I had a terrible weekend in the south-central Florida town of Arcadia one time. I'd been drawn principally by the name -- but the place turned out to be far from paradisal: restaurants closed at 8 and were mostly dry. The villagers were like something out of a creepy M. Night Shyamalan movie: Humorless Pentecostals by day, you expected them to don goat masks and gather for blood-drenched orgies on the stroke of midnight.
I kind of expected as much from DeLand. But I was terribly wrong. In fact, DeLand turned out to be something of a gourmet's arcadia -- the real thing. Not only does this charming little city, just three hours north by car in Volusia County, have an excellent, global cuisine restaurant called Cress but it's also home to two wide-ranging wine shops -- Designing Wine, which makes homemade wine, and the
Elusive Grape (DeLand also hosts an annual winetasting event in August). And of course, the reason we'd gone in the first place was to visit Deep Creek Ranch, which supplies free-range, grass-fed beef and lamb to the most respected restaurants in Florida, including our own 3030 Ocean, Cafe Boulud, and the Breakers (and Michael's Genuine in Miami).
The Saturday we showed up, the town was putting on a Pirates' pub crawl, principally for the purpose of doing beer tastings. The streets were awash in buxom damsels and their peg-legged swain, each wearing a tiny beer mug on a chain strung around their necks. The pirates were loping from bar to bar sampling brews. I was still spooked in case the town might shut down at nightfall, so I went straight to the Elusive Grape and picked up a bottle of Lost Canyon Russian River Pinot Noir, just to be safe.
We had dinner at Cress, which showed no signs of closing early. The proprietors here are a husband-and-wife team, Hari and Jennefer Pulapaka. Jennefer is a physician. Hari is originally from Mumbai and is a tenured Stetson University math prof who changed course and graduated from the program at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Orlando (he's now temporarily on leave from Stetson). The menu they've put together is seasonal/international, based around vegetables drawn from their own organic garden -- butternut squash, greens, roasted peppers. There's tikka masala curry made with free-range chicken next to slow-braised leg of lamb with rosemary grits or a roasted breast of duck with blackberry habanero reduction and those same grits -- which are so delicious that they make your toes curl. The duck dish was out of this world. Cape Canavaral shrimp with chorizo and locally made bread to soak up the sauce was good too. There's a fish and a wild-game dish on the menu that changes often (salmon and ostrich, the night we dined.) The only miss was a completely soupy crème brûlée -- I couldn't fathom why they served it to us.
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And I can't fathom why they aren't buying their lamb and beef from Deep Creek Ranch, just a half hour or so away, either. We took the ranch tour the next day and were blown away by the knowledge, passion, and enthusiasm of the Strawn family and their deep love for the animals they're raising (Angus and South Pol beef and lamb -- father David is also experimenting with dairy farming). Trish, David's daughter, gave us the tour, apprising us of why she'd never raise goats again (no fence can keep them in) and pointing out the ranch's semi-tame fox squirrel while salting her spiel with facts about animal genetics and her long quest to get perfect marbling in grass-fed beef.
Trish is currently working with two labs, sending tissue samples from her cattle to conclusively show that grass-fed beef is high in omega-3s, which decline drastically as soon as the animal is put on a grain diet (omega-3 levels recover almost as quickly when they're switched back to grass). She's a staunch advocate of healthy meat and humane husbandry (one of her favorite phrases is: "I don't believe in..." ). We were thoroughly won over and brought back three pounds of burger that we plan to grill this weekend, guilt-free.