807 N. Mills Ave. | 407-920-7744 | strandorlando.com | $$
Fresh Café in Hannibal Square, Scratch in Winter Park, Smiling Bison in Audubon Park and the Pharmacy in Dr. Phillips are sure signs of how our budding new class of culinarians are intent on accelerating the maturation of our city’s dining scene. It’s like these talented chefs have taken our restaurant landscape, submerged it for a couple of years in a giant vat of rice, then plucked it back out like a rare truffle – all primed for food-crazed Orlandoans roaring for a fresh bite.
Now comes the Strand, a Mills 50 bistro (brought to you by Joe and Alda Rees, who used to run Carlo’s Diner in Ocoee) that’s sure to be a neighborhood stalwart for years to come. It sits next door to the British Shoppe, though if there is a Brit connection with the “Strand” appellation, it’s merely coincidental. Rather than an English beach, the name signifies “a thread forming a unity within a larger weave.” While such metaphoric elucidations are all fine and dandy, it’s George Orwell’s words – “advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket” – that we keep at the forefront of our suspicious minds when setting out on our culinary forays.
Who knows whether Orwell would have appreciated the Strand’s eclectic decor meshing an industrial-farmhouse style with a midcentury modern sensibility, but the flatscreen encased in the console above the inviting bar is a bit Big Brother-y. However, we had no qualms committing all manner of gastronomic thoughtcrime, openly ogling our neighbors’ plates.
The banquette seating led to some proximal conversation with our fellow diners, which, in our view, was a point in the restaurant’s favor. Also in the restaurant’s favor: a food-first ethic, local and seasonal sourcing, craft brews, and attentive service.
The Strand was previously open for breakfast and lunch only, but expanded to dinner service back in January, and we’re glad they did. Still, we couldn’t resist ordering the roasted red snapper hash ($10), a phenomenal breakfast-anytime starter served with a poached egg on toast that could be improved only by the addition of more fish. Crab cakes ($8.50) resemble patties more than cakes, and will appeal to those who prefer heavy spicing, not so much to those who want to taste just the crab. The stellar side of corn relish need not be tampered with. You won’t find a more refreshing starter than the roasted beet and orange salad ($8) with arugula, goat cheese and citrus vinaigrette, though for the price, a few more beets would’ve been nice.
Certain lunch items, like a sandwich of crisp buttermilk chicken and bacon in between soft, doughy brioche buns ($9), find their way onto the dinner menu, but for a more substantial heap of comfort, consider the “picnic basket” ($15). It’s actually a plate, but one that comprises a fried Cornish hen from Lake Meadow Farm, mustard mashed potatoes, and wilted greens, including kale, Swiss chard and beet greens. Just as remarkable was the grilled mahi ($16), one of the finest executions I’ve had the pleasure of relishing. Incredibly moist and flaky, the fish was crowned with a disc of lemon butter, sided with grilled asparagus and served over a roasted-vegetable tabouli. The kitchen refused to serve the strawberry rhubarb crumble on the menu – they weren’t satisfied with its texture – but we got plenty of satisfaction from both the olive oil cake ($4) with mascarpone whipped cream and the chocolate-hazelnut bread pudding ($5.50) with spiced pecans.
As we left (reluctantly, I might add), it felt as though another culinary void had been filled in this city – and, for Mills 50, it has. For us, the food-loving public, the Strand represents just the latest in a string of victories.