Orlando has somewhat of a reputation for having more than its fair share of chain restaurants. I’m not here to dispute that (although I do), but I do think that when people consider the topic of chain restaurants they need to look at them in categories.
There are what we might call upscale chains. These are your Houston’s, J. Alexander’s, Timpanos, Samba Rooms, Capital Grilles (yes, that’s a chain) and Seasons 52s.
Then you’ve got your downscale chains. This is where the Denny’s, Waffle Houses and such are grouped.
In the middle are the Olive Gardens, Applebee’s, TGI Fridays and their ilk. This is the group I always considered Houlihan’s to be in. But Fred Karimipour, who holds the franchise licenses for the Central Florida Houlihan’s, is doing what he can to raise them, if not into the upper tier than at least at the top of the middle.
He’s doing it by raising the food quality to a level one doesn’t usually expect from a place such as Houlihan’s by insisting the kitchen make all its sauces from scratch and use fresh ingredients. It’s a concept not unheard of with chains, but one that is unusual at this level, and especially in a down market when cheaper products might be available.
The results are mostly satisfying. A friend and I met at the East Colonial Drive Houlihan’s on a rainy night. We started with the calamari appetizer, which had an impressive crisp breading, much like many versions of this now ubiquitous appetizer. But for a twist the squid was served with a soy-based Thai dipping sauce rather than the usual marinara or remoulade. It was a bit startling at first, but not an unpleasant complement.
The Armenian flatbread lavosh with spinach dip was good, the flatbread more of a cracker than a bread. Stuffed mushrooms, however, despite being large and plumply filled with garlic herb cream, had a bit of a tinny taste.
There wasn’t a thing wrong with the jambalaya we were served, except that it bore little resemblance to jambalaya, the components artfully layered on the dish rather than mixed in. Still, there was plenty of good and spicy sausage, hunks of tender chicken and jumbo shrimp on top of the rice.
The fillet of tilapia was good, too, and had a very pleasing crisp jacket. But I didn’t care for the strawberries, blueberries and raspberries that topped the fish. All that was missing was a sprinkle of powdered sugar for this to be the oddest dessert ever. And then the asparagus would really have been out of place. (To be fair, my companion rather liked the blueberries with the fish.)
Fish tacos -- tilapia again -- had a bit too much Napa cabbage filling and not enough fish chunks. But the chicken Parmesan was a guilty pleasure of gooey cheese topping a thick chicken breast atop pasta.
The vanilla bean creme brulee was nicely done, so too the strawberry cheesecake. The cappuccino cake came in a distant third.
Actually, I would have liked to have had the martini sampler we tasted at the start of the meal. We allowed our server to choose three martinis from the list for our “flight,” but it turns out our server had a taste for sweeter drinks. We had a blue moon punch, an guavatini and a chocolate smoovie mini. Not my style of cocktail, but these flights just might have flown for dessert.
Besides having a lousy sense of a good drink, our server was affable and able (and ultimately it was he who insisted we try the chicken Parmesan, one of the better dishes we sampled).
The dining room is still a bit “fern bar meets the gang at Cheers” and stuck in the ‘70s, but I’m sure once Karimipour perfects the food, he’ll work on improving the decor.