Venetian Room

Written by Scott Joseph on .

It's getting harder and harder to find an upscale restaurant of the old school type. The Venetian Room, however, is one very nice holdover.

The Venetian Room is a re-imagined space in the six-year-old Caribe Royale resort in extreme south Orlando. The previous restaurant was a standard breakfast, lunch and dinner eatery, but the hoteliers believed there was a market for something a little finer.

The menu is under the supervision of chef de cuisine Khalid Benghallem (cq), a former sous chef at Emeril’s and the opening chef at Shula’s Steakhouse in the Dolphin hotel. The fare features all the standards you would expect to find in such a place – foie gras, crab cake, lamb rack, veal chop, etc. But the preparations are anything but standard, and some are downright inspired creations.

We may as well get this bit of business out the way right now: this place isn’t cheap. Appetizers range from $14 to $17, and six of the seven entrees are over $30 (there’s a $28 chicken item). Is it worth it? Good god no; what is? But that said, the food is very good.

The lump crab cake ($16), for example, was perhaps 99 percent crab meat binded with just a bit of mustard and pan-fried perfectly. With such a pure specimen of crab cake, it was a shame that it was served sandwiched between a slaw made with black sesame and savoy cabbage. Eating the slaw with the crab was the same as having more filler. I simply dusted the cabbage off and feasted on only the meat.

I enjoyed the appetizer of foie gras ($17), which had two seared lobes layered in an alternating stack with cakes made with smoked polenta. A bit of balsamic syrup added to the overall enjoyment, but the mango fan would have been better if it hadn’t been so unripe.

For a soup course I tried the lobster bisque ($12), a creamy concoction tempered with just the right touch of sherry and served in a marmite under a dome of puffed pastry.

My favorite among the entrees was the tenderloin of beef ($34), two thick slabs of seared meat served with marrow, barley rhubarb chard, fennel strudel and red wine reduction sauce tinged with black truffles.

My guest’s confit of duck ($31) was an interesting presentation that had the leg quarter in a pastry tartlet along with caramelized guava choucroute (cq). The meat was appropriately moist and tender, and the dark cherry and port wine sauce was a nice accompaniment. However, the dish also included rare duck breast meat, fanned across the plate, that was as tough as jerky.

Instead of a tableside preparation, the Dover sole ($32) was brought to the table already filleted. I don’t take umbrage with that, but I thought it a bit silly to serve it with the fish bones arranged just so, only to be plucked away by the server as soon as the silver cloche was removed. The fish itself was sufficiently firm albeit a bit dry, even with the white wine, vermouth and butter sauce.

For dessert, the Grand Marnier souffle ($12) was nicely done, but the spiced roasted pear ($9) was as hard as the mango was earlier. Black magic dome ($11) had a bittersweet chocolate mousse cake on top of a chocolate platform with a hazelnut butterfly. The design elements of that one escaped me, but it was a satisfying dessert.

The staff was well-trained if not completely polished. One fellow felt the need to describe various dishes to us and went into such great detail on the preparations that I almost expected him to tell us what the chef preheated the oven to. The servers all had ear pieces that made them look as though they were with the secret service.

The wine list was well thought out and there are even some relatively moderate priced selections, although the wines by the glass were poured rather stingily.

The dining room is quiet and tastefully decorated. There are semi-secluded banquets with etched glass dividers. Tables are done up in the requisite finery. Entrees are delivered on a cart under silver domes, but other courses are served and cleared on chintzy plastic trays.

Perhaps the only thing Venicelike about the restaurant is that it sits at the foot of a staircase that is reminiscent of the Rialto Bridge.
The Venetian Room will no doubt appeal to business travelers on an expense account looking to impress clients with a big ticket meal. But the owners are making a concerted effort to market the restaurant to locals. Those who have grown weary of the usual special occasion dining rooms may well want to consider the Venetian Room for their next splurge.

The Venetian Room is at the Caribe Royale Resort, 8101 World Center Drive, Orlando. It is open for  dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Here is a link to The phone number is 407-238-8060.

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The Black Olive

Written by Scott Joseph on .




These days, a new restaurant is a rare occasion. Plans for the Black Olive have been underway since before anyone whispered the word recession, so the fact that it opened at all is cause for celebration.

Situated in the Plaza complex, the Black Olive has a decor that fits the Downtown Arts District. The dining room is casually upscale. Tables have stone-look tops and plastic weave placemats. Boothback fabrics have a patina that is reminiscent of an antiqued mirror; chairs are upholstered in white leather.

It’s the sort of atmosphere that makes you want to don your best toga.


Pizza Fusion; pies for a small planet

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Pizza fusion logoHave you noticed the quality of pizza getting better around here? It still has a long way to go, but I’d say we’re definitely headed in the right direction.

So is Pizza Fusion, a franchise operation on Restaurant Row Orlando that’s doing a lot of things right -- and in the right way.


Emeril's Tchoup Chop

Written by Scott Joseph on .

It took a while, but Lagasse's restaurant is now worth visiting

For the first time since it opened six years ago I can finally recommend Emeril’s Tchoup Chop. That’s thanks in no small part to the restaurant’s new chef, Gregory Richie, who joined on at the beginning of the year.

Greg RichieRichie’s name will be familiar to many. He opened the Roy’s on Sand Lake Road in 2001 as its chef and operating partner, following a stint at Roy Yamaguchi’s restaurant in Hawaii.

So it would make sense that Emeril Lagasse would tap Richie to head up Tchoup Chop, which is themed as an Asian / Polynesian restaurant to complement the Royal Pacific hotel’s motif.

But part of the reason that Tchoup Chop now works is that, ironically, Richie’s menu doesn’t try to overemphasize the Hawaiian theme, which previously was strained and artificial. The menu now is more subtly pan Asian, more in the list of ingredients than in the dishes themselves.

But it wasn’t just a strained menu and theme that prevented me from endorsing Tchoup Chop in the past.

Relax Grill at Lake Eola

Written by Scott Joseph on .

I suppose the name of the place should have been my first clue that things wouldn’t move apace here. But even with a name like Relax Grill, one shouldn’t expect a lunch to last over an hour.Relax_Grill

Especially one in downtown, where a good deal of the clientele are likely to be workers from surrounding businesses who have to get back to the office to deal with their own clientele.

Or, if they didn’t walk to the lakeside location, parked in a metered space and put in only enough quarters to cover a reasonable time for lunch, then have to race back to their cars to try to beat the parking enforcement officer. (I swear those ticket-writers have brain implants that receive a signal from the parking meter the second it expires.)

It’s not like Relax Grill isn’t the kind of place you’d like to enjoy a leisurely meal. It occupies the space -- as so many have before -- of the glorified concession stand next to the swan boats at Lake Eola. All seating is outdoors under umbrellas and leafy trees at metal patio tables with plastic (and comfortable) deck chairs.

On a recent weekday, I arrived for a lunch meeting ahead of my friend. I stood waiting at the entrance to the patio. Although several servers passed by, no one greeted me or acknowledged my presence. Eventually, another party arrived behind me and one of them said I could just sit wherever I wanted. “How would I know that?” I asked her. She shrugged and said, “I come here a lot.” “But how would a new person know that?” I demanded, forgetting that she was just another customer and not the owner. Frightened, she and her friends hurried off to grab a table, and I did the same.

My friend eventually arrived and we sat and waited a while longer to be acknowledged and receive menus.

Wait a minute. All of this has started to sound very familiar. So I just went to check what I wrote about the last tenant here, Erik’s on the lake. This is from the June 22, 2007, Chow Hound column:

Chefs de France, home to the world's first celebrity chef

Written by Scott Joseph on .


Each year, in July, the excellent Web site Theme Park Insider announces its awards for excellence in various categories among the country's theme parks. Best theme park restaurant is one of the categories.

This year, all five finalists are in Orlando theme parks, so TPI founder and editor, Robert Niles, has asked me to post my reviews of those restaurants for his readers, as well as readers of the flog here. I don't have a say in selecting the winner, that's up to you. At the end of each review, I'll give you a link to TPI's listing for that restaurant so you can vote or leave a comment. Robert will announce the winner on July 4th.

Previous reviews: Hollywood Brown Derby, Le Cellier, Mythos and Sharks Underwater Grill.Chefs de france exterior

The final finalist: Les Chefs de France.

 The Orlando area is home to myriad restaurants owned or licensed by “celebrity” chefs. We have two by bam-king Emeril Lagasse (Emeril’s Orlando and Emeril’s Tchoup Chop); Wolfgang Puck Cafe; Norman Van Aken’s Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton; Todd English’s bluezoo; Melissa Kelly’s Primo; and, this fall, Kouzzina by Cat Cora, a partnership between the Iron Chef and Walt Disney World.

But the area is also home to a restaurant whose owners include not only one of the most famous chefs in the world but arguably the first celebrity chef the world ever knew. Ironically, his name is not on the restaurant, Les Chefs de France. Even more ironic is that Paul Bocuse became famous because, in 1965, he was the first chef to put his name on his restaurant outside Lyons.

Before that, chefs were no more than hired kitchen help. Restaurants were owned by the maitre ‘d or the hotels where they were located.

Banshoo sushi bar opens at Rosen Centre

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Latest in a mini trend of hotel lobby sushi bars

The Rosen Centre Hotel is the latest in the area to install a lobby sushi bar, joining Royal Pacific, JW Marriott and Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress. Not sure how this mini trend started, but I don’t mind it.Banshoo sushi bar

Especially when the sushi bar has a chef who takes pride in his or her craft. That seems to be the case with Banshoo at the Rosen Centre where Yoshi does the slicing and rolling.

Yoshi, whose full name is Tadayoshi Kohazame, received his sushi training in his native Okinawa and has worked as a chef for over 20 years. His resume includes Ran Getsu, just up the road a bit from his new gig.

The name Banshoo means sunset, which is the time of day the sushi bar opens. Located adjacent to the less romantically named Lobby Lounge, Banshoo features a granite-topped bar that seats six and a large communal table for 12.

Tuesday was the official grand opening of the bar with a ceremonial ribbon-cutting. It also featured a ceremonial sushi rolling conducted by Yoshi with hotelier Harris Rosen and Gary Sain, president of Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Yoshi and fellow chefs put out a beautiful spread of nigirizushi, sashimi and norimaki. You know how when you go to a sushi bar and order a sample and it comes in a miniature boat? This could have filled an actual boat. And everything I sampled was delicious. Can’t wait to go back and enjoy a more leisurely dinner.

Rosen Centre Hotel is at 9840 International Drive, Orlando. Banshoo is open at 5 to 10 p.m. nightly. And guests dining at any of the hotel’s restaurants -- Banshoo included -- receive complimentary valet parking (take advantage of that). The phone number at Rosen Centre is 407-996-9840.

Sharks Underwater Grill at SeaWorld Orlando

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Each year, in July, the excellent Web site Theme Park Insider announces its awards for excellence in various categories among the country's theme parks. Best theme park restaurant is one of the categories.

This year, all five finalists are in Orlando theme parks, so TPI founder and editor, Robert Niles, has asked me to post my reviews of those restaurants for his readers, as well as readers of the flog here. I don't have a say in selecting the winner, that's up to you. At the end of each review, I'll give you a link to TPI's listing for that restaurant so you can vote or leave a comment. Robert will announce the winner on July 4th.

Previous reviews: Hollywood Brown Derby, Le Cellier and Mythos.

 Next up: Sharks Underwater Grill at SeaWorld.

When you walk into Sharks Underwater Grill at SeaWorld Orlando, it’s easy to see why it would be a favorite restaurant of so many. There aren’t many places in the world where you can dine next to a titanic aquarium while scores of exotic and dangerous sea creatures swim by. (OK, with Epcot’s Coral Reef restaurant we have two such places in Orlando -- we’re special.)

SUG also offers SeaWorld guests a (somewhat) quieter haven from the manic pace of the park and its seemingly inescapable rock music soundtrack. The lower light levels in the restaurant provide a serene respite, as well as better viewing of the deep-blue deep blue on the other side of the glass, and the music in here is a softer jazz.

Also, the staff is friendly and helpful, skilled at serving and knowledgeable about the fish floating by. They help provide an enjoyable and educational experience.

So there you have it. Sharks Underwater Grill is one terrific restaurant.

Oh, wait...I guess we should talk about the food.


Durian Durian Thai restaurant in Lake Nona

Written by Scott Joseph on .

 As the burgeoning medical city in the area known as Lake Nona continues to, um, burgeon, the ancillary businesses that will serve the community of doctors, researchers, students and educators are growing too.Durian Durian

That of course means restaurants, and among the inevitable Outbacks and fast fooders are a handful of hopeful independent restaurants. It’s nice to see them take an enterprising role in this frontier. But I hope more of them put more effort into their business than Durian Durian.


Oceanaire Seafood Room

Written by Scott Joseph on .

The Oceanaire Seafood Room is meant to take you back in time with its interior that suggests a 1930s ocean liner. I felt transported on my visits to the new Pointe Orlando restaurant, but not nearly that far back.
My trip in time was to 1996 and another venue meant to resemble a ship. That was the year the Empress Lily riverboat at Disney’s Pleasure Island was rechristened Fulton’s Crab House with a registry under the Levy Restaurants flag. Fulton’s chef had a passion for a variety of fish and delighted in bringing the freshest to Central Florida.
But a few years after it opened, the restaurant shifted course. It still specialized in seafood, but its manifest was more mundane, sticking to the snapper, tuna and salmon that one could find in any other restaurant.
So when I visited The Oceanaire and saw its list of fish that included wahoo, coho salmon, hogfish and marlin, I was heartened. And when I discovered that the quality of the seafood was good and the kitchen had an expertise in cooking it, I was pleased that Central Florida finally had another fine seafood restaurant.
Not that everything here is first-rate. In fact there were some mind-numbing stumbles and some annoying service policies. But overall, The Oceanaire offers an exceptional dining experience.
The menu, which is printed daily, as it should be in any fresh fish restaurant, requires some explanation from the servers. The top of the menu has a roster of 20 or so fish, but only those with a checkmark next to them are available.
Those that are checked may be simply grilled or broiled. Or they may be featured as one of the special preparations, such as the stuffed Alaskan halibut ($29.95) I enjoyed on my first visit. It featured a firm fillet wrapped around a satisfying mixture of shrimp, crab and creamy brie.
I also liked the black and blue swordfish ($28.95). The fillet wasn’t as thick as you might find in some swordfish, but it was deliciously tender and nicely blackened. The blue was provided by a splotch of Roquefort butter served atop the fish. Underneath was a confit of sweet onions.
Cioppino ($24.95) was a bit of a disappointment. Although ostensibly a stew, this cioppino had precious little broth, though I must say the soupcon that was there was delicious. But the chunks of fish that were served with it were overcooked.
The two simple preparations of fresh fish I sampled were quite good. On one visit my companion had the wahoo ($22.95), or ono, a mild fish similar to the mackerel. On another visit there was a monkfish ($23.95) from Georges Bank. It had the characteristic texture that mimics lobster meat but was a thick steak cut with the center cord intact. Not the prettiest presentation but quite good.
The crab cake ($14.95) was the most impressive appetizer. There was barely enough binding to hold the thick and sweet pieces of lump meat together. And fried calamari ($10.95) was better than the run of the mill variety with squid from Point Judith delicately breaded and fried. And I loved the shrimp De Jonghe ($8.95), an old-time appetizer, tender-firm shrimp sauteed in garlic butter and topped with bread crumbs.
The biggest disappointment came in the “grand shellfish platter,” and not just because the cost of the petite was a whopping $38. It consisted of a large saucer of shaved ice served on an elevated stand. Shoved in the ice were crab legs, a half lobster, shrimp, oysters, mussels and crab claws. Nothing on the pricey platter stood out as exceptional. The crab legs were a tad rubbery and the oysters, from Netart Bay, were a bit mushy. But the crab claw had gone bad and had the distinctive taste and odor of vinegar to prove it.
Baked Alaska ($5.95), flamed tableside, featured a bland ice cream center under a meringue igloo. The caramel brownie ($13.95), on the other hand, was wonderful chocolate goo.
The skill of the servers would be much more appreciated if they’d cut down on their spiel. Managers were on hand and readily stepped in to handle situations like spoiled crab claws. The wine list is limited but has plenty of fun seafood-pairing selections.
The interior is wood and palms and white tablecloths and avoids the trap of being too seaworthy or over-nautical. Obscure references to seafood and the sea are printed on the walls of the restaurant and restrooms. The men’s room has an odd quote, “The snotgreen sea. The scrotum tightening sea,” that is unattributed, although a well-read companion was sure it is by James Joyce. (It is.)
The Oceanaire Seafood Room has a number of touches to take the diner back in time – when was the last time you were served a relish tray? But its best attribute is the promise of a brighter future for Central Florida’s seafood scene.