ORLANDO, Fla. – Kaya, a new Filipino restaurant in Orlando’s Mills 50 neighborhood, is currently in its soft opening for friends and family but will be opening up to the wider public in the coming days.
The business opened its doors to the media to preview what guests can expect from the tasting menu, which will offer five “waves” of Filipino cuisine served in a “casual, fine dining” atmosphere.
Co-owner Jamilyn Salonga Bailey said they refer to the various offerings on the tasting menu as waves rather than courses because each wave may actually include several dishes. As for the idea of casual fine dining, Bailey said it all about allowing customers to “come as they are.”
There’s no pretension or having to feel intimidated by the restaurant experience. There’s not a white tablecloth, but it’s fine dining because of the attention to detail and the intention in our sourcing and our ingredients and in our service that is at the level of fine dining,” she said.
The restaurant sits at 601 N. Thornton Ave. inside the former Dandelion Cafe. The name Kaya means capable in Filipino and is also the name of chef and co-owner Lordfer Lalicon’s daughter.
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The interior had to be completely gutted and refurbished to bring it up to code, according to Bailey. The restaurant’s interior is now a clean white with polished stainless steel counters and slate gray tables. The walls are adorned with art from Orlando artists as well as family photos from the owners and traditional Filipino woven baskets. The ceiling features tiered shelves made to look similar to rice terraces.
The evening started with the bartenders serving up two of Kaya’s signature cocktails. The Masaya, which is named after Lalicon’s son, features Flor De Cana white rum, Wray + Nephew Overproof Run and housemade hibiscus tea. The Alleged Negroni, which is not a negroni at all, features Mahina Coco rum, pineapple rum and Bonal, an herbal liqueur.
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Once seated, guests were served an amuse-bouche of Burong Isda, which featured fermented lionfish mixed with tomato, onion and garlic served with a harukei radish. The fermented fish offered a rich and unctuous flavor while turnip offered some needed freshness to the bite.
For the first wave of the meal, guests were served kinilaw. Bailey described the dish as being similar to ceviche. The kinilaw featured Key West flounder and a radish salad sitting in a coconut milk and ginger foam. The dish was bright and light with sweetness from the foam and a mild peppery bite from the radish.
The second wave featured pancit, served family-style. Bailey described pancit, which is a stir-fried noodle dish, as a great gateway food for those new to Filipino cuisine. This pancit featured mung bean noodles stir-fried in mushroom jus and oyster sauce and served with Italian brown mushrooms, okra, rainbow carrots, red napa cabbage, red bell peppers, all topped with a poached egg. The mushrooms and oyster sauce provided a deep umami flavor which help cut through the richness of the egg yolk along with the sweetness of the carrots and bell pepper.
The third wave featured three entrees all served family-style with a large pot of garlic rice. Bailey explained that each entree is seasoned to be eaten with rice, rather than on its own. She warned that flavors may seem very strong, but assured that they would be mellowed by the addition of Lalicon’s garlic rice.
First, the staff served up Ginataan Na Hipon, which was a dish of shrimp served in a broth of coconut milk and crab fat, topped with zucchini and summer squash. The shrimp, served whole, were cooked to perfection. The sauce was rich and buttery with a mild sweetness that complimented the briny shrimp.
Next, adobong kabute was served. The adobo dish was made of lion’s man and oyster mushrooms braised in soy sauce and vinegar, served alongside glazed radishes and spinach. The umami of the mushrooms was complimented by the tang and sweetness of the adobo braise.
Lastly, Humba was brought to the table. The dish consists of pork belly glazed in soy sauce and brown sugar and crusted with peanuts. The dish was served with a Seminole squash puree and sweet potato greens. All of the entrees were delicious but the humba was the star. The pork was fork-tender. It was exceptionally rich but not overwhelming.
The final dessert wave of the meal consisted of three dishes. Up first, an ube flan with toasted coconut and small citrus fruit salad on the side. The coconut complimented the rich ube flan perfectly, while the citrus helped to cut through the sweetness.
After the flan, guests were served suman malagkit, which is a rice cake steamed in a banana leaf, which is then topped with caramel. The glutinous rice used in the cake provided a satisfying, chewy texture while the caramel provided some much-needed sweetness to the dish.
The last dish of the evening was a small scoop of mango ice cream from the soon-to-open Sampaguita served with an uraro cookie, which is made with arrowroot. The cookie was crumbly like a shortbread cookie but light and fluffy like a sugar cookie. The ice cream had a nice bite of fresh mango and was not overly sweet.
The meal was extremely varied and satisfying. It offered up a wide cross-section of flavors from across the Phillippines. The staff was attentive and knowledgeable. Each dish was eagerly explained by the servers in detail, down to the farm from which the produce was sourced.
The experience of Kaya does come with a not-insignificant price tag: $95 per person plus a built-in 20% gratuity and tax for the tasting menu. While that may sound steep for a night out, it is less expensive than an average tasting menu experience.
Bailey said the built-in gratuity allows Kaya to pay its staff fairly.
“We basically pay all of our staff well above minimum wage to ensure that there’s equitable pay across front and back of house,” she said.
While Kaya remains in its soft opening, the restaurant is planning a grand opening event sometime in December, though an official date has not yet been announced.