Among the three troubled restaurant spaces that came with the opening of the Sanctuary condominium complex, nine or so years ago, the middle one seemed to be the troubledest.
It started as Fifi’s Patisserie, a French style cafe that had a very short life, then became Sanctuary Diner, and Nick’s Italian Cafe after that. In the time since Nick’s closed — more than three years ago — there have been at least three concepts announced that never came to fruition. They were Honey, Pagne and Wallace Grill. People talk about certain spaces that are cursed because restaurants close so soon after opening. What does it say about one where so many don’t even open?
Now comes Gaviota, a Peruvian restaurant. It is unlike any of the other restaurants that have been here — for one thing, it has opened! It’s also a fine dining restaurant, literally a white tablecloth operation with servers in white shir. Set among the many casual nearby eateries, including fellow Sanctuary occupants, Oudom Thai & Sushi and the Stubborn Mule, Gaviota is unique in that respect.
Unique, too, in that it is the only restaurant in the downtown area to offer Peruvian food, a cuisine that is enjoying a surge in popularity.
I visited Gaviota on a recent evening. With ideal weather, most diners were availing of the patio in front of the restaurant, where metal tables are not covered with linens. When I stepped inside, I was surprised at how large the space was — I always remembered is as rather compact. But it’s large enough to have a small bar that serves liquor, so it has to have at least 150 seats.
I was greeted warmly by a young woman at the host stand (she had a rather lengthy welcome speech that she tried to get out in one breath, but it was much better than being met with “Hey, how are you guys?).
I was shown to a table in the largely unoccupied dining room and waited a bit too long for my server to greet me. In the meantime, someone came by with water and some cancha, the Peruvian corn nuts, and huacatay, a dipping sauce.
When my server did arrive it was with an apology for making me wait, which I appreciated. He took my order and promptly brought my wine. While I waited for my appetizer, I nibbled on the crunchy nuts.
The nuts are very small and not very amenable to dipping in a sauce with one’s fingers. Imagine trying to dip a pinto bean in salsa. So I used a fork. The huacatay (say wah-kah-tie) is made with an herb that is from the marigold family but often called black mint. Don’t let the mint fool you — this is seriously spicy stuff. (Also, don’t expect to be able to taste your wine after a mouthful of the tasty fire.)
I went with traditional dishes. For my starter I chose the Papa a la Huancaina, which features boiled new potatoes in a thick sauce of cheese and pureed yellow peppers, served cold. More recent preparations include garnishes of egg and black olives. Here the dish came with four small potato halves topped with slivers of black olives and a single half boiled egg. The sauce was sufficiently unctuous and the flavors satisfying.
But this has to be said here. The cost of this appetizer was $10. That’s for two small boiled potatoes and half a boiled egg in some cheese sauce. That’s what chefs call great food cost. And that was the least expensive of the first course options. Even a chicken soup was $10 — and seafood soup and shrimp chowder were 18 bucks each.
My Lomo Saltado was a more reasonable $16. The thin slices of beef were sauteed with onions and tomatoes and flambéed with pisco, a Peruvian brandy. Soy sauce gave it an Asian note but piquant cilantro brought it firmly back to South America. As is custom, it was served with white rice, served here in a pyramid, and a stack of thick fries. All of it good, and well-seasoned from the kitchen, though I admit to enjoying it more after I spooned a bit of the leftover huacatay on it.
I liked my server very much. A native Peruvian, he obviously enjoyed sharing the food and customs of his country. He very gently corrected my pronunciation and asked permission to explain the provenance of one of the dishes. There was an odd moment, however, as he was removing my appetizer plate and asked me to hold onto my fork, even though a clean, unused entree fork was already set. So, I’m expected to place the fork with yellow cheese sauce on the nice clean white tablecloth?
But that, along with some rather inexplicably long waits for food to come out of a not-overtaxed kitchen, was minor. I liked my experience at Gaviota. (The name, by the way, means seagull, which is why you’ll see images of the birds in the decorations.)
I wonder, however, if the denizens of Thornton Park and the South Eola neighborhood want a fine dining restaurant. I hope so, if for no other reason than it would be nice to see a restaurant occupy this space for a while.
Gaviota is at 100 S. Eola Drive, Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. The phone number is 407-428-4682.