Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Chalet Suzanne - Lake Wales, FL

Although we've lived here for less than a year and a half, we soon discovered upon our arrival that echoes of Old Florida (and by "old", I mean pre-Disney World; that is, before 1970 or so) can be found without too much effort.  This includes attractions such as Weeki Wachee (site of a classic mermaid show dating back to the 1940s), Columbia Restaurant (the state's oldest, dating back to 1905) in Tampa, numerous roadside orange juice stands (these are normally closed during the hot summer months), and an historic lakeside resort in the middle of the state named Chalet Suzanne in Lake Wales (about 90 miles east of the Canteen).  Founded by the Hinshaw Family in 1931, the resort came into prominence shortly after a visit from Mr. and Mrs. Duncan Hines (yes, the cake mix people), who were so charmed by the property that they included it in one of their leisure travel guides as a place of interest when visiting Florida.  Back then, I suspect there wasn't a whole lot going on between Atlanta and Miami, so Chalet Suzanne became a natural stopping point for celebrities (Johnny Carson, Burt Reynolds, Dolly Parton, Paul Harvey, and Rosemary Clooney, among others) passing through on their way to/from South Florida.  Along the way, the resort's restaurant gained a reputation for cooking high-class, continental fare, eventually earning a place in Florida Trend Magazine's "Golden Spoon" Hall of Fame, designating it as one of the few remaining heritage restaurants in the state.

Anyway, I hadn't heard of Chalet Suzanne until just recently, when the 4th generation of Hinshaw hoteliers officially announced they would be closing the resort until a new owner could be found. As it turns out, their final days of operation happened to include the same weekend that we needed to drop Hackknife Jr. off at sleep-a-way camp a mere 10 miles away.  Excited by the prospect of dining at a Florida heritage restaurant before it potentially vanishes forever, I arranged for the family to stay there one night and made sure we secured a dinner reservation.

Chalet Suzanne is not a traditional hotel as much as a collection of mismatched-yet-charming cottages and buildings that have a vague German/Swiss appearance (a result of the family lineage, I suspect). Each of the 26 guest rooms is given a name in lieu of a number (ours was "Blue Tree North") and is decorated in the style of what I would describe as your grandmother's guest room, all doilies and lace and fancy lamps. Our bathroom featured a riotous display of vivid blue and yellow Spanish tile (original to the building, according to the website) surrounding what was most likely the smallest bathtub in the history of Western Civilization (see photo below).

While some of the decor might have been a little quirky, the personal attention that the owners bestow upon their guests was first-rate, with little touches like a carafe of sherry waiting for us in the room (we made quick work of that later in the evening after the kids were in bed), turn-down service with homemade chocolate truffles, and a complimentary happy hour in the property's historic little Swedish bar.

They weren't kidding when they named the bar - it is, in fact, very small. One can almost imagine Hemingway perched at a corner table, tumbler of aquavit in hand, fixated on the intense murals depicting what appears to be the history of Sweden (editor's note - to the best of my knowledge, Hemingway was never here, may never have drunk aquavit, or ever had any kind of substantial thought regarding Swedish history).

Not long after the happy hour, the family made their way back to the main dining complex (the Swedish bar is here along with the dining room) for our anixously-awaited dinner (it's not every day that an unabashed foodie like me gets to sample historic Florida cuisine). According to the Chalet Suzanne website, the resort's original restaurant burnt down sometime in the mid-1940s and a replacement was cobbled together from a number of existing small structures (among them a stable and a chicken coop) on a hill sloping down towards the property's small lake, yielding a sprawling, single building with 14 different levels. This elevation change is brutally obvious as soon as you enter the front door into a multi-tiered salon that might have been conceived in a Lewis Carroll rabbit hole somewhere. If you had too much to drink during happy hour, making it all the way to the hostess stand without tumbling into antique furniture would definitely be a challenge.

If you survive the walk through salon, the dining room is serene, not as cluttered with curios, and, most importantly, flat. Many of the tabletops featured a Spanish tile pattern similar to that of our bathroom and held table settings that were completely mismatched (I reckon this has been the case here long before it was hip to do so).

Although restaurant patrons can order a la carte off the menu, Mrs. Hackknife and I both opted for the traditional 5-course dinner featuring many of the dishes that earned the resort its Golden Spoon designation (along with recognition from Mobil and Uncle Ben's, themselves relics of an earlier time when fine dining in American mostly meant steakhouse). First up was perhaps the most famous Chalet Suzanne creation, a half of Florida grapefruit with a topping of caramelized cinnamon sugar and crispy sauteed chicken liver (see photo below).

Not being a fan of grapefruit, I can say with some certainty that this is by far the best prep of that fruit item I've ever seen and I happily ate it all. If this creation doesn't scream quintessential Florida cuisine, I'm not sure what does (and I sure hope that Tampa chef Greg Baker includes some version of it at his new Florida-focused restaurant, Fodder and Shine).

The next course was the restaurant's signature soup, one that at first glance looked suspiciously like Cream of Spinach, but was actually romaine, or "Moon", soup as they refer to it since this recipe traveled to the Moon in 1973 with the Apollo 15 astronauts (in fact, many Chalet Suzanne soups produced from the property's own cannery were available at one time in stores nationwide - we purchased a number of them to bring home, although a few of the cans looked as if they might have been undisturbed since the last moon landing).

The romaine soup was rich and tasty (I can see why the astronauts wanted it in space), much more distinctive than the house salad that followed, which included a couple of blobs of tomato and citrus aspic (Julia Child would have been proud).

For our entrees, I had been leaning towards the Duck a l'Orange (another throwback), but had to take the Maine Lobster Newburg instead after the missus chose a slightly different dish, a Lobster Thermidor that was one of the kitchen's specials that evening.

Although very similar (both lobster dishes were served in a crock topped with Gruyere cheese and paired with two giant wedges of puff pastry intended to soak up that sinful sauce), Lobster Newburg is an American creation that predates the French-created Lobster Thermidor by about 25 years. Each prep features a cholesterol-spiking dose of cream, eggs, and butter, along with sherry or cognac for good measure. The sauteed zucchini/squash that accompanied my entree was largely forgettable, but I'll never forget this Lobster Newburg, which was a tad less sweet than Mrs. Hackknife's equally impressive Lobster Thermidor (although I'm puzzled as to why they couldn't use Florida spiny lobster instead of Maine crustaceans in these dishes).

Given the uber-rich entree, I opted for a more restrained dessert, a simple, satisfying slice of chocolate and almond meringue cake (see photo below).

While our meal at Chalet Suzanne was very good given our location far from any major population center and the age of the property, I'd be remiss if I didn't note that the service was surprisingly awful that night. To say that the kitchen moved at the speed of molasses would be an insult to molasses. I believe it was a full hour between the time that we were first seated and our first course (the grapefruit) arrived at our table (during the delay, the waitstaff replaced our breadbasket with not our first course, but another breadbasket, never a good sign). It became readily apparent that the kitchen was the bottleneck before too long because no one in the half-full dining room (at least as far as that I could see) had any food. Our waitress stopped by to apologize a couple of times as she repeatedly filled my water glass, then eventually stopped making eye contact altogether whenever she passed by (also never a good sign). We finally received our first three courses in a flurry, then incurred another long delay (45 minutes?) before seeing our entrees - at one point, the server mentioned that she had told the chefs we'd been reduced to eating our kids' mac and cheese (thank goodness we'd at least received their orders), and, while she was joking, I misunderstood her since I actually HAD been taking a few bites of Hackknifette's food in desperation. Dessert arrived after yet another 20-minute lag and what began as a nice family dinner had turned into 3 hours of frustration (to their credit, my kids were angels this whole time). I have to believe that the kitchen was undermanned on this last weekend of operation due to the resort's impending closure - under normal circumstances (especially given the cost of the meal), I would have walked out of any restaurant lagging that far behind with orders (and I can think of very few times when I ever wanted to do that). In any case, I sincerely hope that the Hinshaws can find a buyer that respects the property's history and is willing to put some cash into the restaurant so that some current awards (Michelin anyone?) might adorn the walls. This food is an classic example of old Florida that needs to be preserved...

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