Saturday, January 22, 2011

BlueZoo - Orlando, Florida

Orlando is not exactly perceived as a dining destination. But we ate exceptionally well during our quick visit before the New Year. After finally making our first trip to The Ravenous Pig, we went the following night to BlueZoo in the Swan and Dolphin Resort. BlueZoo is nominally a Todd English restaurant, but given that there are more of those than you can count on all your fingers and toes, I'm not quite sure what that really means. What I do know is that Chris Windus is the Executive Chef at BlueZoo, and he put out a meal for us that was genuinely exceptional.

I met Chef Windus about a year and a half ago when he cooked with Chefs Kurtis Jantz and Chad Galiano for one of their much-missed "Paradigm" dinners. In fact, I got to spend the night in the kitchen with the chefs, an experience I wrote about in this epic three-part series. After that meal - more specifically, after tasting Chef Windus' ravioli with a liquid corn filling - I declared "One bite and I know where I’m eating next time I’m in Orlando." It took a while, but I finally made good on that vow.[1]

BlueZoo is a posh, swanky place which struck me as more Vegas than Disney (though it's sometimes hard to tell them apart). There's a long bar/raw bar along one side as you walk into the restaurant, with lots of blue mosaic tiles and a metallic school of fish swimming along the back wall. The centerpiece is their "dancing fish" grilling contraption, with spinning skewers circling over an open flame (and for display purposes, a poor fish being mercilessly torched throughout the night, like some piscine auto-da-fé). The main room is dramatically wide open with high ceilings, gigantic pillars and dangling glass sculptures throughout. It's designed by Jeffrey Beers, who is also responsible for the recent refurbishment of the grandiose Fontainebleau in Miami Beach.

The menu has a strong seafood focus - fully three-fourths of the items, both among appetizers and entrées, are aquatic - and yet Chef Windus has an abiding, if incongruous, obsession with charcuterie. After starting us with a beautiful simple amuse bouche of a silky, fatty hamachi crudo, topped with a leaf of perky, tangy red ribbon sorrel, he sent out a sampling of some of his latest cured creations: mangalitsa coppa (I've borrowed the picture below from Chris' twitpics); duck rillettes, wrapped with a strip of mangalitsa lardo (just in case it wasn't rich enough); and a house-made "hot dog," sliced in rounds and topped with some pungent mustard. They were all fantastic, some of the finest cured meat products I've sampled anywhere.

mangalitsa coppa - picture via bluechefs
We tried a few other starters. The "Broken Rockefeller"[2] was a deconstructed take on the classic Oysters Rockefeller: the oysters lightly battered and fried, and nestled back in their shells; the spinach, a vibrant green purée spiked with garlic and bacon, dotted around the plate; smaller dots of a gelled mornay sauce; and a sprinkling of tapioca maltodextrin-ed bacon powder (the picture below is a prototype version from Chef Chris' blog, bluechefs). Unlike many deconstructed dishes, which seem to do so just for the sake of doing so without attention to flavor, components here were actually enhanced in their own way (the delicately fried oysters and the smooth spinach purée in particular) while still combining with the same effect. I also thought it was a great touch to plate the dish with one traditional Oyster Rockefeller, like a reference point for comparing the original version to its contemporary recreation.

oysters rockefeller - picture via bluechefs
(continued ...)

Tuna tartare is ubiquitous and played out; and yet it may still occasionally be what you're in the mood to eat, hence its appearance on so many menus. BlueZoo's uses glistening ruby yellowfin, paired with slivered cucumber, a scallion cream and - to liven things up - a sriracha aioli that is frozen into little crumbles tableside via a dose of liquid nitrogen. It makes for a great show, and an intriguing cold and spicy burst of flavor. The New England clam chowder offers no tableside pyrotechnics, only a fine, classically flavored chowder, the broth intense with creamy seafood flavor but light in texture, not leaden or pasty as many cream-based chowders can be. Along the way, Chef Windus also sent out a delicate agnolotti, stuffed with oozy, creamy cheese and topped with a tranche of perfectly seared foie gras. I was reminded once again of that transcendant bite of corn ravioli I'd sampled more than a year ago.

Though I was tempted to search out more parts of that mangalitsa pig for my entrée, we stayed in the water instead. The "Dirty South Swordfish" turned out to be the best swordfish I've ever had. The fish is butchered to yield a large, nearly square block of flesh that stood roughly three inches thick, rather than the more customary inch-thick swordfish steaks. Whether by knife work or cooking technique, it came out perfect: succulent, with that meaty richness that swordfish offers, but not at all dried out, indeed virtually weeping moisture as it was sliced. The fish was rubbed with barbecue spices that played off its inherent meatiness, and plated over a rich, spicy, smoky risotto done with house-made tasso, rock shrimp and littleneck clams. It was a great dish.

We stayed with seafood for the other entrées as well. Pacific king salmon was expertly seared, cooked barely through but with burnished crisp skin. It was served with rice perked up with espelette pepper, but my favorite things on the plate were the gorgeous heirloom carrots and little turnips. BlueZoo works closely with local farmers and clearly brings in some great product.

turnips - picture via bluechefs
Just as good was an arctic char which was one of the "simply fish" specials of the day, grilled and served a carrot harissa sauce that hit all the right notes: spicy, pleasingly vegetal, just a bit sweet, and an ideal complement to the fatty, rich char. I want that recipe. Frod Jr. went with the shrimp and grits appetizer as his entrée, which worked well. The preparation was fairly faithful to the flavors of the lowcounty classic: plump shrimp, creamy grits enriched with some cheddar cheese, a lacing of smoked bacon butter.

Only the kids had room for dessert, and there being a warm chocolate cake with liquid center, Frod Jr.'s order was easy enough to predict, while Little Miss F opted for the "Chocolate Melange," which brought various chocolate nibbles in about five different forms, the most dramatic of which was a crème brulée that came out to the table still flaming.

The wine list has something to please just about everyone, but is particularly strong in domestic chardonnays and pinot noirs. I was pleased to see there was a decent selection of half bottles, and we followed on Oregonian theme by going with a Domaine Serene Clos du Soleil Chardonnay and a Ken Wright Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir. (Prices were surprisingly reasonable, with the half-bottle prices just about equivalent to customary retail prices on those wines, indicating about a 2x-retail markup). Service was exceptional throughout the night: aside from being attentive and affable, our server clearly had a real understanding of and passion for the food, which is always nice to see.

BlueZoo may well surprise anyone expecting a typical hotel-dining, Disney-esque experience, or even someone expecting simply an upscale seafood restaurant. There's much more going on here. There's mangalitsa pork from nearby Pasture Prime Family Farm, and gorgeous vegetables from Hammock Hollow Farm. There's old-school charcuterie, as good as any I've had, and contemporary flourishes that work in the context of the dishes and the restaurant as a whole. Regardless of whether Orlando is considered a dining destination, BlueZoo ought to be.

Swan and Dolphin Resort
1500 Epcot Resorts Boulevard
Lake Buena Vista, FL

Todd English's BlueZoo on Urbanspoon

[1]If not already clear, I was "known to the house" when we dined there.

[2]"Broke Rockefeller" would have been funnier.


  1. I recall a conversation with Chris some time back, where he stated that he will usually take an element (or flavor) in a dish and repeat it 2 or 3 times again within the different elements. This echo-ing effect of flavor is different from many other chefs' approaches where the combination of various ingredients together is focused on instead. This flavor echo-ing serves to round out the dishes (I believe) and give a sublime coherency to the overall combination.
    Taking your comments on Chris' creations... I'd say the approach definitely works.

  2. I happened to be in Orlando a few days ago for a conference and decided to check out BlueZoo after reading your review.

    I too was impressed, and also felt the swordfish was excellent (and the best I've ever had). I was initially taken aback by the size/shape (a 3" tall "block"), but it was a fantastic dish.

    On the other hand, I was not impressed with the "low country shrimp" appetizer - a bit too salty and heavy.

    My only qualm was with the mgmt - I called at 1pm to make reservations for the evening and was informed that they were "extremely busy" and the only available times were 6pm and 7:45pm. Wanting something in between, I reluctantly took the 6pm, knowing it was a bit early for myself and my dining companion. At 6pm, we were the only people in the restaurant...and by 7pm, there was about 5 other tables. When we left about 8pm, the place was 1/2 full. It was irksome that the information I received earlier in the day was so flawed.

    Other than that, a great meal, Thanks for the review- I would have never run across this restaurant otherwise.