Recently, I went on a dining press trip to Orlando. What follows is a report on one of the restaurants where I ate. I can’t imagine a tougher culinary assignment than cooking for half a dozen persnickety food journalists. Chef Alberto Navarrete Arias certainly had his work cut out for him.
We went to dinner at La Luce (“The Light”) in the Hilton Bonnet Creek. I asked Chef Arias how he began cooking. “I got into cooking with my mother, learning the basics of Mexican food. Then in 1991 I moved to Napa CA, where I started working in the vineyards. I needed a second job, so I accepted a position at an Italian restaurant Bistro Don Giovanni. I started as a dishwasher, and then Chef Donna Scala started training me in the kitchen. I learned all of the cooking stations and felt a passion for Italian food. Then Chef Donna offered me the opportunity to come to Orlando and open La Luce.”
The late Donna Scala was a master chef who was very famous in Northern California. She was asked to supervise the cooking and to design the restaurant at La Luce. She opened the restaurant at Orlando’s Hilton Bonnet Creek. It has become the signature restaurant at the hotel. The restaurant design is modern, all right angles and glass. Chalk art, changed every six months, adorns the walls. La Luce has been open for six years. Reservations are highly recommended.
Everyone eating at La Luce seemed to be open and convivial in its privileged atmosphere. There was a healthy mix of seniors, millennials, business types and couples on a date night. The tables and chairs were wood with cushioned seats and backs.
The service was excellent: discreet, attentive and respectful. The waiters were knowledgable and helpful. They were willing to get any information that they didn’t have at hand. There were wine pairings which the waiters knew. The wine list at La Luce is generous and filled with options which the wait staff knew well.
The lighting was low, the sound level was filled with the murmurings of quiet conversation. The cavernous entrance is just off the lobby at the Hilton where one is greeted by a maitre d’ who has everyone’s table reservations on a colorful computer screen.
We ate a prepared menu. There were wine pairings with each course. After the antipasto course there was a salad course. I was very surprised at this for when I lived in Italy the salad course was always served at the end of the meal. I asked the chef about this and he said it is an accommodation to American tastes where salads are often served at the earlier stages of a meal.
We started with antipasti of olive fritte with marcona almonds and tiny pizzas served with prosecco. Next was a caesar salad, a barbabietole of roasted beets, green beans, fennel, avocado and roquefort vinaigrette. This was paired with an excellent vermentino. The flavor of the beets was delightful as they were organic and very flavorful. Organic beets are almost sweet with just the slightest edge of the tartness of canned beets.
I asked Chef Arias how he works with local suppliers. “We keep in touch with local farms and providers on a regular basis to check what is available weekly and monthly. That allows me to change the menu daily as well as every season too.”
The pasta course was pasta alla lina made with gnochetti with bubbling barbera d’asti. Following this was roasted chicken and seared salmon filet accompanied by potato puree with tomato and chive butter sauce. The wine for this was frescobaldi. It was a wonderful, satisfying conclusion to the meal. The dessert was butterscotch pudding with house made toffee and flourless chocolate cake and coffee.
The meal as a whole was quite wonderful. The restaurant lives up to its reputation of being one of Orlando’s best choices for one’s dining dollar.
Finally, I asked Chef Arias what his plans are for the future. “I want to take La Luce to the next level and keep creating new dishes. I also would like to stay within Hilton and continue to grow my career.”