Tucked into an oddly shaped and somewhat dated strip mall near the intersection of State Road 434 and I-4 in Longwood, Journeys Restaurant has a good bit going against it. Shadowed by Bonefish Grill and surrounded by vacant storefronts, the cozily luxurious tone that the owners clearly want to impart to visitors is a tough sell. With wrought-iron tables set up bistro-style outside the front door, it's nonetheless hard to convince yourself that you're anywhere but next to an abandoned department store off the highway.
But once you're in the front door and have been greeted warmly by one of the owners, the tattiness of Journeys' exterior environment melts away. Though neither aggressively stylish nor sumptuous, the dimly lit interior is pleasantly inviting, and the restaurant's tagline of "world inspired cuisine" seems a definite possibility. Although there are too many tables crammed into the tiny dining room -- you're nearly elbow-to-elbow with your fellow diners -- the overall atmosphere at Journeys is that of a communal meal. Co-owner Geraldine Fowler moves from table to table, striking up friendly conversation while gently ensuring that the servers are doing their jobs and each dish is meeting expectations. The servers themselves are knowledgeable and efficient, but friendly in a casual manner. All told, the vibe is much more dinner-party-at-a-cool-friend's-house than fancy-dinner-at-a-snooty-restaurant. And that vibe, really, is the best vibe.
But you don't go to a restaurant for "vibe," now do you? You go for the, um, "world inspired cuisine." I just can't get over that tag, by the way. How, exactly, does food get inspired by the world? If it's by dint of incorporating ingredients from different places, Journeys isn't exactly on the cusp of a new trend, yet that appears to be the only "inspiration" the dishes have. In other words, there's not much on your custom-printed menu (guests who've made reservations find their names on the bill of fare) that you haven't seen before, and almost all of it comes from the Euro-American "world."
That semantic quibble aside, Journeys actually benefits from avoiding the "fusion" tag. The dishes are well-composed without the jarring admixtures of contradictory flavor traditions that undermine many such noble endeavors. The "airline" chicken breast ($17), for instance, was simply pan-seared and laid atop a richly flavored fusilli with mushroom sauce. The exterior of the bird was crisp, while the plentiful juices within mixed perfectly with the pasta. Venturing into quasi-Asian territory, the ahi tuna ($28) was plated with a ginger-flavored risotto (!) and spaghetti-cut vegetables. Topped with a somewhat overwhelming beurre blanc with soy sauce and occasionally biting wasabi, it's all about Asia ... except when it's about Italy.
The roasted duck breast ($22) was the high point of the meal. Drenched in a balsamic and cranberry glace, the duck was perfectly cooked with just enough greasiness to make it decadent, but not so much that it overwhelmed the plate. Oh yeah, the plate. Accompanied by spinach and an airy, goat-cheese-topped polenta, the balance of flavors, densities and textures was improbably excellent. (Journeys loves its goat cheese, by the way; the pan-seared goat cheese accompanying the baby greens salad, $7, was so tasty it could have been dessert.)
Entrees like those bode well for Journeys and the remainder of the menu was equally impressive. The above-mentioned salad was a joy, as was a stack of sliced heirloom tomatoes ($8) topped with Asiago cheese and soaking in a vinaigrette infused with tarragon, chives and sun-dried tomato oil. A spicy and densely flavored fumet with feta cheese, kalamata olives, sun-dried tomatoes and shrimp ($9) was a little intense for an appetizer, but the blast of flavor easily set the tone for a meal with wide-ranging tastes.
Service, as mentioned before, was excellent, but not overbearing. Although on this particular evening, the restaurant was out of my first two beer selections, the server was quick to provide a recommendation; that he also didn't charge me for it should tell you how accommodating the staff is. Rather than being humbled by its surroundings, one can hope that Journeys will set the tone for the area's future.
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