I’ll admit that my heart sank a bit when I learned that Bull & Bear, the signature fine dining restaurant at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, would undergo a major renovation. I feared it would succumb, as so many other upscale restaurants had before it – Dux, Atlantis, Arthur’s 27, Manuel’s on the 28th – to the changing preferences of today’s diners, who say, some believe, that they no longer want the posh, white glove dining experience those restaurants provided.
Bull & Bear, when it opened with the Orlando resort in 2009, the first Waldorf Astoria outside of Manhattan, was the epitome of a fine dining restaurant. Its decor was so sumptuous and elegant that I even used a photograph of its dining room on the guidebooks I used to publish.
So I held my breath when I was invited to dine at the recently reopened Bull & Bear, braced for the disappointment of a toned-down experience. But what I found surprised and delighted me. Not only had it not been casualized, the decor had somehow become even more elegant. And the food, always first-rate, more creative and impressive in its quality and presentation.
Presentation may be the area that has changed the most, with more tableside service, including a billowing liquid nitrogen ice cream dessert and a Bull & Bear smoked old fashioned served in a clear-glass bull-shaped decanter filled with hickory smoke. (The liquid – an exceptionally good old fashioned made with Michter’s Small Batch Bourbon, Antica Formula Vermouth, vanilla pepper syrup and Bull & Bear Signature Bitters – pours through the tail rather than the mouth.) As the famous restaurant marketing adage goes: You don’t sell the steak, you sell the sizzle. But instead of being gimmicky, the old fashioned presentation – it serves four people – adds a bit of whimsy at the start of the meal and keeps the experience from being stuffy.
The menu has many B&B favorites as well as new menu items, with more to be added in the next several weeks. (Juan Suarez is the chef de cuisine.) My dining companion and I started with an appetizer called Pasta Explosion, which featured ravioli filled with Iberico Pata Negra de Bellota ham topped with a square of thinly sliced parmesan and shaved truffle. The explosion was metaphorical, with all the flavors bursting together in one bite.
We also shared the salad called simply The Tomato, though there was nothing simple about it. The eponymous produce was filled with burrata and revealed only when sliced in two, a bit of savory sorcery. It was accompanied by arugula and white balsamic caviar with pumpernickel croutons and basil foam. Delicious.
My dinner guest chose the Veal Oscar, which was appropriate – the preparation is said to have been a creation of Oscar Tschirky, maitre d’hotel at New York’s Waldorf in the early 20th century. The star of the dish was a 14-ounce bone-in chop atop asparagus spears and topped with plump lump crabmeat. Hollandaise was served on the side. The meat was firm but tender, and the sweetness of the crab was a nice counterpoint.
I chose the wagyu – at a place called Bull & Bear you might as well go for the best bull. It was 12 ounces of buttery meatness, perfectly seared and needing none of the various sauces that came with it.
We also had a taste of the Escargot & Gnocchi, which had shimeji mushrooms and black garlic along with the snails, which, according to the menu, were fed on basil. Who am I to challenge that?
A side of Bull & Bear frites was revelatory. They looked like regular fries but had a crisp exterior like none I’ve experienced, and an inside that was ethereal.
For dessert I had one of my all-time favorites that, like The Tomato, is called The Lemon. It’s a whole Meyer lemon that has had its insides extracted and, after being sous vided in simple syrup, filled with sorbet, Chantilly cream and lemon curd. It manages to be tart and sweet at the same time and it’s also an impressive presentation. (Franck Riffaud is the executive pastry chef.)
The layout of the dining room, which overlooks the resort’s pool, is much the same. The decor, which used to have reds and tartan patterns, now features sea foam green banquets and beige chairs. Tables are covered with crisp white linens and exquisite dinnerware, from the chargers to the plates and other dishes, is by Bernardaud. The overall atmosphere is vibrant but not chaotic. It’s conducive to quiet conversation, and the low lighting is romantic.
The service, from lead staff to servers to assistants, was professional and intuitive.
It may be that younger diners prefer more casual surroundings, even at a price-point such as Bull & Bear’s. But I still like a special occasion restaurant that still feels special, especially one with food as reliably consistent as it is here.