La Merce

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Lamerce interior

Why is it so difficult for people strolling Park Avenue in search of a restaurant to turn a corner?

Sure, there are plenty of restaurants with a bona fide Park Avenue address that are worth dining at. But there are other eateries every bit as worthy of attention just off the main thoroughfare. And I’m talking mere steps, not blocks away.

Consider the space at 155 E. Morse Blvd., the current home of La Merce, a cafe with a Spanish-leaning European menu. On a recent day at the height of the lunch hour while most of the Park Ave restaurants were brimming with diners, I walked into a La Merce so empty that my arrival seemed to startle someone who walked out of the kitchen while I waited at the front door.

I remained the sole diner the entire time I was there, the only one to listen to the mournful-sounding songs of a flamenco guitarist and singer, Diego el Cigala, that played over the sound system.

bartaco

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Bartaco logo

There’s a new taco bar in town. It’s called bartaco.

It’s one of the brands of a restaurant group called Barteca, which also has Barcelona Wine Bar and Restaurant and specializes in the flavors of Spain, Uruguay, Brazil and Southern California. So of course it is based in South Norwalk, Conn.

Bartaco interior

Located in the Marketplace at Dr. Phillips, bartaco, which insists on being lowercased, offers light bites and “upscale street food” in what it calls a beachy atmosphere, if photo collages of Arnold Palmer and other golfers make you think of catching some waves.

Here’s how it works. The menu is a tiny little pamphlet with minimal descriptions. You don’t simply tell a waiter your selection. Instead, you use a small pencil — just like the golfers use! — to mark a little card with your choices and the number of each item. Sort of like at a sushi bar. Then when you’ve made your choices, you place the order card in a tabletop card holder to signal to a server that you are ready to order. Because God forbid the servers should have to pay enough attention to their tables to know that.

Bulla Gastrobar

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Bulla sign

I must say I like the look and feel of Bulla Gastrobar very much. The restaurant, in the newly opened but curiously named Lakeside Crossing development, can be at once bustlingly busy and intimately comfortable.

Sitting across Orlando Avenue from Hillstone and Trader Joe’s, Bulla’s central bar sits inside the front door and next to doors open to an outdoor patio. It also serves as a buffer from the streetscape for the dining room, which is decorated in rough wood tones, wrought iron grill work, slate blackboards, vintage black and white photos and an open kitchen. (If you can finagle one, get a padded booth or banquette— they’re luxuriously comfy.) There is an essential feel of a Madrid tapas bar, though on a decidedly larger scale than you’d find in Spain.

Bulla bar

I wish I could also say that the kitchen was turning out food to match the decor. Unfortunately it’s not, at least not with the consistency that should be in place after nearly two months open, and not for what is the third location for an established South Florida restaurant company.

Santiago's Bodega Altamonte Springs

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Santiago Altamonte exterior

Santiago’s Bodega, the Key West tapas restaurant that had a faltering opening in Orlando in 2013 then found its footing to the delight of hundreds of regulars, has now opened in the suburbs of Altamonte Springs.

The new restaurant, in the Springs Centre, improves on some shortcomings that the Orlando shop had to overcome — or continues to live with. It’s a larger space, including the lounge area, which has a nice, long bar. More notable, there is ample parking in the ready lot surrounding the Springs Centre, although on the evening that I visited the lot was being resurfaced and was roped off, so it was just like going to the SantiBo on Virginia Drive and having to circle around looking for a spot.

The concept is the same, though there may be a menu item or two unique to the ‘burbs. It’s a tapas concept, with myriad small plates meant for sharing.

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.

Supper Club Redux: Tapa Toro

Written by Scott Joseph on .

tapatorosc flamenco

We had a terrific meeting of Scott Joseph’s Supper Club at Tapa Toro recently. The food, the cocktail and wine pairings, and the attentive service just reinforced my previous notion that TT is a restaurant that locals should visit.

Besides the gracious owners, Katerina and Vassilis Coumbaros, we were tended to by executive chef Wendy Lopez and manager and beverage director Alex Attart. As we gathered in the bar area of the I-Drive 360 restaurant, which sits below the Orlando Eye Ferris wheel, we sipped a refreshing gin and tonic cocktail while some of the servers passed hors d’oeuvres.

We were shown to our private dining room for the evening, a glass-walled rotunda separated from the lounge by billowing red curtains.

Tapa Toro

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Tapa Toro flamenco

Amid the myriad chains and franchises that are populating the area around the Orlando Eye attraction, an independent restaurant is a welcome find. And that it offers very good food and a fun dining experience makes it all the better.

Tapa Toro comes to us from Vassilis and Katerina Coumbaros, who also own Taverna Opa at nearby Pointe Orlando, one of my favorite Tourist World recommendations. Opa, of course, is the Greek restaurant where every evening is a raucous party of napkins tossed in the air to buoyant balalaika music and belly dancing atop the tables.

At Tapa Toro the theme is Spanish and the music flamenco, and here the napkins stay in the lap and the clacking heels of the dancers punish only the floor.

Capa

Written by Scott Joseph on .

capa dining roomFour Seasons Resort Orlando

If you required any more proof that the age of fine dining, at least as defined by posh surroundings, fine linens and what it generally referred to as white-glove service, is a thing of the past, you need look no further than the Four Seasons Resort Orlando.

You know the Four Seasons, for surely its reputation precedes it. Its hotels set the standard for luxury properties. Four Seasons hotels are where wealthy people choose to stay just to ensure they won't have to put up with common riffraff.

As if to emphasize that point, the Orlando property, which opened last year, is set inside the gates of Golden Oaks, a residential community where the minimum price for one of the mini mansions is said to be above $2 million. So you might expect the signature restaurant to be ultra elegant, refined and to not only set a standard for excellence in its own service and cuisine but to also expect a certain quality of style from its guests.

Well, you'd be wrong. Oh, the food at Capa, the Spanish steakhouse on the hotel's 17th floor rooftop, is excellent. And service is trained and professional if not white-glove refined. But the decor is decidedly casual, albeit with some killer design elements, which I'll tell you about it moment. And the "resort casual" dress suggestion means that the restaurant will pretty much accept any manner of attire. So get ready for the table next to yours to be full of people in shorts and flip-flops. The wealthy, it would seem, have become their own riffraff.

Txokos Basque Kitchen

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Txokos kitchen

For some years now, Spanish River Grille has been one of Central Florida's best restaurants. But since it is extreme East Central Florida, i.e. New Smyrna Beach, it wasn't the sort of place those of us in the Greater Orlando area just popped in to.

So when chef Henry Salgado and his wife, Michele, announced that they would be opening a restaurant in Orlando — at East End Market, no less — food fans got very excited. The anticipation abated only slightly when it was learned that the restaurant wouldn't be Spanish River Grille West. Curiosity was the next stage when the name was revealed. "What's a Txokos?" people wondered, silently because they didn't know how to pronounce it. And then everyone moved on to waiting as the restaurant, which involves a new structure that abuts the existing East End Market building, was erected, finished and permitted.

The final stage is enjoyment, because Txokos Basque Kitchen was worth the wait.

Santiago's Bodega Revisited

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Santiago patio

I stopped back in to revisit Santiago’s Bodega recently and had a much more enjoyable experience than when I first reviewed it shortly after it opened last summer. The staff all seemed more comfortable -- and were certainly more welcoming and appreciative -- and the size of the tapas were more agreeable, too. It still isn’t the cheapest meal in town, but the quality is certainly apparent.