Looking for Vacation Restaurant Recommendations? There are No Guarantees

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Cognac front

As a restaurant critic, I’m used to being asked by locals and visitors for recommendations on where to dine, whether in my home area of Central Florida or in the various cities I’ve visited on my own travels.

(And no, to answer a question I’m often posed, I don’t mind being asked for recommendations. In fact, I’ll mind it very much when people stop asking.)

Especially when we travel, we want to know that a restaurant will be as close to a “sure thing” as possible. I’m no different. Yes, I enjoy the thrill of finding an out of the way place that no one else has written much about that delivers an extraordinary dining experience. But if I’m vacationing in, say, France, I don’t want to waste a meal on mediocre food. I want all of my meals to be exceptional.

So then, how does a restaurant critic find new places to visit when traveling? Well, sometimes I do the same thing others do: consult my counterparts in the cities I’m visiting. I also do other research, reading online reviews, though being careful to take extreme praises and condemnations with the proverbial grain of salt, and looking through articles and comments.

I also look for more oblique clues.

Such an indirect clue led me to Brasserie Cognac in New York recently. I cancelled a reservation I had for an Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side and made one at Cognac all because of an interview with Eric Ripert that was published in the New York Times earlier in the month.

Ripert is the celebrated chef of the much lauded Le Bernadin just a few blocks away. (I also revisited Le Bernadin on the recent visit and will share my experience there with you soon.) In the opening sentences of the interview, by reporter Jeff Gordinier, Ripert is described as sliding into a banquette and ordering without even opening a menu. If Ripert, a native of France, finds the restaurant so classically French, and an exceptional place to be interviewed in, I’m there.

What a huge disappointment it was.

Armando's College Park

Written by Scott Joseph on .

 Armando interior

Armando’s, the Italian restaurant from Winter Park’s Hannibal Square, has opened a second location in College Park. It takes over the space in the Wellesley condominium building that most recently was occupied by Hangar Bar and Grille (and originally was Harmoni Market).

It would appear to be an immediate hit, if the crowd that was packed into it on a recent Friday is any indication. Tables were hard to come by for anyone not wanting to wait at least 40 minutes, and there was a pleasant thrum from the people throughout the large space who showed no interest in making the wait shorter.

My companion and I snagged two seats at the bar and looked over the extensive (and difficult to read) menu.

Tap Room at Dubsdread is More Than Just a Great Burger

Written by Scott Joseph on .

taproom fish

I did something I haven’t done in a very long time when I visited the Tap Room at Dubsdread the other day.

Visiting Tap Room wasn’t the unusual thing. It’s a favorite of mine and I go there often.

But I almost always have the Tap Room Burger, which is just one of the best burgers in town. And if I don’t have the burger, I have the Prime Rib because I don’t think anyone does it better for such a fair price.

But in an effort to climb from the beefy rut, this time I ordered the Grouper Sandwich.

It shouldn’t have surprised me to find that the kitchen applies the same standards of quality and care in the selection and preparation of its fish selections as it does the burgers and steaks.

The fillet was beautifully cooked and had lovely char marks from the grill. It was served on a fresh bun — a presence of the burger there — with crisp leaves of lettuce and a thick and impossibly red slice of tomato. A stack of fries accompanied.

Tap Room has been a supporter of the flog longer than any of the other advertisers, so most would expect me to say good things about it. As many of you know if you've read my policy on advertisers, restaurants must meet certain standards in order to advertise here. I’m behooven to check on the advertisers you see here from time to time to verify that the standards are in place.

Tap Room at Dubsdread is still a place I can easily recommend, whether it’s for a burger or prime rib or steak or even fish.

Tap Room at Dubsdread is at 549 W. Par Ave., Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily (brunch on Sunday). The phone number is 407-650-0100.

Sprinkles

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Sprinkles cupcakes and cookies

Sprinkles, a confectionary chain specializing in cupcakes, has opened at Disney Springs with a new shop that features one of its Cupcake ATMs. The ATM works similarly to one you’d find on a wall outside a bank, except that instead of cash a user can withdraw a fresh cupcake. As far as I know, deposits are not accepted.

One caveat: You may need to visit a bank ATM in order to satisfy your cupcake withdrawal.

As I’ve stated before, I don’t quite understand the cupcake craze, but I’ve learned to accept that others find them irresistible. I’ve also given up trying to understand the Justin Bieber phenomenon.

And I have great admiration, from a business standpoint, for people like Candace Nelson, the founder of Sprinkles, who have built successful brands by convincing people to pay nearly five bucks for what is essentially a simple cakelet.

The cupcakes are $4.95, to be exact. For one, not a dozen as you might expect.

And no, the sprinkles in the bakery’s name are not little diamond chips or even edible gold dust flakes.

It’s just a freakin’ cupcake.

Black Rock Bar & Grill

Written by Scott Joseph on .

 

Black Rock Bar & Grill, a restaurant whose shtick involves guests cooking their own foods on hot stones at the table, has opened its first location outside of its home state of Michigan in Orlando.

The local restaurant is at the corner of Conroy Windermere Road and S. Apopka Vineland Road, which is really more names than an intersection really needs. Black Rock takes over a space that has not seen any recent success stories. We were here last year when it was Fresh Made Kitchen. It started its life as a Perkins Restaurant & Bakery.

Black Rock wall

The Black Rock folks have removed all of the Perkinsianess and remodeled with stacked block walls and moody lighting. I was surprised to find it a much larger restaurant than it seemed when I visited Fresh Made Kitchen. But it is quite big, and I might as well tell you this right now: When it’s full, as it was when I was invited to attend a preview dinner, it is ear-splittingly loud.

As I mentioned, the gimmick here is tabletop cooking on stones that have been heated to 700 degrees. Don’t believe me? Go ahead, stick your tongue on it.

King Bao

Written by Scott Joseph on .

King Bao bao

I’ve heard that it’s protocol to bow to a king. The king isn’t always deserving, but there’s that whole “off with his head” thing the king has up his sleeve, so it’s probably best to just go with it.

But at a new storefront eatery in the Mills 50 district, the king baos back.

King Bao is the latest to step up to the current trend of serving bao, the Asian taco-like food delivery devices fashioned out of puffy steamed dough that resemble overweight, pale tortillas.

Just like any other bread, the dough itself isn’t the main feature; it’s what goes inside that counts.

King Bao’s menu has just two main sections: boas and tots. Because if there is any other food item that is currently as trendy as bao it’s totted potatoes.

There are eight bao on the KB menu board and offer a thoughtful representation of most popular proteins, including a couple that do not come from an animal. They range in price from $3 to $3.75.

For seven bucks or nine bucks you can get a combo with two or three bao, respectively, plus a drink. (There’s an upcharge for a seafood bao, but the menu doesn’t say how up.)

I went with the three for nine option. I ordered the Hogazilla, the Kickin Chicken, and the Glen Rhee Bao.

Red Mug Diner

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Red Mug interior

It’s nice to see Red Mug Diner open in downtown Orlando, and not just because it replaced a perfectly dreadful restaurant that occupied the same space for a mystifyingly long time.

Red Mug brings an old timey style diner to the area’s urban core. It serves basic hash house type items as well as more chef styled entrees in a polished tile and Formica countered decor. And it is open 24 hours a day every day of the week (though just between you and me, don’t expect that to last very long; I doubt that there’s enough business to sustain that model).

The menu stops just short of being overwhelming. It features a section of egg dishes, another with waffles, then sandwiches, then soups and salads, followed by entrees and desserts. Then there are 14 items listed as sides or small plates.

Stefano's Trattoria

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Stefanos dining room

What is Stefano’s without Stefano?

Or Marie? Or Antonella and Frank and Lenny?

Stefano’s Trattoria in Winter Springs was sold by the LaCommare family last year. Stefano and his wife, Marie, wanted to retire. Their son, Lenny, and daughter Antonella, and her husband, Frank Paradiso, wanted a smaller place, so they opened Antonella’s Pizzeria in Winter Park.

But Stefano’s went on being Stefano’s, but under the new ownership of F. Alejandro Martinez. It’s very possible that nothing has changed in the decor or the food. In fact, I’m pretty sure nothing has changed in the decor — it’s still a sort of cheesy plaster walls with faux cracks painted in, fake block doorways and elaborate painted murals of Italian coastal scenes that never make you think they’re the real thing.

But now there is no Marie or Antonella to welcome guests. And Stefano won’t come out of the kitchen in his stained apron to walk among the tables and chat with the customers.

Was it the LaCommares who made the food taste a little better?

Looking back at my previous review, from 2006, I pretty much said that.

Pearson's Cafe

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Pearsons

Next up for the cozy space at 807 N. Orange Ave. is Pearson’s Cafe. Pearson’s takes over from Green Day Cafe, which took over from Virgin Olive Market, which took over from the Daily Grind Coffee house and Cafe.

Pearson’s is a pleasant little cafe, and it appears that perhaps the space has been spiffed a bit since the last time I visited, during Green Day’s short tenancy.

I was heartened when I spotted a meatloaf sandwich on the menu. This neighborhood was once the home of he Lunch Basket Sandwich Shop, just a block and a half away at the corner of Marks Street and Magnolia Avenue. I’m certain the LB had other things on its menu, but I never knew anyone who went there for anything but the meatloaf sandwich. Lunch Basket closed a decade ago leaving the area meatloafless. (It closed before the Orlando Sentinel began thinning its staff, many of whom no doubt kept the lunch spot in business, so that wasn’t the cause.)

So of course I ordered the Pearson’s Meatloaf, which is listed under the heading “Handhelds.” That’s meant to indicate that it is a sandwich and not that you’re in for a very messy meal. I also ordered a cup of Dan’s Chili without fully investigating who Dan is.

Txokos (Not Exclusively) Basque Kitchen

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Txokos marrow

When it opened, just over two years ago, Txokos Basque Kitchen was one of the most anticipated new restaurants of 2014 (partly because it was expected to open in 2013). It was the first inland project by respected New Smyrna Beach restaurateurs Michele Salgado of Spanish River Grille and her husband, the James Beard Award nominated chef Henry Salgado.

And despite a confusing tongue-twister of a name (say CHO-kohs) and a focus on the cuisine of Spain’s Basque region, it became a hit. The restaurant, the only full-service venue at East End Market, was often filled to capacity as guests dined on pintxos, listened to music and watched the entertainment of the open kitchen and the separate wood-fired grill in the main dining area.

Then, in September of 2015, the Salgados sold the restaurant, saying at the time that they wanted to focus on their first restaurant and new projects in New Smyrna Beach.

And in the few short months since that sale, Txokos has been sold again. Armando Castelluci and Ricardo DiSilva have owned the restaurant for about five months, and less than two months ago, Gina Bugayong signed on as the chef. Bugayong had previously owned Fresh cafe on New England Avenue in Winter Park, where Mynt currently resides.

In a message, Bugayong said that she has been making changes to the menu, mostly to focus on regions beyond Basque country (which makes having a Basquian name less necessary). I stopped in recently to see how the restaurant was doing, my first visit since the Salgados departed.

The most startling difference was that the restaurant was not full, even on a Friday evening during the 8 p.m. dining hour. Indeed, as I entered the parking lot I wondered if I would need to use the valet parking service. But I found ample available spaces. And in fact there was no valet parking service offered.