I have to begin by saying that I don’t watch the “reality” cooking shows. None of them. And in fact it’s “Hell’s Kitchen” that first put me off of the genre.
When the program was first set to air, in 2005, my editors at the Orlando Sentinel thought it might be fun to have the restaurant critic write a review. So they handed me tv critic Hal Boedeker’s preview copy — I think it was VHS — and I sat down to watch it. It turned my stomach.
I found celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s rudeness and belittling behavior repulsive. The way he spoke to and treated the contestants was demeaning. It didn’t take me long to figure out that humiliation was a key ingredient in all such shows. Sorry, I’m humiliation intolerant. I haven’t watched that show since.
So I’ve not seen any of the episodes from last season that featured Central Floridian Ashely Nickell as one of the cheftestants. Presumably it was her participation in the program that served as the impetus for Restaurant Ash, which opened in May in the space that was the original Funky Monkey, which closed in June of 2015. (Nickell is the daughter of FMI Restaurant Group’s Eddie Nickell and Nicholas Olivieri.)
It’s interesting that a restaurant built around the recognizability of someone who has been on national cooking shows — she was also on “Cutthroat Kitchen,” which also sounds delightful — would feature a menu that is largely sandwiches. Nothing inherently wrong with that. Sandwiches and burgers are an increasingly popular food segment.
But I would expect a restaurant that places an emphasis on the chef, going so far as to name the restaurant after her, would offer food that is more, well, cheffy.
Most of the food I sampled on my two visits to Restaurant Ash was mundane at best. It could have been so much better.
The Reuben is a good example. All of the components were there: the corned beef, the sauerkraut, melted swiss cheese, thousand island dressing, all on nicely toasted and buttery rye bread. It was a sandwich that anyone could have made, one like so many I’ve had at dozens of forgettable cafes and diners over the years.
Compare that with the Reuben served at George’s Gourmet Cookies just a couple of miles up U.S. 17-92. Not to put too existential of a spin on it, but that’s a transformative Rueben. Thick with meat, a Reuben you want to eat with a knife and fork. That’s a sandwich that comes out of a chef-driven kitchen.
The same was true of the Cuban at Restaurant Ash. In an area that is filled with sandwich makers who know the art of the Cuban by heart, this Cuban should transcend and elevate that art form. It did not.
And then there’s the burger. On my first visit the burger was a total bust. My guest and I had already been alerted that it wouldn’t be a gourmet burger when the young man who took our order told us it couldn’t be cooked medium rare because the patty is too thin. And it was. And it was dry. And cold. And it was flavorless. My friend had the perfect description for it: pathetic.
The burger on my second visit was better, the patty seemingly slightly thicker but still not to a point that a temperature other than well could be achieved. True, the price, $4.99, doesn’t set one up to expect a big, fat oversized burger, but I’d rather pay more for a better one, and I would think that Nickell would rather serve one that better showcases her talents.
Most sandwiches are served with a very nice salad of mixed greens with a vinaigrette dressing. The salad, sandwich and pickles are served directly on wax paper with a newsprint design on a metal tray of the type usually seen in prison movies. Side dishes and soups — none to recommend there — are served in disposable bowls with plastic utensils.
I get it. We’re saving money and passing along the savings to the customer. That’s fine, even admirable, for an average corner cafe. But a restaurant that offers a chef with a desire for fame should strive to do more.
Restaurant Ash is at 912 N. Mills Ave., Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. The phone number is 407-233-4274.