April 18, 2014

Golden Spoon Awards

Tough Times Make for Exciting Menus

Chris Sherman | 12/1/2010
James & Julie Petrakis
James and Julie Petrakis opened the Ravenous Pig three years ago in Winter Park. Their model was the British gastropubs where young chefs took over unglamorous locations and reinvented pub grub favorites. [Photo: Brook Pifer]
Looking over this year's dining scene, one could bemoan the many grand restaurants shuttered and the others scrambling for diners.

I cannot. Restaurant critics must suffer from the same cockeyed optimism as restaurateurs. It's a tough business, tougher than ever, yet they keep opening.

So there's dramatic change and tasty news if you know where to look, which is where the Golden Spoons point.

No question that the market in Florida cannot afford as many $100 dinners and gilt-edged settings as it did in the boom times.

The delicious corollary is that over the last five years the best chefs and restaurants began serving less expensive menus with far more care, imagination — and chewy crusts, crisp frites and crunchy char on fire-roasted vegetables. With house-made pretzels and parsnip slaw on the side.

This style crosses out classifications like classic, contemporary, new American, eclectic, continental. I'm not sure what counts as new or old anymore.

"Exciting" does fit many of the names and faces you'll find among the Golden Spoons as well as our list of newcomers, a totally refreshed guide to the best dining in Florida.

One name to know is the Ravenous Pig in Winter Park, which James and Julie Petrakis called a "gastropub" when they opened three years ago. An unknown word and a trendy frivolity? No. Today, the Pig, like Michael's Genuine in Miami, and others of modern mind are the hot gourmet tables in the state and the new stars of glossy food buzz.

Ravenous Pig - Winter Park
Ravenous Pig (Winter Park)

"We thought that was the way things were going then'' says Petrakis. He and Julie are Winter Park natives who had been to culinary school and cooked in America's top kitchens. "We thought, why can't that happen here?"

Their model was the British gastropubs where young chefs took over unglamorous locations and reinvented pub grub favorites from farm and barnyard into a warm, crafty robust cuisine.

The Pig is porky and micro-beery but also clever, with heirloom tomato soup, lobster tacos and duck pierogi. It's as delicately classy as citrus Chantilly or house-made tortellini with chanterelles.

Michael Schwartz
Michael Schwartz is chef and owner of Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink (Miami). Below, deep creek ranch lamb carpaccio with crispy chickpeas, preserved Meyer lemon yogurt and watercress.
Michael's Genuine Food & Drink
This same spirit — inventive, friendly and rustic — exists in every accent from reborn Cracker fish camps to ceviche bars, rustic Italians, French bistros and Asian fusion.

All of their menus boast their ingredients are green, local, sustainable and organic "whenever possible." A wide loophole, but Petrakis insists it's closing. In one week the Pig was offered fresh persimmons from a small orchard and an acre of pink-eyed peas.

"The most difficult thing is seafood, even though Florida has water on three sides," he says. Yet he managed to land pompano, tripletail and cobia, fresher and cheaper than ordering halibut from the North Atlantic.

In the best restaurants, the fish list must go beyond salmon to skate and sardines. Any modern pantry stocks once-forgotten beets, leeks, cabbage, cauliflower, turnips and fennel. Likewise, the starring meats are lamb, duck and pork, especially pork belly and bacon, and the cheese board gets steadily longer.

What today's top kitchens can't buy, they make with gusto. Chefs and crews seem to have the most fun drying fruit, rolling pasta, baking breads, stuffing salami, concocting mustards and marmalades, making yogurt, ice cream and mozzarella, and picking or smoking anything left over.

Don't think nothing's cooking in Florida. Plenty's on the fire and simmering slowly. That's good eating from yesterday for today and tomorrow.

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All articles and reviews by Florida Trend's Restaurant Editor Chris Sherman. Chris invites you to share your thoughts on dining at the Restaurant Forum, or you can e-mail him directly here.

Tags: Dining & Travel

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