Hamburger Mary's

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Hamburger Mary's

Hamburger Mary's is a nice family restaurant. But we're talking a different type of family. Think Sister Sledge's "We Are Family."

Hamburger Mary's Orlando recently moved into the Church Street Station neighborhood in the space that TooJay's last occupied. If I'm not mistaken, in the old Church Street days it was the Buffalo Trading Co. It's part of a franchise that started in San Francisco in 1972. Are you getting the picture yet?

It's the first national chain to market specifically to the gay community. You might have figured it out if you had wandered in on a Tuesday for Bingo Night, hosted by local celebrity Miss Sammy (hint: it's not short for Samantha) or for the Maryoke sing-alongs on Wednesdays.

At other times, you might not have noticed anything different about the place at all. Indeed, on one of my lunch visits, there was a family at the next table, a father, mother and baby in a stroller.

Everyone is welcome at Mary's -- she does not discriminate. She is a terrific hostess, but I don't think anyone would call her the best cook in town, especially if you should wander away from the list of burgers. Suffice to say the place will never be called Meatloaf Mary's.

Stick with the burgers, and you'll be fine. The hard part is deciding on which burger to have. There are 11 variations, with names such as Queen Mary, Sloppy Mary, Spicy Mary and Blue Boy burger. And if you missed the Sister Sledge reference, I doubt you'd understand Blue Boy. (No, it's not served raw. The blue refers to the cheese.)

Most of the burgers are made with a half-pound of certified Angus beef, although one is bigger, made with a full pound of meat. That one is called the Proud Mary, and that's all I'm going to say about that.

I would have preferred a juicier patty, but the burgers I had I liked well enough. A favorite was the Sloppy Mary, slopped with chili and melted cheddar and jack cheese. It's served open-face and is meant to be eaten with a knife and fork. Sloppy is as sloppy does.

I also liked the Guacamole BJ, the initials representing bacon and jack cheese. It, too, could have been called the Sloppy Mary.

HMO's appetizers are hit-or-miss. The inevitably named Macho Nachos, chips piled high with chili, cheddar and jack cheese, black olives and jalapenos, were surprisingly good. Mary Mac & Cheese Balls were not only dry and flavorless, they weren't even balls. They were triangles.

Come here for burgers, come for the camaraderie, the drinks, the loud music videos or the even louder decor of purples and greens and geometric shapes. But if you're not looking to have a good time, you might as well stay home. As the motto says, "Eat, drink and be Mary."

Tamboras Grill Cafe

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Tamboras Grill Cafe

Tamboras Grill CafeTamboras Grill Cafe, a Latin styled restaurant in Ocoee, notes on its menu that its name is derived from tambor, which means drum, and "we cook to the beat of a different drummer." I guess that would explain the shrimp fettuccine, Portobello Marsala pasta and Asian salmon salad on an otherwise South American flavored menu.

Tamboras occupies a corner spot in a newish strip mall on Maguire Road about a half-mile south of U.S. Highway 50. It's a pleasant enough space, though there isn't a lot of character in the decor. The entrance is in the corner's peak; off to the right is a bar area and to the left is the dining room with booths and tables. Fairly small as full-service restaurants go.

I met a friend for lunch recently and we were warmly greeted by a young woman at the door. Service continued to be friendly and attentive throughout our meal.

I started with a bowl of chicken soup ($3.99), which the menu touted as "homemade." The broth had a richness that indeed indicated it was probably make on the premises. But it lacked much flavor or character. The soup included diced pieces of chicken and a few oddly chopped fettuccine noodles. There was no indication that cilantro had been used, as the menu had promised.

For my entree I chose the shrimp mofongo ($16.99), which the menu claims to be "our most traditional dish! From the Dominican Republic!" It was quite good, the timbale of mashed plantains laced with yummy fat and flavored with seafood broth, topped with medium to small shrimp. It was all surrounded by a delicate gravy. Delicious, but 17 bucks for mofongo? I don't think so.

My friend ordered Tamboras' Island pork roast, which is $13.99 on the dinner menu. But our server pointed out that a lunch version was available for several dollars cheaper and came with a house salad to boot. Unfortunately the pulled pork was very dry, and if there was any mojo criollo mixed in I couldn't taste it. It was, however, like my mofongo, nicely presented. The salad was more substantial than most restaurants offer and included chopped lettuce and kernels of corn. A side item of fluffy white rice and pinto beans could have been an entree all alone.

For dessert I had the arroz con leche, which fetched an astounding price of $5.99. It looked to my eye to be not much more than eight ounces of rice pudding with enough cinnamon blended in to render it treacly.

I suppose Tamboras is faced with the reality of having to charge higher prices to offset fewer seats. Sell enough rice puddings in one evening and you meet your monthly nut! But the drawback, of course, is that people will realize that the food, although presented in a style worthy of a more elegant restaurant, is fairly basic and can be found at other area Latin restaurants for less.

Tamboras Grill Cafe is at 1568 Maguire Road, Ocoee. It's open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. Beer and wine are available and credit cards are accepted. Phone number is 407-877-7171.

Shan Asian Cuisine

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Shan Asian Cuisine (Not TerraMia Pizzeria) in Lake Mary

IShan have been trying to get to Lake Mary to try TerraMia, a pizzeria and trattoria, for the better part of a year. I just never quite got around to it. The reason I was anxious to try it out was that it is owned by Rosario Spagnolo, whose Terramia restaurant in Altamonte Springs is a longtime favorite of mine. I awarded it the Critic's Choice Foodie for best Italian multiple times.

This week I told myself it was time to just head up to Lake Mary and give the place a go. I'd given up on trying to arrange schedules with other people to drive along with me and just decided to enjoy a lunch solo. That, apparently, was not acceptable to the young woman who greeted me at the door.

After learning that I would be only "one for lunch," she tried to steer me the bar. I told her I didn't care to sit at the bar. Then she pointed to a small, tall table in the back, next to the bar. I said I'd really prefer a seat where my feet could touch the ground. She looked back and forth at the two empty tables in the small dining area, then plaintively at me. "I only have two tables available," she said. I told her that was perfect because I needed only one table. And keep in mind that this was after1:30 p.m., not at the height of any noontime rush. She motioned to the table so close to the front door that if the door had swung in instead of out it would hit the table. I aksed why I couldn't have the other table, the nice one in the front window. She frowned, turned to another server passing by and said, not quite under her breath, "You're getting a one-top."

She turned back to me with a forced smile on her face and told me I could take a seat. I said, "I don't feel welcome here." "No, it's fine," she said. I assured her it wasn't fine; her treatment of me was shabby. At first I started to take the seat at the table -- I told you, I really wanted to try this restaurant, and after waiting so long and driving so far, I didn't want to walk out. But that's what I did. I decided the food couldn't possibly be good enough to make up for the service.

So instead, I went around the corner to Shan Asian Cuisine, another restaurant that has been on my list for over a year.

Shan is in the space that had previously been occupied by Jinja, a sort of pan-Asian restaurant that was showing improvement the last time I visited, in 2006, but which apparently couldn't overcome its earlier shortcomings.

A manager at Shan told me that she and Shan's owner had gone to Jinja for lunch one afternoon and found a sign on the door saying the restaurant had closed only a week earlier. Instead of getting lunch, they got the restaurant.

Shan's owner is one of the original owners of Eastern Pearl, a Chinese restaurant in Altamonte Springs that also is a recipient of multiple Foodie Awards from me. At first, I thought I was going to have the same issue as I did at TerraMia. The greeter wanted to seat me at a table in the middle of the dining room. I asked if I might have one of the booths, but instead of protesting, she said she would have one cleared and set right away, and while I waited, perhaps I'd like to sit at the bar and look over the menu. She offered to bring me something to drink and said she would have the server stop by if I'd like to give my order while I waited for the table.

And the server couldn't have been more pleasant either. After I took my seat, I ordered the sushi sampler ($7) and the lunch special of cumin beef ($10). The sushi included four pieces, salmon, tuna, white fish and shrimp, a tad smallish but nicely formed and applied to the pads of vinagared rice. (It's a sign of a good sushi chef when you can pick the piece up, flip it over to dip in the soy sauce and the fish stays put on the rice.)

The lunch special included a choice of soup, salad or egg roll. I chose soup, and from among the available selections, the egg drop. It was a rich broth with a velvety mouthfeel and had lots of feathery wisps of egg. And I liked that the soup was served with a metal spoon instead of one of those plastic dippers that look more like spoon rests than spoons.

The cumin beef, a Szechuan specialty, was unusual and good. There was a generous portion of sliced beef with diced peppers and onions coated with the cumin sauce, which had a dominant and pleasant aroma and only a mildly spicy flavor. I wish I had chosen the steamed white rice instead of the fried, which had no distinct taste.

Shan's decor is rather dark, perhaps more so on the dreary rainy day that I visited. But mahogany stained wainscotting, and ox blood colored floor and black laminate tabletops don't do much to cheer the place up. (I did notice the waiters were starting to set tables for dinner and were putting white cloths on them, so that might help brighten it up in the evening.)Shan

So my drive to Lake Mary hadn't been a waste, and in fact had turned out rather pleasantly. And as I was leaving the restaurant, someone made a point of calling from a side room "thank you for coming."

Now was that so difficult?

Shan Asian Cuisine is at 1541 International Parkway, Lake Mary. The phone number is 407-833-3883. For menu and other information, visit Shan Asian's Web site.

Vines Grille & Wine Bar

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Vines Grille & Wine Bar on Orlando's Restaurant Row

The last time I reviewed Vines Grille & Wine Bar it was in a different location. And it wasn't called Vines Grille & Wine Bar.

Back then, in 2003, it had just opened with the name Woodstone Grille. I never got confirmation, but it was my assumption that a certain Stonewood Grill and Tavern took exception to the similar name. Even flipping the wood and the stone and adding an e onto grill wasn't enough to remove confusion in the minds of potention customers, or that's how I'm guessing the attorney's letter probably read. And it was bad enough that Restaurant Row already had Bonefish and FishBones, not to mention Moonfish, causing enough bafflement. (They still do.)Vines Grille and Bar

So it wasn't very long after it opened that Woodstone became Vines. It operated out of the small, narrow space in the Fountains Plaza strip that also holds Antonio's and Ayothaya Thai restaurant, and where Anaelle & Hugo's was a neighbor before that French restaurant closed and Jeffery's moved in.

When Jeffery's closed, Vines's owners saw an opportunity to move out of the claustrophobic confines and into a more spacious, not to mention elegant, venue.

Vines has several things that distinguish it, not the least of which is the decor. The restaurant occupies a large space that is reminiscent of an open loft. The bar slashes the lounge diagonally. Behind the bar is a boxed-in private dining room and the rest of the space is primarily the main dining area, with polished wood floors and brick walls (Woodstone Grille would have been a perfect name for this place!).

Dominating a large wall of the main dining room is a bank of flat-screen televisions that play only one thing: the lapping flames of a roaring fireplace. It's a stunning visual that would have looked chintzy if it had been just one tv screen but instead has a great wow factor with a row of three.

Another distinction is Vines's dedication to providing live entertainment, often provided by a jazz trio. The band is a bit cramped in the lounge, right behind the cable waterfall at the restaurant's entrance. Maybe they liked the crammed in feeling of the old place. But the music is easily heard throughout the restaurant, and there's nothing like live entertainment to set a mood.

And then there are the bar snacks to set Vines further apart from other area restaurants. It's quite a surprise to see a tall cone cup, the sort of holder one usually finds filled with bread sticks, stuffed with crispy rashers of bacon. Saltier than peanuts, I suppose, but maybe they should also have a bowl of Lipitor or Plavix on the counter.

On my first visit to Vines I dined in the main room. I sampled the onion soup ($9), a hearty bowl of beefy broth topped with stringy cheese. For my entree I had the braised beef short rib ($34), oh-so-tender meat that had long given up the bone, served with polenta infused with blue cheese and Brussels sprouts roasted with bacon. (They love bacon in this joint.)

On another visit, dining solo, I decided to make a feast of a couple of appetizers while sitting at the bar. I selected the steak tartare ($16) and seared day boat scallops ($14). The tartare looked as though it were a burger patty ready for the grill. It was surrounded by the usual accouterments, capers, onions, as well as hot sauce drizzled on the plate and a pile of salt. It was topped with a raw quail egg, cracked open and still in the shell. The bartender/server asked if I had ever had the tartare there before and I allowed as to how I had not. She made the suggestion that I blend everything together, the hot sauce and salt included, before eating. It was good advice. The meat was fresh tasting and delicious, and the salt and hot sauce added just the right flavor notes.

I wish the scallops had been half as good. The four scallops were so small that most day boats would have tossed them back. And they had been cooked so long as to become hard and rubbery. Nothing could save them.

Service was superb all around. The kitchen doesn't move with alacrity, but at least there's good music to listen to. Besides the wine list, which includes well over 20 selections by the glass, there is a full bar. I question the wisdom of the menu's prices in these times. With appetizers that reach $20 and steaks that climb to $46 ($65 for American Kobe), Vines apparently is going after the expense account trade. (Does anyone still have an expense account?)

Such splurges are hard to justify these days. But if you're celebrating something special, or you just want a fun night out with good food and music, Vines would be a good choice.

Vines Grille & Wine Bar is at 7533 W. Sand Lake Road, Orlando. The phone number is 407-351-1227. You can see the menu here, or get more information at the Web site.

Kafe Kalik

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Kafe Kalik is unique in a number of ways. First is its location, tucked among myriad retail stores at the Prime Outlets Mall, the only full-service restaurant in the shopping center. Then there’s the restaurant itself, a sprawling space with a lively decor, bright and pleasant and just a bit upscale. There is a large, open kitchen with a long row of seating at a low counter for those who want to watch the cooks in action. Bright orange backlit panels give the place a colorful glow.

Kafe KalikThe main focus of the menu is the Bahamas and the Caribbean Islands, but the kitchen steps out a bit with other worldly tastes, including a version of fajitas, called bahitas, sandwiches, called baninis instead of paninis, some pasta dishes, and sushi.

The sushi, our server told us, was an ideal way for the chef to feature the fresh fish that is central to the Bahamian diet. But while the sushi we sampled was just fine, I preferred some of the other seafood selections in the appetizer platter. I especially liked the cracked calamari, slices of squid steaks that were fleshy and tender. And the grilled shrimp with balanced, even spicing.

For our entree the chef presented us with the pan roasted spiny lobster skillet, an impressive array of a split lobster, tomale intact, splayed over jasmine rice and sauced with roasted mango and pineapple butter.

It was OK, but I think next time I’ll go for the lamb shank curry, or jerk chicken in a bag or herb-crusted whole red snapper.

Our dessert was also unique: a coconut creme brulee served in a big coconut shell. This island version had a thicker texture and was a bit eggy, but we loved the ice cream that accompanied it.

Service was efficient and fast -- also unusual for a Bahamian restaurant -- and everyone greeted us with the trademark friendliness of the islands.

Kafe Kalik is at the Prime Outlets mall, 4969 International Drive, Orlando; 407-248-0889. More information and the menu at KK's Web site.

Nine Dragons

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Nine Dragons at Epcot's China pavilion

Nine Dragons I field a lot of questions from people planning vacations to Walt Disney World who want to know about various restaurants. The queries are for restaurants throughout the resort, but it seems the bulk of them are about dining at Epcot. That's not so surprising -- the restaurants in the country pavilions have always been big draws to tourists and locals alike. They offer some of the better dining options on Disney property.

So I see a lot of questions about Les Chefs de France and Bistro de Paris, the Biergarten at Germany, and a stupefying amount of inquiries about Le Cellier, the darkly sequestered steakhouse at Canada.

But no one ever asks about Nine Dragons in the China pavilion.

At first I thought it was an aversion to more exotic cuisines, if Chinese food could be considered exotic. I figure the unadventurous American palate is the reason so many people seek to dine at Le Cellier. But that wouldn't explain the interest in places like Teppan Edo and Tokyo Dining in the Japan pavilion, the herring at Norway's Akershus or the Moroccan Restaurant Marrakesh, of course for the latter many red-blooded American men are willing to give up their red-blooded steaks to watch belly dancers while they dine.

But on a recent visit to check out the newly renovated Nine Dragons dining room and updated menu, it occured to me the reason so few people are interested in eating here. And it was the memory of sitting in another Chinese restaurant two decades earlier that made me think of it.

 That restaurant was Ming Court on International Drive. When it opened near the convention center in 1989 it drew a lot of attention for its elegant design, which featured a wall that resembled the rolling back or a dragon and floor to ceiling windows that looked out on a serene koi pond.

While I sat at Ming Court looking at the menu, I noticed more than a couple of people come in, sit down, look over the menu then get up and leave without ordering.

The reason wasn't because the menu was missing their favorite egg roll or moo goo gai pan, it was because it had something most of them were unfamiliar with: food prices similar to those at other fine dining restaurants. For most people, Chinese restaurants are synonymous with inexpensive meals, food served in large portions at prices that make it an even better bargain. They don't expect Chinese restaurants to have entrees that drift over $20.

I think most people still have that notion, which is why I get so few questions about Nine Dragons, and why it was virtually empty when I visited recently.

Too bad because the food is very good, and the refreshed dining room is comfortable and affords diners a view of people passing by rushing to make their reservation times at Tutto Italia or San Angel Inn.

I popped in for a lunch and started with a bowl of chicken consomme with pork dumplings ($3.98), a golden broth with a rich mouthfeel. It had two big dumplings of chewy dough filled with well-spiced ground pork.

For my entree I had the shrimp with spinach noodles ($17.98), which looked very much like something you'd find served in the Italy pavilion. (But remember that Marco Polo is said to have introduced Italians to pasta after a voyage to China.) The noodles were fettuccinelike and were mixed with red and green sauteed bell peppers and dotted with flecks of hot pepper flakes and topped with cool, fesh coriander.

The shrimp had a thin film of crispiness and peppery spice.

For dessert there was a sponge cake with fruit filling that was slightly dry.

The dining room is a vast space, but for all its expanse it is a tranquil place, at least when not full. A variety of lanters decorates the room. Tabletops are polished wood and set with paper placemat adorned with Chinese figures, both ancient and present-day, with spaces for diners to practice writing the words for mountains, rain, sun and moon. There was one major annoyance: tables are set with a knife and fork; diners must request chopsticks. It should be the other way around.

The staff was friendly though not obsequious. And even though I paid with a credit card, none of the Chinese nationals questioned my ability to repay my debt.

Nine Dragons is in the China pavilion at Epcot. For dinner reservations, call 407-939-3463.

Cantina Laredo

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Cantina Laredo on Orlando's Restaurant Row

Cantine Laredo Cantina Laredo is among the latest in an explosion of new eateries that have opened in recent months on Restaurant Row. It joins J. Alexander's, Ocean Prime, Bar Louis, Bento Cafe and, in the same new development, Bravo! There haven't been this many new restaurants on that stretch of Sand Lake Road since early in 2001 when I first started calling the area Orlando's new Restaurant Row.

Cantina Laredo is something of an upscale Mexican restaurant and is a brand of Consolidated Restaurants out of Dallas, although I would equate its upscalishness along the same lines as Seasons 52, another Restaurant Row inhabitant. It's more of an upscale casual atomsphere.

It's an attractive restaurant, with comfortable booths and moody lighting. A fireplace in the dining room on the cool night I first visited added a sense of warmth if not actual heat.Cantine Laredo

The menu isn't exactly authentic Mexican -- the nachos, fajitas and crepes would't be found on many menus south of our border, unless it was a restaurant specializing in Ameri-Mex cuisine.

My guest and I started with the "top shelf guacamole" ($9.49). Actually, we started with margaritas, which were pretty darned tasty. And it's a good thing, too, because we had to wait a ridiculously long time for the guacamole engiineer to bring the guac fixings to the table. I've never quite understood the allure of tableside guacamole presentation -- it's not quite as dramatic as watching someone flambe bananas Foster or even mash anchovies and toss a Caesar salad. I suppose it's done to prove that the ingredients are fresh, but I don't think I would have had a question about that. The avocados were loosely chopped, as they should be, and blended with tomatoes, red onions and a bit of lemon. It could have used some salt to draw out the flavors, but we took care of that by adding our own. I don't think it quite was worth the hefty price tag, but it was darned good guac.

For my entree I chose four: the Cantina laredo platter ($16.29) that had cheese chile relleno, tamale, chicken enchilada and taco al carbon. The chile relleno was the star of the platter, a mildly piquant poblano filled with creamy cheese. But the chicken enchilada was a close second.

My friend had the enchiladas de mole ($12.29), which featured the same delicious chicken enchilada but smothered with a complexly seasoned mole. The Cantine Laredosauce was nicely done.

Service was inexplicably slow and unapologetic about it, too. There didn't seem to be any management types about.

Except for the obscenely overpriced guacamole (labor charges were undoubtedly tacked on) most of the items are fairly priced, with many in the low teens. My platter was a bargain at $16.29.

I would return to Cantina Laredo, maybe even just to have a margarita and some chips and appetizers. I would hope by then they will have improved the service and gained a better sense of timing.

Cantina Laredo is at 8000 Via Dellagio Way, Orlando (one block west of Dr. Phillips Blvd.). The phone number is 407-345-0186.


Cantina Laredo on Urbanspoon

Le Coq Au Vin

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Le Coq Au Vin; Life without Louis

Le Coq Au Vin When Louis Perrotte announced in November that he was taking on Reimund Pitz and his wife, Sandy, as partners in Le Coq Au Vin, one of Orlando's consistently acclaimed restaurants, he admitted that it was with an eye toward eventual retirement for him and his wife, Magdelena. But he said he would still be in the kitchen for a while.

I wondered at the time what "a while" meant. I also wondered how two master French chefs could co-exist in one small kitchen. That old adage "too many cooks spoil the broth" is referring to more than one.

The first question, apparently, has been answered. When I asked my waiter on a recent visit to Le Coq Au Vin who was cooking that night, he replied, "Chef Reimund Pitz." When asked if Perrotte didn't still do some of the cooking, the server smiled and said Chef Louis was concentrating on taking it easy.

So then it would seem we have arrived at the moment that so many Central Florida gourmands have dreaded: the reality of Le Coq Au Vin without the Perrottes, Louis commanding the kitchen and Magdalena the consummate hostess at the front door. Would it ever be the same?

It turns out that Louis Perrotte, besides being an excellent restaurateur, is also a pretty smart cookie. He hand-picked Pitz to take over his pride and joy, the restaurant he has built up since 1976, knowing that Pitz had the same high standards and dedication to quality and tradition.

Are there changes? Well, the place seemed a bit brighter and the main dining room had the appearance of having been spiffed up. And the whimsical rooster bidding guests "Bon appetit, y'all" apparently has been replaced with the more subdued logo seen above.

But beyond that, I doubt even the most frequent visitors will notice much change. The service is still as attentive and skilled, and, most important, the food is the same high quality, and the icon Le Coq Au Vin Dinner Menu (98.41 kB) still has most of the expected favorites.

With Mardi Gras just passed, Le Coq Au Vin was featuring a special menu of New Orleans favorites. My dining companion, who usually orders the onion soup without hesitation, instead opted for the gumbo ($6.50) from the Mardi Gras menu. After I had a sip of the rouxy stew and tasted the spicy andouille, he almost didn't get it back.

But I was perfectly happy with my appetizer of steak tartare ($8.95), a mound of shaved beef blended with a bit of onion, mustard and a touch of Worcestershire sauce, served with crusty bits of toast and sweet cornichons.

I really like that Coq Au Vin offers half portions of most of its entrees. It's a smart thing both nutritionally and, in the current financial climate, economically. And the half portions here are ample enough to satisfy. Even with a favorite like the cassoulet ($16.95), which I had to order before it almost certainly disappears for the summer months. I wasn't disappointed, although I would have enjoyed more beans in the mix. Still, there was plenty of lamb, duck, garlic sausage and pork in the dish, which was sprinkled with duck cracklings and bread crumbs.

My friend had the beef tenderloin ($25.95), sauteed to a perfect medium-rare juciness, topped with a beautiful lobe of duck foie gras, a Port wine sauce the ideal grace note. The meat was tender, and the foie gras filled the mouth with a delightful buttery texture.

The iconic Grand Marnier souffle is still available, but instead we opted for a simple creme brulee ($6), a deftly rendered custard with a solidly creamy texture and a thin crust of burnt sugar on top. We also had the rhubarb tart ($6.50), which was surprisingly mild flavored.

Service was attentive without being fawning, and we were allowed to proceed at our own pace. There was a long lull between courses, but I came to realize it was due to our place in line behind a large party in another room. 

At one point during our meal, Reimund Pitz came out to the dining room and went to each table, greeting his guests and thanking them for coming. Besides having the same skills in French cuisine as Louis Perrotte, and the same passion for integrity in his food, Pitz also knows that it's important to be a gracious host.

Le Coq Au Vin is going to be just fine. Le Coq Au VinLe Coq Au Vin is at 4800 S. Orange Ave., Orlando. The phone number is 407-851-6980. The restaurant is once again serving lunch Tuesday through Friday (Perrotte had dropped noontime service a few years ago). Dinner is served Tuesday thorugh Sunday. More information at Le Coq Au Vin's Web site.

New owners (from left) Sandy and Reimund Pitz with sommelier Peter Burke and Louis and Magdalena Perrotte.

Bar Louie

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Bar Louie on Orlando's Restaurant Row

Bar Louie is one of the newer additions to Orlando's Restaurant Row, the stretch of Sand Lake Road west  of International Drive and Interstate 4. It occupies a space in the newly developed Rialto, where J. Alexander's and Ocean Prime also recently opened. Another restaurant, Bento, is now open as well.

Bar Louie is from the same organization that brought Red Star Tavern to Orlando a little more than a year ago. As the name would suggest, Bar Louie focuses mainly on the drinking part of the meal. But it also features a large menu of appetizers, pizzas, sandwiches anBar Louied burgers.

I stopped in on an early Friday evening as part of a party of six. We discovered that it was still happy hour, and therefore we could have anything from the appetizer list at half price. (The drink specials were pretty good too.) We decided to make a feast of appetizers and forgo dinner.
We ordered the Szechwan rib bites (regularly $8.99), chicken nachos ($9.99), cheeseburger sliders, ($8.99), crispy calamari ($9.99) and Buffalo wings ($7.99).

The sliders were quite good, greasy enough to be chic but meaty enough to satisfy. And the nachos were sufficiently glopped with grilled chicken, cheese sauce, beans, guacamole and sour cream.

The rib bites were not spicy at all, as a Szechuan designation would lead us to believe. And they weren't all that tender, either.

The calamari was, however, and the light dusting of flour gave a nice crisp jacket. The wings were just hot enough to satisfy the two wing lovers at our table.

The happy hour deal, which runs until 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, includes $3 drafts, $5 specialty drinks and $4 glasses of wine -- and that's any of the 20 wines that Bar Louie offers by the glass. That's a terrific bargain.

The dining room is dominated by the bar, but there are plenty of tables and booths. And there is a full outside bar for these balmy evenings.Bar Louie

Our server was affable and tried to keep our table manicured even as we kept messing it up by passing plates and platters of food.

We left very happy. And this is part of the reason: The total bill for our party of six, including all the food and drinks, was $95.

Bar Louie's happy hour just may be one of the best deals in town.


Written by SJO Staff on .

Lago Baldwin Park

 Some people just don't get it.
They don't understand that when you're in the restaurant business you're in the people business. It is necessary for you to interact with your guests. And by the way, guest is the preferred word, not customer. A guest is someone you cater to, someone you make feel welcome.

Not at Lago, a gorgeous new restaurant in Baldwin Park. There they convey an attitude that they are annoyed to have people come through the door.

On my visit it started with the dour hostess who showed me and my guests to our table. Never once did she smile. When one of my friends told her that another in our party was celebrating a birthday, she replied, "You can tell your server."

That's the sort of response you expect from an uncaring bureaucrat , not someone in the restaurant business. But hey, she's just a paid employee. It's not like she's the owner.

No, that would be the dour, unsmiling man wearing a white chef's jacket standing next to the open kitchen. All throughout our meal he stood there, occasionally pacing a few steps either direction. And never did he interact with any of his guests, or, as he might refer to them, customers.
The only person he had any contact with was a young man wearing faded jeans and an untucked shirt.
Now, let me tell you something about the way the place looks. It's beautiful and stylish, with a lakeside location. The large dining room has spacious and comfortable booths, most of which have a view of the well-appointed open kitchen where several cooks toil away. At a far end of the room is a bar and lounge where a pianist provided appropriate jazz that could be heard throughout the restaurant. The ceiling is high, but attention to lighting keeps it from feeling like an expanse. It's very comfortable, and it is decidedly upscale. In fact, a surprising number of men dining that night were wearing sport coats.

So back to the guy in dungarees with his shirttail hanging out: he's the manager. And the son of the owner. Why would you build a gorgeous, upscale restaurant and allow your manager to dress like he's going shopping at Home Depot? And for the record, this gentleman did not visit any tables either. Nor did he even deign to grunt an acknowledgment or look a guest in the eye when he passed one.

But you want to know about the food. Most of it was good; none of it was great, certainly not enough to make up for the rudeness.

I was very excited to see ribolilta ($7) on the menu. Ribollita is a Tuscan soup that I fell in love with in Florence. Calling it a soup is a bit of a misnomer because the use of bread in the making all but absorbs the broth. It's traditionally made with day-old bread because it was a way for peasants to reduce waste.

 I've seen it on only one menu in America, in New York. The reason it can't be found in abundance is that it requires black kale, which is hard to come by in the states. Sadly, it can't be found at Lago either. What is served as ribollita here is a brothy stew with beans, carrots, spinach and potatoes. And on top, some croutons. Croutons!

The stuffed meatball ($10) was a more satisfying appetizer, in fact the tomato sauce it sat in was deliciously full-flavored and well seasoned.

Grilled pork loin ($18) was a nice entree. The tender meat was served over mushroom, lardon and ramp risotto and finished with an apple Madeira sauce. Stuffed veal involtini ($21) was also good, the meat filled with a mix of pinenuts, raisins and sausage. Seared snapper ($25) is served with shrimp and crab mixed with arugula, kalamata olives and capers; mozzarella-stuffed chicken breast ($18) is simple but dressed up with prosciuotto and sun-dried tomato sauce.

It should be mentioned that our server was quite pleasant and did her best to make us feel like guests. The kitchen, for all its occupants -- we counted nearly a dozen -- was inexplicably slow in getting the dishes out.

The restaurant was well attended and buzzing with the sort of activity that makes one question whether we're in a recession. But in a recession we most definitely are. People are still going out to eat, but they will be very careful with their dining dollars. Lago has the advantage of being new. Everybody wants to check out the new place. It's getting them to return that is the key to survival.

If I were the owner of Lago, I would be working that room, thanking each and every person for coming to my restaurant, and I'd make certain I did everything to ensure they wanted to come back. 

And if I were the manager I would dress at least as nicely as my customers, whom I would treat as guests.

Lago is at 4979 New Broad St., Orlando. The phone number is 407-331-5246. The menu can be viewed at the restaurant's Web site.