Slate is a new restaurant that has opened on Sand Lake Road’s Restaurant Row, and I’m not sure why.
It’s a lovely place, and the food is good, but when I visited shortly after it opened as a guest at a media dinner, I found myself looking for a thematic clue, something on the menu, for instance, that tells the guest “This is our specialty” or “This is what is going to make you want to come back again and again.” Unfortunately, I never found it.
Even the restaurant’s name is a misleading misnomer, for if there is a scrap of slate anywhere in the decor, I did not see it. Copper, yes. And exposed brick, white tile, steel, elements of fire, both functional and decorative, too. But no slate.
It is, however, a beautiful restaurant, which is what one would expect from the same people who brought us Luma on Park and Prato. But it’s also because of that pedigree that one should expect more logic here.
Slate’s executive chef is Dominic Rice, who had worked in the kitchen at Luma before heading to New York, where he cooked at such prestigious establishments as Resto and Jean Georges.
(By the way, Rice returned to Central Florida to lead the kitchen at Boca on Park Avenue but left before that restaurant opened. His replacement, Jake Brenchley, has also left Boca and is joining Rice at Slate as chef de cuisine. There’s a topic for discussion another time.)
The menu features sections titled Start, In Hand, Green, Dough, and Main, plus Charcuterie & Cheese Selection and Snacks, as well as To the Side. I don’t know what compels people to try out clever the next person with menus but the results are rarely brilliant. Dough? Really?
We were served a number of Start items, including the fried calamari with a sweet and sour dressing; warm crab artichoke dip; the heirloom tomato salad — technically a Green — with fresh burrata; seared tuna — also Green, for some reason; and two Doughs, a soppressata pizza with marinated tomatoes and another with Gulf shrimp and leeks, dotted with fresh dill. The pizzas were cooked in the big copper-clad oven that dominates the open kitchen and the crusts were nicely crisped and decidedly undoughy.
The short rib Main was prettily presented on a splatch of puree with an apple-jalapeno slaw on top and grilled baby carrots leaning against the seared meat. The ribs could have benefitted from a little more braise time.
The half roasted chicken was nicely done, served with potatoes and fresh green beans and with smoked butter melting over the golden skin.
Hearth roasted red snapper, too, was perfectly ok, though I wonder if there might be a way to get the skin a bit crispier. The fillets were served atop summer squash “noodles” and accompanied by spoonbread, the creamier version of cornbread known mainly in the South.
Servers were generally affable but clearly in need of training. One clue: When you have a table full of food writers and restaurant critics and a waiter still tries to “auction” items it’s a pretty good indication he hasn’t been told not to.
The wine list is terribly difficult to read but has some thoughtful selections. There is also a nice list of crafted cocktails (created by another of the Boca bailers).
Let me just say it again. Nothing, with the possible exception of the too-tough short rib, was unacceptable. But if I didn’t have my visual notes in front of me, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a memory of my meal.
Am I holding Slate up to a higher level of scrutiny? You bet I am. All of the people involved in this operation are veterans in finer dining, and some of them have been directly involved in thrilling Central Florida palates at other venues. There’s no reason this one can’t come up to that level. Perhaps all they need to do is start with a clean slate.
Slate is at 8323 W. Sand Lake Road, Orlando, in the same complex as Trader Joe’s, so expect to avail yourself of the complimentary valet parking. It is open for dinner daily but plans to start lunch and brunch hours soon. The phone number is 407-500-7528.