Nile Ethiopian Cuisine

Written by SJO Staff on .

Over the years a number of Ethiopian restaurants have tried to make a go of it in Orlando but all failed. But Nile Ethiopian Cuisine has been around for a good year and a half now, about a year longer than any of the others. I think this one is going to make it.

At the base of all Ethiopian food – literally – is injera, a spongy bread that resembles an immense pancake. (Indeed, injera is cooked like a pancake.) It is made from teff, the world’s smallest cereal grain. Whatever food you order, injera will serve as the platform, covering the bottom of a large round platter, the various stews grouped on top of it.

Stews, called wat, are the most common dishes. These might include variations of beef or chicken, but pork is never served. There are a few seafood selections on Nile’s menu, but Ethiopia is a landlocked country and seafood dishes are not common. Vegetarian wat versions feature lentils or split peas.

Ethiopian restaurants are wonderful places for vegetarians to dine as meatless meals are a big part of the country’s cultural heritage. About half of Ethiopia’s population is Muslim and the other half is comprised of Christians who observe nearly 200 days of fasting annually during which meat, poultry and dairy products may not be consumed.

Most wat include finely chopped onions and berbere, a red paste that might be compared to an Indian curry in that it is made with myriad spices and can be quite hot. Less spicy foods, called alicha, can be found on an Ethiopian menu but I wouldn’t call them mild – they’re still infused with onion, garlic and green pepper and have multiple layers of flavors.

At Nile, the vegetarian kik alicha ($10.95) was one of my favorites. It featured yellow split peas blended with onions and green peppers seasoned with a touch of garlic.

Doro wat ($12.95), something of a national dish, had small pieces of chicken blended with berbere and onions and served with a whole hard-boiled egg. Gored gored ($12.95), another well-known dish, had cubes of beef seasoned with red peppers, mitmita (another hot blend of spices) and butter.

Nile serves its own tej, a wine made from honey. It’s a cloudy, pale yellow liquid with a taste that is just a tad bitter, despite the honey base. It is presented in a small bulb with a narrow neck that looks like it is the decanter. But you drink the wine from this vessel, holding it between your first and second fingers with your palm up.

Coffee is Ethiopia’s top commodity and the coffee ceremony is a big part of a traditional meal. The coffee service area occupies a space in the front of the dining room. The whole beans are roasted in a small metal saucepan while incense burns nearby. When the beans are roasted the pan is brought to the table and waved about so the guests can enjoy the aroma. Once the beans are ground and brewed, the coffee is poured from a clay pot called a jebena into small handleless cups. It’s a very strong brew with a chewy texture and an aroma that is earthy and slightly charred. Desserts are not a part of a traditional Ethiopian menu.

I always thought one of the problems with past Ethiopian restaurants was their choice of location. Nile should do well in this location, at least with the influx of tourists who are usually up to trying something new. The question is whether locals will swallow their pride in order to swallow some wonderful Ethiopian food.

Cafe 118

Written by SJO Staff on .

Raw Food, Living Cuisine, Unusually Good.

I had the most unusual lunch earlier this week: I ate an entire meal raw.

No, I mean the food was raw; I was fully dressed.

It wasn't sashimi and it didn't consist of shucked oysters. In fact, there were no meat or animal by-products involved at all.

And yet all the food I had at Cafe 118, a new restaurant in Winter Park, was wonderfully complex and had multiple levels of flavors and textures. I'm sure much of this will sound odd to the uninitiated, but trust me on this one: if you didn't know Cafe 118 served only raw, nonmeat foods, you might never figure it out.

Actually Cafe 118 goes even further -- all the foods here are organic. If you consider veganism to be extreme vegetarianism, think of what Cafe 118 does as severe veganism, although the words vegan or vegetarian appear nowhere on the menu.

The 118 in the restaurant's name refers to the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit that some foods are heated to. I stew myself in temperatures higher than that in the steam room at the Y. Going above that temperature, aficionados of raw cuisine profess, saps foods of their vitamins, enzymes and minerals. Raw foods, they assert, aid in digestibility and cell reconstruction, among other things, according to information on Cafe 118's menu. I can't attest to any of that. But I can tell you that the food I had at Cafe 118 was all quite delicious, and it's presented in a stylish and even (dare I say?) gourmet fashion.

I took along a friend who is a practicing vegan, except he has a sense of humor. He had, of course, known all about Cafe 118 and had tasted everything on the menu. He ordered the beet ravioli for himself and suggested I try the shiitake mushroom "lasagna."

The "lasagna," as you might guess from the quotation marks, had no pasta -- that would have required cooking, as well as an egg or two most likely. Instead, this lasagna was made with strips of thinly sliced zucchini layered with sun-dried tomatoes, herb pesto and a ricotta-cheeselike substance fashioned out of raw macadamia nuts. Assuming the tomatoes had been dried in the sun under 118 degrees, the only thing in the dish that had been so processed was the stack of chewy shiitake mushrooms on top. It was a delicious mix of textures and all quite tasty.

But as much as I enjoyed my lasagna, I liked my friend's ravioli even more. No pasta here either, of course. This time the wrapper was made from pureed and dried beets that formed sheets. The filling was more of the wonderful macadamia ricotta, which was even better with the bright flavor of the beets. A stack of tangy arugula with a pear wine sauce accompanied the dish.

For dessert we had the banana almond butter cup ice cream, which, of course, had no cream. No dairy at all, to be sure. Yet it was as cool and creamy as any Haagen-Dazs concoction.

Juices and "milk" shakes are another specialty at Cafe 118. I had the divine cherry, blended with almond milk and coconut butter. It was good, but not something I think I'd order again.

If your concept of vegan restaurants is all hemp and tie-dyed designs, you'll be surprised at Cafe 118. The decor features polished tile floors and granite tabletops. The restaurant occupies a small but bright and cheery spot on Morse Boulevard, just east of Park Avenue. Its ambience befits its address.

So do the prices. You may be thinking that raw foods would be less expensive than cooked foods. After all, the utility bill should be lower at this place. But as explained by our waiter (who was, by the way, a knowledgeable and helpful guide who answered all of my questions with expertise), the food here takes a great deal of preparation. And there's the organics factor, as well. That's why the entrees range from $13 to $18.

And something else I should mention. I found the food to be quite filling. Several hours after my lunch I was still feeling full and satisfied.

The menu here, by the way, was developed by raw foodist Matthew Kenney, whose name will be familiar to those who follow this type of cuisine and who has had several restaurants, all of which failed, in New York. However, despite what was reported in the Orlando Sentinel earlier this year (and re-reported by New York Magazine), Kenney is not a partner in Cafe 118; he merely consulted on the menu and spent a couple of weeks at the opening training the chefs.

He obviously did a good job. I thoroughly enjoyed my meal here, and I now have a new appreciation for the levels vegan cuisine can achieve.

Cafe 118 is at 153 E. Morse Blvd., Winter Park. It's open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. The phone number is 407-389-2233. For a full menu, visit Cafe 118's Web site.

Thai Singha

Written by SJO Staff on .

Thai Singha

Since leaving the Sentinel, I don't dine at as many Thai restaurants. I don't know why. I like Thai, but I suppose I'm a little wary of visiting a Thai restaurant that doesn't try hard enough, or one that assumes a Western diner can't handle real Thai food. Too many times I had to order the food "Thai hot" if I wanted an authentic spicy dish -- many Thai restaurant owners apparently think most of us would keel over if we had truly spicy Thai food. (Some of us probably would, but it should be our choice.)

But Thai restaurants that do good food and offer an authentic dining experience are wonderful. That's why I like Thai Singha.

Don’t be too quick to judge Thai Singha. I did, and I couldn't have been more wrong.

I thought I had the place figured out before I even opened the front door. It looked nice enough, though quite small. It was, I figured, the sort of place I could pay a quick visit and if the food was even halfway decent give a mention sometime as place you could grab a quick bite.

But I was so thoroughly charmed by the graciousness of the staff and seduced by the exceptional quality of food that I realized this was a restaurant that deserved closer inspection.

You can understand my initial reaction. It is a typical shopping center storefront space. The dining room, while neat, is sparse. Table tops are set with laminated placemats and decorated with a vase with a fake flower in it. The walls have artwork that includes paintings on black velvet, though, thankfully, none of Elvis. And at the far end – far being a relative term – is one of those refrigerated display cases that you see in delicatessens. Those are always ambience killers, the fluorescent lights throwing a harsh glow into the room.

But as soon as I walked through the door I was greeted by a broadly smiling staff member who motioned to a table near the front of the room. And a few minutes later I was enjoying the first marvelous sips of tom ka gai, the traditional chicken soup with a coconut milk broth. The creaminess of the coconut was blended with the sour tinge of lemongrass and kaffir lime. Some fresh cilantro leaves added a note of fragrance.

They had me with the soup; the red curry with beef sealed it. The meat was sauteed with bamboo shoots and fresh basil in a red curry cream sauce that was spiked with red chili peppers. The evenness of the heat in the curry was what made it so flavorful. And the cook’s sense of balance was evident in all the subsequent dishes I sampled.

Such as the spicy basil duck, sliced breast meat sauteed with mushrooms, basil and chili paste to create a lovely brown sauce to spoon over fluffy white rice.

Or the traditional pad Thai with long flat rice noodles stir-fried with shrimp, egg, crushed peanuts and a smidgen of bean sprouts, garnished with a wedge of lime and a stack of bean sprouts. The shrimp, bland and slightly rubbery, were the sole disappointment among my visits.

Thai fried rice with pork was less oily than the typical fried rice from a Chinese restaurant. Besides the generous slices of meat it had egg, onions, bright red bell peppers, cilantro, a tomato wedge and slices of cucumber.

Among the appetizers the fish cakes were a favorite. Six discs fashioned out of minced fish and chili paste, deep-fried and served with a cucumber sauce that first coated the tongue with sweetness and then startled it with the heat of chili peppers.

Thai summer rolls had mostly noodles and julienne vegetables rolled in rice paper with just a bit of chicken in the mix. But the peanutty dipping sauce made them more flavorful.

If the main courses aren’t enough to convince you that this isn’t your average Thai restaurant, surely the desserts will, although these pastries are more western than eastern, more Viennese  than Siamese. They featured a lemon meringue ($4.95) inside a delicate sponge cake; and a chocolate cake base topped with a raspberry cream. Only rice pudding ($4.95), served in tiny ceramic dishes, might remotely be considered Asian. But all the desserts were delicious and impressively presented.

Aficionados of world beers will recognize the name Singha as the popular beer from Thailand. The owners obtained permission to use the name from the Boon Rawd Brewing Co. In fact the laminated place mats are advertisements for the beer. I suppose it would be a little like an American going to Thailand and opening a restaurant called Coors. But Singha also means lion, and the owners liked the good-luck karma a lion brings.

Thai Singha would have been noteworthy simply for being the first to bring Thai food to East Orlando. The fact that it is very good Thai food, wonderfully prepared with a careful sense of authenticity, and served by a staff who probably couldn’t give bad service even if they tried really really hard makes it all the more praiseworthy.

Waterford Town Center, 863 N. Alafaya Trail, Orlando, 32827
Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. daily; dinner 5-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Reservations: Not accepted
Beer and wine
Entrees: $8.95-$16.95
Credit: AE, MC, V
407-382-8201
 

Narcoossee's

Written by SJO Staff on .

Walt Disney World Restaurant Review: Narcoossee's

Every time I visit Narcoossee's at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa I leave thinking it really should be better than it is. Especially after my most recent visit when my check for one glass of wine, an appetizer and an entree totaled almost $60.

I'd like to say that the food was worth it, but it was not. The crab cake was very good -- plenty of crab and little filler. But the grilled scallop entree, which featured a corn and crab risotto and a sherry reduction sauce, was marred by scallops that had not been properly cleaned and thus were gritty on the tooth. The crab cake might have been worth the $13 charge, but uncleaned scallops shouldn't cost $32.

Making it all the less enjoyable was a server who was at first dismissive and then, when it came closer to paying the check, artificially friendly.

And Narcoossee's atmosphere has always been a slight poop deck above your basic wharfside kitsch. (As far as I can figure, its popularity is due primarily to its view of the Magic Kingdom across the lagoon.) The high conical ceiling and predominant wood surfaces make it one of the noisiest restaurants around. Those prices should buy the guests a better atmosphere. And better service. And far better food.

Circa 1926

Written by SJO Staff on .

Circa 1926 in Winter Park serves an exciting menu

Circa 1926There are some who think the restaurant on the corner of Park Avenue North and West Canton Avenue is cursed. They site as evidence the businesses that have come and gone with frightening frequency in the last several years. They include East of Paris, which was too clever for its own good; Chapters, a concept that thought it was clever and good but was neither; and Zak's, which I thought was good, but which closed fairly quickly after it opened. Zak's was 2002, Chapters in 2003 and East of Paris 2005. So, yes, those were some pretty quick turnarounds.

But don't forget that before that spate of revolving door restaurants, the space was occupied by Park Avenue Grill, which opened in 1988 and closed more than a dozen years later only after it was sold to someone who didn't have the same standards as the original owners.

And that is what I assume sealed the fate of East of Paris and Chapters, too. Zak's I can only guess was a matter of poor management -- the quality of the food certainly wasn't at issue.

And it is management of the latest tenant at 358 Park Avenue North that ultimately will determine the success of Circa 1926. It won't be the food, which is inventive and skillfully prepared. And it won't be the service, which, on my visit, was professional and congenial. And it won't be the atmosphere, which is the toniest on the avenue since Luma on Park opened.

No, if Circa tanks it will be the sole fault of the management team, which has made some rather clueless moves.

Take for example the Web site, which just barely exists at circa1926.com. The address of the restaurant is listed as 58 Park Avenue. And the phone number listed apparently is a nonworking one. You might think the absence of a Web site is a petty oversight, but given that this restaurant has been in the works for well over a year, you'd think someone could have had a working site up and running even before the kitchen's stoves were fired up.

And on a recent stroll up Park Avenue, a friend and I thought we would pop in for an appetizer and glass of wine. But the restaurant was doing business that was brisk enough that the man at the host stand thought he could give attitude to people showing up without reservations. As the dining public retrenches further with the recession such unkindnesses won't go unremembered.

But in spite of all that, Circa is a very good restaurant and one I hope will be around long enough to break Park Avenue Grill's old record and whatever curse may still be floating around the old place. (The name, by the way, is a reference to the year it is believed the building was constructed, though no one seems to know for sure.)

The menu is under the direction of James Slattery, who until recently was the executive chef of Rosen Shingle Creek's A Land Remembered steakhouse. (Slattery was also the subject of a profile I wrote for the Orlando Sentinel about his move from a career in chemistry to one in the kitchen.)

Slattery describes the food as "Classic American but with my twists." I'm not sure what that means, but chicken-fried frog's legs with vanilla brandy glaze might be a clue. Most of the menu is less twisted.

Well, there was the appetizer called a dirty martini with grilled artichokes and pickled asparagus ($12). It featured tomato water spiked with a bit of gin poured over meaty artichoke hearts and more or less garnished with the asparagus. Interesting and ultimately delicious, but a bit too odd to order twice.

My companion's crawfish beignets ($9) were much more mainstream, even if they were related more to Southern fritters than Louisiana beignets. There was a big pile of the deep-fried fritters, which were filled with chopped crawfish meat and served with a remoulade of celery root.

For my entree I chose the veal chop stuffed with prosciutto and goat cheese ($32), a lovely piece of meat with only a subtle bit of the promised stuffing. The goat cheese was especially mild flavored. But the veal chop itself was perfect. The dish was rounded out with creamed potatoes, giant spears of grilled asparagus and creamy sauce Diane.

My friend had the pan roasted Long Island duck breast ($29), an ample serving of tender medallions graced with a sun-dried tomato reduction sauce. A creative wild mushroom bread pudding, which was more like a typical stuffing but tastier, was also included.

Desserts include such enticements as chocolate cream pie ($7), pecan pie with Tahitian vanilla gelato ($6) and lemon pound cake with strawberry coulis ($5).

There are two main and distinct dining areas at Circa. The front room is open and very comfortable. French doors open on warmer evenings to give an al fresco feel. The alabaster bar features a back wall with water trickling down and lighting that gives it more of a waterfall effect. In the front corner, a pianist plays old standards, just like a supper club should, and sets a romantic mood.

The front tables look a little chintzy. They have white cloths wrapped and stapled to the underside of the tables and then a sheet of glass on top.

The back dining area offers a more intimate setting, but it seemed pretty dull when I peeked back there.

Upstairs is a lounge worthy of South Beach. A beautifully decorated and chic atmosphere that will feature live music and dancing.

The waiter who served me and my guest was very good and quite accommodating. He had excellent menu knowledge and answered questions with authority. Maybe some of his professionalism will rub off on the guy at the door.

I hope so. Circa was a long time in the making, and I'd hate to see some mismanagement ruin it for the rest of us.

Cala Bella

Written by SJO Staff on .

at Rosen's Shingle Creek: Italian for the Upper Crust

Cala Bella

I recently reviewed Cala Bella for Orlando Style magazine. Here's the review:

Cala Bella

It’s been a little over two years since Harris Rosen opened the jewel in his pantheon of hotels, Rosen Shingle Creek. In that time, the elegant Italian restaurant Cala Bella has become a bit more refined and the food a bit more certain.

It’s still shockingly expensive.

When I dined there in 2006 I was stunned by the $40 price tag on the seafood pescatore. It’s now $46 – and there are still no flecks of gold in the broth. Well, if you don’t count the saffron that seasons the fish stock tinged with tomato. And, in truth, there was a lot more seafood in the soup this time, headlined by an Australian lobster tail, two impressively plump scallops, shrimp, clams and mussels. Under it all was a nest of fresh pappardelle pasta.

The al dente ribbons were part of my companion’s entrée of pappardelle ai bistecche, which was listed under the menu’s pasta heading, though in truth this was a steak dish. It featured 10 ounces of New York strip from Harris Ranch, cooked to a perfect medium-rare and sliced, the noodles piled on top with a sauce of mushrooms and tomato ragout. Quite nice.

We had started our meal with the mozzarella stuffed Bella meatballs, three bocce ball-sized orbs of moist ground meat braised in Barolo wine. The meatballs were more enjoyable than the calamari fritte, which was a little too damp.

The highlight of the dessert menu is the deconstructed tiramisu, which takes the various elements of the omnipresent dolce -- chocolate, mascarpone, lady fingers – and presents them stacked instead of blended. I first found it odd, but its uniqueness has grown on me. The chocolate sabayon, with dollops of white chocolate garnished with diced strawberries, was also good. (Mention you’re a local, I’m told, and dessert is on the house.)

Service was exceptional. Menu knowledge was impressive, and the meal moved with a leisurely pace.
The dining space is cavernous, but has been softened a bit with swaths of burgundy draperies that now frames the high archways.

This is still one for the expense account crowd, but the quality is more consistent and closer to matching the prices.

Holiday Harbor Nights

Written by SJO Staff on .

at Portofino Bay Obscured by Blue Haze

I went to the Harbor Nights event at Portofino Bay hotel at Universal Orlando Friday and was having a pretty good time -- at first. The event took place on the resort's piazza that is designed to look like a Ligurian fishing village. There were food and wine stations set up throughout the plaza, and there were perhaps thousands of people standing in lines to sip and sample.
And there was good music, too. A jazz band played on a stage in the plaza, and for a special treat a group of operatic singers appeared on one of the hotel's balconies and performed songs made popular by singers such as Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman. And there were songs of the season.
But then I started to notice a foul odor. So I moved from where I was standing to get away from whatever it was. But I couldn't escape it. Then I realized what it was: there were cigar smokers everywhere, sitting, standing walking about. Men and women. Turns out that over in one of the plaza's corners was a cigar rolling station handing out big fat ones.
Nothing kills the enjoyment of food and wine faster than noxious fumes. Why wasn't this billed as an event for smokers? It's fine with me if that's what people want, but I won't be going to another Harbor Nights, not unless the organizers can separate the cigar smokers from the people who like the taste and smell of good food and wine.

The Ravenous Pig

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The Ravenous Pig -- Getting Better All the Time.

The Ravenous Pig continues to be one of my current favorites. There's so much to like about the place: the food is good, the service is friendly and the atmosphere is trendy and vibrant.The Ravenous Pig

As I reported when I first reviewed the Pig for the Orlando Sentinel, the owners are James and Julie Petrakis, who bring considerable experience to this endeavor. Julie was a sous chef at Primo at the J.W. Marriott when it opened and has cooked at the Waldorf Astoria and Union Square Cafe in New York. James worked under Clifford Pleau at the California Grill and then went with him to open Seasons 52.

The menu is not extensive, but what's there is almost invariably delicious. I loved the steak tartare, coarsely chopped beef that had a wonderfully fatty mouthfeel.

And roasted cod featured a beautifully flaky fillet cooked just right and served with a puree of cannellini beans and a bit of smoky chorizo.

The pub menu had lobster tacos, three crispy shells with lightly fried chunks of lobster and crunchy hot peppers. There were also lamb ribs, tender and aromatic, accompanied by lamb meatballs.

And, of course, suckling pig, big chunks of moist meat accompanied by doughy rye gnocchi dumplings.

The signature dessert is the pig tails, a whimsical dish of fried dough curlicues with chocolate espresso sauce for dipping.

I was lucky enough to be invited to a party recently where the hosts had hired the Petrakises to cater. They prepared a whole pig in a way I'd never seen. They de-boned a whole pig and then stuffed it with another de-boned pig, then trussed it up so that it looked sort of like a five-foot-long football. The meat was tender and juicy, but I think I would have preferred something more along the lines of a pulled pork or suckling pig presentation.

The Ravenous Pig is described as an American gastropub, but that doesn't do much to really describe it. It's much trendier than a gastropub, American or otherwise, and the food is far above the standard fare found in one.

But whatever it's called, it's wonderful to have such an exciting restaurant in town, and I'm pleased that it continues to improve.

For details and pricing, plus a sample menu (which changes occasionally) visit the Ravenous Pig Web site.

T-Rex: the Restaurant

Written by SJO Staff on .

T-Rex: the Restaurant, the Review.

T-Rex I finally made it to T-Rex, the new restaurantasaurus at Downtown Disney. I put it off as long as I could because it’s operated by the same folks who run the Rainforest Café, which is known more for its retail shop than its food, and the hugely disappointing Yak & Yeti at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which has no redeeming qualities.

The T-Rex Website address refers to the place as a café, but that word suggests something quaint, something quiet and peaceful. This place may be the largest restaurant I’ve ever seen. It’s also a lot of fun, with plenty of things to look at, places to explore and sensory diversions.

And the food I sampled wasn’t bad, or at least it could leave the offerings at Rainforest and Yuk, I mean Yak & Yeti, in the dust, which is basically what the food in those places tastes like.

And what I had at T-Rex was only a sampling: one soup and an entrée, but the entrée had two items that are offered separately on the menu, barbecued ribs and rotisserie chicken. The soup was a tomato basil, listed on the menu as lava tomato basil. Turns out lava is fairly sweet; who knew?

The ribs, a generous half slab, were tender and the bones easily relinquished the meat, but there wasn’t a lot of distinctive flavoring. The same was true of the chicken, an even more generous half bird. It was nicely cooked and had juicy flesh. But there were no seasonings, no flavor. It’s a common problem with restaurants in tourist areas to dumb down the seasonings so as not to offend the common palate. Pity. The platter also included a healthy portion of waffle-cut fries. Maybe healthy isn’t the right word, but you know what I mean.

The real attraction here is the array of animatronics dinosaurs that “roam” the restaurant. These range from a gigantic version of the eatery’s namesake lizard to baby mastodons. An octopus of Jules Verne T-Rex proportions looms over the bar. Most of the monsters move. I watched as a young girl stroked the trunk of one of the baby mastodons and it actually seemed to react to her touch.

There are four or five distinct rooms in the restaurant. The most dominant is the ice cave in the center, which glows a glacial blue except during the occasional meteor shower when, for some reason, it turns pink. (The meteor shower involves lights streaking across the ceiling. Given that many surmise the age of dinosaurs came to an end because of a meteor hitting the earth, it seems a strange thing to highlight. You’d think they’d save it for “last call” each night.)

I was seated in front of the kitchen area that houses the rotisserie ovens. In front of the kitchen area is a row of gas flames behind a glass panel, which is labeled to be hot. Wonder how long before some child gets burned before the fire is doused permanently.

There are many photo opportunities, but, oddly, guests are prohibited from taking video. That’s just silly.

Another minor complaint: the lighting designers need to go in and refocus the spotlights so they shine on the dinosaurs and not in the eyes of the guests. Also, it’s unfortunate that the entrance of the restaurant is so large and open. The light pouring in from outside prevents a total immersion experience.
This is not a place to come for a gourmet food experience. But for people with young children it offers palatable enough food and something in every corner to grab their attention.

 

Tolla's

Written by SJO Staff on .

Tolla's in Winter Park

I went with a couple of friends to Tolla's for dinner the other night. I was surprised that one of my companions, a longtime Winter Park resident, had never heard of it, even though I first reviewed it back in early 2004. I was further surprised that Tolla's was still open, not that I didn't think it should be. I liTollasked it well  enough back then, but its location -- on upper pennsylvania Avenue a couple of blocks away from the more bustling Park Avenue -- and the apparent lack of knowledge in how to run a restaurant seemed to be working against the owner, Gary Tolla.

But good food often wins out over lack of experience and lackadaisical service. Our dinner at Tolla's was very good, and in one aspect, excellent.

Tolla and his staff apparently still don't know how to properly run a restaurant. When we arrived and were led to the patio -- most of the seating is outside under an awning -- we discovered our choice of tables was rather limited. It wasn't because all the others were occupied but rather because they had been occupied and vacated but had not been cleared. There really is no reason for that. Every time the server headed back to the kitchen, she could have grabbed some dishes and glasses to take with her.

But we overlooked that shortcoming once the food started to arrive. Say what you will about his skills as a restaurateur, Tolla knows how to cook.

We started with an appetizer of Italian sausage ($3.95), spicy and seared and smothered in a thick, pulpy tomato sauce. Another companion chose the fresh buffalo mozzarella ($7.25) served alla Caprese with thick slices of tomatoes and a sprinkling of salt for flavor.

The only disappointment of the evening -- at least in terms of food -- was the pasta e fagioli ($3.95), which had a thin watery broth and precious few beans, which, given that beans are the fagioli in pasta e fagioli, is a big oversight.

But the entrees were all winners, and none better than the veal marsala ($13.95). What made it so good was not that the veal was perfectly tender, though it was, or that it had been sauteed just right, because it had. It was the sauce, a pitch-perfect blend of sweet marsala wine and butter, converted to a singular substance that lovingly accentuated the meat. Can you tell I liked the veal marsala?

Well, I liked the stuffed shells ($10.25), too. The large pasta shells were filled with a creamy ricottoa concoction and smothered with more of Tolla's wonderful red sauce. Simple as that. And by the way, in case you haven't noticed, the prices here are way below standard Winter Park fare.

There was no live entertainment on the evening I visited, though Tolla's has featured it in the past. It was early in the week, so maybe that's reserved for weekends. And it would be nice if Tolla's could stock some better wines on the list. I think the Winter Park clientele would welcome more variety, or at least better quality.

That is, if they can find it. Of course, it may be that many have found it and discovered the detritus among the tables that my friends and I saw. Many people would see such conditions and just walk away. I can understand that; I've done it a number of times myself. But I knew better about Tolla's and I was pretty sure the food would be worth putting up with the surroundings.

But I would urge Tolla to peek out of the kitchen when he can to manage the dining area a little more. Or else, hire someone who can.

Tolla's is at 240 N. Pennsylvania Ave., Winter Park. Lunch is served Tuesday through Friday and dinner is served Tuesday through Sunday. The phone number is 407-628-0068. Click here for more info and to read Tolla's menu.