thaipurple fish cakes

I came across another nice little eatery in that unlikely and unassuming strip mall on East Colonial Drive. We've been here before, at Taka Taka, a Venezuelan restaurant. This time it's Thai Purple Orchid Cafe & Grocery, although the grocery part of it is pretty meager — fewer shelves than many people have in their closets.

And there aren't a lot of tables in the cafe part, either. But the owner will greet you graciously and will even serve you the food. I can say for certain, but she may have been back there cooking it, too.

bistropark

I had a perfectly delightful lunch the other day at the Bistro on Park Avenue, which of course is not actually on Park Avenue but rather off the street in the charming Hidden Gardens. It's out-of-sight location probably keeps it out of mind for a lot of people looking for a good place to eat, but Bistro on Park Avenue is worth remembering.

As many longtime residents of the area know, this location was for many years home to Maison de Crepes, or as I liked to refer to it, the House of Pancakes. Erika Boesch, one of the owners of Bistro, says that so many people associated the restaurant with crepes that they finally gave in and put some on the menu.

Sponsored

Hamiltons chef table

Since he took over Hamilton's Kitchen at the Alfond Inn about five months ago, executive chef Marc Kusche has been making big changes, and all for the better. In case you missed it, here is the re-review I did in July. The restaurant has better focus, and there is an emphasis on local ingredients and market-fresh fare.

One of Kusche's more recent additions is a Chef's Table dining experience, which features five courses, each paired with an appropriate wine, for a very reasonable $125 per person. It's served at the large farm table just outside the big kitchen window, so guests seated there have a great view of what's going on inside the kitchen as well as in the dining room. Kusche and his other staff members serve the guests seated at the table and explain each dish.

KuscheAnd what's on the menu at the Chef's Table? Impossible to say because Kusche never knows what it will be until someone has booked it and he goes off to the market. "We entirely customize the menu," Kusche told me. Often the table is booked for a Saturday evening, so Kusche will visit the Winter Park Farmer's Market just a few blocks away from the Alfond in the morning and start creating the menu with the fresh produce he finds there. He has one steadfast rule for the Chef's Table menu: It never has items from the restaurant's regular menu. That's just another way to keep it special.

The Chef's Table must be booked at least 24 hours in advance in order to give the chefs time to shop and be creative. The table holds a maximum of 10 people but you can book it for as few as two persons.

Another of Kusche's additions to Hamilton's Kitchen is a four-course Tasting Menu, with smaller plates of the restaurant's signature items, such as pork belly with local honey; wild mushroom ravioli; steak frites with broccolini; and brioche bread pudding. The tasting menu is only $45 per person or $55 with two sommelier wine pairings (10 bucks for two glasses of wine is pretty reasonable, don't you think?).

And Sundays now feature an a la carte brunch with nearly two dozen items, most of which are priced mid to lower teens. There's also a build-your-own bloody mary and mimosa bar. Brunch is served from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Hamilton's Kitchen Tasting Menu is available nightly. To book the Chef's Table, call 407-998-8090.

Cauldron hall

I'm apparently on Universal Studio's no-fly list. When it was planning its big media preview of Diagon Alley, the second Harry Potter-themed attraction, I requested media credentials but was refused. You write a few (brutally) honest reviews over the years and you eventually get taken off the invite list.

Maybe it was my review of NASCAR Sports Grille, the one that ran with the headline "What a wreck of a restaurant; The NASCAR Sports Grille revs its engines and sideswipes its customers with a hit of bad service and lackluster food. Forfeit this one, drivers." I didn't write the headline, but the person who did summed up the review nicely, if nicely is the proper word there. It's fitting that Universal recently announced that it is closing NSG November 1. It should have closed years ago.

Maybe it was my review of the churrascaria at Latin Quarter (also closed and converted to Antojitos), which I also found lacking.

Or any of the other lackluster restaurant in and around the theme parks.

Whatever it was, I don't expect to be back in Universal's good graces with this review of the Leaky Cauldron, the dining venue in Diagon Alley, which I finally got around to visiting recently. Most of the food is embarrassingly inadequate, and what they charge for it borders on gouging.

Elliots sign

To say that Elliott's Public House is a better restaurant than the one it replaced would be a backhanded compliment at best. As much as I wanted to, I could never see Brian's restaurant as the delightful greasy spoon that so many others did. It had the right atmosphere but the food was never what I thought it should be. So I was encouraged when the news came that the space would have new owners and would make changes to the menu.

I'm still encouraged, although after two visits to the Ivanhoe Village restaurant my impression is that things have flip-flopped: the food is better but there's something lacking in the ambience.