Mills 50 mainstay makes the familiar feel new, the new feel familiar
There’s security in novelty. So much so that it often becomes a soothingly convincing stand-in for personal growth. If it is new, I am new. For foodie folk chasing fireflies, novelty not only delivers quick comfort, it can supersede quality as a measure of good. But, in the kitchen as in life, novelty is a fruit that – however sweet – dies quickly on the vine.
The Strand is not a shiny new thing. It doesn’t pretend to be, it doesn’t aspire to be. In fact, any novelty gleaned from the small Mills 50 eatery would have to be eked from its anti-shiny appeal. It feels like a throwback – a neighborhood diner – albeit one with urban edge and free from contrivance. It’s not a time machine or PBR-fueled theme park ride. It’s a restaurant that just feels real. Genuine. Like it’s always been here and always should.
There aren’t many restaurants in Orlando like The Strand. Small, family run, specializing in locally-focused New American fare served to a genuinely diverse clientele. A restaurant that eschews culinary gamesmanship. That doesn’t pander to the scenester set. Even the food-apathetic and tragically unhip seem to have a seat at its busy counter. It’s for these reasons, and more, that we adore it.
The Strand has modest beginnings – born of nostalgia – the type of place proprietors Alda and Joe Rees remember from their youth and were eager to emulate. “We wanted to create a restaurant that offered a nod to the past, a respect for the present, and an excitement for the future,” said Alda. She and Joe moved to the Mills 50 area 27 years ago, fell in love and never looked back. Across six years of being in business, their restaurant has become a haunt for the eclectic mix of Orlandoans that flock to the funky, downtownish ‘hood for a dose of out-of-the-ordinary.
Those with magpie eyes might fail to see The Strand’s immediate charm. There are no architectural acrobatics or selfie walls. Not a dandy mixologist in sight. At night there is a level of soft-lit, low key intimacy that might be lost on diners seeking to be shaken rather than stirred. The vibe isn’t lost on us. We find it brilliantly understated. As we do the food – food that’s well sourced, well-conceived, well prepared, and well plated.
The Strand is open for lunch and dinner. We’ve been frequenting it for the former for years. Daytime hours are abuzz with slice-of-workaday-life Orlando noshing on the likes of burgers, steak frites and salmon croquettes – all of which we’ve enjoyed. Worth mentioning the burger as its reflective of the restaurant itself. It’s not a towering, monster-truckish tilt-a-whirl of wagyu, lit sparklers and deep-fried clown shoes stacked between Krispy Kreme buns. It’s just a very good burger. Fresh and tasty. One made to be put in your mouth, not your phone.
For whatever irrational reason, we only recently decided to pay The Strand a visit at dinner. We’re happy we did. It’s safe-bet good during the day. It’s a must when the sun goes down.
Growing up in Connecticut, Joe and Alda were weaned on seasonal, fresh, homemade foods. And, although a commitment to local, seasonal sourcing and scratch cooking isn’t the most newfangled of restaurant concepts, it’s an admirable and time-tested one that most clearly defines the Strand. Its dedication to this concept couldn’t be more visible. Because the dividing line between front and back of house at the restaurant is non-existent, guests have a clear view of Joe carefully putting the kitchen through its paces, knocking out dishes buoyed by ingredients from a host of friendly and familiar names; Frog Song, Ever Oak, Lake Meadow, Old Hearth and Nearby Naturals among them.
A riff on poisson à la nage – normally featuring fish sorta steamed and sorta poached in a simple white wine broth – was gorgeous. Although the cod was seared and the traditional broth was a saffron-shrimp stock, we didn’t care. We weren’t eating words. Topped with crisped pancetta and accompanied by pickled zucchini and potato gratin they could have called it Nemo à la mode and we would’ve devoured it. Perfectly cooked. Deliciously inauthentic.
Scallops with wheatberry risotto and crispy brussels sprouts were equally successful. The scallops themselves were sweet, buttery and full of life and worked well with the nuttiness of the sprouts, but the beurre blanc saucing is what burned this dish into our brains. Because it lacks the binding benefit of egg, beurre blanc can be tricky to pull off – especially in restaurants – but pull it off they did and in a wonderfully subtle way.
I imagine that if I grew up on a farm – not an actual working farm, mind you, but the pastoral ideal of one – one that hosted weddings in the hayloft – I would arrive home at the end of the day, tired from admiring my clean fingernails, to find maple and chipotle glazed hen with sweet potato puree, seared turnips and greens atop our handcrafted, artisan kitchen table. This is not what I was thinking when the dish was presented to us at The Strand. It was more ‘how quickly do I need to eat this to avoid sharing it?’ But, retrospectively, its homey goodness was indeed the manifestation of a rural pipe dream – wholesome and ingredients-first.
Finally, a short rib special with bok choy and herbed potato dumplings hit all the right notes flavor-wise. The meat was ever-a-skosh dry, but easily remedied by introducing it to the juiciness of its environs.
The thoughtfulness and attention to detail on display in these dishes carries over to a strong and diverse wine list. We find it one of the more interesting lists in town, studded with small production vineyards like Oregon’s Swick and seldom seen selections like a Tenerife gual and Austrian zweigelt, as well as a range of orange wine.
We went more traditional, settling on a bottle of 2017 Produttori del Barbaresco Langhe Nebbiolo ($62, $30 retail), which although a bit richer than most, proved a solid expression of the varietal that played fairly well with what was a diverse range of plates.
For weirdo beerdos, there’s an equally impressive (albeit limited) range of hyper-locals from reliable reliables like Redlight Redlight, Ravenous Pig, and Hourglass.
Between our entrees, drinks and savvy but down to earth service, there was very little to find fault with. But, in the spirit of finding fault in everything….
We have to rewind slightly to gripe. At most restaurants, starters outshine mains. It makes sense. Much in the same way a short story or film is a license to experiment with form (or abandon it), appetizers are a chance for creativity to take center stage – snapshots that don’t come with the bite after bite burden of mains. Despite this near infallible truism, the feature outdid the trailers.
Fried mushrooms failed to generate much excitement – we found they lacked ‘shroominess – bland spongy wrapped in bland spongy. Mole glazed octopus reached the level of respectable – but not even its polenta and pineapple twist could take it far beyond. Clam chowder? A thinner tomato-based affair and good in a way that clam chowder always leans toward good but – again – a dish no one felt inspired to praise, critique or return for. Our best intro-nosh was a take on shrimp remoulade with fried avocado. Granted, none of the above was left on the plate – just, when taken as a whole, it was a comparatively weaker chapter in an outstanding book of a meal. The mains seemed more conceptually cohesive and backed by more measured intent. OK. Griping over. Felt good.
We adhere to a guideline that’s served us well in life: When communicating to the artist, lead with praise. When communicating to the audience, lead with criticism. In this respect, we suppose this review is addressed to the Strand. A love letter of sorts. And like all love letters, it’s rife with highly subjective praise, meanders like a muddy river and was written while intoxicated. But, unlike that of the ignorantly amorous, our love isn’t totally blind. When put under a microscope, there’s flaws to be found – not everything that comes out of The Strand’s kitchen succeeds – but in an Orlando where veneer can pass for substance and novelty for quality, it’s about as genuinely good of a restaurant as you’ll find.