There's always a bit of trepidation whenever a major change occurs at a popular restaurant. At K Restaurant & Wine Bar, of course, the change was a transfer of ownership from founding proprietor and chef Kevin Fonzo to Chad Phelps, a longtime chef with mainly institutional experience. (His resume includes 21 years as a chef in the U.S. Navy aboard a submarine, which probably prepared him for the cramped confines of the K kitchen.)
Fonzo seemed inextricably attached to the popular College Park restaurant; after all, it's his initial that gives the restaurant its name. And the James Beard Award-nominated chef has been a charismatic and visible promoter of the restaurant, regarded as one of the area's top chefs. Surely things would not be the same without Kevin at K.
I'm delighted to report that K Restaurant & Wine Bar is as good as it has ever been.
Certainly some of the continuity is provided by Ryan McLaughlin, who served as sous chef under Fonzo and now holds the title of chef de cuisine. It also helps that neither Phelps nor McLaughlin plans to change the restaurant's commitment to using locally sourced ingredients and market availability to drive the menu.
I do hope that the components for the dish called Giovanni's Mozambique are available often enough for it to find a permanent spot on the menu. It was listed as an entree, but my companion and I were offered appetizer portions and we both loved it. With my first taste, I knew that K was going to be just fine.
It featured large plump scallops and and firm rock shrimp with a bit of rice in a light tomato sauce tinged with saffron and seasoned with spicy piri piri pepper. (The dish, created and named for Giovanni Villanueva, a culinary student who died unexpectedly last year, was offered as part of a fundraiser for a the G Fund, an organization established in his memory to provide scholarships to culinary students.)
We also nibbled on the Deviled Eggs from the "Small Stuff" category of the menu, the mustard-infused yolks topped with yummy tomato jam and a bacon. Bacon and eggs -- where can you go wrong?
For my entree I chose the Teres Major, a lesser-known steak cut from a cow's shoulder. Not often seen because it takes a skilled butcher to extract, the muscle can become tough in the wrong hands (don't even think of having it beyond medium rare). Here it was deliciously tender, dusted with a coffee rub and served in a small skillet with roasted fingerling potatoes and wonderfully chewy wild mushrooms in brown butter.
My guest chose the Ricotta Gnocchi, which were served in a ragu of braised pig head with tomatoes and kale. The dumplings were soft and the sauce thick with the shredded meat. Pecorino cheese sprinkled on top added to the sturdiness of the dish. A wonderfully complex dish.
For dessert we shared the Bread Pudding from pastry chef Michelle Hulbert, another holdover. It was perfectly custardized and had a sweet pecan sauce that also went well with the scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Although there are no concept changes expected at K, Phelps has made some alterations, including obtaining space next door for overflow dining and private dinners.
Fonzo, by the way, is doing just fine following the sale, which was initiated by him and his siblings, who were also owners, after the death of their parents. They had stipulated the business be sold to help pay for the education of their grandchildren. Fonzo is still active as a chef and instructor. (He and I will co-host a trip to France in April.)
If you were among those who wondered whether K could survive without its namesake -- or initialsake -- in the kitchen, rest easy. He left it in good hands.
K Restaurant & Wine Bar is at 1710 Edgewater Drive, Orlando. It is open for dinner Monday through Saturday. The phone number is 407-872-2332.