Das Reboot: A Maitland hot spot’s kitchen emerges from the depths
To everything – turn, turn, turn – there is a season – turn, turn, turn. Food trends come and go. Taste buds evolve. Restaurants rise, fall and, for the fortunate few, rise again.
I’m of an age where I’m overly familiar with the turn of the seasons. A grey hair or two grants an extrasensory feel for when leaves are beginning to brown – when buds are on the verge of bloom. So, despite Orlando being in the throes of the winter chilly willies, I’m confident spring has already sprung on a leafy corner of Maitland.
Said corner was long home to a Steak & Ale before becoming a wine-country themed hiccup of a restaurant that was never worth a mention. We’re here to chat about its current tenant; Luke’s Kitchen and Bar. It seems as if Luke’s has been open for an eternity, but it only shot out of the gate in early 2017 – doing so on the back of New American fare from a state of the art kitchen.
In those nascent days, we swooned. Absolutely nothing wrong with a good bottle of wine and freshly shucked kumamotos on a sunny patio. But, as visits rolled up, our excitement died down. There were too many lowlights countering the high.
Luke’s is the baby of the three-headed progeny of Park Lights Hospitality Group, which also counts Winter Park heavyweights Luma on Park and Prato in its restaurant family. Over the years, we’ve freely tossed about a euphemism – “Prato-good.” Meaning good enough to be thoroughly enjoyed in the moment, but without the multidimensional gravity to have you clamoring for more. In its infancy, we found Luke’s Prato-good. Over time, it moved from the top of our list, to bottom of our list, to list adjacent, to barely a consideration.
Let’s paint a quick picture. You’re in an exciting new relationship. He’s strikingly handsome, a sharp dresser – your parents dig him. A dozen dates in, he’s picking his teeth at the dinner table and funneling every conversation to fantasy football. You put the kibosh on the budding romance, confident in zero future. Years later, a chance encounter. The ex is now a published novelist and part-time yoga instructor that’s been nominated for a Pulitzer and hangs with Lil Nas X.
Similarly, Luke’s seems to have emerged from the early doldrums in which we abandoned it reinvigorated – serving food that has us freshly intrigued. Fortunately, it’s been far easier to get back in bed with the eatery than with other jilted flames.
So, what’s changed? For many, it seems nothing. Based on crowds, Luke’s doesn’t appear to have missed a beat. But, for unhinged food weirdos like us, it was obvious the moment we dipped our toes back in the water that something was different in the kitchen. Something good. It turns out we were right. As of July 2019, talented chef Jason Campbell is at the helm. Although on-paper creativity was always strong suit of Luke’s, under Jason’s guiding hand, our recent on-plate meals have been better executed, more flavorful, more memorable.
Jason’s an interesting cat – an Orlando native and Le Cordon Bleu grad that honed his chops at Ravenous Pig and Cask & Larder before gaining a bit of notoriety in the Midwest – being named ‘Best Chef’ in Oklahoma City in 2016 and 2017. We contacted him directly to fact-find and pick his brain.
Jason confirmed his hire was part of a change of direction for Luke’s and that although his time away from Orlando was an invaluable part of his kitchen journey, he was eager to return to his hometown roots.
At Luke’s, his focus is on playful, ingredients-first fare with bold, bright flavors buoyed by local sourcing from fine folks like Frog Song Organics. He appreciates unfussed food that features an interplay of textures and a menu that dances to the beat of seasonal availability.
Jason’s return to the dangling wonderland of waterlogged helter skelter that is Florida also meant a hard focus on local coastal cuisine. In his kitchen, collars of freshly butchered fish – most often red fish, snapper and cobia from nearby waters – are blackened on Luke’s wood fired grill and served simply with lime, blue crab fingers fresh from Alabama (uncanned!) are paired with citrus salsa verde and comeback sauce, and the raw bar partners pacific oysters with locals from Sublime Oyster Supply.
Simply put, Jason seems to have Luke’s change of direction pointed in the right direction. Only the very best and very worst restaurants never change – kudos to Luke’s for making a move.
In order to ensure that we weren’t being lured back into a dead-end relationship by a promising nibble or two, we decided to give the restaurant a full undressing. Call it the three flavors of Luke; a lunch, a brunch, and a dinner.
Before we dive in, a setting of the table. Luke’s is an attractive spot. Ownership sunk a lot of pre-open money into the place to exorcise the ghosts of restaurants past. The result is a contemporary brand of industrial chic that we surprisingly don’t hate – it’s genuinely inviting, avoiding all the ickiness that this word-soup of buzzy jargon normally suggests. The standalone space sits on a gem of a corner lot across from Italian mainstay Antonio’s, buffered from the increasingly awful canyon of multi-use bullshit that’s the manifestation of Maitland’s wholesale whoring of itself to commercial developers. In other words, there’s a tree or three.
As alluded to, the menu changes frequently – dishes rotate in and out or are tweaked with different prep. This is a good thing. We like surprises.
The crowd tends to mutate based on time and day, but you can expect a bit of suburban out-on-the-town, biz-casual lunchers, blurry tables of Instagram moms, former frat boys who’ve discovered clothes (or discovered wives who dress them), and smartly blazered Winter Parkies exploring their bubble’s outer edges.
Finally, for those into dollar details – Luke’s has a happy hour every day from 3-7 that includes deals on nibbles and drinks that we took full advantage of during a recent dinner. Oysters are also half-price on Thursday eves.
Table set. Bring on the food.
We’ll kick off with weekday lunch. A suited and booted workday crowd anchored the dining room and was given color by a day-drunk or two at the large, handsome bar. Service was locked in and pro – staff operated fluidly as a team – making for an overall experience that felt exceptionally polished. We ordered four dishes; beef carpaccio, red snapper crudo, steak frites, and a shrimp roll sandwich.
The beef carpaccio was excellent, draped over equally good pickled vegetables and topped with aged cheddar. Excellent as in excellent. At $12, it’s also reasonable considering the portion size and level of quality. We would highly recommend this dish – easily among the better carpaccios we’ve enjoyed in recent years. We’re on the verge of a vegan February (shudder) and as far as carnivorous send-offs? What a way to go. Like funneling martinis on the way to rehab.
Red snapper crudo? Again, top-notch. Artfully presented, wonderfully fresh and properly (barely) cured, offset by the sweet crunch of snap peas and floral pepperiness of Thai basil, and not overpowered by its blood orange cook. Added points for the slurpability of the scallop shells in which it’s served.
The fresh and tasty innards of a shrimp roll, including scratch mustard pickles, were let down by an uncooperatively mediocre brioche. We’d be unlikely to order this dish again as – apples to apples – down the street Swine & Sons does a better version and without the heavy handedly dressed side of greens.
Finally, steak frites. The frites? Perfection. Skinny little comfort crisps. The flank steak in beef fat bearnaise butter was straight ahead enjoyable, although it was ordered medium-rare and arrived clearly medium, resulting it some here-and-there dryness. As an aside, some cuts allow wiggle room, but if you’re not going to order flank rare or medium rare, you shouldn’t be ordering flank. This is a plate we would definitely order again, but only after relaying our persnicketiness for proper temp.
Minor gripes aside, a memorable lunch that scored two outstanding bites.
Perhaps we hit Luke’s brunch during a funky blip, but the resto felt like it was on the tail end of Xanax fumigation. We were a tad late – certainly arriving after peak service, but no excuse for staff to have checked out for the day. Despite a half empty restaurant, service was scattered and plodding. Thankfully, food salvaged the experience from being a loss – plates included rock shrimp lettuce wraps, beet-cured salmon, and a crab cake that’s a menu staple.
The rock shrimp lettuce wraps were a bit of DIY fun, paired with shishitos and a chili-lime vinaigrette. A visually appealing and tasty enough plate but not one that would bring you in on its own.
We’d enjoyed the crab cake in the past and enjoyed it at brunch. It is a very good crab cake. However, as with our lunch shrimp roll (and at $17), it begged comparison to the excellent lump crab cake down the road at Winter Park Fish Company (a place we can’t decide if we love, hate or just don’t care about). Gun pointed to our head, we’d choose the latter.
Our standout bite at brunch was easily beet-cured salmon. When paired with golden beets, crispy taters, capers and a dilled cream, we found it a kaleidoscopic jumble of just right. Our only minor grievance is that we felt overall balance would have benefited from less of the wonderful crisped-through potatoes – in the quantity served, they fought with the subtlety of beet and salmon. Again, tiny grievance. We loved this dish. As an aside, we’ve played with beet-cured salmon (ours with gin and dill) and a thicker cut of fish creates a much more impactful coral-to-magenta gradient than preparations that allow the cure to bleed through. Sorry – we’re nerds.
Finally, dinner. Apologies in advance for the photos. It was getting dark. But photography is the only thing that suffered from the dimming light. Luke’s shines brightest when the sun goes down. Weather cooperating, the restaurant’s indoors is invited outdoors and vice versa — the main dining room flows out to a patio where we found ourselves seated and treated to a buzzy but mellow vibe. Soft string lighting and easy chatter almost made us forget that the 17-92 motor speedway was at our toes.
We started with smoked okra and shishitos.
The okra was flawless. Not much more to add. The simple green spears manage to hold on to a subtle smolder from Luke’s smokebox while maintaining a crisp freshness that doesn’t let you forget they’re veg. Livened by a bit of sea salt and lemon zest, we could have eaten them all night. I guess there was more to add.
Ordering shishitos felt a little last decade, but what arrived was anything but. Like Luke’s itself, it’s a plate that benefits from reinvention. The peppers were paired with minted yogurt, fresno chile sauce, and cucumber in a twist that, again, made for a dish we could have nibbled on endlessly.
Chef Jason considers Luke’s wood fired grill the heart of the restaurant. Based on a pork shoulder main, it’s a heart of pure joy. The plate emerged with maple, turnips, pecans and orange and is as good as any meat dish I’ve had in Orlando in recent memory. I write this confidently. Its lovely outer char gave way to forkfuls of tender with just enough fat to have it exploding with flavor.
I fully protested the ordering of tuna toast and found myself eating crow (and tuna toast). Cucumber, avocado, spicy tuna – seen it all before. But, Luke’s version, topped with a bit of everything spice and stacked with well prepped, top quality ingredients – was a deliciously updated riff that despite feeling a bit bored on paper was wonderfully new in our mouths.
If you’ve been playing along at Orlando Eats, you’ll know that we find mussels one of the riskier propositions in town. Far too many restaurants seem to source them from fat-pipe sewers. Having been let down – a lot – we order with low expectations. Turns out we had nothing to fear. Seasoned with thyme and brightened with zest, the mussels served at Luke’s were fresh, clean and moresome – in a leek broth that made fast friends with accompanying sourdough. Munch still talks about this dish lovingly. When are we going back for mussels? Do you remember those mussels? Do the mussels ever ask about me?
All in all, a wonderful meal put into motion by service that was friendly, spirited and efficient without being rushed.
We surprised ourselves by not lushing it up at Luke’s– especially considering it’s a place that provides a world of temptation for such familiar indulgence. Not that we teetotaled. That’d be weird. Wine highlights included a Mullineux & Leeu blend from Swartland, South Africa that was obviously backboned by a great deal of Chenin. We fell in love with South African Chenins in a past life and this charmer is a great example of why. Not inexpensive, but very good.
Cocktails are a big deal at Luke’s. They’re as inventive and well prepared as the food and include fun stuff like a root beer float with pecan vodka, hoodoo liqueur, dark rum and espresso. A short list of signature cocktails is complemented by a long list of seasonal ones; a potion for whatever ails ya. We went signature. A Campfire Amber of Redemption rye, golden falernum, amaro and orange liqueur was a semi-sweet, potent bit of outtasight.
One of the things we guard against in our about-the-town escapades is the judging of Orlando restaurants solely in relation to other Orlando restaurants. We want to avoid locally contextualizing our appreciation for food. By not holding downtown Dovecote to the same standard as NYC’s Augustine, to not measure Wine Bar George against London’s Noble Rot or to compare Bulla to Asheville’s Curate, would be both a disservice to you, gentle reader, and contribute to the lowering of the bar that we should be aspiring to as a community of food makers and food lovers.
Despite this, we certainly still do it. Review in an echo chamber, that is. It’s almost impossible not to. So, it feels necessary when stating that we love Luke’s reboot to couch it by adding that we’re not saying the restaurant is a world beater. What we are saying is that Luke’s should currently be counted among the better restaurants in Orlando. Seasons change, but – right here, right now – it’s powered by an impressively talented kitchen that’s slinging some exceptional eats.