When a well-known brand such as the Waldorf Astoria, whose storied past is part of Manhattan’s history, decides to go forth and multiply, that is, open other Waldorf Astorias (Astorii?) in other parts of the country, it must walk a fine line between the legend and the remake. Things are bound to be different in a noticeable sort of way. It’s sort of like the opposite of Dorothy Gale’s oft-repeated line: I have a feeling we’re not in Manhattan anymore, Toto.
And I don’t mean Manhattan, Kansas. In the case of the first Waldorf Astoria to be built outside of New York, the hotel found itself plopped down in a place as strange as Florida, in Orlando, and very near a Magic Kingdom if not an Emerald City. (OK, that’s the last of the Wizard of Oz references, except to point out that an alligator just ate your doggie, little girl.)
When it opened, in fall of 2009, Waldorf Astoria Orlando found itself straddling that line between the legend and the newbie.
On one hand, you want to honor the brand and pay homage to its legend. It is, after all, the reason you call it the Waldorf Astoria Orlando and not the Bonnet Creek Resort and Spa. And, not incidentally, your guests who are familiar with the original will expect certain Waldorfian qualities in the replica. And rightly so.
But on the other hand, you also want to honor your new home and reflect some of the local qualities. And you don’t want to be so rigid in your ways to ignore the fact that, outside the strictures of a city block and a venue that hasn’t changed in decades, improvements could be made. Finding the right balance is the conundrum.
And nowhere was the struggle more obvious than at Bull & Bear, the iconic upscale steakhouse based on the original in New York. And when I say based on the original, I mean it has the same name. When I first visited the restaurant, in April of last year, I was surprised by some of the liberties that were being taken. I wasn’t put off by the addition of more seafood than you’d find on the menu at B&B in NYC -- it’s Florida, after all; that’s an obvious area of strength (or should be).
But then there were oddities, such as the deconstructed veal Oscar. Beyond the fact that the chop was overcooked and dry, the elements that make it an Oscar -- crabmeat, asparagus and bearnaise -- were smallish and set off to the side as though they were plate garnishes. That doesn’t sound like such a big deal until you know that veal Oscar is purported to have been created by the Waldorf Astoria. Why would you take a dish for which you are recognized and make it unrecognizable?
Things like that, as well as some egregious service errors, made it difficult for me to recommend Bull & Bear. But no more. A recent visit showed that the restaurant has made significant changes and has become more comfortable in its role representing a legend while expressing individuality. The food is more consistently good and worthy of the high price tag, and the staff is more self assured and professional, a sign of good training.
Veal Oscar, of course, had to be one of my choices this visit. This time the veal chop was cooked perfectly, moist and juicy on the inside with a lovely crisp char out, and the crabmeat, big, chewable lumps, were in their proper place atop the meat. Three thick asparagus spears, shafts shaved, were leaned artistically over the chop’s frenched bone. The bearnaise was puddled beneath the chop instead of ladled over it, a nice compromise. The bearnaise, as with all the sauces I sampled, was wonderful, a masterful execution, so kudos to the saucier.
I was intrigued by the bone-in filet and by the menu description that said it was wet-aged rather than dry aged, as was the case with the other steaks. This told me that someone knows enough about meat to know that certain cuts will benefit from a wet aging process, which will retain moisture and reduce weight loss. Keeping the bone intact in theory adds more flavor, but I didn’t see much advantage here other than aesthetics. Which is not to say it wasn’t a wonderful steak; it was, cooked to a gorgeous medium-rare and served with a simple garnish of a roasted head of garlic on a smart white plate.
The plate is worth mentioning because at opening the restaurant was serving entrees on planks of wood, which was just as inelegant as it sounds. The white plates are more appropriate for the style of service and the tone of the room.
Of the myriad side dishes I sampled the cream corn was my favorite. But the mac and cheese was pretty darned good, too. (You may be unaware that it is now a state law that all restaurants must offer a macaroni and cheese dish.)
For appetizers my guest and I enjoyed a sampler of four items: lobster bisque, beef carpaccio, deviled egg and heirloom tomatoes with buffalo mozzarella. The bisque, served in a chic demitasse with a dollop of sweet lobster meat, was just about as good as lobster bisque gets. It had a rich flavor that filled the mouth, and the sherry was just a touch instead of the heavy dose too many chefs add in. The carpaccio was largely forgettable, but the deviled egg, with shaved truffle, was a two-bite treat, and the thickly sliced tomatoes were firm and juicy, and garnished with a perfect sprinkle of salt.
On the other end of the meal were a wonderful creme brulee and a delicious bananas Foster. The beignets were easy to push aside. Coffee is still a disappointment, not only for the lack of any pomp in its service but the quality of the brew, too.
I’ve always liked the dining room. (That’s a picture of Bull & Bear on the cover of my dining guide.) It is boldly elegant with the sort of wood tones one expects in a steakhouse but without them being stodgy or overtly masculine. There are many fine nuances, such as the geometric pattern in the fabric on the chairs that is subtly echoed in the linens. And the squares are nicely counterpointed by circular patterns in the leaded glass that divides the two dining areas. Gone are the out-of-place brushed metal floor lamps. Added to the ledges of the room divider are tall cylinders of varying heights filled with water with a floating ball candle. Tables have small lamps with battery operate candles that will fool your eye if you don’t look too closely. (Don’t look too closely at your fellow diners, either; why do people think it’s OK to wear shorts and flip-flops to an upscale restaurant just because they’re on vacation?)
Bull & Bear is managed my Manny Belete with Brandon Snyder serving as maitre d’ and sommelier. David Sears is the executive chef. Their teamwork is obvious in the quality of this restaurant. Bull & Bear now ranks a spot on the list of the area’s best restaurants.
Bull & Bear is at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando,14200 Bonnet Creek Resort Lane, Orlando. It is open for dinner daily. Entrees range from $28-$52. Here is a link to the the Bull & Bear Web site. Click here to download a pdf of the menu . The phone number is 407-597-5500.