Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Puck exterior

Wolfgang Puck is back in town after a very long absence.

And by that I mean a lot longer than just the closing of the former Wolfgang Puck Cafe. That was the big, two-story restaurant that opened in 1996 in Downtown Disney’s then-called West Side, about the same time as House of Blues and Bongos. Puck was one of the first celebrity chefs to have a presence in Central Florida, and the first iteration of his cafe was quite good, especially the dining room on the second level that was supposed to be an approximation of his Beverly Hills hangout Spago, although it couldn’t be called that because of licensing restrictions.

Oh, here’s a fun bit of trivia: When the Ritz-Carlton was in development to open at Grande Lakes, it approached Puck to open a restaurant there. But because of a noncompete clause in his agreement with Walt Disney World Resort he was unable to consider it. So instead, the Ritz pursued a Miami chef who had recently won a James Beard Award to recreate his popular Coconut Grove restaurant. Norman Van Aken accepted, and that’s how Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton came to be. (The Coconut Grove restaurant closed many years ago.)

At the height of Puck’s popularity, he sold the cafe concept to Chicago’s Levy Restaurants, and the quality of the Disney restaurant plummeted dramatically. After I wrote an updated and largely negative review of Wolfgang Puck Cafe in 2004, I had occasion to speak to Puck by phone on another topic, but I brought up the quality of the local restaurant. He was aware of it and told me that at one point he considered asking the owners to remove his name.

Which brings us now to Disney Springs, the dining, entertainment and retail project that subsumed Downtown Disney, Pleasure Island, Disney Village and the former West Side, and one of the newest restaurants to open there, Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill. It does not stand on the old site — scorched earth, perhaps — and it’s removed in another substantial way: The food and ambiance are as good and enjoyable as when his old restaurant first opened in ’96.

Pizza Ponte

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Ponte sandwiches

It’s fun to have a place like Disney Springs to take visitors to, just to walk around and gawk.

There’s the majestic expansiveness of Morimoto Asia and Maria & Enzo’s, the jaw-dropping emersiveness of Planet Hollywood’s observatory-like projections, and the amusement of watching cars drive into the lagoon next to the Boathouse. The Edison has all sorts of distractions, Raglan Road is always a foot-stomping good time and Wine Bar George is great for a sip and a nosh.

And all are good places to dine, too.

But following a quiet cocktail in the underground lair of Enzo’s Hideaway (plus a nosh of some delicious Meatball Sliders), my visitors and I thought we’d just get a quick bite for dinner at Pizza Ponte just upstairs. I had never eaten at the little quick-serve next to the entrance to Maria & Enzo’s, and a slice of pizza sounded just right.

I was surprised to find that while one can indeed get a slice of pie — and delicious pie at that — one may also find some really good sandwiches.

Naroodle Noodle Shop

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Naroodle noodle top

Central Florida certainly has a lot of dingy strip malls, but I can’t imagine there are too many that are dingier than the one on the southeastern corner of Dean Road and University Boulevard in East Orlando. It always has the look and

feel of a place that is run down and neglected. Ironic then that it seems to attract independent restaurateurs.

Luckily, the interior of one of the newest tenants, Naroodle Noodle shop, a Japanese restaurant specializing in ramen and other noodle-centric dishes, doesn’t reflect the exterior.

Victoria & Albert's

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vanda19 kitchen

Over the past 30 years and on several occasions I’ve had the pleasure — and it was always a pleasure — of dining at Victoria & Albert’s, the ultra fine dining restaurant at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. Sometimes I’ve been in the sumptuous dining room and other times I’ve been at the chef’s table, overlooking the kitchen. Over the years I’ve seen some changes (including the hotel’s name, which was originally the Grand Floridian Beach Resort).

One of the first big changes was to correct a design flaw that allowed guests sitting under a central dome in the dining room to hear intimate conversations of other guests sitting across the room.

There have been operational changes, moving from two seatings a night to just one every evening; adding Queen Victoria’s Room, which offered a degustation menu, with most courses served from a gueridon, in a more intimate room; doing away with that room’s separate menu, and the gueridons; and at least one major renovation of the chef’s table alcove, one of the most sought-after dining experiences in the Southeastern United States.

Oh, and the best change of all: Allowing the serving staff to wear tags with their given names rather than Victoria or Albert (gender specific).

But through all of my visits there remained one welcome constant: Scott Hunnel was always at the helm in the kitchen. My most recent visit, a return to the chef’s table, marked the first time in my three decades of dining there that Hunnel was not in the kitchen.

To be sure, Hunnel is still there and technically still in charge — he’s still listed as the executive chef on the printed menu — but he also has a higher helm. He now is the executive chef for all of the hotel’s restaurants, which include Citricos, Narcoossee’s and various other venues.

Supper Club Redux: Big Fin Seafood Kitchen

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BigFinSC table

For our first Supper Club of 2019, the chefs of Big Fin Seafood Kitchen at the Dellagio Town Center created a feast that delighted our intimate group with each course.

Executive chef James Slattery traded in his whites for a suit and served as front-of-the-house host for our gathering. (He’s learning some managerial ropes because his restaurant group has acquired Arrabellas restaurant in Winter Haven, and he’s letting his associate chefs — Darlene Christeleit, Brie Austin and Paulo Santos — shine.)

MX Taco

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MX Taco top

Ryan Manning knows his way around Mexico. Even better, he knows his way around Mexico’s taco regions.

Some who have jumped on the taco-slinger bandwagon would have you believe that a taco is a taco is a taco. But Manning, who has lived and worked in Mexico as a chef with Ritz-Carlton, will tell you that each region has its own style, with distinguishing salsas, moles and meats.

I came back from a recent visit to Mexico where I had one outstanding taco and the next day visited Manning’s new Milk District restaurant, MX Taco, where I had seven. The restaurant was still in soft opening mode, but Manning offered me a tour of the menu — and of the Mexican regions represented on it.

La Boucherie

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Boucherie exterior

In the 15 or so times I’ve been to France, I’ve never once come across La Boucherie, which, on the website for the chain’s first U.S. location, now open in Orlando, claims to be “France’s most popular steakhouse.”

So I can’t attest to how the experience of the Orlando restaurant compares to one in Paris. Or Morocco, Russia or Thailand for that matter. I wonder if they use the same ridiculously flimsy napkins, and if so why. Or if their menus have garish photographs like you’d see in a 24-hour diner. Or trite phrases in menu descriptions like “Need ‘oui’ say more?”, which doesn’t really make sense.

Pier 36 Fish Camp

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Pier 36 interior

Casselberry has a new seafood restaurant called Pier 36 Fish Camp. Why it’s called Pier 36 is unclear. Maybe a shortening of 436 in reference to the State Road that it’s on? Except that it’s actually on Cassel Creek Boulevard. So why not Cassel Creek Fish Camp?

Try not to overthink this one. It’s just a simple, old-style seafood restaurant with a wharfian decor. You know: oars, anchors, starfish, nets. It occupies a building that apparently was formerly a Hooters, so maybe the fishnets are just left over.

It’s an old style sort of menu, too. Judging from a quick-stop lunch recently, it takes its seafood seriously.

Blended Cafe Bar

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Blended interior

Blended Cafe Bar is an intimate little eatery in a massively large space. It’s funny, Juliana’s Fine Tuscan Cuisine, which held this space previously, never struck me as occupying an airplane hangar-sized room. Perhaps the owners plan on holding line-dancing lessons or renting the extra space out for corporate meetings.

It’s distractingly large is what I’m trying to say.

Blended bench

But it’s bright and tidy —though oddly there’s a plastic carpet protector on the bench that serves as a banquette along the wall — and there’s no reason you can’t have a private conversation without being overheard by the people at the next table, which may or may not be in a different zip code.

Four Guys Pho

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Four Guys pho

I don’t supposed it’s absolutely necessary to know who the four guys of Four Guys Pho in Casselberry are but it does beg the question. Though as far as I know, no one loses any sleep over not knowing who the five guys of Five Guys Burgers are. (They are the Murrell brothers from Washington, D.C., though the fifth one wasn’t born yet when his older brothers started the business, posing another question that will go begging for now.)

The website for Four Guys Pho says that the Vietnamese restaurant is also the project of brothers, though no names are offered. And when I called the restaurant to ask, the gentleman who answered the phone said that if I wanted to know their names I would have to come to the restaurant because he wasn’t authorized to give that information out over the phone.

Maybe it should be called the Soup of the Secretive Siblings.

Whatever. The food, especially the pho, was quite good when I visited recently.