Know food. No meat. No problem.
With Rabid Otters on the Loose!, you could excuse Winter Park’s pastel clad gentry from being blind to the quiet revolution tip-toeing its way down historically boring Morse Boulevard. After all, those otters could be anywhere. Perched above in a live oak. Stalking passerby from a peacock fountain. Sipping a bad cappuccino behind Warby Parkers. Stay strong, Winter Parkies, but know that Morse is where Orlando’s vegetarian wonder thing, The Sanctum, recently soft-opened its second meat-free (and rabid otter-free) affair; Proper & Wild.
Proper & Wild’s home is haunted by the ghosts of bad restaurants past, but it’s a location that’s always been enticing – one wrapped in the brick paved charm Winter Park is known for. It also appears that Washburn Imports + Imperial Bar will soon be opening directly across the street. Odd furniture, craft beer, and elevated veggie food? That’s the makings of a damn fine evening, and a promising sign for local residents.
Enough about Morse. More about me. Apart from a lingering appreciation for 4-hour brunches, one of the Anglo-afflictions I continue to suffer from is overuse of the word “proper.” As in; “they serve proper coffee,” “you just need a proper shag,” or when stating something’s sheer awesomeness (there’s my American coming back) just “proper!” I can’t shake it. It’s only been one visit, but Proper & Wild is properly proper. It doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t, is committed to well-sourced ingredients, and doesn’t place brand above food. Proper, proper, proper.
The reveal is nice. A glass-walled exterior opens into refreshingly understated interior digs. There’s no over-the-top theming, no played out faux industrial creepiness, no poorly designed table placards hocking happy hour specials. The restaurant’s narrow aspect, its long, white, grey-veined bar top — the casual, accommodating staff — feeds a first impression fueled by memories of the small bistros I frequented in SoHo; casually urbane, slightly eccentric, and – above all – welcoming in an everyday sort of way.
We arrived early in order to get a sense of place, and by 7:30pm there was a crowd waiting at the door. According to the barkeep, many of them were walk-ins. For a second night of soft open, they had to be pleased.
Our meal started with cava (and for some of us it ended with cava). The cava, Dibon, is a very good, inexpensive non-vintage sparkler with a nice bit of yeastiness that pairs well with food. The wine list is thoughtfully chosen, featuring a wide range of very solid global options, but we would have preferred if vintages were noted. We didn’t dance around the list as much as we would have liked as it was a school night, but a dry Cvne Monopole white rioja ($36, $15 or so retail) worked beautifully across dishes. It was also good to see they had selections further afoot from the norm, like the very good Black Slate “Porrera” blend from Priorat (Spain). Beyond wine, there is a respectable range of craft on draft, a hard honey kombucha with turmeric, and a couple of inventive sake-based cocktails we were sorry we didn’t get to try. Get a glimpse of the entire booze list in the gallery below.
Popcorn. You may be tempted to disregard it, but don’t. We passed over it on the menu only to have a complimentary bowl delivered. It’s good. Like really good. Like some of the better popcorn we’ve ever had. Blue heirloom corn. Coconut oil and red miso and stuff. We were still eating it after we had food boxed up to go. After we paid the check. While we were draining the last remnants from glasses. As we were standing up from our seats.
OK doke. I’ll kick off by singing the hits; heartcakes and beet root tartare. Both of these dishes were spot on. The beet tartare sung with brightness, topped with a surprisingly light cashew turmeric crema. It’s been awhile since I’ve eaten cashew “dairy,” but it always left me feeling as if concrete had been poured into my belly. This was far different and worked well with the earthy acidity of the beet. Heartcakes? Think crab cakes (Old Bay) but plumped with shredded hearts of palm rather than crustacean. Served with bok choy, mustard frills, and a panang remoulade. Wowzie. Although we’ll continue to sample our way around the menu, both of these dishes will be ordered again.
Next up was a whole roasted head of cauliflower that feels like it wants to be a signature dish – a Bloomin’ Onion for the Goop set. We found approaching it, knife in hand, a bit awkward – like table top brain surgery. Rigmarole aside, it was very tasty, the harissa crema working well. We did have a couple of minor issues. First, it feels as if it’s better suited to being a sharer. As a standalone main, monotony sets in about a third of the way through. We took half of it home as did a neighboring table. Also, execution will likely be trial and error for now. There’s no consistency to cauliflower in terms of size or thickness, so ensuring it’s reliably cooked through will be tricky. The center of ours was a tad cold and I would have preferred a darker overall roast (which would have solved issue #1). This is a dish Proper & Wild really needs to make work and I’m sure they will.
Black gnocchi with activated charcoal, buckwheat, nori powder, and crimini mornay. Sounds lovely, right? It looked lovely. We were told that the menu will be ever evolving – that they will rotate new dishes in frequently – and we hope this gnocchi dish rotates out fairly soon. Not that it was bad. It was just bland from lack of shroominess and anything remotely mornay-like. The texture of the gnocchi was nice, but as a kid who grew up in the South it was like eating crisped liver pudding without the wonderful liver puddingness. I know, I know. Not the place to indulge in carnivorous comparison, but as a mushroom dish it felt like it needed more. Like a drizzle of truffle oil. Perhaps a hit of egginess from kala namak. Who knows. We didn’t care for it.
What else? In addition to starters, salads and mains, the menu includes several sourdough flatbreads, plant-based charcuterie (color us intrigued), and desserts. Munch took home the ‘Chocolate Monster’ and raved about it. We did manage to get a peek at several other plates as well. The couple next to us ordered chickpea fries and a shiitake skillet, both of which induced audible, between-bite moaning. The fries come with a curried almond aioli and are drizzled with cilantro pistou – the shiitake skillet with “melted onions” and tofu ricotta over what we believe was a spicy tomato sauce. Both have been added to our hit list.
Operationally, Proper & Wild largely ran like a top. Service was hesitant but attentive – par for the course for a soft open. Things always feel a bit scripted in the early days. Pacing was nice, plating and execution on point, and staff remained genuinely friendly, curious and engaging throughout. We think the neighborhood will embrace them, but Winter Park is Winter Park. Meaning, you never know.
Winter Park is an odd place. It’s ridiculously good looking. Lots of interesting odds and ends. Some fine, fine people. A wonderful university. But despite its unrelenting popularity, its Park Avenue food scene has long wallowed in mediocrity. You can’t claim the likes of Boca (yikes), Park Ave-adjacent Hamilton’s (meh), or Bosphorous (pretty good!) as your culinary shining lights and do so proudly. You also can’t blame Winter Park residents for the ho-humness. A steady stream of tourists seeking a glimpse of real-life Florida (chuckle) and busloads of day-trippin’ seniors provide endless fuel for muted eats. For years, these tourists and day trippers have extended a lifeline to blah restaurants that feel, well, like they cater to tourists and day trippers.
But, but, but . . . it’s far from culinary gloom and doom in our posh northern burbs. Vacuums engender opportunity and very good restaurants do thrive around Park Ave and in greater Winter Park. Ravenous Pig just celebrated a decade in the biz. Prato is good when it wants to be. Newly opened Sushi Pop is one of the best sushi spots in Orlando. Bulla always knocks it out of the park. Hunger Street gonna Hunger Street.
Add Proper & Wild to the above mix and you have yet another restaurant sure to strike a chord with a neighborhood hungry for more. It’s a restaurant you want to like. That you should like. A restaurant that wants to serve good food to our community made from good produce grown in our community.
Orlando Eats has a few rules. We seldom review a restaurant after one visit. It’s unfair to both the restaurant and our readers. We never review a restaurant when it first opens. This is definitely unfair to the restaurant. When do we screw the rules? When a restaurant shows as much talent and promise as Proper & Wild. When we like it. A lot. And, we do. Like it. A lot.
Proper & Wild is currently only open for dinner but will be serving lunch and brunch soon. It’s sure to be a tough table as the coming months unfurl, but we’ll be there. I can almost see it. The post-prandial noshing of popcorn, glass of cava in hand, musing about the joys of a proper 4-hour brunch while scanning the surrounds for snarling otters. Bliss.
Side note: Like all Orlando Eats’ reviews, this one will be updated as we learn more, eat more, and drink more.