This was the year our city's restaurant scene really hit its stride and came into its own. It was a year when culinarians running our top restos made recessionary menus a thing of the past, while the restaurant-going public, after years of growing discontent at being merely content, demanded to be taken seriously. In 2014, our chefs responded, and as our hopes rose, so did the talent level in many of the city's kitchens. Yes, we're still hungry for local ingredients, but thrilled that chefs are finding inspiration from the Basque country and the Lowcountry alike. So while the economy continues to punish the industry (R.I.P. Elliott's, Bananas, Matilda's, Nordstrom Café Bistro), we nevertheless have great expectations that these top tables will thrive as a result of our newfound culinary consciousness. Here, then, are our top tables of 2014:
1. Kappo (opened Aug. 10)
For an establishment priding itself on its local focus, this tiny seven-seat "Japanese shop" feels anything but. Those I can't possibly be dining in Orlando moments ring frequently during a multi-course omakase meal at this faithful simulation of a Shinjuku food stall. Inside Kappo's intimate kitchen, aesthetics and precision go hand in hand, and the environs lend to a shared experience between patron and chef. The filleted body of a lionfish, so carefully graced with various cuts of sashimi, is a dish that will be etched in my memory for a very long time. If there's one place to reap the benefits of the Jiro Effect, it's here.
2. Txokos (opened March 11)
After the success of New Smyrna Beach's Spanish River Grill, James Beard Award-nominated chef Henry Salgado introduced us to Basque cuisine with this Audubon Park paean to the Pyrenees. Txokos is buoyed by a bustling camaraderie, but it's the wafts of asador-fired meats – chuleton and pulpo de gallego especially – that lured us in. Other Basque renditions, however, offer proper flavor intrigue of their own: charred peach encrusted with chorizo crumbles; salty anchovies plated with piparra peppers; duck egg flanked with foie atop a potato purée layered with porcini. Salgado et al. manage to make the ridiculously simple simply ridiculous.
3. Soco (opened Sept. 24)
While Greg Richie did much to raise the caliber of dishes coming from Cityfish's kitchen, it's at Soco ("Southern Contemporary") that the chef's true talent is showcased. His cassoulet of duck confit with boiled peanuts was one of my favorite dishes of 2014, and exemplifies the menu's mod-Dixie takes; the boîte would feel as at home in Charleston as it does in Orlando. Anyone lamenting the loss of Hue should know that Thornton Park got its groove back.
4. The Strand (opened Jan. 14)
Of the esteemed pentaverate, none screams "neighborhood joint" more than the Strand, Joe and Alda Rees' urbane yet modest Mills 50 bistro. Their food-first ethic commences with an unconceited dedication to local and seasonal sourcing, and culminates with dishes that appear simple, but gently nudge patrons toward the threshold of their comfort zones. Their pecan poussin, buck rarebit (a Welsh rarebit plus poached local egg and local greens) and olive-oil cake are at once approachable and inspired, and their inviting bar gives cause to linger. It's big-city dining without the swagger.
5. Artisan's Table (opened March 11)
Yes, this particular downtown space has seen its share of good restaurants come and go (Black Olive, Pine Twenty2), but chef Scott Copeland might've stumbled on a recipe for success. Helming what is arguably downtown Orlando's most innovative restaurant, Copeland manages to impress with such creations as pan-seared skate Grenobloise, prime rib with ramen, and baby Guinness affogato. Cocktails and coffee are also concocted with genuine passion, all of which suggests Copeland leaving an indelibly edible mark on the urban core.
Honorable Mention: Highball & Harvest (opened Sept. 6)
It's no wonder the newest resto on the ground floor of the Ritz-Carlton has the city's food-conscious millennials in a tizzy. Chef Mark Jeffers has access to the resort's 7,000-square-foot on-site garden, so "farm-fresh" isn't merely a buzzword here. Yes, the kitchen rolls the dice, sometimes to its detriment, but Jeffers and his team appear comfortable in their "no risk, no reward" approach to food and, given this city's history of playing it safe, one can't help but commend the tactic.
We'd be remiss if we didn't mention Scratch, the "modern American tapas restaurant" in Winter Park. Because they opened in late November of last year, we didn't get the chance to laud them as one of our top tables in 2013, but they most certainly were/are. Sniff 'em out – you won't regret it.