By Dean Blinkhorn
Central Florida’s only true Five-Diamond restaurant is located within the expansive Grand Floridian Resort & Spa at Walt Disney World. Inside its elegant Victorian lobby awaits a seven-course meal, an impressive wine list, and a journey to another era.
Whenever I visit the Grand Floridian, I can’t help but feel like Christopher Reeve from the 1980 tearjerker Somewhere In Time. Once past the threshold into the majestic foyer that seems to sweep directly up to heaven, it’s easy to imagine that you’ve been transported to an age of 19th-century elegance, far from the tourist trappings of the Magic Kingdom and nearby Orlando.
One aspect, however, was always conspicuously absent from my recent trips to the crown jewel of Disney’s wonderful resort properties: I’d never dined at Victoria & Albert’s, consistently rated one of the best restaurants in central Florida. I knew one day — for some special occasion — I would take my wife Karen, a more-than-casual chef in her own right, for an intimate dining experience like no other.
So when our monthly editorial meeting came up at Ocala Style, I sheepishly suggested Victoria & Albert’s. When my co-workers replied with a resounding, “Yes,” I placed a couple of phone calls and made a reservation for two for the weekend.
Yes, sometimes the perks of the job are nice indeed.
Our appointment was for 9:30pm Friday — ideal because it afforded us the whole day to anticipate the quick drive to Orlando and a fabulous overnight vacation. At first I thought that 9:30 might be a bit late for dinner, but by the time we drove through Clermont, signed into the hotel, and changed into formal attire for dinner, it was time to go. Almost.
Since men generally get ready faster than women, I had a few minutes to peruse the press kit that was waiting for me inside the room.
I was already familiar with Victoria & Albert’s reputation as a AAA Five-Diamond restaurant, a distinction bestowed upon less than one-half of one percent of nearly 40,000 participating locations. In Florida, there are just five, with only about 100 nationwide.
What I didn’t know was that the prestigious Zagat Survey had recently named Victoria & Albert’s as one of the top 10 restaurants in the United States. I asked Chef de Cuisine Scott Hunnel what these distinctions meant to him.
“Our biggest satisfaction,” he told me, “is when we hear guests come in for the first time and say, ‘Wow! I didn’t realize there was a dining experience like this in Florida or at Walt Disney World.’”
A hands-on chef who “works the line right next to the cast members,” Hunnel has been with the restaurant for nine years and has built its vaunted programs from scratch, adding talented staff as needed.
“We reconstructed the entire menu to add a lot more diversity and a lot more selection,” he said. “Nothing less than excellence — that’s our day-to-day goal.”
I would soon discover that all of the accolades are well-deserved.
We were greeted promptly at the reception desk and led immediately to our table for two. It was the last time that evening we wouldn’t be greeted by name.
Victoria & Albert’s has an ambiance that is subdued and elegant. I could hear the delicate refrain of an inconspicuous harp accompanying the natural, muted tones of relaxed conversation. Everyone looked like they were having a good time. The entire setting recalled an almost-forgotten era when the ritual of dining out was civilized, stylish, and lavish.
Our server was Victoria (all of the wait staff “adopt” one of the two monikers based on gender), and she immediately explained the evening’s protocol to us. The seven-course meal would be Prix Fixe, a set price of $95 per guest, with Wine Pairing for an additional $50. I would highly recommend the pairing, as Karen and I found each selection to be exquisitely matched to its accompanying cuisine.
The first course was an Amuse-Bouche (which literally means “mouth amusement”), a platter of bite-size caviar provided courtesy of the chef. We also received flutes of Drappier “Carte D’Or” Brut Champagne. This was merely to set our palettes for the feast to come. The champagne was not too sweet and not too dry, and the caviar was a delightful prelude. In other words, it was the perfect way to initiate our experience.
We decided to share our menu selections so we could sample more items. The next course was served almost immediately after we finished our champagne, and it didn’t disappoint. We selected the South Texas Boar, served inside a cup of sliced mango, and the Cape Canaveral Shrimp, presented in stacked layers with Petit French Lentils. Both were expertly prepared and served at an ideal temperature, with a nice blend of spice and texture.
The wines accompanying this course were spectacular. My Riesling was light and delicate and Karen’s Sauvignon Blanc was very fruity and full of flavor. Victoria briefly described each selection, poured our glasses, and left to tend to our next course. Her keen attention to every detail and her natural timing demonstrated the high standards set forth by the restaurant at every meal.
I observed other servers utilizing the same unobtrusive technique with their customers — replacing silverware when needed and carefully arranging each plate at the table. With the large party of businessmen next to us, the servers would work together as a team to ensure that every guest at that table was served each course at precisely the same time. Their synchronicity was a delight to witness.
Successive courses were brought to our table at a leisurely pace. Highlights included Seared Day Boat Scallop with Fennel and Satsuma Tangerines, Mushroom and Shortrib Ravioli with Black Truffle Sauce, and Red Kuri Squash Cream Soup. The last item alone was worth the price of admission — at once spicy, creamy, and perfect for the season.
Our main course soon arrived and Karen and I enjoyed the appropriate portions and the artful presentation of each. I selected the Grilled Prime Filet with Cauliflower-Potato Puree, two beef medallions surrounded by a pool of Burgundy Reduction. Karen opted for the Atlantic Turbot, a generous portion of fresh white fish on a bed of Sweet Corn and topped with a scoop of Florida Blue Crab. Both entrees had an abundance of flavor and Karen and I couldn’t decide which one we liked better. We kept trading bites but never arrived at a definitive answer.
After a palette-cleansing sixth course of Stilton Fig Chutney and French Butter Pear Sorbet, the best one was still to come: dessert.
Already familiar with Victoria & Albert’s celebrated dessert soufflés, we each opted for different flavors. I chose the Grand Marnier Soufflé and Karen selected the Hawaiian Kona Chocolate Soufflé. As we sat, dreamily expecting a sweet coda to the evening’s meal, Victoria returned with an hourglass-shaped brew pot in which to prepare fresh mugs of coffee, a sharp accompaniment to the soufflés.
She scooped a spoonful of aromatic beans into the upper half, poured water into the bottom, and lit the burner below. We watched, mesmerized, as the water was drawn up the cylinder to steep with the beans. After a few minutes, she removed the heat source and the water cascaded gently down again. It was a hypnotizing process that made me feel like I was gazing at a vintage lava lamp.
The soufflés were incredible — believe everything you’ve heard about them. With a specific sauce poured into each right at our table, my only wish was that I had room left to finish. It felt criminal to leave even a morsel behind, but I had no choice.
As we stood to leave, Victoria handed us personalized menus of the evening’s fare, ideal keepsakes of an enchanted culinary experience. She also extended to Karen a single, red rose.
Once back in the Grand Floridian, now silent and aglow in a wash of white lights, a lady from the cleaning staff asked about our dinner. When we replied that it had been amazing, she said: “It must be. Everyone just floats out of there.”
She was right. That’s precisely how we felt.
Victoria & Albert’s
Located Inside the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa
4401 Grand Floridian Way
Lake Buena Vista, Florida 32830
Note: Dress is evening attire for ladies, with jackets necessary for gentlemen. Reservations are required.
5 Tips To Fully Enjoy Victoria & Albert’s
• Order the wine accompaniment to your meal.
• Take your time. Your seven-course meal will last over 2 hours.
• Stay overnight at one of the nearby resorts, preferably the Grand Floridian. add a spa treatment the next day for complete sensory overload.
• Share your entrées with your partner. This doubles the culinary experience.
• Place a reservation early for the popular Chef’s Table. Expect a six-month wait.
By Dean Blinkhorn