There was a time, not so very long ago, when restaurants found in hotels existed only as a convenience for their guests. They served three meals a day to a captive audience that had no inclination to venture off the property in search of dinner. Business travelers, especially, were willing to put up with food that rarely rose above mediocre in favor of the serviceability and security of the hotel’s cafe.
While such restaurants still exist in hotels here and around the world, there is a growing trend toward offering finer dining. Perhaps it’s because the average guest, including the weary business traveler, has become more adventuresome and food-conscious and therefore more inclined to wander off property in search of a meal. Or maybe it’s because hotels are trying to be a part of the local community. Either way, it’s a win-win situation when the result is a restaurant like Spencer’s at Hilton Orlando.
The full official name is Spencer’s for Steaks & Chops, placing it firmly in the steakhouse genre. But everything I had on my recent visit was so good that I would classify this as an excellent all-around restaurant.
My guest and I started with a charcuterie platter that featured a selection of salume and cheeses from Winter Park Dairy (another indication that this restaurant is committed to the community). We also sampled the crab cake, which was full of crabmeat and had a slightly sweetish taste that was countered with a delicious lemon aioli. Fried poached egg was an amusing appetizer. The egg was first poached then deep-fried and served with asparagus and bacon with a vinaigrette. Really quite delicious.
The fish course also featured a bit of unusual whimsy, courtesy of chef John O'Leary and crew. A king salmon fillet was served under a glass cloche that was filled with hickory smoke. When the dome is lifted, the smoke wafts up to the envelop the diner. It’s a sensorial experience, not the least being the sense of taste with the perfectly cooked salmon, which was accompanied by carrots, zucchini, yellow squash and white beans that had a wonderful salty note.
My friend chose the Anderson Ranch double-cut lamp chops entree, which were served with sweet glazed baby carrots and thick wedges of roasted potatoes in a small enameled pot. The lamb had a crust of fresh parsley, scallions and mint and a forward bit of gaminess in the taste that is missing from many lamb dishes these days. It was the best lamb I’ve tasted in quite some time.
I had the New York strip, a solid, boneless piece of aged meat cooked to the requested medium-rare. It was rather lonely on the plate, so I sampled a few of the side dishes, including loaded hash browns, sauteed forest mushrooms, five cheese mac & cheese, and swiss chard. The chard was a bit too acerbic, but the mac & cheese, made with orecchiette, was wonderfully creamy. The mushrooms with thick and chewy and added an interesting dimension to the meat. But the hash brown side dish was almost a meal unto itself, with applewood smoked bacon, sweet onions, and sharp white cheddar in the pie plate-sized serving. Yum.
Dessert had an interesting cheesecake and an herbed souffle, but even better was the 2008 Ferrari-Carano black muscat dessert wine. With a rich bing cherry taste and a rosy aroma, it was all I needed to end a wonderful meal.
Spencer’s decor is more upscale than it is casual, but the open kitchen and uncovered tabletops keep it from being too posh. There is a glass-enclosed wine room that is kept at a temperature suitable for the fine wines stored there; next to it is a private dining room that can seat 12 comfortably. The background music is light and jazzy, the lighting is soft, and the splashes of color on the walls and carpet give the place a bit of dazzle.
Service was first rate, and it’s a nice touch that the waiter alerts the valet to have your car brought around to the restaurant’s separate entrance. (Valet parking is complimentary.)
I know that some people still look down at hotel restaurants, and for a lot of locals, International Drive can be a hard sell. But those folks will be missing out on a terrific addition to Central Florida’s list of fine restaurants.
Spencer’s is in the Hilton Orlando at 6001 Destination Parkway (next to the convention center), Orlando. It is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Click here to download the menu ; this link will take you to Spencer’s Web page. For reservations, call 407-313-8625.