Aurora at the Celeste Hotel near UCF serves plates that breach the astral plane Orlando
Mike Trudnak is incredibly down to earth for someone overseeing a space-themed restaurant. In fact, you will see him direct the food directly to the guests at the Aurora at the Celeste Hotel and then chat with them about the techniques used to prepare these dishes. When Trudnak passed our table to see how it was going, we asked him the same question. “Well, we have few staff. So if you don’t see a waiter or hostess, they’ll probably be bringing food to a guest at the hotel,” he said.
Just a sign of the times, I suppose. Trudnak does what needs to be done, even if it offers room service. When you hear Casey Kasem’s rasping voice in your head: “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.” Well, you’re probably my age, but you’re right too: Trudnak embodies all of Kasem’s brand motto – not only does the man show no semblance of ego, but his dishes are nothing short of outstanding, pun intended. And Trudnak doesn’t have more than two chefs in the kitchen on a given day.
Now a confession: even after drinking a couple of fine cocktails – the citric namesake Aurora ($ 13) and the great stranger ($ 15) a drunken beauty – we had doubts as to how good the food turned out to be Hotel restaurant on the UCF campus could possibly be. Sure, the restaurant looks great – I was expecting a stark, retro-futuristic aesthetic à la Hilton Space Station V in 2001: a space odyssey, but we were greeted by tasteful minimalism. The room has an immaculate serenity: the padded wall with the colors of the Aurora Borealis is a particularly nice touch, and I got totally geeked on the rocket ship display at the entrance.
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Then the eagle landed – more specifically, the wing-shaped duck with chilli glaze ($ 10). Why duck wings aren’t served in more restaurants I don’t know, but the Aurora’s wings and apartments were beautifully presented on a large blue plate sprinkled with shaved celery and a touch of blue cheese crème fraîche. For $ 6, they’re an absolute bargain during happy hour (4pm to 6pm). But the heavenly crab cake ($ 12) also offers perfection. The browned puck was embedded in horseradish tartar sauce and topped with shrimp made from pickled fennel, charred lemon pieces and microgreens.
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Next, the sun made itself felt in the bright dining room, adding a distinct shine to thyme vinaigrette greens in the local salad ($ 12). Red and green heirloom tomatoes brought a lot of pop; Fried chickpeas provided the crunch. From the main course list, Trudnak suggested the grilled rock steak ($ 30) and said, “I marinate it in papaya, honey, and garlic, which makes every bite tender.” Numerous cuts in the asparagus-coated steak made it look like petrified wood. But Trudnak was right. I honestly don’t remember eating this delicate skirt before. At the edge of the plate were strategically placed fries parisienne and cherry tomatoes, linked by a strip of smoked herb sauce. Sweet.
The root vegetable pavé ($ 22) was a valiant attempt at a meatless main course: layers of red and yellow beets, parsnips, rutabaga, celery, and sweet potatoes, pressed, boiled, and then chilled before being coated with asparagus and black rice. The pavé sat over celery and pea puree, but what the dish really needed was a sour / spicy component to offset those sweet and uh earthy flavors.
Moon pies and milky ways for dessert? Oh no. Trudnak is shooting for the stars with a $ 17 production called “Supernova” that includes a Ghirardelli brownie topped by a dwarf planet (it’s actually a dark chocolate dome that has been planetary airbrushed). It dramatically implodes after a warm rum and caramel sauce is poured over it, revealing an interior of vanilla ice cream and mashed raspberries. It was served with a sprinkle of candied walnuts and was of course a show stopper for an end.
An important note: if the service appears to be disabled, read the first paragraph again. Yes, the restaurant will be staffed when UCF returns to normal operations in August (and as we get closer to herd immunity) which should only make the experience here all the better. Though I wouldn’t worry about that – it seems the stars are already aligned for Aurora.
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