Written by Scott Joseph on .

The people at Urban Life Management Restaurant Group have always appeared to have a goal of bringing a bit of big city life to downtown Orlando. After all, Urban Life is part of the company’s name.
They’ve had varying degrees of success with the likes of Hue, Kres Chophouse and most recently Citrus. Another of their ventures, Central City Market, was to have been part gourmet store with a butcher and part cafe. The restaurant was to have an emphasis on takeout meals for the thousands of hungry young urban professionals who were expected to occupy the various condominium projects scheduled to be constructed.
Very soon after it opened, in 2001, the market part began to fade away. It operated as quite a likable café until Urban Life closed it several months ago.
In its place they’ve opened Cityfish, a neighborhood seafood restaurant fashioned after a typical coastal fish shack. Ironically, it may be the most urban concept the company has come up with yet.
The menu is appropriately unambitious but has balance between casual offerings, such as fish and chips and fried Ipswich clams, and more upscale meals of fresh fish with potatoes and vegetables.
Cityfish’s lobster roll crosses over between the two categories. It is a sandwich, but one with an epicurean  ingredient and and a $22. The roll is done in the traditional New England way with the meat prepared as a salad with mayonnaise and served on a toasted white bun. It was a good lobster roll with plenty of sweet meat to fill the roll. It was served with fries and coleslaw, the latter served in a flimsy white paper cup.
I also liked the fish and chips ($10), although it must be mentioned that the fries served with many of the entrees are not very noteworthy. But in this classic pairing the cod more than made up for the deficiency of the chips. The two fillets were lightly battered and deep-fried to a crispy brown and served with tartar sauce.
Broiled sea scallops ($13) featured good-sized scallops deftly broiled and served with a vegetable medley, redskin potatoes and hush puppies. If your entrée comes with fries, ask your server if you can substitute the veggies, because the ones I sampled were nicely done, firm and fresh-tasting.
I tried two of the fresh fish offerings, a wahoo ($14) and grouper ($18). Both were grilled just right, but the wahoo was a better piece of fish and tasted fresher than the grouper.
The best appetizer I had was the shrimp and bacon poppers ($10). You’re probably familiar with the poppers that are deep-fried battered cheese with a pepper inside. These weren’t anything like that. Instead, the shrimp were wrapped with a piece of bacon and skewered, then grilled with a barbecue glaze. They were delicious.
Seafood nachos ($12) wasn’t nearly as frightening as it sounds. The huge stack of tortilla chips was layered with seafood, corn and black bean salsa, shredded cheese, sour cream and pico de gallo. The only problem was that the fish, shrimp and scallops were apparently chopped so finely as to be unidentifiable.
Cityfish also offers fresh oysters, and those I sampled were cool, fresh and expertly shucked. Priced from $2.45 to $3 each, the oysters I tried were Blue Point, Wianno, AmeriPure and Kumamoto.
Desserts were dreadful. A mud pie ($6) seemed little more than a mushy brownie suffocating under whipped cream. Key lime pie ($6) had raspberry sauce drizzled over it rendering it sweet and unlimey.
Service was friendly but tends to follow the more casual style of the restaurant. The wine list has several fitting selections and the by-the-glass list is good.
Liquor is also available, and a long bar dominates one side of the large, open interior dining space. There is also outdoor seating in front of the restaurant and along the side. Walls are painted a steely blue and are decorated with black and white photos of a certain age, with subjects such as a young boy holding a large fish and water-skiers.
That may not sound urban, but that’s my point. The other restaurants have tried to be the sort of place you’d find in New York or Miami. What’s wrong with aiming to be a city restaurant that fits the city you’re in?
Not a thing. And that’s why Cityfish succeeds.

Mama Nems'

Written by Scott Joseph on .

It's surprising how few really good Southern restaurants we have here, seeing as how close the South is to us and all. (Florida doesn't consider itself to be part of the south, from what I can determine. The South is something you travel North to get to.

I believe I could happily subsist solely on the sides dished from Mama Nems’, a soul food restaurant on the west side of Orlando. Not that I’d want to do without the fried chicken, smothered pork chops or braised oxtails, but if I had to I could more than get by on the collard greens, black-eyed peas, stewed tomatoes and mashed potatoes if I had to. And at Mama Nems’, man could indeed live on cornbread alone.

The restaurant refers to its menu as comfort food for the soul, and its slogan is, “If your mama can’t cook it, Mama Nems’ can.” It’s an interesting challenge to the theory that many adhere to – including me – that when people go out to eat at a restaurant they want food they can’t cook at home, at least not easily. But here you have home-style foods, any number of which were probably mainstays of your family’s weeknight and Sunday dinners, the kinds of foods that most of us no longer prepare ourselves because we don’t have the time or the talent.

There is definitely talent in Mama Nems’ kitchen, but it isn’t Mama Nems because there is no such person. The name is an Ebonics translation of mama and them’s, as in someone saying he was going to Mama and them’s house, it becomes Mama nems’.

If the grammar police decide to invade the Kirkman road restaurant, I suggest the owners immediately feed them the “lip smacking” pot roast ($9.95), and all concerns of language misappropriation will be forgiven, or at least forgotten. This is how pot roast should be done, braised until the meat is tender and falls apart in chunks, not until it is dry and stringy. The serving was an ample portion for the price, but then factor in a choice of three side dishes and a cornbread muffin and the meal becomes a tremendous bargain.

In fact precious few of the entrees, which indeed are called mainstays, wander over the 10 dollar mark. One item was the braised oxtails ($11.95), a plateful of coin-sized morsels of bone surrounded by rich meat that fairly melts before it can be chewed.

The smothered pork chops ($8.95), two thin chops, were like the hundreds I had as a kid, meat that requires some careful chewing to avoid the gristle but flavorful from frying and covered with gravy made from pan drippings.

The three-piece fried chicken dinner ($7.95) featured crispy skin and moist meat, all perfectly seasoned. But there was one disappointment: choosing all dark meat got me one leg and two back portions, not nearly enough meat.

No qualms with the meatloaf ($7.95), two slabs of smooth-textured meat, mildly seasoned and covered with gravy. Mashed potatoes were an easy selection as one of the three side dishes, and they were delicious. Choosing the others is a more difficult decision, especially knowing that each has something to recommend it. The collard greens had an intensely earthy flavor without being too tart. Candied yams were sufficiently sweet on the surface but were pure tuber inside. Stewed tomatoes were pulpy red with just a touch of sweetness. Cheese and macaroni was indeed cheesy enough to warrant the top billing, but what I liked most about this one was the toasty crust from baking. Savory cabbage had a delightful pungency. But the black-eyed peas, tender-firm and slightly salty, were my favorite. If you don’t count the fried okra. Or the lima beans.

Dessert brought the only other disappointment in a dried out piece of sweet potato pie ($2.50). But the peach cobbler ($2.95) with a sugary crust and firm pieces of peach more than made up for it. And the banana pudding ($2.95), made with vanilla wafers, was absolute heaven. Miss Celia’s red velvet cake ($3.50) earned its name with a texture that was as smooth and moist and positively velutinous.

The staff were friendly and welcoming though at times could be overwhelmed with the task of dealing with more than two tables at a time. On one visit I was served cornbread and slices of seedless watermelon before my meal; on another visit I had to request the bread, and no watermelon was offered.
Mama Nems’ is in the Beacon Pointe Plaza next to Sanctuary of Praise church, which owns both the complex and the restaurant. Needless to say, no alcoholic beverages are served, although for some reason a nonalcoholic daiquiri is offered.

The restaurant could not be described as fancy, but it is neat and bright and still has a newness after three months. There is a separate area next to the dining room for takeout service. Many of the dishes are on display there, which is nice if you want to do some window shopping before you sit down to order.

Be aware that while the mainstays and side dishes lists are extensive not everything is available every day. Chitterlings and hog maws, for example, are offered only a few days of the week. If you have a hankering for a certain item, you may want to call ahead. Or just show up and after your initial disappointment you’ll find yourself immersed in something else just as wonderful. It would be very difficult to go wrong with anything cooked by Mama or any of them.

Tommy Bahama Tropical Cafe

Written by Scott Joseph on .

I've always been fond of Tommy Bahama shirts, even though they are outrageously expensive.

The reasoning I use is that the shirts, which hover around the $100 mark and occasionally drift above it, are of unquestionably high quality. The material is heavy, the stitching sturdy and the patterns boldly elegant in vivid colors that never fade. Truly fine workmanship.

I would expect a restaurant called Tommy Bahama’s Tropical Café to operate under the same standards. The ingredients should be of high quality, the food should demonstrate the workmanship of a skilled chef and the presentations should be colorful tributes to their clothing counterparts. True fashion plates.
At the new Tommy Bahama’s Tropical Café at Pointe Orlando all of those aspects are present at times. But at other times it’s like buying a shirt with a couple of buttons missing or one sleeve shorter than the other. The good news is that when things go wrong at this elegantly casual restaurant the management knows how to make it right. The bad news is that they have so many chances to prove it.

The menu follows the company’s corporate mantra as “purveyor of island lifestyles” with such themed items as Port-Au-Prince pork chop, Trinidad tuna, Tortolla tortilla soup and Sanibel stuffed chicken. There’s a New York strip steak but its inclusion is finessed by calling it a Long Island New York strip.
That bit of whimsy hooked me, so I ordered the $32 entree. The 14-ounce steak was delivered overcooked, and when it was pointed out to the waiter, he immediately removed the steak to have it recooked. The redo, which took 17 minutes, was also overcooked. It may have been because the cut was so thin. But beyond the temperature of the strip the quality was mealy and the taste was of marinades and not meat. It was sort of like ordering a silk shirt and receiving a polyester blend. Even though I did not complain about the second steak, a manager cam by to say the charge would be removed from the bill.
Santiago sea bass ($35), which was, of course, a Chilean sea bass, was delivered to the table undercooked. The fist-sized piece of meat had firm flesh that was a luminescent white. But the center of the fillet was stone cold. Again I pointed out the miscook to the server, who whisked it away. This time the fully cooked fish was delivered by a manager who offered an excuse – a thick piece of fish, no? – but no recompense.

I had no qualms about the opakapaka Haleakala ($29), also known as pink snapper. (The first word is the Hawaiian name for the fish; the second word is the name of a volcano on Maui.) The mildly flavored fish was jacketed with a macadamia nut crust that gave it a buttery crunch. The broccolini that accompanied the fish was cold.

On a lunch visit I had Tommy’s great grouper sandwich and the Habana cabana pork sandwiches. The kitchen doesn’t seem to be overtaxed with the preparation of sandwiches. The grouper was a big fillet and had a delicately crisp beer batter. The soggy honey-roasted onions that topped it were a little cloying but easily removed. The sweetness of the blackberry brandy barbecue sauce was more appropriate with the pulled pork, and so were the crispy battered onions that topped it.

The appetizers were wonderful. I especially liked the crab Calloway ($16), even though the name doesn’t fit the theme. But the two crab cakes were largely comprised of sweet lump meat, and a light fry rendered the coconut crust to a perfect crunch.

I also liked the Loki-Loki tuna poke ($16), a timbale of alternating layers of cubed avocado and ahi tuna spritzed with soy and sesame oil. It was accompanied by flatbread that served as an edible scoop. That the preparation, which required no cooking, took 20 minutes to find its way to my table is a mystery. But again it was delivered by a manager with an “on the house” salute.

Desserts were another high point. Pina colada cake ($9) was a huge slice of vanilla with chopped pineapples and coconut with white chocolate mousse layers. Blackbeard’s butterscotch ($8) was a smooth and rich pudding in an immense vessel. Even the Key lime pie ($7) was impressive, with just the right limey tartness and a flaky bottom crust. The sprinkling of lime zest was a nice touch.

Service is a problem here and I don’t know why. The waiters mainly take orders, while the food is brought out by food runners. Yet the waiters never seem to be around. And the food runners don’t appear to have the necessary training or authorization to grant requests. On a visit when I dined alone I sat for nearly 15 minutes before my server greeted me, and he had the temerity to ask if I was waiting for anyone.

The design of the restaurant is reminiscent of a grand island plantation with faded stenciled wallpaper, ceiling fans and lots of wood appointments. Seating is at booths or tables. Booth tables are uncovered and have hard benches for seating. The individual tables have white cloths and more comfortable chairs. And they’re decorated with orchids. Choose the tables. There is patio seating, but when I chose to sit outside I was overwhelmed by the smell of propane for the not-in-use area heaters and a flurry of flies buzzing about. Choose inside seating.

It should be pointed out that there is no such person as Tommy Bahama. And it may sadden you to know the corporate headquarters are in New York and Seattle instead of, say, Antigua. There is a Tommy Bahama emporium attached to the restaurant. I suggest you stop in at the café, have a couple of appetizers, and instead of dinner, take the money you’d save and treat yourself to a really fine shirt.

Il Mulino

Written by Scott Joseph on .

When I told a friend that Il Mulino New York was opening a restaurant at the Swan and Dolphin hotel he said he couldn’t wait to go because the original – Il Mulino New York in New York – was his parents’ favorite restaurant when they lived there. Somehow, I don’t think they’d be quite as taken with the Central Florida version.
Oh, that’s not to say that it isn’t a good restaurant. It is. Most of the food I had during my two visits to the Swan’s newest signature restaurant was well prepared, and served by a staff that showed training if not consummate professionalism in an atmosphere that is large and bustling – yes, noisy -- without being frantic, and stylishly modern but decidedly not cozy.
But it’s not the same as the original. I know this because following my two visits to the restaurant in the Swan hotel, I visited Il Mulino in Greenwich Village. It’s a small place with a neighborhood feel. The single dining room is tasteful and sedate and tables are covered with white cloths. In the center of the room is a table with a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano from which the waiter served chunks of the tangy cheese. There were also thin slices of salumi and toasted bread that positively oozed rich olive oil.
The entire Greenwich Village restaurant would fit in the bar area of Il Mulino New York in the Swan hotel. Which is why the word trattoria has been tacked onto the name. It emphasizes a less-upscale experience and removes the technicality of trying to be an exact duplicate.
Taken on its own merits and not as an outpost to an established restaurant, Il Mulino New York Trattoria is a good Italian restaurant. The menu focuses on, but doesn’t mind straying from, the Abruzzo region of Italy and ranges from seafoods of the coast to meats of the mountains, although the food here tends to go a little easy on the spicy-hot peppers that distinguish many of the dishes of Abruzzo.
My guest and I started our meal at the Swan’s Il Mulino with the misto di mare appetizer ($36), a cold platter of seafood for two. Firm, hefty shrimp, delicately tiny clams and sea-salty oysters were arranged beside a spiny whole langostine and a salad of squid, scallops and baby shrimp.
I followed with the pasta fagioli soup ($7), a big bowl of white beans and small pasta tubes in a broth that was slightly more tomatoey than other versions but not in an off-putting way.
I had dentice ($29) for my entrée, a seared red snapper cooked with sweet cherry tomatoes, salty pancetta and pungent garlic with a touch of white wine. The fish was a firm fillet with sweet tasting flesh that went well with the side dish of broccoli rabe.
My companion had the saltimbocca ($33), veal scaloppini sauteed with prosciutto and white wine and sage, served over fresh spinach. The meat was thin and tender and the sauce was tangy and rich.
On another visit my guest and I started with the insaccati misti ($24 for two), an antipasti platter of meats including prosciutto, mortadella and soprassata, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and mozzarella.
For our primi course, we had half-orders of gnocchi Bolognese ($15) and risotto con funghi ($16). The gnocchi were firm and chewy potato dumplings in an intensely flavored meat sauce. The risotto had the delightful crunch of the arborio rice and the tender chew of the wild mushrooms in a broth that was tinged with truffle essence. Both were delicious.
We should have had the full orders and skipped the secondi. Both the vitello Milanese ($32) and pollo Parmigiana ($28) were disappointing. Both preparations involve pounded and breaded meats, and both were overcooked and hard. Even the brilliant taste of the fresh arugula on top of the veal couldn’t revive the dish.
For dessert, the torta di formaggio ($8) offered a twist on cheesecake, with a more crumbly, less cloying cake. Torta di cioccolati ($8) was a fairly average version of flourless chocolate cake. At the end of the meal, the server brought a tureen to the table and ladled tastes of limoncello into glasses for a sweet digestif.
Il Mulino New York took over the space of another Italian restaurant, Palio. The décor features wood floors and brick walls. Wood-topped tables are set with simple placemats instead of tablecloths. Domed light fictures that look like large heat lamps hang in clusters throughout the rooms. The kitchen is partially exposed, obscured enough so as not to dominate the scene but open enough to be a part of it.
Service was typically cheery although anything but prompt and efficient. The wine list has some wonderful selections that pair well with the food.
Il Mulino New York-Orlando and Il Mulino New York-New York share some similarities in the food – the oil-rich bread, the salumi and an identical pasta fagioli – but there are so many differences that one wonders if there is a reason the two share a name other than to exploit it. It would be a little like opening a chain of concert auditoriums seating thousands under the name La Scala. They could present opera performances, and some of them might be good. But somehow the experience just wouldn’t be the same.


Written by Scott Joseph on .

FishBones, the 12-year-old seafood and steakhouse from Talk of the Town Restaurant Group, finally has a second location. Sort of.
For years there has been talk around town that Talk of the Town, which also operates the Charley’s Steak Houses, was shopping for a spot to put another FishBones. The original near the intersection of International Drive and Sand Lake Road has enjoyed much success, and the company’s MoonFish on Restaurant Row was too close to brand as FishBones.
So north they went to the Lake Mary district that is home to a cluster of other relocations, including Dexter’s, Harvey’s Bistro, Amura and, though it has now closed, Blackfin. All of these restaurants have something in common: the Lake Mary version bears little resemblance to the original. But for FishBones the dissimilarities are more marked. The décor is more upscale, the menu more extensive and even aspects of the service are different than the Sand Lake Road restaurant.
In fact, the only thing that is really the same is the name, and that still confounds people who confuse it with Bonefish.
Well, there is one other commonality: both restaurants serve excellent food. Whether it’s fish or meat you prefer, each is prepared expertly.
The Lake Mary FishBones impresses first with its size and splashy décor. It is easy to believe the rumors that put the price tag for the new restaurant somewhere around $6.5 million. There are multiple dining rooms as well as a sushi bar, indoor lounge and outdoor bar with tables that feature personal gas fireplaces. There are numerous display aquariums with exotic marine life plus a live fish tank for your dinner selections. Among the upscale decorations and touches of classiness are numerous glass works by Tampa artist Duncan McClellan. Directly behind the host stand is an immense wood-fired grill, which is something of a trademark in various Talk of the Town restaurants.
The sushi selections are listed as bait, an unfortunate pandering to those who think of raw fish only in derogative terms. My guests and I started with the sampler ($22.50) of California roll, yum yum roll and tuna toro nachos. The California roll distinguished itself with the inclusion of real crabmeat instead of the more usual surimi. The yum yum roll had flash-fried salmon, scallions and cool cream cheese. The nachos were the best of the platter, chips of nori topped with chopped tuna and a dollop of flying fish roe.
From the kitchen, fried calamari ($7.95) took on new dimensions with a variety of peppers tossed with the tender squid. Crispy almond fried lobster tail ($19.95) yielded precious little meat for the price, but what I was able to extract from the brittle shells was sweet and delicious.
I sampled a number of the fresh fish selections and each was as enjoyable as the next. Yellow edge black grouper ($25.95) had an enjoyable smoky note from the wood grill. Wild king salmon ($26.95), cooked on a plank, was moist and sweet. Hong Kong sea bass ($32.95) featured a fist-sized ball of white flesh graced with the salty tang of soy sauce.
Meat selections are given the same careful attention as the seafood. (The original menu listed seafood under the heading Fish and meat under Bones, hence the name.) One of my guests ordered the 24-ounce prime rib ($23.95), a startlingly huge hunk of meat that despite its size was tender and smooth-textured.
A new York strip ($21.95) had a beautifully charred crust and a warm, red, juicy interior. A side of bearnaise ($1.25), however, was poorly executed, as was the hollandaise that was first delivered by mistake.
Dinners include a house salad that is tossed tableside. Make that spun tableside. A metal bowl sits in a pan of ice and the server spins the bowl on the ice while pouring in the dressing. A gimmick, but an acceptable salad. By the way, at the Sand Lake FishBones the salad is delivered already plated.
Desserts were obscenely huge, which is not necessarily a good thing. Chocolate cake ($7.95) was dry and not particularly chocolatey, and cheesecake was fairly flavorless. We all enjoyed the sampler of sorbets ($5.95), even if they tasted more like ice cream.
Most of the servers showed training and professionalism, although one waiter pulled the old upgrade to a premium vodka when no preference is given trick. I’m beginning to think Grey Goose is behind this. There are a number of good wine selections to pair with either seafood or meat, but few bargains among them, an exception being a Wirra Wirra chardonnay for $6.95.
Following my two visits to Lake Mary I returned to the Sand Lake FishBones, which I had not visited since 1994. I was startled by the campiness of the décor, which features rod and reels in the rafters and laminated tabletops with maritime charts.
The menu did not feature sushi and several of the appetizer selections were unique, including alligator tail, which is undoubtedly there to appeal to the tourist trade. The calmari was markedly different, but the piece of black grouper I had was about as fine a piece of fish as I can recall.
Still, I think we should let the tourists and conventioneers have that FishBones. The drive to Lake Mary is worth it for the more welcoming atmosphere and larger menu. It may have taken 12 years for Talk of the Town to open a second FishBones, but along the way they learned a little more about what goes into a fine seafood restaurant.

Memories of India

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Bay Hill Plaza, the little strip mall on Turkey Lake Road in South Orlando, is turning into a mini World Showcase of international restaurants. There’s an Italian restaurant and market, Red Bamboo Vietnamese, A Taste of Japan, with sushi and other Japanese dinners, and 1-6-8 Chinese.
Also among the cosmopolitan collection is Memories of India, which has managed to pack an entire nation of flavors, textures and spices into a small but comfortable space. The food here is as good as any of the other fine Indian restaurants we’re lucky to have in the area, but the owners of MOI haven’t yet found it necessary to over-inflate the prices.
The menu takes favorite dishes from the various states of India and puts them together in a collection that is so enticing that just choosing one entree is too difficult.
One of my favorites among the many entrees was the chicken saagwala ($11.95), which featured tender chunks of chicken breast meat plus potatoes in a creamy curry made of spinach and spices. Even with the potatoes in the dish, rice is served as a vessel for carrying the meat and sauce. I just love getting double the starch, especially when it’s this good.
The rice, of course, is fluffy basmati rice, whose name means “queen of fragrance.” Basmati rice has a perfumery aroma and a nutty taste, and it’s generally cooked with a clove or two in the mix.
I also liked the lamb vindaloo ($12.95), cubes of lamb marinated in a vinegary gravy and cooked with potatoes and pearl onions in freshly ground spices. The vinegar marinade plus the pickled onions gave the dish a pungent flavor. The spice blend made it fiery hot. Vindaloos are the hottest of the Indian curry dishes.
By the way, I ordered all the spicy dishes medium-hot and found them to be plenty high on the heat scale. If you’re more timid, ask for the spicy dishes to be cooked mild. If you’ve got a death wish, go all the way.
Not all Indian dishes are hot and spicy. Take, for example, the delicious lamb korma ($12.95), which had the meat with green bell peppers, almonds and raisins in a milder, creamier gravy. Heavenly with some rice and some naan to soak up the sauce.
There are several vegetarian specialties on the menu. I sampled the aloo gobhi ($9.95), with big chunks of potatoes and cauliflowerets cooked in curry spices with onions and ginger. Meat was not missed.
Memories of India also features tandoori-cooked entrees, meats and fish roasted in a clay oven about three-feet deep. I went for the works and ordered the Bombay House mixed grill ($17.95), which included chicken --  both the traditional red tandoori and marinated tikka varieties – lamb and shrimp. All the meats were moist and juicy, and they had plenty of flavor from the yogurt marinade. They were served with a mild curry and came with garlic naan, a flatbread topped with lots of fresh garlic. The naans are cooked by slapping the dough on the side of the oven wall, so they come out with a charred crust. Inside, however, the bread is soft and perfect for scooping.
For appetizers I recommend the nawabi lukme, or assorted platter ($8). This will get you plenty to sample, including samosas filled with potatoes and peas, pakoras dipped in chickpea batter and deep-fried, and lamb sheekh kabob, minced lamb grilled over charcoal. It all came with a chutney made with coriander, a pea-green dipping sauce that added a wonderful dimension to the meats.
For some reason a salad is included with the entrees, even though a salad course isn’t a traditional part of Indian meals. The simple plate of lettuce was drizzled with a creamy garlic dressing that was a little too strong. Stick with appetizers.
At meal’s end, there’s rice kheer ($2.95), a rice pudding with milk sugar, nuts and raisins, and handmade mango ice cream ($2.95), with a rich, pasty texture.
Service was affable and helpful. Wine and beer are available, including some Indian favorites.
The space, which was previously occupied by the now-defunct Lagniappe Cafe, is small but it has been tastefully decorated with wallpaper and wooden plaques depicting scenes of Indian peasant life. (The Shaq booth is no more.)
The lighting is subdued (except when the setting sun blares through the front door) and traditional Indian music plays quietly in the background. Seating is at tables and booths that are covered with white and pink cloths, topped with glass.
Memories of India is a delightful restaurant, one with delicious food and a pleasant staff. Even if our travels have not taken you to Asia, you’re sure to leave here with some fond memories of your own.


Written by Scott Joseph on .

When the Polonia Polish restaurant sign went up on US 17-92, old fans breathlessly hoped that it was the same folks who had won their hearts and bellies at the similarly named restaurant from Winter Park. It is.
Owner Rob Plummer told me by phone that he had to close the restaurant on Aloma because his chef went back to Poland. But the chef is back and all is well again.
You don’t have to be Polish to admire Polish food. You need only an appreciation for hearty fare whose origins come from the necessity to make do with what the earth and the seasons give you. This is farmland food, Eastern European style, where root vegetables like beets and carrots, and cured meats like kielbasa are used in abundance. And simple ingredients like flour, water and potatoes can be turned into something as splendid as pierogi.
And this is where something with a reputation as unflattering as a stuffed cabbage can be made into a delicacy that will change your mind about it forever.
Golabki, pronounced gowamki, is the name for the stuffed cabbage ($7.95). The pungent leaves were filled with a mixture of ground beef, pork and rice and covered with a tangy sauce of tomatoes. If you prefer, a mushroom sauce may be substituted.
Polonia features two types of pierogi ($7.50), the filled dumplings that are a staple of a Polish meal. You can get them with sauerkraut and mushroom or with potatoes and farmer cheese. Either version will be served topped with butter and covered with sweet caramelized onions and finished with a creamy dollop of sour cream. I liked both versions although I would probably tip the scales in favor of the potato filling because it seemed like a more substantial entrée.
One of my favorite dishes was the veal cutlet ($12.95). My guests and I could hear the cook in the kitchen pounding the cutlet, which was then coated with a breading and sauteed. The breading came out as crisp as you please, and the buttery taste was a perfect accent to the creamy veal.
Both the beef goulash ($11.95) and chicken paprikash ($9.95) were mildly flavored. That’s not so unusual for the goulash but the paprikash should show more seasoning. The goulash featured chunks of beef simmered in red wine with carrots and shallots. The chicken was simmered with vegetables and was sufficiently moist and tender.
If you have a hard time deciding what to order, consider the big Polish platter ($9.95), which isn’t really all that big but does tender ample portions of stuffed cabbage, kielbasa and pierogi with mashed potatoes and Polish kraut.
Other entrees come with a choice of two sides. The beets were fairly mild and the carrots rather dull. The sauerkraut was good and so was the cucumber dill salad with its sweet sauce. My favorite was the potato dumplings, dense rolls of potato flour with a smooth texture.
If you really want beets order the borscht ($3.50), arguably Poland’s most popular soup, with its red beety broth and shreds of the root vegetable. The soup is served hot with a plop of sour cream.
Zurek ($3.50) is another popular soup from Poland. Known also as Easter soup, it has sour rye flour as its base and is seasoned with fresh garlic and marjoram. Two halves of a hard-boiled egg float in the murky broth and feathery leaves of freshly chopped dill float on top.
For dessert there poppy seed cake ($), a multi-layered affair of chocolate with sweet vanilla frosting and hundreds of poppy seeds. Apple strudel ($) and blintzes ($) are as equally good as the cake.
Polonia is housed in a standalone building that at one time was a fast-food restaurant of some sort. (The abandoned drive-through lane is still there.) Most recently it was home to an Asian restaurant, and there is what may have been a make-do sushi bar next to the deli counter. The small dining room is rather plain, with white walls decorated with a couple of colorful Polish costumes and undistinguished paintings. The center of the room has what appears to be a dance floor, although no one moved the tables away to polka to the music that was playing. Tables are uncovered and napkins are of the paper variety.
No, this is not a fancy dining experience. But for those who enjoy good Polish food it’s as fine as it gets.

Kres Chophouse

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Kres Chophouse has been holding its own in downtown Orlando, good times and bad, for a good number of years now. Downtowners like its "adult" mien, a classy spot amid the myriad kids' hangouts.
As with any chophouse, meat is the main event. On my first visit I went right to the top and ordered the veal rib chop ($32). It was a beautiful hunk of meat and seemingly larger than its advertised 12 ounces. And once I sent it back to be cooked, it proved to be just as tasty as it looked.
My guest had the mixed grill ($29), which combined garlic shrimp, filet mignon and double lamb chops, and all were properly cooked and delicious.
On another visit I sampled the twin filet mignon Oscar ($28), two aptly named tenderloins, seared to the requested medium-rare -- first time --  and topped with a smidgen of king crab meat and a bearnaise. The sauce wasn’t quite what it should have been, but it was a nice entree, especially with the included blue cheese au gratin potatoes.
One of my guests had the beef Wellington ($32), a filet mignon topped with a sliver of foie gras and wrapped in puffed pastry. While the meat was properly cooked, the pastry was a bit doughy. But a mushroom ragout, asparagus and more of the blue cheese potatoes made everything better. By the way, with most dishes coming with side items, I was curious why there was an a la carte list of vegetables and potatoes, each $5. Based on the creamed spinach I sampled, which wasn’t quite creamed, I’d stick with what they give you on the plate.
Another guest had pompano en parchment ($27), which had a fillet and scallops with hearts of palm inside a parchment wrapper. Unfortunately the steaming overcooked the fish and it came out mushy.
I was happy to see steak tartare ($15) on the appetizer menu, but was disappointed with the runny, over seasoned glop. Grilled lemon garlic shrimp ($12) were tasty if a tad overpriced. The simple beefsteak tomato with buffalo mozzarella ($9) was a more satisfying starter, especially with a sprinkle of salt to offset the sweetness of the balsamic vinaigrette.
For dessert there was a rather odd Key lime concoction ($6) served in a glass, and a sweet and piquant apple tart ($6).
Service was good, nonintrusive. The wine list has several appropriate selections, a number of them by the glass.
The layout of the space is long and narrow with 22-foot ceilings and a bar and dining area on multi levels – but it has been reimagined by the same designer who did Hue. Hue was a new construction while Kres occupies a decades-old room, so some of the modern designer touches seem strange next to the original architecture. There are splashes of red -- extremely high booth backs in particular -- against brown walls. A wide wood-slat basket-weave banister separates the bar from the dining area.
A diaphanous curtain drapes off a private dining area at the rear of the room. The curtain is a robin’s egg blue and matches the color of the painted ceiling panels. Imposing light boxes hang from the ceiling. They replace the Bali-esque flying ladies that were the holdover from a restaurant that opened in 1989.
That place was called Bailey’s Cityside, a version of a then-popular Winter Park eatery. The owners had thought downtown Orlando was about to take off. They were about 15 years ahead of their time.

Kres is at 

Ming's Bistro

Written by Scott Joseph on .

There isn’t an egg roll to be found on the menu at Ming’s Bistro. Nor is there a moo goo gai pan or anything named after General Tso. Instead, the menu – and the experience – is more traditional Chinese than is to be found at most Central Florida Asian restaurants, and that added to a general consistency in good quality and a welcoming and gracious staff make a meal here a real treat.
Especially exciting is Ming’s dim sum menu, which is offered at all times, even during dinner hours, something rare for even the half-a-handful of Chinese restaurants serving dim sum. But the best time to come here dim sum during the day on weekends when the small plates are served from carts wheeled through the dining room.
The trolley service presents a never-ending parade of tasty tidbits, the servers giving diners quick peeks of the foods stacked in silver steaming trays or ceramic dishes. Point and say, “I’ll have one of those,” or simply nod yes if your mouth is already full from whatever was placed on your table a moment earlier. The server will grab the hot tray with a pair of tongs and place it on your table, then make a checkmark on the tally sheet on the table. It’s sort of like an Asian version of tapas, but the gratification is more instant and the prices don’t seem to add up nearly as fast or as high as in a Spanish restaurant.
In fact most of the dim sum at Ming’s Bistro are under $3, and a serving will give a table of three or four at least a sample bite.
You may or may not be adventurous enough to try the spicy chicken feet ($2.50) or beef tripe in ginger sauce (2.50). But do try such dim sum staples as shrimp dumplings ($2.60), lotus leaf sticky rice ($3.75) and turnip cakes ($2.25). I especially liked the sticky rice, with bits of roast pork wrapped inside a lotus leaf, then steamed. (I bought one in a market in San Francisco’s Chinatown a couple of weeks ago where is was marketed as a Chinese tamale, a perfect description.)
Steamed beef balls ($2.50), were good, too, dense meatballs that had to be pried apart with chopsticks.
Dim sum isn’t the only reason to try Ming’s. I had some very nice entrees from the main menu, none better than the genger scallion fish fillets ($8.95). It featured thin pieces of firm white fish covered with slivers of ginger in a yellow sauce that was similar to a curry. The sauce was wonderful with the steamed white rice.
I also liked the house special casserole ($8.95), though you should know this isn’t the sort of casserole known in the Western world. Rather, it’s more like a stew with all sorts of goodies in it, including beef, pork, chicken and squid.
When I requested the crispy roast pork ($5.25) the woman who took my order kept asking me if I was sure that was what I wanted. Usually such a question is a signal that the dish isn’t very good or is a bit off that day. But she simply wanted to make sure I knew that this particular pork would be somewhat fatty (yea!) and have some small bones. That was acceptable, and the meat, served over rice with a slightly sweet sauce, was mouth meltable.
I also got a strange look when I ordered the egg and pork congee ($4.50). It was a different server this time but she kept asking if I knew what it was. Congee is basically a rice porridge, a breakfast staple in Asian countries, and a tough sell to American palates. In truth, it’s not something I usually care for because it’s just so blah, but I did like this version. The creamy texture of the boiled rice was complemented by the addition of egg and bits of pork.
Roast duck on rice ($5.95), similar in presentation to the roast pork, including a side of steamed bok choy, had deliciously crispy skin.
The English descriptions on the menu can be startlingly frank, as in gingered pork intestine or fish head with tofu (which is more frightening to you, the fish head or the tofu?). Each item is presented with Chinese characters but followed by a Vietnamese translation, a nod to the predominant culture in this part of town.
Ming’s Bistro is a big, bright box of a restaurant in a newly constructed building just east of Mills Avenue. On the far end is a large fish tank, with large fish inside, and a hot box with hooks holding cuts of pork, beef and whole ducks.
From the high ceilings hang jeweled chandeliers, but any light they throw is drowned out by the fluorescent fixtures above them. The walls sport framed pictures that appear to be posters or perhaps part of a mural wallpaper scheme. Décor is not emphasized.
Rather the efforts are focused on the quality of the food and service, which, despite the slightly prejudicial concerns for the Western palate, was kind, prompt and efficient.
I’m not sure why, but Chinese food has been a tremendous disappointment in Central Florida. Few manage to do it well, but to that limited list we can now add Ming’s Bistro


Written by Scott Joseph on .

Roy’s was one of the first to take up residence on Restaurant Row. In fact, back in early 2001 there were so few dining establishments that had opened yet that I hadn’t started calling Sand Lake Road Restaurant Row. Timpano was open, but many of the others that now line that stretch of highway – and many that have since come and gone – would start serving later that year or the next.

So, back then, Roy’s was hot. It was new, it was splashy, it was sexy. And it was different, coming out of Hawaii with a fusion cuisine influenced by Asian ingredients and European techniques, a style created by Roy Yamaguchi, who opened his first Roy’s restaurant in Honolulu in 1988. It didn’t seem to matter that by the time Roy’s had crossed the Pacific and the continental United States that it had become a chain, one owned by Florida-based Outback Steakhouse Inc. at that. The crowds flocked.

They’re still flocking. On my two recent visits Roy’s was bustling like it was still the new kid in town.

The chef/managing partners are given a certain leeway to make changes to the menu, although some items are kept constant and can be found at any of the 33 Roy’s restaurants. These dishes, “Roy’s classics,” were among the best things I sampled on my recent visits.

One was the surfah combo ($26), which combined a macadamia nut-crusted mahi mahi with a serving of seared golden sea bass. The mahi mahi was the better of the two, a beautiful fillet, thick and moist, served with a rich lobster butter sauce. The seabass, a little hard-crusted, was paired with a truffled herb pistou, which, my server volunteered without being asked, means pesto.

I also liked the chive seared U-10 sea scallops ($26), sufficiently large, as the U-10 designation would suggest, but soft and buttery with a velvety texture. The scallops were well complemented with a Thai chili vinaigrette, but the wedge of fried tofu was rather superfluous and looked silly and out of place on the plate.

The prosciutto-wrapped ono ($26), also known as wahoo and caught, the menu wants you to know, on a long line, was dry and disappointing. But not as much as the garlic honey mustard grilled short ribs of beef ($23). Instead of the richness of fat, the short ribs here were tough and chewy. More long, slow cooking might have saved them.

Appetizers were largely satisfying. I especially liked the crispy garlic calamari ($7), which in truth weren’t all that crispy but had jackets of delicious batter and were served with Roma tomatoes and spicy chilies.

Roy’s canoe appetizer for two ($26; paddles extra) offered a sampling of coconut shrimp sticks, spring rolls, ravioli and tortellini with a few mushy edamame thrown in. The shrimp sticks were good, as were the spring rolls, stuffed with chicken, and the beef tortellini.

Lemongrass seared tiger prawn pad Thai ($8), had large shrimp served with noodles tossed with a curry sauce and peanuts. The firm and fresh-tasting prawns were the rightful stars of the dish.

Pineapple upside-down cake ($7.50) was the standout dessert by a long shot. The cake was moist and sweet with a wonderful toasty note, and the fruit added just the right bit of tartness. A macadamia nut tart ($7.50) paled next to the pineapple.

Staff are well-trained, almost to a fault. You will probably never have the opportunity to open the front door yourself, one of the hostesses will likely leap ahead to do that for you. Servers have excellent menu knowledge (see pistou/pesto above), but insist on walking diners through the menu. On one visit, my guests and I had already decided what we wanted for our appetizers before our server came to greet us. He started into his spiel and, seeing no end to it soon, I stopped him and gave him our appetizer order. As he walked away he turned and said, “They make us go through the whole thing.” The guest should have the right to make them stop.

For everyone who has begged me to include details on restaurants noise levels, listen up. That is, if you can hear me above the din. Roy’s is unapologetically noisy, whether you sit at the counter overlooking the open kitchen, as I did on one visit, or in the dining room. Get your important conversation out of the way before you get here.

The dining room is nicely decorated with walls of smooth black stones accented by moody lighting. But the kitchen noise and lighting overwhelms keeping this from being a romantic destination.

Roy’s has a great sense of community, and unlike many other restaurants in proximity to the tourist area – and with a name that will draw them in – the restaurant actively caters the local trade. Maybe that’s why it feels like Roy’s has been here a lot longer than five years. And I’m sure that’s what will keep it here for a very long time.