I seriously don’t know what to make of Salt & the Cellar by Akira Back in the lowercased ette hotel in Kissimmee. On one hand, the food is as well crafted as you would expect from an internationally known chef, and it shows proof of the promised sourcing of fresh ingredients.
On the other hand… Well, there are several other hands.
Let’s talk first about the hotel itself because that drives the experience at the restaurant. The ette calls itself a “wellness-focused hotel,” and as such it does not sell alcohol. Or, as it says on the hotel’s website, “…we do not menu alcoholic beverages…”, which is the first time I’ve seen menu used as a verb. (I menu, you menu, he/she/it menus.)
That’s all well and good. Admirable even. Zero-alcohol drinks (I’ve never liked the term mocktails) are hot now, and it’s good to see another high-calibre restaurant embrace the trend. (The estimable Victoria & Albert’s offers a zero-proof pairing option.)
What’s odd is that guests are invited to bring their own bottles of wine and even liquor with no corkage fee added to the bill. I even overheard a waiter tell another table where the closest convenience store is if the guest wanted to pop out and get a bottle. I wonder if Canyon Ranch Spa invites guests to bring their own Marlboros and packages of Oreos. And by the way, just about every occupied table the evening I dined had a bottle of some form of alcohol.
Then there’s the ambience of the restaurant, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. As such, the decor is something akin to a fancy coffee shop, with wood–grained tables (the one I was seated at was already losing its finish), cane-back chairs with saffron cushions and banquets so low that even an adult might request a booster seat. Place settings feature elegant black chargers with folded linen napkins, polished flatware, and golden chopsticks resting on an obsidian-like shoe.
The food that Back has menued is meant to be both Mediterranean and Asian – Back was born in Seoul and grew up in Colorado – but the Asian influences are much more prevalent, with such things as toro tartare; sashimi; jidori chicken; and hot oil Dover sole in yuzu soy. There are few items on the menu without miso, ponzu or yuzu in the description beyond the section of steaks, which includes a 32-ounce 24 karat gold tomahawk steak for $450 or a 96-ounce platter version for $2200. So maybe the menu could be better described as Asian/Coloradan?
For my starter course I chose the AB wagyu tacos, which featured ground beef seasoned with tomato ponzu and gochujang, served in fried wonton shells. Flavorful, but not very spicy despite the gochujang chili paste. Tasty bites, though I’m not sure each taco was worth $6. (No, actually, I’m positive they weren’t.)
My entree was the miso cod, a small poached fillet with skin intact, the white flesh of the fresh fish infused with umami. It was accompanied by “yuzu air,” which was actually a foam and unbreathable, and a single pickled caulifloweret. What do you expect for $42?
I also sprang for the $10 togarashi fries, which had little red dots of what should have been chili powder but were underseasoned.
I did sample one of the alcohol-free cocktails, the one called Queen Bee, with smoked pear and parsnip, lapsang souchong tea, rice vinegar and zero-proof mezcal that had a nice peaty note. It was served in a bee-shaped vessel with dehydrated pear slices on the wings. (I think I would have called it a nonvodka stinger.) I felt a little silly sipping from a straw sticking out of the bumble bee’s bum. I felt even sillier paying 20 bucks for a nonalcoholic cocktail.
My server was peppy, and despite knowing that I was dining solo told me that dishes would come out in the order that they were prepared (starter and mains designations be damned) and would be placed in the center of the table for sharing. With whom? I asked.
And it was annoying to receive the check with an automatic 20 percent service charge but a charge slip that had an open space for a tip without noting it would be additional.
I do give kudos to ette for doing what it can to class up the neighborhood. The hotel sits just north of a tawdry stretch of U.S. Highway 192 that is dotted with the likes of Ponderosa Steak, Boston Lobster Feast and the unappealingly named burger joint Sickies Garage.
Faced with the alternatives, hotel guests might well choose to dine at Salt & the Cellar. But I find it difficult to recommend to anyone else.