Rachel Seed turns her back on the theme parks and find a food movement in Orlando that is world-class. Here she reviews The Ravenous Pig, in Orlando’s Winter Park, one of the city’s most exciting eateries.
Just on the edge of Winter Park, one of Orlando’s most exclusive neighbourhoods, is arguably the city’s greatest standalone eatery. The Ravenous Pig describes itself as “An American Gastropub” and I think this sums it up rather nicely. There is nothing remotely British about the place – despite the word ‘pub’ in its title – but I guess the gastropub bit is about offering great, locally sourced, seasonal food in an unpretentious setting. The term is so overused in the UK, but it’s sort of exciting to hear it here in the US, especially outside of the major cities.
Having read and heard many great things about the place, we’d starved ourselves all day (apart from a generous breakfast on the Ritz-Carlton’s Club Level, to help start the day) and were appropriately ravenous. By five o’clock we’d become weak-limbed with hunger, so we drove past the restaurant like foodie stalkers, just to be sure that we we knew exactly where it was for our six o’clock-on-the-dot booking (they eat extraordinarily early in the States, God bless them, and our body clocks began to embrace this schedule after just days of being in the US). Kerb crawling past the Pig, we glimpsed the staff briefing taking place through the window. This attention to detail clearly pays off as the staff knowledge of the food was as good as I’ve experienced in the best Michelin star establishments. I do love American service, although it can border on irritating (the previous day in one single shop I counted no fewer than 20 different people asking me how I was), but there is something about being noticed and your custom mattering to ALL members of staff that is refreshing after the dismissive shrugging shoulders of the British youth working in our high street stores and eateries. Here at the Ravenous Pig they have the balance just right: they are highly knowledgeable, warm and friendly and know just when to chat and when to leave you to enjoy your meal.
At six in the afternoon, the restaurant was already beginning to fill and all around we could hear the waiting staff briefing all newcomers (apart from the countless regulars who were greeted by name) on the background of the place: its ‘chef-owned’ status, by husband and wife team Julie and James Petrakis; the origin of the food; “almost all ingredients being locally sourced”; enthusiastically describing dishes and cocktails. Our favourite descriptive was of one of the house specialty cocktails: “The bacon-infused Bourbon is infused with bacon fat which is left overnight and then skimmed off to give a lovely smokey flavour”. Sadly, thanks to the strict drink-driving rules in Florida, and because the law will not allow alcohol to be taken off premises, we weren’t able to sample the “Ravenous Pig Old Fashioned”, with this bacon-infused Buffalo Trace Bourbon, vanilla maple syrup and bitters. I’m coming back for the burger with truffle fries, washed down with one of these and will have a Ritz-Carlton towncar awaiting my finish.
The menu is fantastic. Very American. Very modern. Very clever. There’s lots of simple stuff – like that burger – including delicious sounding salads, homemade pastas and steak frites to satisfy the less adventurous, but with enough clever, quirky additions to keep things interesting and fun, like the “jar of snacks” starter which includes house-made pimento cheese and proscuitto marmalade. The wine list is great, with something for every taste and budget, plus a list of “interesting wine” compliments the food offering well. I like the fact that most wines are offered by the glass at one fourth of the bottle price.
The Kobe beef carpaccio was the most perfect example of the dish I’ve had and was enhanced cleverly with a smoked alioli and crunchy acidic cubes of pickled pumpkin and creamy, crispy little blue cheese beignets that gave texture and a punch of salty flavour. The “shrimp and grits” was stupendous. For those unfamiliar, grits are coarsely ground corn kernels and are extremely popular in the southern States of the US, particularly at breakfast. The texture is creamy, slightly sweet and almost pudding-like. Chorizo oil gave the dish a hint of piquancy and green tomato chutney balanced well with the firm, juicy shrimp.
But the little shrimp were merely whetting my appetite for the “Florida fish stew” that followed. Two huge, head-on white shrimp shared the plate with an incredibly firm, perfectly seasoned chunk of black grouper (which has now overtaken turbot as my new favourite fish), impossibly tender, charred octopus and enormous juicy clams nestled in their shells. These perfectly cooked fishy morsels were all sitting pretty atop a rich broth which was finished with a hunk of dark brown bread smothered with a velvety rouille. This was one of my all-time favourite dishes. Anywhere in the world. And it is one that I will recall time and time again whenever I am searching my mind for that perfect comfort dish. Clever, delicious cooking.
The ham hock tortellini was excellent. It didn’t excite me as much as the fish stew, but my dining companion preferred it. Horses for courses. The pasta was finely made and the little cushions filled with flavour. A fromage blanc added a much-needed freshness to counteract the intense sweetness of the ham broth and roasted pears. Good stuff.
Unlike many American restaurants where it is impossible to finish your meal, the portion sizes here at the Ravenous Pig are just right and we thankfully had room for dessert. Or at least one to share. The chocolate and ricotta tart was a triumph. Served with “swamp head stumpknocker dried fruit beteweka”, which, despite me still having no idea what on earth it means, was incredible: sticky and sharp, it balanced the rich chocolatey, denseness of the tart really well. We spoiled ourselves with a ’94 Blandy’s Single Harvest Madiera to go with it, and I insist you do too.
A more perfect example of a neighbourhood restaurant I challenge you to find anywhere in the world. Staying true to its surroundings, serving seasonal produce that support local growers and farmers and nurturing fantastic staff are all important. But most important of all is serving incredible, memorable food that keeps customers coming back time and time again. Back in the UK, and each day I’m told of their daily menu special via their Facebook page. A kind of beautiful torture, it makes me long for a return visit. Highly recommended – have a Ravenous Pig Old Fashioned for me.
The Ravenous Pig
1234 N Orange Avenue, Winter Park, FL 32789
Tel: +1 407 628 2333