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DINING

Peabody Orlando's Napa gives California wine-country cooking the local treatment

Chef Jared Gross and his team take farm-to-table dining seriously

Photo: Jason Greene, License: N/A, Created: 2011:04:22 07:42:23

Jason Greene

Local heroes - Don't consider Napa expense-account-only dining; locals are eligible for a discount


Napa at the Peabody Orlando

9801 International Drive
407-345-4570
peabodyorlando.com/dining
$$$$

"Ninety percent of the items on the menu come from within an hour's drive of the restaurant," gushed our server inside the Peabody's new signature and resplendently sleek restaurant, Napa. The declaration at first seemed somewhat contrary, given the restaurant's name, but in Napa's case it's really a testament to chef Jared Gross and his team, who take farm-to-table dining seriously.

But Napa isn't merely a lair for locavores - Gross and his crack staff use the principles of the organic/slow-food movement to compose and deliver dishes that are vibrant and expressive, not derivative or excessive. The restaurant's modern design upholds a similar ethic, though it isn't evident during the clockwise spiral down the staircase from the lobby. Only when your feet hit the landing do walls of floating wine bottles and handsome furnishings come into view. Tubular lighting kindles a room steeped in earthy hues, but the sight of vacationers in terry robes tends to spoil the mood. So do vacuous receptionists, less-than-refined attendants and inordinately long waits before being served, but we won't harp on that. Our server, for the record, was wonderfully patient and well-versed in Northern California wines and cookery, and was quick to recommend pairings with our meals.

And the possibilities are plentiful. A flight may be in order, should you opt for the daily-changing "taste of the valley" ($14 per person) appetizer. Five unquestionably fresh items stand stacked on the vertical, each eloquently transitioning to the next: We marveled at succulent pan-seared diver scallops dotted with cauliflower puree, then salmon enriched with crème fraîche, roe and spicy nasturtium flowers. Mild house-made mozzarella with Waterkist Farms heirloom tomatoes, tangerines and smoked balsamic refreshed, as did the braised baby beets with arugula pesto, Turtle Creek goat cheese and candied pecans. What really impressed us, however, were the tender chunks of Meyer Ranch beef. So good was the Montana meat that we shunned any notion of eating local and ordered the filet ($34), lightly glazed with truffle butter, for one of our mains. Really, the thyme-infused root vegetable mash and grilled asparagus were unnecessary, because this steak was one of the finest we've ever had the pleasure of devouring. The perfectly firm Alaskan halibut ($36), another non-native execution, came laced with a serrano pepper butter which completed the flavors of the sweet Zellwood corn and lump crab biscuits.

Portions were well-controlled, and that applied to desserts as well. While it took a few seconds for our palates to adjust to the milk chocolate millefeuille ($8), we ultimately appreciated the nutty tang of the accompanying passionfruit curd and caramelized hazelnut. Calvados-soaked apples inside a flaky galette ($8) served with caramel fleur-de-sel ice cream and maple-walnut sauce didn't exactly scream "local," but we'd be hard-pressed not to carbon-footprint our way back for another taste.

Menus change every three months to reflect the kitchen's seasonal approach. If you're a local, consider joining their Club 9801; it's free and it'll get you free valet parking and 15 percent off your check - breakfast, lunch or dinner. Don't relegate Napa to the domain of expense-account dining; it's one of this city's better dining destinations, and a return visit swirled in our heads as we circled up the steps to the lobby. Looking back down, it was quite clear that one good turn deserved another.

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