By Rick Sylvain
HOWEY-IN-THE-HILLS, Fla. — Barely weeks into his new role at Mission Inn Resort & Club, Executive Chef Mark Zollo suddenly found himself scrambling more than eggs.
The sudden onset of the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March 2020 meant there were four restaurants to re-evaluate, menus to reassess “and some circling of the wagons” as to how far and how fast to move forward with his vision of progressive American cuisine with a tropical Florida flair.
For a four-decades chef whose resume included Doral Resort and Country Club in South Florida and the Peabody Hotel Memphis, the goal was being nimble enough to pivot in a crisis.
Pivot he did. Happily, Central Floridians will find the resort that they know and love still makes for a great culinary getaway.
Mission Inn is a lush layout across 1,100 manicured acres nestled among the gently rolling hills, orange groves, northern-style trees and shimmering waters of Lake County near the village of Howey-in-the-Hills. Families for years have made the 45-minute drive from Orlando for holiday and special-occasion dinners and weekend feasts for which the resort is famous. Now with the pandemic-driven appetite for closer-to-home driving vacations to less congested destinations, couples, golfing buddies and families are finding a new reason to pack up and head to the countryside.
Countryside rich in history.
In the early 1900s when Florida’s citrus industry was in its infancy, Illinois entrepreneur William J. Howey purchased 60,000 acres. The year was 1916. Captivated by soil and climate perfect for citrus growth, Howey envisioned creating the largest horticultural empire in the world. For a piece of the action, investors flocked to the Howey plantation. In 1924, the 75-room Hotel Floridan was built to lodge them. Seven years prior and to keep his big spenders entertained, Howey commissioned development of what is now the famed El Campeon Golf Course (1917) bordering spring-fed lakes, framed by pine and magnolia trees and boasting 85-foot tee-to-green elevations (not exactly ear-popping but hey it’s Florida).
With the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression and one of the worse freezes in Florida history, Howey’s dream of being Florida’s Citrus Czar went bust.
Cut to 1964. Another Illinois visionary, Nick Beucher, acquires the neglected Floridan Country Club, makes property-wide improvements, including restoring the clubhouse and, in 1969, decides with his family to reimagine the layout into a Spanish Colonial golf resort.
Graceful, mission-style architecture dominates the cluster of buildings in the main resort today, set amid romantic fountain courtyards and meticulously manicured gardens. Towers, tile artwork and arches complete the Spanish look. Mission Inn is still family run by the Beuchers and layered with full amenities, including two championship golf courses, tennis courts, spa, pool, walking trails, conference center, marina for boat rentals – and four restaurants.
When the world is right side up, three of Zollo’s restaurants currently closed will thrive again. Mission Inn diners will enjoy casual dining to live piano music at La Margarita, with its historic photos, cozy bar and farm-to-table menu. They will dine fine under the glow of chandeliers at the intimate El Conquistador amid courtyard views – and home to rehearsal and themed dinners. They will feast on lunch and dinner favorites at the cozy Nicker’s, at that 1920s clubhouse a mile from the main resort.
Zollo and his team are actively working on recipes and menu redesigns that reflect Chef’s passion for taking classic recipes and transforming them into new creations. “There’s always room for improvement,” Zollo says, “and no matter what you do, always have fun.”
Until then, breakfast, lunch, dinner and specialty weekend dining falls to the fourth restaurant, La Hacienda, an inviting space all done up in ironwork and warm hues befitting the name.
Lunching with a golfing mate at La Hacienda, Austin Green of Umatilla said his Mission Inn roots run deep. His grandfather took out a golf membership in the 1920s and parents Karen and Bob Green were married here (weddings are so popular in normal times that couples have their choice of three romantic spots for the I do’s; brides can never see one another, house rules).
“Definitely Florida’s best kept secret,” Green said of the resort. “Best food, lodging, golf, trap and skeet range and boating on the Harris chain of lakes. The environment here is relaxing.”
Mission Inn’s menus reflect regional sourcing. On his way into work, Food and Beverage Director David Trotter loads up for the week with handpicked cuts straight from the compost at Monterey Mushrooms in Zellwood. Mission Inn’s sous chef hits the farmers co-op in Tampa and trucks in just-picked produce. From Orlando’s Kalera come delicious mixed greens. Cusano’s delivers fresh breads, pastries etc. three times a week. Bushes just down the road surrender the plumpest blueberries, in season.
A point of pride for Chef Zollo is his herb garden. “I can walk outside and get great product. We utilize a lot of herbs instead of salt and pepper. I’d rather use herbs to flavor, especially at La Margarita.”
Plans call for revitalizing the vegetable garden and planting fruit trees. “Once we get our papaya, mango, bananas and avocado going we’ll just go out and pick it ourselves.”
That independent thinking marked Zollo’s 40-year kitchen career.
“I taught myself the hard way,” Zollo says. “The easy way was to go to school and learn from one teacher. I loved learning from everybody along the way, and put a little twist on dishes myself, developing my own recipes and techniques.”
Mission Inn welcomes today’s resort guests, locals and Orlando daytrippers to two signature weekend dining experiences (reservations required) made for feasting. Social distancing, safety and other guidelines are followed. Chefs downsized the massive spreads from the pre-pandemic days. But diners won’t be disappointed, so long as they pack their appetite:
- Saturday Night Sushi, Seafood and Prime Rib Buffet. This Nicker’s tradition currently relocated to La Hacienda invites diners to feast on sushi, peel and eat shrimp, decorated smoked salmon, prime rib, soup and salad, 1.5-pound crab (per person), choice of two desserts. Service is concierge, meaning you queue outside the buffet line and a culinarian – masked and gloved – builds your plate to your wishes. 5-9 p.m.
- Sunday Brunch. This fan favorite still packs ‘em in for bottomless champagne, omelets/waffles/pancakes, cold items (peel and eat shrimp, smoked salmon among offerings), hot items (including pastas, fish and poultry of the week), carving station, desserts. To stay compliant with health regulations, a concierge again plates the food items. 11-3 Sundays, La Hacienda.
Menus conform to the times, Chef Zollo says, like comfort food in the current uncertainty. Dishes like Beef Short Ribs, Veal Osso Buco, Seafood Alla Vodka over Pasta anchor the dinner menu. With the blessing of four restaurants, chefs have exported these and other menu items from the shuttered restaurants to La Hacienda’s kitchen for all three mealtimes. “It’s great having four restaurants to draw from,” Zollo adds. “Fresh fruits and fresh local fishes are blended into menus.”
At La Hacienda, take a windowside table indoors or opt for the outdoor terrace overlooking a stone footbridge and, beyond, the fairways of El Campeon. Menu choices for all three mealtimes here are plentiful but abridged from normal operations.
Crab Cake Benedict and Huevos Rancheros lead the signature items at breakfast. I opted for lighter one morning: oatmeal ringed by slices of I think every fruit imaginable. Ordering lunch was agony between the Prime Burger, Chicken Cordon Bleu Sandwich on kaiser or the Chef’s Reuben. I went Reuben – the corned beef was flavorful and massively stacked. Homemade chips browned just right were the perfect accompaniment.
Soup du jour Cream of Asparagus, rich and artfully presented, and Mushroom Escargot en Croute were my chosen curtain raisers at dinnertime. Chef’s Seafood Strudel – lobster, shrimp and scallops wrapped in phyllo – is found among signature dishes along with a Black Angus Filet Mignon, Australian Lamb Chops, plus the beef ribs entree and seafood pasta. My Macadamia Encrusted Grouper overcame a little dryness but overall flavored up in an orange and ginger sauce on a bed of blended rice. Diners can opt for lighter fare including salads, jumbo shrimp cocktail or Chef’s All New Tuna Stack. Beautifully textured Key Lime pie with two dollops of whipped cream was the yummiest of closers.
Each sinful slice is dressed with a lime zest. After all, this IS citrus country.
If You’re Going
Mission Inn Resort & Club features 176 accommodations, including guestrooms, suites and penthouse. Rental villas and homes also available. www.MissionInnResort.com, 352 324-3101, Reservations 800 874-9053
From Mission Inn….missions possible
- Yalaha Bakery. As German as the Harz Mountains and fairytale as Hansel and Gretel, this aromatic little gem turns out fresh-baked breads, pretzels, German pastries and other sweets. Three miles up County Road 48. Live music on weekends.
- Howey-in-the-Hills. Them thar hills of Lake County make for a visual break from Orlando’s palm trees-and-flatlands sameness. Take it all in at JB Boondocks, a onetime fish camp snug on Little Lake Harris. Locals dine on casual fare inside the weathered roadhouse or waterside on the deck.
- Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards. Daily complimentary wine tastings and tours amid rolling vineyards of Muscadine and Vinifera grape varieties. Surprise fact, wine lovers: Lakeridge pours a handful of California labels (best of the blends was a Pinot Grigio, clean and crisp). 10 minutes from resort.
- Mount Dora. Lakeside, made-for-strolling artist town of quaint shops and restaurants. 20 minutes from resort.
- Resident ospreys! Ospreys have been returning to the resort for 20+ years to hatch new fledglings. Original “parents” in their lofty perch may be viewed on the resort’s own osprey cam (https://missioninnresort.com/osprey)
For more Florida staycation inspiration, visit our Travel section.