Sunday, December 29, 2013

Itching for high-quality small plates? Then Scratch it is

At last Monday's holiday tasting, Carter Nixon, Stacole Fine Wine's Regional Representative, spoke with great passion about a new Winter Park restaurant called Scratch where he had eaten a couple of times. The restaurant, he said, did not buy his wines but he was recommending them anyway because the food was tapas-style and darn good; the restaurant was owned by young, ambitious out-of-towners; and they had a reasonable wine list and BYOB policy. This restaurant is all the things that Carter mentioned and more. Go there. And hurry before they become really famous and you are unable to get your butt into one of the 40 seats that are available there. This restaurant is sticky. When you enter, you do not want to leave.

After listening to Carter's description, and knowing that he is fairly sparing with his praise (and especially so if you are not buying his wines), I decided that I would check the place out as soon as I could. I had originally thought of going on Friday night but we ended up at Eddie V's instead so I used the occasion of my brother-in-laws retirement after 25 years as a Seminole County Sheriff's Deputy as a rationale for a trip to the restaurant last night. My wife called early on Saturday to make a reservation but was told that, because of their size, they do not take reservations. Our party numbered eight so we decided to go to the restaurant early in order to snag the number of seats that would accommodate our party.

The restaurant is located at 223 West Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park and we were told to turn left into New York Avenue and then to walk across the street to the restaurant. The parking lot is actually the second lot on the left-hand side on New York. To get to the restaurant, you have to turn left onto Fairbanks and the restaurant is 40 yards up on the left-hand side of the street. As we stepped up to the door, the portions of the restaurant visible from the outside were very welcoming: the muted lights; the long bar running down the eastern wall of the space; attractive stools guarding the bar; and comfy-looking sofas towards the front. A narrow space but with a good feel. I went back to my car to get my wine bag. We were going to be dining here tonight.

I thought that I would order a bottle of Champagne off the list so that my friends would have bubbly ready when they arrived. I was told by the bartender that, in addition to the wines on the list, a few new Champagnes had arrived that day and Ashley, one of the owners, was best positioned to help me with that. Ashley came over from helping set up the tables for our party and began working with me on the Champagne. Based on her recommendation I went with the NV Philippe Gonet Blanc de Blanc. It was heavenly.

Over the course of a number of conversations with Ashley (She is warm, effusive, customer-oriented, is willing to say what she does not know, and is possessed of a Facebook-like openness), I found out that the restaurant is owned by her, her boyfriend (Michael Roller), and her twin-sister's boyfriend (who also happens to be the Executive Chef). They hail from Virginia Beach and Ashley had been dating Michael for 7 years but, because of his job as a Merchant Seaman, they did not get to see much of each other. Ashley had given him the option of getting a "land job" or getting a new girlfriend. Ashley and Dustin had been discussing a restaurant venture and Michael joined them as a part-owner.

Ashley (left) and Arena
Brittany (Ashley's twin sister) and Arena

They found the current location on craigslist and once she saw the place, she knew this was where they were going to be. The other members of the team went on looking at other locations but she was done. She was responsible for the decor design and variously described it as mid-century modern and nouveau. Whatever. Anyway, she wanted a place where she could hang out, eat, drink, and have fun with friends. I say mission accomplished.

The Executive Chef is Dustin Haney, a self-trained chef who has worked at a number of places, including La Fourchelle in Atlanta, and who, according to Ashley, has a natural talent when it comes to food and ingredients. She has known Dustin for a very long time and has a lot of confidence in him and his abilities. She describes the cuisine as modern American and then checks herself because, she says, they try to "infuse" the menu with cuisines from around the world.

Dustin Haney, Executive Chef (Left) and Adam

So then it was time to get down to the food. There is a standard menu -- which changes from time to time -- that is supplemented with daily specials that are listed on a green board towards the rear of the restaurant. All plates are tapas-style and range in price from $8 to $13. I made an executive decision where I ordered four small plates per course so that we could all eat the same thing at the same time. The kitchen appreciated that approach.

French Fries with Saffron Aioli Sauce

Loup de Mer: Citrus-Thyme Marinated Sea Bass, "Beer" Blanc,
Potato-Fennel Hash

Pan Roasted 1/2 Creme Hen, Pistachio Cream,
Pea Tendrils, Natural Jus

Coffee-Dusted Scottish Salmon, Baby Cabbage, Curry,
Head-on Shrimp

Pork Belly Adobo: Soy-Glazed Pork Belly, Calamari Juice,
Micro Cilantro, Carrot Puree, Black Rice, Scallions

The fries had been recommended by our waitress -- Arena -- and she was spot on. The Loup de Mer had an incredible wow factor, the result of a veritable explosion of flavors. The 1/2 Chicken was perfectly seasoned and light on is feet, the darkness of sauce notwithstanding. The Pork Belly had a distinct smokiness but was flavor-filled. I prefer my pork belly with a crispy outer shell. Not the case here but this preparation was discrimination-banishing.

The wines that we paired with the courses are shown below.

This was a high-quality experience. High-quality food in a well-paired setting and service by young, committed, enthusiastic staff and owners. I offered Arena a glass of wine and she said that this was the best job with the best people that she had ever had and she was not going to do anything to mess that up. We left after 11:00 pm and the place was packed. As a matter of fact, people were sitting at the bar and on the couches waiting for tables. They are committed to serving a full menu until 2:00 am, a godsend for nightbirds like us. In addition to wine, they also serve a range of craft beers. and this, plus the proximity to Rollins, will make for a younger base of customers.

The one area where I think some attention will have to be paid in the future is in the staging of food for delivery to the table. When you are ordering multiple courses, you do not want them bumping up against each other, or for overly long intervals between courses. And you definitely do not want to deliver un-ordered courses to the table.

This restaurant will be one of the winners in the Orlando restaurant wars if these young owners stay committed (or if they are not bought out by Darden in the next week) and do not start looking at the next hill to conquer too soon. I will be doing my part to contribute to their long-term success.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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