I'll never forget my first day in culinary school. Nervously, I passed confident chefs taking their place in the kitchen of our school restaurant and watched with awe as they julienned, filleted and sautéed. The kitchen seemed to move with the grace of a choreographed dance. Months later I started to understand the strange mix of camaraderie and hard work, creativity and dreams that fill a hot kitchen. We had a long way to go before we could call ourselves chefs, but this was an exciting step toward reaching our goals. Our food had, if not perfect skill, then a lot of heart.
So when I walked into the sparse, modern dining room of Machon, Orlando Culinary Academy's restaurant, and peered into the open kitchen where students in chef's whites confidently worked, I was hit by a good bit of nostalgia. Until then, I had trepidations about this dining experience: It's located in an industrial park surrounded by black asphalt and a few fluorescent street lamps. Once we stepped inside, though, we were enveloped in the warmth emanating from the kitchen. Students play every role in the restaurant, including table-waiting, and rather than being a detriment, as one might expect, this was an asset. We didn't encounter "staff members" who were bored, cocky or pissed off. Rather, they all took pride in their work and were eager to please. Call it an easy A, but hey, it was great service.
My meal started with the foie gras terrine ($10), a well-crafted pâté with delicately smoked sea salt, rich brioche and vanilla-infused quince. I ate every bite of this delicious indulgence before digging into the hard-shell Maine lobster salad ($12), served with a surprisingly delicious cauliflower puree and trendy raw greens mâche and Bibb lettuce. Raw tarragon, hinting elusively of licorice with vanilla overtones, enhanced this dish greatly.
The next course was soup and we tried both that they were serving. The first was duck consommé with brunoise vegetables ($5), which is clear duck broth with tiny cubes of cooked vegetables. Machon's was delicious, if slightly brackish. The other soup we tried, Fuji apple and celeriac bisque ($5), was full-bodied and creamy, and had overtones of cinnamon. It was accompanied by celery leaves tossed in walnut oil, and was successful in every way. The balance of flavor was superb, and the texture was completely satisfying.
I couldn't resist the bouillabaisse ($19), a traditional seafood stew comprising mussels, large sea scallops, shrimp and market-fresh fish in a spicy tomato broth. Every sweet morsel of seafood was perfectly sautéed, which added dimension to the already tasty stew. Machon served it with a bed of potato puree that offered an earthy note to this traditional seafood dish. We also tried the brine-cured pork chop ($16). Served with a small tenderloin wrapped in bacon, it was decadent in every way. The succulent pork hid morsels of black truffle, and roasted autumn fruit charmed wintry flavors out of this dish.
Dessert was chocolate and hazelnut napoleon ($4), which used phyllo pastry instead of the more traditional pâté feuilletée, but the resulting dessert didn't suffer for this. The dough offered delicate, flaky crunch, while the creamy mousse between each layer was quite tasty. We also had the tarte tatin ($5), a rather tall version of this usually shallow tart: Phyllo-type pastry was stacked high between layers of pear and caramel. The vanilla-poppyseed panna cotta that accompanied it was delicious, and so was the macadamia nut brittle.
I loved Machon. There is something refreshing about being in a place where people aren't yet jaded. It's not transcendent, five-star dining, but it's damn good and the world hasn't corrupted the potential out of it, which I find deliciously warming. These chefs have dreams and are working toward them. Perhaps it is just that lack of pretense and belief in what one is doing that graces the food. It almost makes me want to go back to culinary school.