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.

FishBones

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.

Polonia

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.