I went to the Harbor Nights event at Portofino Bay hotel at Universal Orlando Friday and was having a pretty good time -- at first. The event took place on the resort's piazza that is designed to look like a Ligurian fishing village. There were food and wine stations set up throughout the plaza, and there were perhaps thousands of people standing in lines to sip and sample.
And there was good music, too. A jazz band played on a stage in the plaza, and for a special treat a group of operatic singers appeared on one of the hotel's balconies and performed songs made popular by singers such as Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman. And there were songs of the season.
But then I started to notice a foul odor. So I moved from where I was standing to get away from whatever it was. But I couldn't escape it. Then I realized what it was: there were cigar smokers everywhere, sitting, standing walking about. Men and women. Turns out that over in one of the plaza's corners was a cigar rolling station handing out big fat ones.
Nothing kills the enjoyment of food and wine faster than noxious fumes. Why wasn't this billed as an event for smokers? It's fine with me if that's what people want, but I won't be going to another Harbor Nights, not unless the organizers can separate the cigar smokers from the people who like the taste and smell of good food and wine.
Circa 1926 in Winter Park serves an exciting menuThere are some who think the restaurant on the corner of Park Avenue North and West Canton Avenue is cursed. They site as evidence the businesses that have come and gone with frightening frequency in the last several years. They include East of Paris, which was too clever for its own good; Chapters, a concept that thought it was clever and good but was neither; and Zak's, which I thought was good, but which closed fairly quickly after it opened. Zak's was 2002, Chapters in 2003 and East of Paris 2005. So, yes, those were some pretty quick turnarounds.
But don't forget that before that spate of revolving door restaurants, the space was occupied by Park Avenue Grill, which opened in 1988 and closed more than a dozen years later only after it was sold to someone who didn't have the same standards as the original owners.
And that is what I assume sealed the fate of East of Paris and Chapters, too. Zak's I can only guess was a matter of poor management -- the quality of the food certainly wasn't at issue.
And it is management of the latest tenant at 358 Park Avenue North that ultimately will determine the success of Circa 1926. It won't be the food, which is inventive and skillfully prepared. And it won't be the service, which, on my visit, was professional and congenial. And it won't be the atmosphere, which is the toniest on the avenue since Luma on Park opened.
No, if Circa tanks it will be the sole fault of the management team, which has made some rather clueless moves.
Take for example the Web site, which just barely exists at circa1926.com. The address of the restaurant is listed as 58 Park Avenue. And the phone number listed apparently is a nonworking one. You might think the absence of a Web site is a petty oversight, but given that this restaurant has been in the works for well over a year, you'd think someone could have had a working site up and running even before the kitchen's stoves were fired up.
And on a recent stroll up Park Avenue, a friend and I thought we would pop in for an appetizer and glass of wine. But the restaurant was doing business that was brisk enough that the man at the host stand thought he could give attitude to people showing up without reservations. As the dining public retrenches further with the recession such unkindnesses won't go unremembered.
But in spite of all that, Circa is a very good restaurant and one I hope will be around long enough to break Park Avenue Grill's old record and whatever curse may still be floating around the old place. (The name, by the way, is a reference to the year it is believed the building was constructed, though no one seems to know for sure.)
The menu is under the direction of James Slattery, who until recently was the executive chef of Rosen Shingle Creek's A Land Remembered steakhouse. (Slattery was also the subject of a profile I wrote for the Orlando Sentinel about his move from a career in chemistry to one in the kitchen.)
Slattery describes the food as "Classic American but with my twists." I'm not sure what that means, but chicken-fried frog's legs with vanilla brandy glaze might be a clue. Most of the menu is less twisted.
Well, there was the appetizer called a dirty martini with grilled artichokes and pickled asparagus ($12). It featured tomato water spiked with a bit of gin poured over meaty artichoke hearts and more or less garnished with the asparagus. Interesting and ultimately delicious, but a bit too odd to order twice.
My companion's crawfish beignets ($9) were much more mainstream, even if they were related more to Southern fritters than Louisiana beignets. There was a big pile of the deep-fried fritters, which were filled with chopped crawfish meat and served with a remoulade of celery root.
For my entree I chose the veal chop stuffed with prosciutto and goat cheese ($32), a lovely piece of meat with only a subtle bit of the promised stuffing. The goat cheese was especially mild flavored. But the veal chop itself was perfect. The dish was rounded out with creamed potatoes, giant spears of grilled asparagus and creamy sauce Diane.
My friend had the pan roasted Long Island duck breast ($29), an ample serving of tender medallions graced with a sun-dried tomato reduction sauce. A creative wild mushroom bread pudding, which was more like a typical stuffing but tastier, was also included.
Desserts include such enticements as chocolate cream pie ($7), pecan pie with Tahitian vanilla gelato ($6) and lemon pound cake with strawberry coulis ($5).
There are two main and distinct dining areas at Circa. The front room is open and very comfortable. French doors open on warmer evenings to give an al fresco feel. The alabaster bar features a back wall with water trickling down and lighting that gives it more of a waterfall effect. In the front corner, a pianist plays old standards, just like a supper club should, and sets a romantic mood.
The front tables look a little chintzy. They have white cloths wrapped and stapled to the underside of the tables and then a sheet of glass on top.
The back dining area offers a more intimate setting, but it seemed pretty dull when I peeked back there.
Upstairs is a lounge worthy of South Beach. A beautifully decorated and chic atmosphere that will feature live music and dancing.
The waiter who served me and my guest was very good and quite accommodating. He had excellent menu knowledge and answered questions with authority. Maybe some of his professionalism will rub off on the guy at the door.
I hope so. Circa was a long time in the making, and I'd hate to see some mismanagement ruin it for the rest of us.