Omakase Wonderland in Audubon Park.
No signage, no hint of welcome, no certainty that you’ve arrived: From the outside, the squat bunker of concrete block on Winter Park Road could easily serve as a BDSM dungeon or CIA black site. A flash of kaleidoscopic color from an offset window is the only sign of life, promising that whatever torture you might endure inside will at the very least be spectacularly au courant. Kadence first intrigues with its exterior distinctiveness. It hides in the heart of Audubon Park like an onyx box of secrets—a clever bit of architectural sleight-of-hand that sets the stage wonderfully for what’s to come.
Let’s be honest. For quite a long time, being an Orlando eater was like being a Cleveland Browns fan: Year after year of low expectations tempered by the occasional highlight. And, despite trendier menus and more engaging spaces, many of us still walk into Orlando’s latest and greatest on guard against LCD dining – hoping to be proven wrong with an exciting taste or sip. Despite very real improvements to a food scene now brimming with good eats, our best restos still struggle in comparison to the best of world-class food cities. Historically, Orlando restaurants have felt detached from their food: polished and branded, serving cautious cuisine that in its conspicuous inoffensiveness failed to excite, inspire, or educate. Chefs have also largely been slaves to fat-pipe sourcing, ensuring that plates that pass through kitchen windows bear ho-hum variations of the same Sysco or Cheney Brothers fare. This is changing. You can see it from SoDo to Sanford in places where the palate of diners is no longer patronized and ingredients are thoughtfully (and often locally) sourced. Times are good, my friends. There’s far too much enthusiasm and talent in Orlando for it not to realize its culinary ambitions, and if Kadence is a harbinger of things to come, we may get there sooner than later. ‘It’s great for Orlando’ will become ‘It’s great’ full stop.
Kadence is great. Full stop.
We visited on a recent weekday eve for a multi-course shellfish tasting dinner; our third experience at Kadence and our best. We were start-to-finish floored. The gist on normal nights (if there are such things at Kadence) is that you pre-pay for an omakase featuring a creatively prepared parade of impeccably sourced sea stuff. It’s an experience that is not for the faint of palate or shallow of pocketbook. Chefs Jennifer Bañagale, Mark Berdin and Lordfer Lalicon revel in obscure ingredients and unusual combinations, and bookings for our shellfish tasting dinner cost $200 per head. Standard dinners at Kadence will set you back $155-$170 per person, an early-bird dinner sushi tasting is offered for $85, and you can choose to supplement dinners with sake or wine pairings.
I’m chronically punctual. It’s a shitty little super power I’ve been annoying family and friends with for years. In my neuroses-riddled brain punctual means 15 minutes early. Hear me out. I think it’s important to get a sense of place when reviewing. To soak it all in. Have a drink. You know, vibe-osmosis takes time. Have a drink. Get to know the staff. Have a drink. You get the picture. We arrived nearly 20 minutes early for our booking to pre-game at the bar.
Kadence offers one of the better selections of Japanese tipples in town. There are three full pages of sake, a smattering of inventive craft cocktails, and a handful of intriguing Japanese beers that provide a welcome respite from the Kirin and Sapporo fueling most color-by-number sushi shops. The restaurant is divided into two rooms; bar and dining. The small, quirky bar does double duty as a reception area and is where we enjoyed a Coedo lager and a Snow White; calpico, bushido sake and lemon. A curtain separates the bar from the communal dining room where the stripped down, scandi-meets-Ginza interior is brought to life by a soundtrack that swings from Cypress Hill to southern rock. It seats 10 diners around a horseshoe shaped sushi bar who benefit from the undivided attention of multiple staff.
We chose to pair our meal with three sakes which were poured while seating, presented in a neat row and sipped throughout. An unfiltered Daku Mild & Creamy was true to its name, unpasteurized Jozen White Name (Shirataki) provided a pleasing middle ground, and a Rihaku Wandering Poet swept our tastebuds clean with its crisp acidity and herbal minerality.
An amuse bouche arrived in liquid form; Otokoyama sake infused with grilled crab claw – a sharp and savory prime for the evening’s pump. This was served just prior to a plate of two raw oysters; a Copps Island with freshly grated wasabi and sudachi (a small Japanese citrus fruit) and a gulf oyster with grated daikon, lemon and lime. The Copps Island was sweet and briny, the freshly grated wasabi a forever-welcome counterbalance. We steadied ourselves against the second oyster. I stopped eating gulf oysters many moons ago – I’ve never liked the texture, muted flavor, and suspect waters they’re pulled from, but instead of snotty mediocrity we were treated to a surprisingly delicate pearl of meat that was as clean and tasty as can be.
Oysters were followed by monkfish liver spread atop hokkaido bread (sometimes known as milk bread) with bubu arare (rice crackers). This was equal parts delicious and necessary – the sake was flowing at this point. We found it an inventive twist on a traditional pâté starter with an earthy meatiness that followed nicely from the oysters.
Red Royal shrimp coated in rice crackers came cradled in a bamboo basket atop two fried shrimp heads. We love fried shrimp, we love Red Royals, and the heads hiding underneath literally exploded with flavor. Win, win, win. The whole package benefited considerably from the tart acidity of an accompanying cucumber dipping sauce.
Service at Kadence moves briskly but at a welcome pace. Poetry in motion. To throw a wrench in the works, we felt it appropriate to buy sake bombs for the room, including the knife-wielding pros behind the sushi bar. Drink up, my friends. It turns out that the staff at Kadence are pros in everything they do. Pop, slurp, gone. Their sake bombs were executed with the clinical precision of people skilled in the art of fun. The other diners? Not so much. Watching them navigate the mysteries of a punctured can of rice wine was well worth the price of admission.
Mendocino Dungeness crab with mitsuba (Japanese parsley) was the first in a succession of wow-inducing plates to follow our fratboy interlude. Maybe it was the rush of sake, but wow. The colors, textures, flavors. Wow.
A delicate and nuanced shrimp and matsutake mushroom soup with mizuna from Frog Song Organics served as buffer between the crab and one of our favorite dishes of the evening: a colorful jumble of Mexican Bluefin tuna, Japanese pen shell clam (tairagai), scallop, and purple radish. The hodge podge was harmonized under a shoyu bacon broth dotted with crispy piggy bits. This is a dish the full Kadence team worked in tight concert to prepare and effectively silenced the room when served. Lots of mmm’s and head nodding.
Next up was uni from Hokkaido served with baby snow crab legs (just imagine the work). I was drunk enough at this point to insist to fellow diners that the chef said that the uni was from Ohio. Some were drunk enough to believe me. It was served in the urchin shell, topped with edible flowers and appeared before my bleary eyes like a Georgia O’Keefe fever dream. From the far corner of the sushi bar I heard someone exclaim, ‘I have no idea what I’m eating but it’s so fucking good.’ Yes, sir. So fucking good. My personal fave of the night.
Baby abalone was ever-so-slightly grilled in a bit of butter and soy and served in the shell atop seaweed. Understated but brilliant. I personally loved the whisper of meatiness from the cooked exterior combined with the pop of raw interior. I wanted to retreat to the shadows and eat oodles of these.
So, broiled lobster with lobster miso. Yes, we’re still eating. Served atop individual clay charcoal grills in a wire basket, this was a substantial dish that was well executed and delivered a great deal of visual punch. Although far from traditional, it served itself well in the role of a traditional “cooked” main.
Many years ago my brother and I spent an ugly verdejo-fueled afternoon eating a Barcelona café out of razor clams. That’s three full hours of razor clams. I like them. Razor clam (mategai) rice at Kadence was a brilliant capper to the parade of savories in much the same way that the mixing bowl of congee I devoured the next morning was a brilliant capper to my well deserved hangover. This is a dish that just oozed soulfulness, soaking up good and bad and spitting out feeling-just-fine.
There were two dessert courses. The first, kasutera, is a much beloved, old-fashioned Japanese sponge cake. Traditionally sweet, at Kadence it’s prepared with shrimp lending it a slightly savory aspect. Good stuff. The meal wrapped with a wonderful uni ice cream and long exhale.
We left Kadence buzzed and besotted. If this isn’t the best restaurant in Orlando, it’s damn near close. It does its own thing and does so with distinctive style. There is a refreshingness to a local restaurant that doesn’t approach its food under a veil of worry or the whip of market research. The Audubon Park wunderkinder cook what they like and you eat what they cook (or you don’t). Both the food and staff are beyond imaginative, unconcerned about catering to the LCD, and unapologetically authentic. It’s an experience that is undoubtedly splurge-worthy. My hope for Kadence is that they continue doing what they’re doing. My hope for Orlando is that it continues to embrace restaurants like Kadence with open arms. If it does, the horizon is very, very (very) bright.