Downtown newcomer dishes elevated eats in the heart of Church Street.
Middle of the week. Downtown Orlando. All controls set for the heart of razzle dazzle. The Los Angeles Lakers were in town.
Before defiling ourselves in a predictably deep sea of yellow-clad La La fans, we felt it necessary to pre-cleanse with something simple and genuine. Ablution, if you will. Elize seemed the perfect place to wash ourselves in subtle – in anti-L.A. The newly opened restaurant is a five-minute stroll to Amway Arena and its slogan, “simplicity is already complex enough,” sang out as the antithesis to the thin veneer of formulaic fireworks that would surely define the rest of our evening.
Located in the Church Street space formerly occupied by The Rusty Spoon, Elize retains remnants of its highly regarded predecessor – head chef, Reanna McNamara, is the former sous chef at The Rusty Spoon, where she worked under James Beard nominee, Kathleen Blake, for seven years. Based on conversations across two recent meals, several staff also appear to be holdovers.
The restaurant itself, however, has undergone a significant makeover. Gone is the rusty rainbow of earth tones. Brick accents remain but amidst a crisper palette of tiled white and dark royal blue. Although we’ve heard the dining room compared to a polished coffee shop, we find it airy and engaging – clean without being antiseptic, simultaneously inviting and functional. It does seem as if it has the potential to be loud, but we wouldn’t know. Our dinner was early. Early-early. Odd hours and meal consolidation are our thing – we tend to dodge busy windows. Our previous visit was a late lunch. Late-late. Regardless, it was eerily empty on both of our visits. We did consult with a friend who dined at Elize during normal human hours and they had a similarly ‘private’ experience.
We shared our second meal with a handful of barflies and – judging by the ugly sweaters – an 8-top sized office Christmas party. Apart from this, we were the only tabled diners. Granted, Elize is a newborn, open just over a month. It still smells of renovation – of nervous expectation.
Elize touts itself as farm-to-table with a European twist. The farm-to-table bit becomes quickly evident when scanning the many sourcing shout-outs on its menu and the twist comes courtesy of Dutch owner Michele Lagerweij who oversees Elize in Orlando while sibling Ann manages affairs at the sister Elize, which opened in 2016 in Utrecht in The Netherlands.
Speaking of twists. We kicked off our recent evening at Elize with martinis and oysters. We’ve learned to pre-game events at Amway owing to its insistence on serving inedible food and expensive, lousy drinks. Anywho – Grey Goose up with a twist. And another.
We’d had oysters at Elize during our first meal and were happy we gave them another go at our second. Our first featured oysters that had obviously been pre-shucked; and although passably fresh – they were also dry – meaning beginning to shrivel and a skosh worrisome. The Chesapeake Bay Six at meal number two arrived freshly shucked and enjoyable, if not a tad mild and creamy for my taste (I prefer a firmer, saltier oyster).
Both lunch and dinner menus are limited but offer more than enough interesting options to intrigue.
If you love vegetables – really love vegetables – the faintly floral sweetness of zucchini, the bright crisp of bean – you will enjoy Elize’s salads. They’re a celebration of veg. However, if your idea of eating veggies involves dipping fried shapes into flavored mayo, you may feel something’s missing. You’d be correct: The mask that most eateries strap to greenery. Not so here, which pleased us to no end.
The 12 Floridian Vegetables and Herbs ($11/22) salad is like a stroll through a local garden. Verdant and bountiful. Dressed in just enough honey-thyme vinaigrette to lift up without weighing down – cauliflower cream and yogurt dolloped here and there – little discoveries as we grazed our way through green.
A Local Burrata and Tomato ($12/14) salad found a big fan in Munch, who lobbied for it to be one our Orlando Eats Best Bites of 2019. She loved it. I liked it. Lobbying unsuccessful. Peppery with organic arugula and with an orange zest vinaigrette that played well with the salty creaminess of the cheese. Dairy-dense tomato dregs were hungrily mopped up with solidly good grilled bread.
A bowl of butter-poached littleneck clams with garlic crostini ($7/14) were what they were and what they were was fresh, simple and good. I asked for a spoon to turn broth into soup (the crostini performing poorly as a sponge).
A dish of Squid Carbonara ($13/26) was inventive and enjoyable. The “noodles” made of squid, a Lake Meadow Farm egg propped atop perfectly soft-boiled, and the bacon-laden sauce sop worthy. A solid dish albeit one that’s best half-portioned (rich) and could have done with a dash more salt.
Local fish over a sweet pea and shrimp risotto with hyper-local Nearby Naturals mushrooms and citrus butter ($24) could have been the best bite of the evening. Could have. The risotto and veggies were flawless but, unfortunately, let down by snapper that managed to be simultaneously (and slightly) overcooked and mushy. Perhaps under dried or overly pre-salted. “Be careful, the plates are hot” is also not something I want to hear when being brought fish. Groan. A bit inexcusable considering the lack of other diners in the room, but we would definitely take a chance on this dish again – it wants to be great.
Rather, Lake Meadow Farm roasted chicken ($24) was the star of the show – cooked perfectly – a winner of dish. Moist throughout and deeply, deeply ‘chickeny.’ Utensils were abandoned at one point to tear into it with hands and teeth. Lyonnaise style potatoes, duck fat fennel, greens, pickled mustard seed, natural jus – all good.
Finally, a Daily Catch Sandwich ($14) was also a big hit. My notes read tilefish, but I don’t 100% recall – it did, however, arrive with Cajun dill aioli, local hydroponic Kalera greens, and spiced ketchup that made the treat that were the accompanying frites even moreso. A great piece of fish, which convinced us the snapper above was likely an aberration.
OK. Let’s tiptoe through a final bit of hodge-podgery. There’s a very thoughtful wine list with a number of intriguing bottles. For example, the certified organic Poderi Cellario ‘E Bianco’ Arneis-Moscato ($52/bottle, $20/retail) from southern Langhe is a light winner of a wine, buoyed by flower and stone and pairing well with many of the dishes we tried. Other intriguing bottles include a California sémillon from Forlorn Hope and a Mary Taylor ‘Sophie Siadou’ Valencay from the Loire. We found markups in line with other restos, if not a smidge higher.
Plating has been appealing, pacing on point, and service friendly and laid back. Servers didn’t seem to be as well-versed in menu specifics as they should be, but very little else to complain about in this department. Personable, attentive people.
There are parking garages about if you’re driving downtown, but if you have the option take SunRail ($2 within Orange County). The Church Street SunRail station is a stone’s throw from Elize’s front door. Just make sure to get the hell out of dodge before SunRail turns into a pumpkin (last southbound train is around 9PM, last northbound at 10:30ish). Alternately, Lyft there. Far easiest route.
To wrap, we’d recommend Elize to anyone with an appreciation for freshness, local sourcing and subtlety. It’s ingredients-first cuisine that’s executed well on the whole. We’re not so sure subtle – a focus on substance – is a winning recipe in an Orlando that can gravitate to gaudily wrapped novelty but it’s a solid restaurant by any measure and one we look forward to dining at again. As for the evening? Orlando lost and Orlando won. The Lakers managed to out-duel our boys in blue but it also became clear The City Beautiful scored a solid win in downtown newbie Elize.
Update 01/17/20 ~ Elize just named award-winning Dutch Chef Leon Mazairac as its new Executive Chef. More info on Leon here. Suppose this necessitates a near term return visit.