It was inevitable. After three years of witnessing the surge, maturation and duly deserved recognition of this city's dining scene, it plateaued. Chefs and restaurateurs, it seemed, took 2015 to catch their breath from the long climb upward and we, the dining public, took the time to stop and smell the wafts, and savor the bites, from our newly minted restos.
Of the ones that made an impression on us this year, most did so by appealing to our eyes first, then our stomachs. No doubt 2015 was a banner year as far as design and aesthetics were concerned. On menus, pork belly – yet again – ubiquitously ensconced itself (though that trend might be waning), and ramen and poutine came out of the fringes and into the mainstream. This year was also a boon for brunchsters.
But I can't help but look forward to next year, when Dovecote (James and Julie Petrakis, Clay Miller), Frontera Fresco (Rick Bayless), Black Rooster Taquería (John Calloway), Homecoming: Florida Kitchen and Southern Shine (Art Smith) and 1921 by Norman Van Aken take our dining experiences back on an upward trend.
And who knows what else 2016 will bring. No-tipping policies? More vegetable-forward entrees? A James Beard Foundation Award winner, perhaps?
I think back to five years ago and compare it to what Orlando has to offer today and it's nothing short of remarkable. Even if 2015 wasn't a year like the previous three, we can survey our food landscape with pride. Here, then, are the top tables of 2015:
1. Osprey Tavern 4899 New Broad St., 407-960-7700, ospreytavern.com; $$$ Baldwin Park has Jason Chin to thank for single-handedly injecting new life into the neighborhood's gastronomic heart. Chin's Seito Sushi has evolved into one of the best Japanese restos in town and, now, with Osprey Tavern, gastronomes are looking at Baldwin Park with voracious eyes. Osprey's interior – think Charleston's Husk meets high-class turn-of-the-century bordello – is worth a visit alone, but executive chef (and former Ravenous Pig chef de cuisine) Joe Cournoyer-Burnett's sensuous plates, be they luscious lamb ribs or basil-rubbed Florida black grouper served over butter sauce, ensure many return visits. Pastry chef Kristy Carlucci honed her chops at Cask & Larder, but the freedom proffered to her at Osprey Tavern has allowed her to spread her wings. I, for one, look forward to seeing Osprey Tavern soar to new heights in 2016.
2. Urban Tide 9801 International Drive, 407-345-4570, orlando.regency.hyatt.com; $$$$ We liked the restaurant as Napa when the Peabody Hotel Group ran it, and we like it now that it's called Urban Tide and the Hyatt Regency runs it. The best thing the Hyatt brass did was leave the restaurant alone – their "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach was a relief to Central Florida denizens and visitors alike. And while the decor may pose an aesthetic disconnect with the new branding, chef Jared Gross and his capable staff haven't missed a beat with their seafood-centric menu. Grouper cheeks with delicately bitter shishito peppers over sweet creamed Zellwood corn are a standout, and a blackened, skin-on Florida yellowtail snapper served over kale with charred lemon is simply immaculate. Dropping $8 on a spice-roasted pineapple rum cake with coconut sorbet and lime crisp? Like the schlep to I-Drive, it's totally worth it.
3. Bavaro's Pizza Napoletana & Pastaria 1468 Tuskawilla Road, Winter Springs, 321-422-3600, bavarospizza.com; $$$ Walk into this out-of-the-way Winter Springs pizzeria and you'll immediately be struck by the showpiece of the handsome dining room – the hand-built Stefano Ferrara domed brick oven. This Ferrari of pizza ovens goes from zero to pizza in 90 seconds, thanks to a chamber that fires up in excess of 900 degrees Fahrenheit. You won't find a better pizza anywhere in Central Florida, so go to Winter Springs and do as the Neapolitans do – eat to your heart's content. Yes, pastas like tagliatelle with Bolognese sauce and ravioli Emiliani stuffed with prosciutto, mortadella and pork sirloin are as superb as the service (and the cannoli), but the pizza! It's perfecto.
4. Morimoto Asia 1600 W. Buena Vista Drive, 407-939-6686, morimotoasia.com; $$$$ The enormity of the 36-foot-tall, two-story space and its jaw-dropping design elements make you forget Morimoto Asia is situated inside Disney Springs. From rain-shower crystal chandeliers to a grand stairway to sushi heaven, the restaurant stuns, dazzles, astounds. Chef Masaharu Morimoto's menu doesn't present much that's particularly novel, but playing it safe doesn't mean the pan-Asian creations aren't creative. Dishes like duck ramen, sweet-and-sour crispy branzino, and rock shrimp with spicy gochujang aioli are exquisite. The Peking duck is a perennial favorite, and finding a potent potable to pair it with isn't difficult at all: Morimoto Asia has some of the best sake in the city. Allez cuisine!
5. Urbain 40 8000 Via Dellagio Way, 407-872-2640, urbain40.com; $$$ Like a stunning beauty who holds your gaze no matter what comes out of her mouth, Urbain 40 is easy on the eyes, but you have to put up with a lot. Owner Jaafar Choufani spared no expense in decking out the restaurant with a little help from his father, noted restaurateur Rashid Choufani. It's arguably the most beautiful restaurant space in the city – a French Colonial brasserie with a swing-era vibe drawing from Choufani's Moroccan roots. Service deficiencies, kitchen miscues and inventory discrepancies aren't characteristic of restaurants that have appeared on this list, but I believe in the restaurant's potential. The fact that the Choufanis recognize the faults and defects, and are eager to correct them, warrants their inclusion here. Urbain 40 is just too damned gorgeous to fail.
Honorable mention: Shish.Co Mezze & Grill and Market on South OK, so these two aren't exactly lookers when compared to the list above, but trying to resist the allure of their dishes is as futile as it is foolish. Seats at Maitland's Shish.Co Mezze & Grill (118 Lake Ave., Maitland, 407-661-1336, shishcomezzegrill.com; $) come in the form of a trio of picnic benches situated in the middle of a parking lot, but intrepid gastronomes know that navigating a crammed lot and dodging automobiles are small prices to pay for the opportunity to feast on remarkably pliant kebabs, be they kofte, doner or shish. Closer to downtown, vegans and lovers of creative plant-based meals have been flocking to Market on South (2603 E. South St., 407-613-5968, marketonsouth.com; $) where the collective of Dixie Dharma, Valhalla Bakery and Humble Bumble Kombucha more than impress. Just go easy on such stomach-stuffers as jackfruit tacos, Georgia peach sloppy joes and "Hail Kale" salad, as you'll want to leave room for their wicked selection of pies, cakes and – sweet mother of Mike Myers! – Nanaimo bars.