Ceviche

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.

Bergamo's

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.

Adriatico

Written by Scott Joseph on .

College Park and Adriatico are a perfect match. The Orlando neighborhood certainly has some good, or good enough, restaurants. But it’s been missing a quaint trattoria, the sort of Italian place with a mom-and-pop feel, one that’s comfortable, homey and immediately familiar. A welcoming spot where the food is good but beside the point.
That’s Adriatico.
The “mom and pop” owners are Marco and Rosetta Cudazzo. She runs the dining room, greeting guests with a matronly welcome, and he does the cooking, demonstrating the skills he most recently plied at the estimable Terramia, a multiple Foodie winner, and at Antonio’s La Fiamma in Maitland before that.
Not everything here is perfect, but much of it is quite good. It’s the kind of food that causes strangers to speak to one another (well, the tables are so close together that cross-table communication is easy) and make recommendations.
That was the case on my first visit. As I sat reading through the dinner menu I heard a voice nearby ask if I like risotto. I looked up to see if a waiter was speaking, but it was the gentleman dining at the next table with his wife. He asked again and I admitted that I do indeed like risotto. It’s wonderful here, he said.
I found the listing on the menu, risotto all pescatore ($20.50), arborio rice with mixed fresh seafood in a light tomato broth. I saw no reason to look any further.
Unfortunately the risotto was the only thing I tasted in all of my visits that was a total failure. The rice tasted as though it had been boiled, and too long at that. And the seafood seemed to have been added at the finish, plopped on top of the rice with sauce.
By then the couple had left, but if I should see them again I would suggest they try the scallopine alla Sienese ($21.50), two tender medallions sauteed in white wine and butter, topped with a thin slice of prosciutto di Parma and melted fontina cheese, served with fresh sauteed spinach.
Or the pollo al limone ($10.50) that I had on a luncheon visit. A simple dish, it featured two pounded chicken breasts in a thick and rich sauce that was both buttery and tangy from the lemon juice and the piquant capers that topped the meat.
And penne boscaiola ($9.50), another lunch choice, with large tubes sauteed with chicken and wild mushrooms with prosciutto and tomatoes. The chicke was tender, tasting as though it had been poached, and the mushrooms had a wonderful fatty mouthfeel.
I would counsel against the swordfish ($24.50) I had as a special one evening. The preparation was good, with cherry tomatoes and basil in a creamy sauce. But the fish was overcooked, and with such a thin fillet how could it have been anything else?
I could have made a meal of the capesante alla mostarda appetizer ($12.50), three huge scallops sauteed with shallots and brandy in a creamy sauce tinged with a touch of mustard, served over fresh spinach. One could want little more when the appetizer is this good.
The classico antipasto misto ($14.50) was a thoughtful selection of salami, prosciutto, cubes of hard parmesan, roasted peppers, baby artichokes and a handful of some of the tastiest green olives you’re likely to find.
Desserts seem an afterthought, with tiramisu the only in-house preparation. But it was a good tiramisu ($6), creamy and delicious. A chocolate pyramid ($7) satisfied the sweet tooth of my companion.
Service was amiable, accommodating and professional. All showed good menu and wine list knowledge.
Adriatico occupies a small, intimate space. Walls are brick on one side and fieldstone-arched mirrors on another. I liked the touch of moss growing between the stones. Tables are covered with crisp white linens, even at lunch, and soft lighting is complemented by the vocal stylings of Sinatra, Bennett, Martin and others.
Adriatico may not be perfect, but I think if I lived in College Park I’d find myself strolling that way often, just because it’s the sort of place you want to be.

Tang's Thai

Written by Scott Joseph on .

I can’t think of another cuisine that has seen such an insurgent rise locally as Thai. Remember a few years back – OK, it was more like 17 years ago – when it seemed every other restaurant opening was a pasta house? Thai must be the new Italian.
Most of the Thai restaurants share similarities. They’re small, casual, seemingly family-run and serve the same coterie of curries and peanut-sauced dishes. Presentations might best be described as pleasant but humble.
Tang’s, a new restaurant in the Marketplace at Dr. Phillips, offers many of the same dishes that other Thai restaurants do, but it does so differently. It has an ambience that while still small and intimate is also upscale and chic. And the food is decidedly more stylized and presented in an appealing fashion. As one of my dining companions remarked, it seems more French than Thai.
That of course is meant as a compliment, a recognition that food often though of as simple could be seen as haute cuisine.
Which is not to say Tang’s is pretentious. It is not. But a meal here can be every bit as special as one in a so-called gourmet restaurant, and just as satisfying, too.
Laab chicken ($9) was a favorite appetizer. It feaured nuggets of chopped chicken, poached, and tossed with tangy red onions, cool mint and toasted jasmine rice and was served with slender leaves of romaine lettuce to make a sort of wrap. Sweetness, spice and a watery crunch from the lettuce.
Fresh basil rolls ($8) were summer rolls of translucent rice paper packed with Thai basil, vermicelli noodles and poached shrimp served with a hoisin reduction sauce.
I also liked the barbecue beef skirt ($14), marinated skirt steak imbued with garlic and shiitake soy sauce. Tender and delicious.
Short ribs massaman ($24) were a favorite entrée. It featured tender braised beef sautted with a sweet chili paste with peanuts and tamarind and finished with a creamy coconut milk.
Penang curry ($22) was also good. Usually served with chicken or beef, Tang’s gives a choice of salmon or shrimp. I chose salmon, a very nicely cooked and moist fillet that held up surprisingly well to the spiciness of the Penang. True, I had requested the curry medium-hot, but it still had a spicy factor. And although it was spicy, the complexity of the layered flavors of chilies, kaffir lime leaves, onions, sweet coconut milk and ginger still came through. This dish, like several others, also features sticks of vegetables, including zucchini, carrots and red bell peppers, which were sauteed al dente and notable for their freshness.
I had hoped for some creative twist on the lowly pad Thai ($16), the putative national dish of rice noodles tossed with shallots, bean sprouts and peantus. But it was fairly mundane although executed well enough.
Pla lad prig ($29), usually presented as a whole fish, here is a fillet. Wahoo was the featured fish on one of my visits. It was pan-seared and ladled with a sweet chili sauce tinged with garlic and accompanied by cherry tomatoes and red bell peppers. I thought the wahoo was a tad overcooked, but my guests all enjoyed it and voted it their favorite.
Rice was offered by the manager from a large bowl that was divided down the middle by a lettuce leaf. On one side was the usual fluffy white jasmine rice, but on the other side was a rice blended with freshly chopped basil for an herby touch.
For dessert I liked the banana spring rolls ($7), which had big hunks of the fruit deep-fried in sweet pastry.
Tang’s occupies a small space. Two walls sport banquettes with tall cushions while the center of the room has tables with slender-backed leather chairs. The walls have touches of small tiles, and colorful glass pendants hang over the tables giving off a moody glow.
Service was attentive and polite. There is a wine list with several good by-the-glass choices. It’s rare that I want anything other than a Singha beer to go with my Thai food.
But then Tang’s just isn’t your typical Thai. It doesn’t take anything away from the other good Thai restaurant in the area – I’m happy to have them all and look forward to those still to come – but it adds another dimension of dining and takes Thai to a higher level.

Hollywood Brown Derby

Written by SJO Staff on .

Hollywood Brown Derby

As part of my ongoing TP Ranger duties, I’ll be checking up on theme park dining options from time to time. Not just new eating opportunities but the old stand-by restaurants, too.

This week we look in on Hollywood Brown Derby at Disney Soon-Not-To-Be-M-G-M Studios. I haven’t done a full review of HBD since it opened in 1989, so when I visited the full-service restaurant recently it was like going back in time.

Which is precisely what Disney culineers were going for when they designed the restaurant to emulate a 1930s era eatery. Though not a replica of the original, Disney’s Derby is reminiscent of an old-timey Los Angeles restaurant, with teak and mahogany accents, and the walls are filled with celebrity caricatures that duplicate those that hung in the West Coast restaurant. Actually, some 18 years after the first visit, those caricatures are less recognizable now than they were before as the stars fade further into the past. I could barely identify a fraction of the pictures.

But that isn’t important. What matters is the food, service and ambience. The latter is really kind of nice. The sunken dining room with mezzanine seating on two sides transports guests from the hubbub of the park outside into a Hollywoodland atmosphere. Sure, you’ve got big families with crying kids and people dressed casually, but just pretend you’re dining with the Jolie-Pitt brood and you’ll be fine.

Service was good on my lunch visit. The waiters are outfitted in white tuxedo jackets and offer top-notch care.

I started my lunch with the barbecue pork rib belly ($8) served with succotash and a chunk of chili cornbread. The succotash and cornbread were good, but the pork belly was tough and beyond chewy. It should have started melting before I got it in my mouth.

The original Brown Derby is where the Cobb salad was invented. It was the creation of former Derby owner Bob Cobb (you’d think he’d go by Robert, wouldn’t you?), who whipped up the salad as a late-night snack for a Hollywood VIP back in the '30s. The story goes that there wasn’t much in the fridge the night the bigwig came in so Cobb just chopped up what he could find. It’s the chopping that defines a Cobb today. A woman once wrote to me to chide me for my description of a Cobb salad at some restaurant saying that a Cobb salad was comprised only of ingredients that grew on a cob. Here the Cobb has greens, turkey breast, egg, bacon, tomatoes, blue cheese, avocado and chives. The basic salad is $14, but for two more bucks you can have some chicken cubes added. I splurged. The salad was delivered in a large bowl with the various ingredients grouped together. The man who brought the Cobb to the table asked if I would like him to toss everything together. I figured I’d let an expert do it.

Except for being unable to identify the greens – they looked sort of like soggy parsely but didn’t have that sharp taste – I liked the salad, especially the chewy bacon and salty blue cheese.

The menu suggested a wine pairing of Kim Crawford sauvignon blanc, but frankly neither the wine nor the salad did much to enhance the other.

For dessert I had the grapefruit cake ($6), which the menu touts as a Brown Derby original! The exclamation point was unnecessary, and so were the calories. The yellow layer cake with cream cheese frosting was undistinguished in flavor.

I was a solo walk-in just after noon on a weekday and waited only a few minutes for a table. Either most guests are looking for something a little less pricey, or maybe something less formal, or I just got lucky. It’s always a good idea to make a reservation in advance, or, if you are already in the park, stop by and arrange a table for later in the day.

Originally posted on orlandosentinel.com August, 10, 2007.

Citrus

Written by Scott Joseph on .

In the already nebulous world of restaurant critiquing, things can become even more obfuscated depending on the tack one takes. For instance, I could say that Citrus is a good restaurant and just leave it at that. Or I could say that Citrus could be better than it is, which would take some explaining.
Let me explain.
Citrus is the new restaurant from the Urban Life Management Restaurant Group, the folks who also brought you Hue and Kres, and who will bring you Cityfish in the former Central City Market space (also their concept) later this year.
Citrus has the same style and sensibility as Hue. The interiors of both restaurants were designed by Urban Studio Architects of Tampa. The design makes good use of diaphanous draperies, dramatic lighting and modish dinnerware. It does a very good job of setting a tone. It evokes youthfulness and panache. And you might as well know right now, this is a noisy restaurant. I don’t penalize it for that – it is what it is supposed to be, and part of the liveliness is in the clamor. Be forewarned.
But with the impact of an impressive interior comes an anticipation of food that will reach the same level. And that’s where Citrus could do better. Most of the food I had on my three visits was good, but I kept wanting it to be better. But too much of what I sampled was uninspired and dull. And even those dishes that held the promise to rise above the mundane tended to be anchored in mediocrity.
The paella risotto ($28) is a prime example. Never mind that paella and risotto are diametrically different dishes with only rice as a common denominator. It’s the playfulness of putting the two together that offers a sense of expectation. But it was fairly undistinguished, and wasn’t a very good example of a risotto or a paella. It had some nice, firm shrimp, but the clams were the size one usually tosses aside to chop into a chowder, and the mussels were big and rubbery.
Bacon wrapped Maine scallops ($24) were an impressive size, a tad undercooked for my taste but still fresh-tasting and delicious. But while the scallops were OK slightly undercooked the bacon was not. And the sweet potato cubes and corn kernels that comprised a hash platform for the scallops were mushy and overcooked.
Chimichurri sauce was put to overuse with both the skirt steak ($22) and twin veal chops ($30). The piquant sauce, heavy on garlic and vinegar, was a better match for the meatiness of the skirt steak, and this was probably the best of the entrees I sampled. But the sauce didn’t quite go with the milder flavored veal and it overwhelmed the otherwise milky tender chops.
 On a lunch visit a companion had the pomegranate glazed salmon ($19), a lovely, thick fillet that was cooked perfectly and had a fresh taste. The wild mushroom orzo it sat upon, however, was mushy and over salted.
 I liked my bacon cheddar burger ($10), even if it was a tad beyond the requested medium-rare. It was a thick patty with two (properly cooked) rashers of bacon under melted cheese. The burger was topped with red and yellow tomato slices and served on a large but fresh bun. It was a challenge to eat, but I managed. The fries that accompanied were very good, crispy but not hard.
The skirt steak flatbread ($13) was the best of the appetizers I tasted. The cripsy crust was dotted with big, chewy pieces of meat and cheddar and manchego cheeses.
One half of the calamari duo ($14) was good. The breaded and fried pieces of squid were crispy and satisfying. The sauteed sections were flaccid and bland.
The lobster fritters ($11) were disappointingly small and hard and had precious little lobster inside.
Black bean soup ($5) was thick and flavorful but I’d recommend leaving the onions off. The white bean soup of the day ($5) featured deliciously al dente great northern beans with bits of bacon.
Some effort could be exerted to make desserts a little more special. The apple crisp ($8) not only was uncrisp but downright mushy. A Key lime pie ($8) turned out to be a cheesecake with little to suggest a lime had been involved in its making.
Service was super. The young staff showed training and went about their tasks with efficiency. There is a wine list with a number of intriguing selections, many available by the glass. Tastes were poured with pleasure.
If you’ve been paying attention to the descriptions of the food, you may have noticed there isn’t anything particularly citrusy about any of it. Neither is there anything fruitful about the interior’s color scheme, which is dominated by brown – brown napkins, brown wood tabletops, brown umbrellas, etc. I can only guess the developers chose the name Citrus because United Parcel Service wasn’t available.
It’s all a very attractive brown, however, and the attractive people who will undoubtedly flock to this new restaurant will feel tony sitting in the comfortable chairs under the rings of lights high overhead.
Myself, I’d prefer a menu that could rise to the occasion of the surroundings. I’d prefer a better restaurant than just good enough.

Citrus is at 821 N. Orange Ave., Orlando. It's open for lunch Monday through Friday and dinner nightly. The phone number is 407-373-0622. Visit the Web site for more info.

Cityfish

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.