155 E. Morse Blvd., Winter Park | 407-740-4040 | nopagrill.com | $$$
When David and Amy Levison brought Diva Wines & Desserts from their Heathrow outpost down to Winter Park two years ago, they soon learned their establishment lacked a key ingredient – food. Sure, the towering cakes and heady selection of wines were great, but their steadily growing customer base really liked hanging out in the comfortable space and, naturally, demanded more substantial menu offerings. So the Levisons changed the name to NOPA Grill (that’s “Not On Park Avenue”), David moved into the kitchen, and Amy, an engineer by trade, took charge of front-of-house duties. Judging from our visit on a Friday night, I’d say things are working out quite nicely. This has to be one of the more low-key spots in the area, and if it weren’t situated in such close proximity to Park Avenue and its bustle, one might afford the place hidden gem status.
The menu, at first glance, boasts an ambitious list of items, especially considering the limited flatbread-focused bill of fare in its Diva days. Roasted duck legs ($12.50) and a crabcake ($14.50), bombastically described as the “freshest, biggest and best” Maryland crabcake in the “industry,” immediately caught our eyes. The delicate coating on the duck legs was in stark contrast to their rich, gamy flavor; they came plated with applesauce and a coffee-apple barbecue sauce drizzle. Now, the crabcake was neither the biggest nor the best we’ve had (“better than average” may be a more fitting description), but it was fresh, finely textured and fulfilling.
Servers were all well-meaning, no doubt, but a little more polish could’ve made the overall experience here go more smoothly. When a server came by with a side salad in his hand asking who at our table ordered the grouper, we were justifiably puzzled. When I answered him, the server appeared jostled out of some reverie and placed the salad plate before me. “OK, that was weird,” said one my dining comrades, before our mains arrived.
First up was the “Stallion” ($9.50), an equine- and indeed meat-free flatbread comprising hummus, sundried tomatoes, olives, roasted red peppers and mushrooms. Topping the crisp flatbread with arugula, rosemary and a balsamic glaze might seem like overkill, but the ingredients meshed very well together. The Angus beef short rib made for a sublime patty, but a heavy-handed infusion and topping of blue cheese and feta neutralized the virtues of the “Singing the Blues” burger ($12.50). Accompanying fries proved the truffle-oil trend is alive and well.
The red snapper ($19.50) was the last to arrive, and it arguably offered the best bites of the evening. The fish is cooked in a red-wine sauce before being flecked with sesame seeds, black pepper and red chilies, then served atop mashed potatoes. It took a few bites to get used to eating snapper with mashed potatoes (as opposed to orzo or veggies), but it gave the dish a nice weight.
Given the 20-odd options, dessert selection is a deliberative process. We settled on the hefty German chocolate cake ($10), an absolute winner, and the imported Italian peach ripieno ($10), a total dud. The latter was heavily praised by Amy, but the peach sorbet served inside a frozen peach shell looked far more interesting than it tasted. I’m still trying to figure out how milk was inexplicably splashed into one of our espressos ($2.25) and not the other, but I’ll let it go. There’s plenty good going on at NOPA – no need to cry over spilled milk.