It's always a good sign when you are seated in a new restaurant and you recognize the chef from another restaurant seated at the table next to you. Such was my introduction to the charming-in-every-way mi Tomatina on Winter Park's West New England Avenue "Restaurant Row."
I loved everything about this restaurant including the décor, the service, the menu choices and the food, and I also appreciated that mi Tomatina is one of a handful of restaurants serving a special menu item (now through Labor Day) in support of the James Beard Foundation. More on that in a moment.
One is immediately struck upon entering the restaurant with the large paintings inspired by the Spanish artist Joan Miró. Born in 1893, Miró created a form of accessible abstract art based on primary colors and simple shapes, and that influence is felt throughout the restaurant's beautiful décor, lending itself to every kind of dining from intimately romantic to large party celebrations.
And speaking of celebrations, mi Tomatina is named after that wild and crazy tomato festival held annually in Buñol, Spain, on the last Wednesday in August. The event - only slightly safer than the running of the bulls - sees thousands of people flocking to this little Spanish town for what is basically a huge tomato food fight.
Rest assured, however, no tomatoes are thrown in this distinctly European-influenced restaurant with "tapas" offerings that are presented in more generous portions than any tapas offering in Spain. I started with the Pan Con Tomate (bread with tomato sauce), which is special here because the bread is perfect and the tomato sauce is the first introduction to Chef Jose Baranenko's subtle, elegant spicing.
I tasted two soups - the first being the gazpacho, which is normally a chunky, cold tomato soup, but is elevated here to a creamed tomato soup. The soup winner, however, is the creamed zucchini and goat cheese soup (suggested to me by the chef sitting at the next table). It's called Crema de Calabacin, and it is sublime.
Then - from a wonderfully diverse menu - I ordered three (yes, three) of the tapas "entrees," and the wonderful news, dear readers, is that I honestly cannot tell you which one is best. The food here is... luxurious. We'll begin with Piquillos Rellenos, two peppers stuffed with cod and potatoes in a cheese and pepper sauce. I've already mentioned the subtle - and now I will say magical - spicing of Chef Jose. Even in the finest restaurants, the spices for a pepper dish are "prominent," but those of Chef Jose are so wonderfully subtle that you become aware of them as you are eating. His spicing has legs in the same way that we talk about a fine wine, and each bite is revelatory. In short - take your time to fully enjoy this very special cuisine.
Spanish chefs are known for cooking oxtail all day long, and I can only imagine what Chef Jose has done to create his oxtail presentation. This oh-so-tender dish is served with a wine sauce over what first looks like mashed potatoes - but surprise, is a potato mousse, created with a Sherry reduction. Amazing.
I then turned to the Pan Roast Duck, which is the menu item chosen by the illustrious James Beard Foundation as the offering created in support of the Foundation. Please understand that to place any offering in front of the representatives of the Foundation takes talent (and nerves of steel), so it is no surprise that the duck was both incredibly tasty but was also the most tender duck I'd ever eaten. In addition, there is a surprise taste, which is an integral part of this offering, which you must taste for yourself, because I cannot allow myself to spoil the surprise. And when you order the duck, please know that you are supporting the scholarship fund of the Beard Foundation.
So there you have it - another must-visit restaurant here in Winter Park, which comes more than highly recommended and which comes with the thanks of many for their wonderful entrée offering that supports aspiring culinary students.
If you've read this far, mi Tomatina offers a free sangria with each entrée for the month of July when you mention the Observer and tell them "Josh sent me."