I learned quickly that the folks at Winter Park's Daya aren't all too keen on the "V" word being voiced about their slick and serene restaurant. In fact, they're more partial to the "P" word: When I inquired as to the restaurant's "vegan" offerings, I was very politely told that "plant-based" is the terme préféré here. The rationale? Many non-vegans, it seems, find "plant-based" a friendlier, more approachable and more intriguing descriptor than "vegan," and it's a perception that can have positive implications on a restaurant's bottom line. Let's face it, it's not like Park Avenue is teeming with compassionate vegans, but the band of omnivores with whom I've enjoyed meals at Daya didn't really see such semantics as a dilemma – the meatless dishes conceived by owner Angi Bellingar are simply irresistible, no matter the label.
Dining at such highfalutin herbivore hangs as Candle 79 in New York City and Sublime in Fort Lauderdale gave Bellingar, a jetsetting vegan since 2011, the itch to bring a similar upscale experience to Orlando, so it's not surprising, then, that the scratch takes on a very international flavor. Normally, that would spell distress to the stomach of any sensible diner, but not here. Addictive morsels of crisp cauliflower tempura ($9) tossed in sweet chili delighted, even if the nuggets were reminiscent of sweet-and-sour chicken balls. There was nothing particularly novel about the Southwestern salad bowl ($16), a filling mix of brown rice, black beans, pico de gallo and avocados topped with shredded romaine and crispy tortilla strips streaked with cashew sour cream, but it's a big enough starter for two (or a meal); it will inevitably draw comparisons to the rice bowls from a certain chain of fast-casual Mexican grills, minus any chatter about a certain pesky bacterium. Spicy bits of house-made seitan (a vital wheat gluten from which many vegetarians get their protein) lent a gratifying meatiness to the dish.
Replicating the flavors and textures meat-eaters are accustomed to is a prudent approach and, in Bellingar's case, was a motivating factor for opening Daya (pronounced "du-yah"), a Hindi word meaning "compassion." Tender was the bite of a burger fashioned from hearts of palm ($14), a burger that took me aback with its bold essence. The patty – it's more a cake, actually – containing assorted peppers, spices and green onions is rolled in panko before being fried and baked. The texture and color might throw off the uninitiated, but the flavors surely won't. Truffle fries were a ho-hum accompaniment.
Jumbo pasta shells ($16) filled with garlic-herb tofu and cashew ricotta made for a substantial main, and a thick marinara only added to its heft. We loved the side of sautéed squash and zucchini, and loved the patience and geniality of our server more. We were sold hard on the spice cake with vanilla "frosting" ($4), but only the warm chocolate cake ($3) received our wholehearted endorsement. The key lime tartlet ($3) elicited nary an mmm.
As we exited the half-empty restaurant one Saturday night, we couldn't help but gawk at the scores of diners on Braccia's patio next door listening to the cloying sounds of a couple of dreadful musicians while shoveling down heaps of the swill Braccia's kitchen passes off as food. After the profane experience of dining there for our review last year, we're happy to say Daya offers one infinitely more sacred.