K Restaurant and Wine Bar

Written by SJO Staff on .

K Restaurant and Wine Bar

K Restraurant

It's nice to see that K Restaurant and Wine Bar is doing good business, at least at lunch time. With all the talk about people cutting back on eating out, it was good to see so many tables occupied there today.

Actually, it's probably a sign of the economic times that people are shifting their dining out patterns. Those who would go to a fancy restaurant at dinner now go to a more casual eatery. Or, instead of dinner as their meal out, they choose the more upscale restaurant for lunch.

Whatever, K is a good choice for either. I reviewed it in the Sentinel almost exactly one year ago, and that assessment stands. Add to it the delicious experience I had at lunch recently, with a plate of potato chips smothered in crumbled and slightly melted blue cheese. Sort of an upscale plate of nachos.

I had the Nicoise salad, which featured two big hunks of seared tuna on mesclun greens with chunks of potatoes, wedges of hard-boiled eggs and tangy olives.

I also had a taste of the diver scallops entree, three massive discs seared just so with a slight bit of salt to season. Tender yet with firmness.

Service was the usual K quality of attentiveness without hovering. My companions and I were allowed to set the pace.

K is still a terrific choice, lunch or dinner. And, by the way, if you're looking for a dining deal, try K's Monday night prix fixe menu.


Written by SJO Staff on .

Norman Van Aken Celebrates Five Years of Fine Dining in Orlando at Anniversary Dinner with Dean Fearing

Norman's Norman's, the fine dining restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes Resort in Orlando, celebrated its fifth anniversary Sunday with a lavish five-course meal co-cooked by Dean Fearing. Fearing, who, like Van Aken, is a James Beard Foundation award-winner, rose to fame as the chef of the estimable Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas. He now has his own restaurant, Fearing's, at the Ritz-Carlton Dallas.

Van Aken, of course, was one of the innovators of New World Cuisine, also known as Floribbean, that caused a culinary sensation in the late '80s. Van Aken and others, including Mark Militello, recognized that Florida didn't really have a cuisine of its own, so they co-opted the cooking techniques of the islands and adapted them to Florida's ingredients.

Saturday's sold-out dinner filled the posh restaurant with regulars who paid as much as $250 per person for the special occasion. The evening began with a champagne reception with tapas, including wonderful ceviche served in spoons and doughy pot stickers.

Guests were seated at 10-top tables that circled the marble-floored room. The first course was a chilled salad of red and yellow beets garnished with a dollop of apple wasabi sorbet, toasted pistachios and a bit of paddlefish caviar, which gave the beets a delightful little pop. The salad was accompanied by a Portuguese white wine, a 2005 Quinta Do Feital Alvarino "Dorado."

WineDean's barbecued shrimp taco was next, a fresh flour tortilla rolled more taquito style and served with mango-pickled onion salad. A 2007 Melville Estate viognier, which had a wonderfully fruity nose and complex tastes of peaches and apricots in the mouth. A delightful little sipping wine, with or without food.

The fish course featured a salmon fillet rolled with lapsang souchong, a black, smoked tea, sitting atop creamy Yukon Gold potatoes and topped with three pearl onions and crispy wafer fashioned out of salmon skin, which people either loved or hated (it had a nice salty taste). Patz & Hall's 2005 Pisoni Vineyard pinot noir from Santa Lucia Highlands in California was the accompanying wine. It was chosen, we were told, because the sauce with the fish was made with pinot noir. I didn't quite taste the connection, but I loved the wine nonetheless.

But the best wine came with the meat course, a buffalo tenderloin crusted with maple and black pepper. The meat was surprisingly tender -- grass-fed, we were told -- and the plate included jalapeno grits and a wonderful taquito filled with butternut squash.

Two wines, both made with syrah grapes, were offered with the meat course, a 2006 French Crozes-Hermitage Silene from Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, and a 2005 Domaine Serene Rockblock from Seven Hills Vineyard in Oregon's Walla Walla Valley. The French wine was fine, but the Oregon Rockblock, so named because the vines grow in rocky soil, blew it away. The Oregon wine had rounder notes with tastes of black cherries and currants. 

The meal ended with stylized "s'mores" fashioned out of crushed graham crackers topped with brandied chocolate ganache and toasted marshmallow. A Spanish dessert wine, a 2004 Bodegas Olivares Dulce Monastrell, was offered, but I preferred to stick with the Rockblock.

It's wonderful to have a restaurant of Norman's quality as part of Orlando's fine dining scene. Here's to many more years of innovative cooking.

Visit  Norman's for information.

The Wave Restaurant

Written by SJO Staff on .

The Wave Restaurant at Disney's Contemporary Resort

The Wave Have you ever been at the beach, out in the water, watching the waves as they roll toward you, waiting for the perfect one to pick you up and carry you to shore? And then you spot it, off in the distance, coming at you as though it's going to break just right and give you a perfect ride. So you start paddling in anticipation only to have the wave fizzle out.

That's how I feel about The Wave restaurant at Disney's Contemporary Resort.

This is the first full-service restaurant to open on Disney property in quite a while, so anticipation and expectation were high. But it just seems that not enough effort was put into this concept, and there definitely is a lack of a follow-through on all fronts.

Things looked promising as I approached the new restaurant. The Wave occupies a space on the ground level of the not-quite-as-contemporary-as-it-used-to-be resort using an area that once held a game room and employee training classroom. You access the restaurant through a brushed metal tunnel that I suppose is supposed to resemble going through the curl of a wave. At the other end of the tunnel is a host stand, and on the other side of that, behind panels of mottled glass, is a large and stylish bar with cool blue lights and, overhead, glittering starlights.

It seems Disney spent all its money on the tunnel and the lounge area because the dining room is really quite plain. It's a vast, open space with seating for 220 at bare wood tables. Overhead are undulating metal panels -- oh, let's just call them waves, shall we? -- Above the metal waves are white and yellow neon lights that call attention to an unattractive acoustic tile ceiling.

The menu is surprisingly limited, and the food is even more surprisingly unexciting.

Appetizers were downright disappointing. The crab cakes ($11.49) had too much filler and a mealy texture. Lettuce wraps ($11.99) featured pebble-sized pieces of lamb along with bay scallops the size of an eraser on the end of a No. 2 pencil. They were sauteed in soy-rice wine vinegar and presented as a soggy mess that diners are supposed to scoop into lettuce leaves to eat. This one would have been a failure at half the price, which still would have been too much to charge.

The best among the entrees I sampled was the fish of the day, which is listed on the menu as "Today's Sustainable Fish" to capitalize on a current ecological buzzword. That aside, the halibut fillet I had was fresh-tasting and had a lovely crisped exterior and beautiful white flesh inside. It was topped with cilantro chutney that offered a nice herby note.

Braised chicken pot pie ($19.99) was an odd presentation of meat -- not much of it -- peas, mushrooms and carrots in a creamy sauce served in a small casserole with a flat biscuit on top. I get the pot part but where's the pie?

Braised lamb shank ($25.99) was a little more impressive, a huge hunk of tender meat laid atop a stew of bulgur wheat and lentils.

The wine list features an ecological gimmick in that all the wines -- sparklers excepted -- are in bottles with screw-cap closures. The ecological part is that cork trees needn't be ravaged just to make bottle stoppers. I have nothing against screw caps, called Stelvin closures, and in fact I think they're quite handy. The only problem with building a wine list around them is that availability is currently rather limited. So the Wave's list features wines almost exclusively from producers in the Southern Hemisphere, where the use of screw caps has been more widely embraced. I found no stars among the wines.

Oddly, a flight of wines is offered on the drinks menu in the lounge, but it is not made available in the dining room. And, I overheard two guests being told, dining at the bar is not available.

Service had the appropriate Disney perkiness, but timing was way off on both my visits and long, inexplicable waits were endured.

I wish things had been better, and perhaps the restaurant will improve over the months. But as it stands now, the Wave is a washout.


Written by Scott Joseph on .

HUE has been an important part of downtown Orlando and specifically the Thornton Park area for more than six years. Although there were other venues targeting young people at the time, HUE was among the first specifically designed to attract a more upscale and stylish group. And certainly the first to be successful at it. From my February 2002 review in the Orlando Sentinel:
… Hue is very hip. On just about any evening it is vibrantly alive with young urbanites frantic to unwind from the day’s pursuits. So they sip pretty cocktails and shout to each other to be heard over the din they themselves are creating. Then, after a suitable waiting period that seems necessary to demonstrate the popularity of the place, they might make their way to a table in one of the two small dining rooms, or perhaps on the patio that wraps around the corner of Central Boulevard and Summerlin Avenue...

Over the years, it has continued to draw young drinkers and not a few diners, too.

The menu continues to have a curious Asian bent, such as a tuna tartare appetizer presented on crispy wontons, or cripsy oysters served whimsically in the sort of spoons used in Vietnamese soups. But the best items here are the more straightforward, including grilled flatbread with duck confit; Burgundy balsamic braised short ribs; and one truly fine burger.

On one of my visits I had the wood-grilled rack of lamb and my companion chose the pan-seared halibut. Both were nicely done. The lamb featured two double chops, finished to the requested medium-rare, placed over a mound of risotto and accompanied by sautéed vegetables, including green beans, green pea pods, and red peppers. Although the menu said it was a red pepper risotto there was no indication red pepper had been involved.

The halibut was a good-sized fillet deftly cooked so the inside had white flaky flesh and the outside had a pleasantly crisped crust.

Servers tend to be young and range from green and inexperienced to highly trained and reliable.

Hue is at 629 E. Central Blvd., Orlando. It's open daily for lunch and dinner. The phone number is 407-849-1800. Visit the Web site for more info.

Orchid Thai

Written by Scott Joseph on .

This is a tale of two Thais.
I recently visited two new Thai restaurants, each with good food but each distinctly different from the other in its style and experience.
On one end of the spectrum is Orchid, a splashy and elegant restaurant with a hip vibe that befits its Park Avenue milieu.
And then there’s Chai Thai, a modest, unpretentious and unadorned eatery with a family-style mien. Unfortunately, it, too, has an ambience that matches its Curry Ford Road locale. (Isn’t there an Extreme Makeover: Urban Street Edition yet?)
But even with its decidedly downscale décor, Chai Thai delivers delicious Thai favorites. So does Orchid, but its menu also extends to more ambitious fare that is based on Thai seasonings and ingredients that may be unfamiliar even to devotees of the area’s many Thai restaurants.
Short rib massamam ($22), for example. It featured a large beef short rib, braised and then sautéed with potatoes and small pieces of sweet bell peppers with a chili sauce and a bit of roasted peanuts. That the meat was not the most tender hunk of rib I’ve had – a bit more braising might have helped – does not detract from the overall enjoyment of the dish.
And part of the enjoyment of this entrée, and indeed most every dish served here, was the elegant presentation, which almost invariably included luminous purple orchid blooms as plate garnish. (Yes, orchid petals are edible, but frankly I enjoy looking at them much more than ingesting them.)
More traditional entrees occupy the menu, including pad Thai (would it be possible for a Thai restaurant to operate without pad Thai?) I ordered mine with chicken ($14) and was surprised when the server asked me how spicy I wanted it. Pad Thai is done without spicy seasoning and is traditionally served with a condiment tray that includes crushed peppers and chili sauce, as well as chopped peanuts, for the diner to add at will.
There was no condiment tray, but the mix of rice noodles, bean sprouts, tangy chicken and ground peanuts was nonetheless delicious.
I also had the pad Thai ($9.95) at Chai, and again I was asked how spicy I wanted it. Are Thai restaurants going the way of Indian restaurants, succumbing to the uninformed notion of the dining public that these cuisines are nothing but spicy foods?
Chai Thai’s version was equally as good, the only difference being the presentation – and the price, which probably had something to do with the presentation. Orchids aren’t cheap.
Chai doesn’t decorate with orchids, but the crispy duck ($14.95) was a beautiful presentation all by itself. It was a fully platter of sliced meat with cispy crunchy skin topped with basil. There was a small amount of sauce, barely enough to wet the fluffy jasmine rice, but it wasn’t missed.
InWinter Park I ordered the Orchid duck ($24) and was surprised that what I was served was basically a salad. I didn’t think I was ordering a salad – the menu didn’t say anything about greens – and I certainly wouldn’t have ordered a $24 salad. When a server noticed my dismay he removed the dish from my table and the charge from my bill.
At Chai I had the red curry with beef ($9.95), which I ordered medium-hot. It was perfectly spiced, hot enough to put some heat on the tongue but not so much that it scorched the taste buds for the myriad other flavors.
Orchid did a nice yellow curry with chicken ($14), although here the spicing was more muted.
Both restaurants also offer one of my favorite Thai appetizers, stuffed chicken wings. These are wings that have the upper bone removed and its cavity filled with chopped chicken meat, clear noodles and vegetables. It’s then breaded and deep-fried to create a drumsticklike treat. Both were tasty and similarly priced, Orchid’s for $6 and Chai’s for $5.95. Orchid offered an unusual appetizer called mieng kum ($10), which was an assemble-yourself morsel. It included mounds of fresh ginger, tiny cubes of lime, onion, peanuts and – don’t be frightened – tiny freeze-dried shrimp. These were accompanied by fresh spinach leaves to wrap the ingredients in. Despite the woefully small leaves, it was an interesting and filling starter course, except there wasn’t enough freeze-dried shrimp, words I never thought I’d say.
I seldom order desserts in Thai restaurants, but I had to try the coconut sticky rice with mango ($7), a long pad of sweetened rice topped with slices of cool mango. It was quite nice.
Orchid is in the small space that was occupied by Bistro on Park before it moved across the street. The walls are a sedate mocha, and colorful, geometric-centric paintings adorn the walls. And, of course, there are plenty of orchids that line the small bar, which also, it seems, doubles as an office for the owner.
Chai Thai doesn’t have the decorative accouterments of Orchid, but each does a fine job with its common cuisine.

Rincon Cubano

Written by Scott Joseph on .

You may remember Rincon Cubano Cafeteria as Elijah’s Grill from a few years ago. Elijah’s moved to Eustis, of all places, and RCC moved in. They even kept the old phone number.
They must have kept some of the recipes, too, because just like Elijah’s the food here is first-rate.
The Hound stopped in recently and had the pernil, or roast pork shoulder. They referred to it on a hand-written specials menu board as pulled pork, but this wasn’t like what you’d find in your basic barbeque joint. The meat, which was moist and flavorful, was in large chunks and topped by a piece of delicious crispy skin. Woe to the person who takes this heavenly piece of epicurean epidermis and sets it aside. It’s OK to do that with chicken skin. But with pernil you have to eat the skin. And that’s that.
The dinner also came with a choice of rice – I had the white rice premixed with beans, because if I had ordered them separately I would have just mixed them together anyway. I also had a choice of fried plantains, tostones or yuca. I had the boiled yucca but I asked for the garlic sauce on the side. I had sampled the sauce on a previous visit and it was so strong that no one would speak to me for two days. The yuca was so good that it didn’t need any sauce, just a bit of salt to bring out the flavor of the pasty root.
I also tried one of the restaurant’s Cuban sandwiches, which had lots of thinly sliced ham and pork with a slather of yellow mustard and some tangy dill pickles.
The Cafeteria part of Rincon Cubano’s name is a bit misleading. This isn’t the kind of place where you grab a plastic tray and slide it along the rails as someone dishes out the food you point to. In fact, you place your order at the front counter and no rails are involved whatsoever.
But you can point at what you want, but you have to go to the other end of the counter. That’s where the few hot items that are offered each day are on display. This is unclear to those unfamiliar with the setup, and in fact if you just walk in the door and up to the counter and order from the menu board on the wall, you’ll miss out on the specials because they’re not listed there.
Back up by the order station, however, a few of the appetizers are displayed in a heated plastic cube. Be sure to point to a tamal, because they’re pretty good. The Cuban version of the tamale is mostly cornmeal with just a few flecks of meat that we’ll agree for the sake of argument is ham. This one didn’t need more meat because the steamed cornmeal was delicious on its own.

Rincon Cubano Cafeteria is at 3327 N. Forsyth Road, Winter Park. The hours are 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. No alcohol is served but credit cards are accepted. The phone number is 407-679-5600.

Capital Grille

Written by Scott Joseph on .

In the world of steakhouses, there are two distinct types. There are the family style restaurants with casual settings and, often, for some reason, peanut shells scattered about the floors. These are your LongHorns, your Lone Stars and Outbacks, among others.
Then there are the high-end steakhouses, with no peanuts on the floor or in the pricing. In this category you’ll find the Del Frisco’s, Shula’s and Ruth’s Chrises.
Some of these restaurants fall under the same corporate umbrella – Lone Star and Del Frisco’s, for instance – sort of like Toyota and Lexus.
But just as luxury cars brands have their lesser models (a Lexus ES350 is basically just a Camry), so too the luxury steakhouses. Think of them as the low end of the high-end meateries. Or a third category: not casual enough to be a family restaurant and without the quality to be considered top-notch.
There are three restaurants that I would put in that category based on my previous experiences: Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar; Palm Restaurant; and the Capital Grille. The dinners I’ve had at these restaurants in the past have been OK but not good enough to justify the hefty price tags. I thought it might be time to check back to see if there have been any changes, especially in light of Darden Restaurants buying the Capital Grille (and getting LongHorn Steakhouse in the deal).
I don’t know if the new ownership had anything to do with it, but the Capital Grille was the most improved among the three, and that includes service and overall experience as well as the steaks.
And what steaks. I had the Delmonico ($40), basically a bone-in ribeye, that was had a flavorful, well-seasoned crust and beautiful red center. The higher fat content of the cut made it juicy and tender.
My companion chose the Kansas City sirloin ($40), offered as a special on the night I visited. Also a bone-in cut, the steak had a characteristically coarser texture but was cooked just as perfectly as the other and was every bit as flavorful.
So here’s the surprise: Capital Grille serves steaks graded USDA choice, not prime, although you wouldn’t know that from the pricing. Just as with luxury cars there are quality levels within each meat grade. CG is obviously purchasing the upper echelon of choice.

Park Plaza Gardens

Written by Scott Joseph on .

I've always been a fan of Park plaza Gardens, so at times the enthusiasm has flagged. There was a time in the '90s and even into the 2000's that the once venerable restaurant was a mere shadow of its former self. A few years ago, I strted to get excited about this place again.

I am even more enthusiastic about the quality and consistency of the food and service at Park Plaza Gardens now than I was four years ago.

Steak and fish were both highlights of my visits. The bone-in ribeye ($40) was a substantial steak, grilled to the requested medium-rare, and graced with the slightest hint of truffles in the demi-glace.

The New York strip au poivre ($37) also featured a fine piece of meat, but someone seems to have forgotten that poivre means pepper; it hadn’t the slightest hint of any. Instead, the sauce was a wild mushroom and cognac demi-glace.

If I had to choose one entrée that stood out among the rest it would be the crab-stuffed grouper ($32). The fish was firm and fresh-tasting, and the accompanying crabmeat added the perfect grace note. A caper sauce gave the two just the right saltiness. The plate was rounded out with fluffy jasmine rice and sautéed fresh baby spinach.

On a lunch visit I enjoyed the herb-roasted king salmon ($18), although I’m not sure where the herbs came into it. It was a long but slender steak with a good amount of fattiness in the texture. The salmon sat atop a mound of mashed potatoes and was surrounded by a puddle of roasted tomato coulis spiced with ginger, a lovely sauce.

But the blackened burger with blue cheese ($11) was disappointingly dry.

There were a number of good appetizers but the crab cakes ($13) were the standout. They had plenty of crab held together with a minimum of filler and with a light jacket of panko to give it a crispy crust. With a salad of baby greens, it was enough for a light entrée.

The pesto and goat cheese stuffed eggplant ($10) had the creamy richness of the cheese with the tanginess of the pesto with some more of that wonderful tomato coulis. Fried mac-n-cheese balls ($8), crusted with more panko, were only worth trying out of curiosity.

Special soups are listed as Chef Santos’ soup of the day ($7) with no information of who Santos is. He or she presented a chicken and corn chowder on one of my visits, but instead of being a thick soup, as most people expect a chowder to be, it was basically a brothy chicken soup with a few kernels of corn and small chunks of potato and chicken meat.

Actually one of the best starters at Park Plaza Gardens is the bread basket, which has delicious toasted bread with a little cheese and spicy pepper. How much better it would be with pure butter instead of the dish of over garlicked olive oil that is offered.

Service was very good on all my visits, and the cross-service among the staff ensures that no table goes wanting. The wine list is not extensive but has appropriate selections.

Park Plaza Gardens has two dining venues, the café that spills from the bar at the front of the building onto the sidewalk, and the more formal dining room in the back. That space had undergone a renovation back when the restaurant was rebranded with the Chef Justin name. It retains its outdoor ambience with red brick flooring and walls and towering trees, but all under the glass ceiling. An open window to the kitchen doesn’t offer diners much of a peek at the goings-on there but does add to the noise level.

I prefer the dining room, but to get an idea of PPG’s place in the Winter Park scene, take a sidewalk table and watch how diners and passers-by greet each other as the come and go. It is a neighborhood restaurant, just in a nice neighborhood. But in the dining room, Park Plaza Gardens can still be the special occasion restaurant it once was. Even more so now.


Written by Scott Joseph on .

I have a distinct memory of the night I went on a tapeo, or tapas bar crawl, in Madrid. It was the evening of September 11, 2001. There are certain events that provoke a “where were you when” remembrance. That is certainly one for me.
So when, several years later, I visited Ceviche in downtown Orlando, I was impressed with how the food and overall feel of the place whisked me back to Spain.
I like just about everything about Ceviche. The food and the atmosphere are authentic, and the staff seem genuinely enthusiastic about the tapas they serve. Of course, it’s a lot easier to be enthusiastic about the food when it’s this good.
The Orlando Ceviche is a new location for a Tampa restaurant that opened in 1997. There is another location in St. Petersburg and a newer location in Sarasota. It took over the space that of late was occupied by the ill-fated Pearl Steakhouse but which is more recognizable to longtime locals as the former Lili Marlene’s at Church Street Station.
The restaurant is an expansive space with wide-plank pine flooring and the sort of hand-painted tiles that adorn walls all over Spain.
The name is probably the least authentic Spanish thing about the place, ceviche being more popular as a Latin American dish. That said, the ceviche de la casa ($8), one of about half a dozen choices, was a delicious selection of citrus marinated seafood, including big scallops, tender-firm shrimp, squid and two-bite-sized pieces of salmon mixed with fresh tomatoes, scallions, bell peppers and a touch of cilantro.
But the pinchos selection of sardines ($6), big, fat fillets served with tomatoes and onions of a sliver of bread, were a more authentic taste of Spanish tapas, and every bit as tasty.
No tapas crawl is complete without a tortilla Espanola ($4), the potato and onion omelet that is as close to a national dish as you’ll find. Ceviche’s was perfectly executed so that the omelet, served in a small square portion, was sufficiently firm.
By the way, most items on the menu are available as tapas plates, that is, as small bites, or as larger portions. Whenever given the choice I ordered the smaller plates, and those are the prices I quote here. But all the prices are more than fair, and a veritable feast for four people can be had here for about $100.
Include a portion of oxtail ($11) in your budget. The rabo de toro was braised in red wine so that the meat was as tender as it could be and was falling off the bone, or off the tail, as the case may be. The cross-sections were served on a bed of cubed potatoes.
I also liked the braised baby lamb ribs ($9), but mostly because of the white beans mixed with chunks of chorizo that accompanied the flavorful lamb.
My guests and I all agreed that one of the best dishes we sampled was the berenjenas fritas ($6), thin slices of eggplant fried crispy like potato chips. Simple and delicious.
Croquetas de bacalao ($7), deep-fried fritters of salt cod blended with bechamel, were appropriately salty. Albondigas ($6) were dense balls of meat fashioned out of ground veal, chorizo and pork served in a spicy tomato sauce.
Desserts were less wonderful than all that preceded them. Pudin de pan ($7) was a too-dense bread pudding, and torta Valenciana ($8.50) was a chocolate cake with hints of orange that probably would have been better a day or two earlier. Flan ($5) was surprisingly bland.
The centerpiece of the dining room is a cold tapas station where cheeses and meats are sliced. Full shanks of hams hang on the four sides, small paper cups inserted at the feet to catch the dripping juices.
On many nights, in the bar space just outside the main dining area, which has its own bar, there is flamenco-style music that is mezmerizingly entertaining.

If Ceviche is the kind of restaurant we want to see more of in downtown Orlando – and I think it is – we should do everything we can to encourage its survival.

Ceviche is at 125 W. Church St., Orlando. It’s open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday. The phone number is 321-281-8140.


Written by Scott Joseph on .

Could a restaurant such as Bergamo’s exist anywhere other than Orlando, specifically the part Orlando that is known as Tourist World? The gimmick of singing waiters seemed uniquely suited to the International Drive environs.
Exist it did for more than 17 years at I-Drive’s Mercado complex until the imminent demolition of that venue forced the restaurant to move. Earlier this year Bergamo’s took over a space in Festival Bay that had been occupied for a mercifully short time by Murray Bros. Caddyshack.
That an independently-owned restaurant survived, perhaps thrived, for so long is impressive for our town. I should note that they did so with no help from me. When I reviewed the restaurant in 1990, and again in 1995, I experienced nothing I could recommend. The food was marginal at best, and the entertainment was amateurish – neither was good enough to put up with the other. But while few locals patronized the restaurant, it did just fine with its unique concept and a weekly refreshment of unsuspecting tourists and conventioneers. It didn’t require the recommendation of the local critic.
So it probably won’t matter to them that I think the new Bergamo’s is quite good. The singers demonstrate extensive vocal training and perform with professionalism, more so than in their table-waiting duties, but they manage to do both well enough. The servers, and even the hostess, take turns on the stage in sets that start at the top of the hour and last about 30 minutes. They sing songs that range from show tunes to arias to ballads, and most had lovely voices that at times brought chills.
The food was less thrilling but certainly better than anything I ever sampled at the old place. Most of it was acceptable, perhaps only mediocre in another venue but boosted a bit by the ambience and entertainment.
Best of the entrees I sampled was the petite veal chops ($25.95) served with a Marsala sauce with porcini mushrooms and mashed potatoes. The chops were about the size of lamb chops but with the characterisitc tenderness and milky taste of veal. They were served with delicious baby carrots and zucchini, but the potatoes were hard and dry.
I also liked the black linguine ($($29.99), pasta colored with squid in with other parts of the cephalopod sauteed with shrimp in a tomatoey sauce dotted with spicy bits of red pepper flakes.
But the braised beef ribs ($29.99) were disappointingly dry and stringy, and the polenta that accompanied had a hard crust.
Among the appetizers, crispy risotto croquettes ($9.99) were a little too crisp and were nearly blackened and hard. Seared scallops ($9.99), however, served with al dente cannellini beans and radicchio, were big, plump and cooked perfectly.
Seafood antipasti platter ($17.99), our server told us, was comprised of whatever the chef had in the kitchen, and that’s exactly how it appeared. There was a small stack of crumbled salmon, a few shrimp, sauteed calamari and raw tuna that was completely devoid of flavor. It was worth the cost.
The bread pudding ($9.99) was the best of the desserts I sampled. It was made with batonettes of bread that had transmogrified into a creamy custard. Limoncello cheesecake ($8.99) was dry and lacking much of a lemony flavor.
There is an impressively extensive wine list focusing on Italian varietals. By-the-glass options are not quite as numerous.
The new venue is perfect for Bergamo’s concept. The main dining room is a large rotunda with seating on the main floor surrounding a centrally located piano and a raised area with more tables for an in-the-round setting. The opulence of flowing fabrics and dramatic lighting might be over the top for other restaurants but are appropriate here. One thing you might not notice, at least not with your eyes, is the use of wood panels, hung at the direction of an accoustical engineer, to optimize the sound. Even with the most booming baritone at full voice, conversation is still possible.
But please don’t talk while the performers are singing. Sit and listen and appreciate something that is uniquely Orlando. And a restaurant that is finally worth recommending to the people who live there.