I guess I was just expecting too much.
I got excited when the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort announced, in September, that it was opening Rosa Mexicano in a space at the Dolphin hotel. Rosa Mexicano is a small chain – the Orlando location is the 11th – that started on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 1984 and bills itself as serving “Mexican food in a fine dining atmosphere.”
What’s more, that atmosphere would be provided by the designer David Rockwell, whose portfolio includes Nobu restaurants worldwide, Union Square Cafe in New York and Gordon Ramsay’s Maze in London. His group also designs sets for Broadway shows and theaters. Locally, the Rockwell Group designed the Cirque du Soleil theater at Disney Springs and the interior of the now-closed Emeril Lagasse’s Tchoup Chop.
So, one of my favorite cuisines in a fine dining atmosphere inside a David Rockwell-designed restaurant? I’m there.
And by there I mean the Rosa Mexicano on the Upper West Side across the street from Lincoln Center for a pre-theater dinner.
Disappointment doesn’t begin to describe my feelings about that visit and the subsequent one I made to the new Rosa Mexicano in Orlando.
This is not fine dining. This is a loud, boisterous family restaurant. The food in both locations was marginal at best (slightly better in New York), and the only real Rockwellian design touch is a series of miniature sculptures meant to depict Acapulco cliff divers.
At the Lincoln Center restaurants the divers make a, um, splashy display on a two-story tiled wall at the bottom of which is a trough. It appeared as though water is supposed to be cascading down the tiles into a pool at the bottom, but it was not working and looked as though it had not been wet for some time. (Big surprise for the divers at the bottom.)
At the Dolphin, the divers are attached to two floor-to-ceiling panels with no attempt to make them wet. The rest of the space features grill work, both as room dividers and overhead panels.
A signature at Rosa Mexicano is the guacamole, and in New York, rare was the table – among many, many tables – that did not have a molcajete filled with green pulp. It’s meant to be done tableside, but so crowded was the restaurant that the man making the guacamole – the guacamolier? – gave up and just did the mixing in a corner of the big room. The texture was perfect but the dip needed lime and salt.
I saw no guac cart in Orlando and no one around me had any. I sampled the guacamole as part of the “Rosa’s signature nachos” that my dinner companion and I ordered for a starter. Instead of the usual stack of chips, Rosa’s nachos featured individual tortillas, puffed and crispy, each dotted with black bean dip, cheeses (chihuahua and cotija), guacamole and pico de gallo. I like this style of nachos over the big pile and the flavors here were good. The nachos were $16, with added cost if you want chicken ($7), shrimp ($12) or beef ($15).
Here I ordered the birria quesatoacos prepared in the traditional way with shredded beef brisket and cheese in corn tortillas fried in the beef fat and served with a bowl of consomme for dipping. Birria tacos are supposed to be somewhat wet, but they’re not supposed to be this greasy.
The pork carnitas de cazuela was the one dish I ordered on both visits. It featured hunks of roast pork served in a small cast iron pan (which isn’t technically a traditional cazuela) with avocado, pickled onions and cabbage, accompanied by warm corn tortillas in a hot pink tortillero. At Lincoln Center, the dish was passable; in Orlando, the chunks of pork were too large to fit on the small tortillas without cutting them up first. They were also dry and chewy and seemed to have been cooked without seasoning. Flavorless.
After I asked for my check and my charge slip was brought to my table, I had to move the plates out of my way to make room to sign it.
The Swan and Dolphin have several restaurants – Shula’s Steak House, Kimonos, Todd English’s bluezoo among them – worth visiting for locals. Rosa Mexicana, sadly, isn’t one of them.