which makes having a Basquian name less necessary). I stopped in recently to see how the restaurant was doing, my first visit since the Salgados departed.
The most startling difference was that the restaurant was not full, even on a Friday evening during the 8 p.m. dining hour. Indeed, as I entered the parking lot I wondered if I would need to use the valet parking service. But I found ample available spaces. And in fact there was no valet parking service offered.
Despite the several available tables, the young woman at the door still felt the need to pause when we responded that, no, we did not have a reservation.
We opted to sit at the bar opposite the kitchen after being told that the empty seats at the bar overlooking the fancy grill were reserved. (They remained empty during our entire meal, which lasted longer than it should have).
The food under Bugayong's direction, it must be said, is every bit as good as it was before. I was glad to see that Bone Marrow, top, is still on the menu, and the canoe-cut shanks were perfectly roasted and sprinkled with sea salt and a hint of rosemary. They were served with toasted bread, perfect for slathering the rich, creamy marrow upon.
Grilled Octopus, too, was nicely done, the curling tentacles placed upon platforms of al dente potatoes and topped with grilled onions.
An unusual but also good offering featured grilled Royal Trumpet Mushrooms wrapped with Serrano ham. The mushrooms, also known as King Oyster, are thick and dense, almost a steaklike texture. The jamon gave a nice salty note, and the green salsa made it piquant.
Those three items came and we devoured them handily, then waited for the last item I had ordered, the Hamburguesa. And we waited. And waited some more.
It would take nearly 35 minutes from the time the last of the initial appetizers were placed on the counter until the burger was finally delivered. There was no plausible explanation for this — in response to my query I was told that the grill was backed up. How backed up can a grill be that it has no room for a burger patty?
After the first 20 minutes had passed, our server said the chef would like to offer some scallops while we waited. Lovely, we said. And they were — big and plump, perfectly grilled, topped with orange slices and accompanied by purple radishes. I’m thinking this might be one of the items that Bugayong may have featured at Fresh.
The burger, when it finally arrived, was very good. The patty was thick, sufficiently juicy, though not to the extent that it was oozing, with a terrific charred crust. It was a blend, said the menu, of a “trio of local beef,” though no one readily could tell me where the beef came from. After several minutes, it was determined that the meat was supplied by Local Roots, a “farm to restaurant” distributer with a presence at East End Market, and hailed from Miami. (A spokeswoman for Local Roots told me later that it does not currently supply ground beef to any restaurants.) Pork belly was also included in the blend.
Though the dynamics of the restaurant change slightly when it isn’t packed and with a waitlist at the door, Txokos was every bit as vibrant and was made even more so with the duo of musicians who filled the place with Spanish guitar.
Why Txokos has fewer patrons is curious. The reputation of the Salgados undoubtedly brought foodie fans in. But those same people should be just as eager to continue to support a local restaurant that still offers a nice dining experience.
Txokos is at East End Market, 3201 Corrine Drive, Orlando. It is open for lunch Friday and Saturday and Sunday brunch; dinner Tuesday through Sunday. The phone number is 407-972-8852.