A new hotel, The Celeste, opened last fall on the edge of the UCF campus. And as is often the case, with the new hotel came a new restaurant, Aurora at the Celeste.
If you were just passing through Aurora, perhaps on your way to a function on the tailored event space lawn just off the restaurant’s patio, you might dismiss it as little more than a perfunctory coffee shop, there only to serve basic fare to weary guests; the decor does little to dissuade that notion.
Frankly, just reading the menu probably won’t stir any hopes of good food either. Skirt steak, grilled salmon, a burger, shrimp and grits (is it a law now that every restaurant must have shrimp and grits on its menu?) – don’t foretell great things to come.
But come in, have a seat – there are plenty available most evenings – and let the kitchen, led by chef Mike Trudnak, change your mind.
I had a feeling I wasn’t in Kansas – or in this case East Orlando – anymore shortly after my guest and I were seated on the patio and the chef appeared tableside to offer a welcome appetizer. (I may have been recognized – I made the reservation under a different name – but honestly I think they were all just happy to have someone come in for dinner.) He offered the appetizer of five deviled quail eggs, each sitting upright with the help of a truffle-infused aioli and topped with tobiko. So, tiny eggs topped with tinier eggs. A swirl of spicy sriracha, scattered flower petals, a stack of microgreens and a sprinkling of salt shards decorated the plate.
And each one was a delightful bite.
We also had the crab cake appetizer, a nicely formed and seared puck topped with ribbons of pickled fennel and sitting in a tartar-sauce-like remoulade tinged with horseradish. There was a fine showing of crabmeat with bits of pepper and onion blended in. A nice crab cake.
And that skirt steak was revelatory of Trudnak’s skills. The meat was chargrilled to a beautifully red and juicy medium rare, sliced and served on top of grilled asparagus spears, surrounded by tiny potatoes and roasted tomatoes and surrounded by a moat of smoked herb sauce, all served in a cobalt blue bowl. I didn’t leave a morsel.
Only the Korean fried chicken flatbread disappointed. The little nuggets of chicken seemed to have more breading than meat and they weren’t spicy at all. What’s more, the flatbread was smeared with a Thai peanut sauce that gave it a mealy consistency. I might have wondered what a Thai peanut sauce was doing with Korean fried chicken but I wondered more why the whole thing was drizzled with a sweetish raspberry coulis.
Much like the inside dining room, the patio doesn’t offer much in the way of ambience other than the view of the lovely green space next to it, and the pulsing music that didn’t seem to have any melody was a bit annoying.
But our server was pleasant, prompt and professional, as were the other members of the staff who genuinely seemed to want us to have an enjoyable dinner.
East Orlando isn’t exactly a hotbed of nonchain, full-service restaurants. It’s nice to have a place to not only help to fill that void but to fill it with such high-quality and creative fare.
Aurora at the Celeste is at 4105 N. Alafaya Trail, Orlando (map) (entrance is on the campus side off of Gemini Boulevard). It is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. The phone number is 407-207-4700.