Orchid Thai

Written by Scott Joseph on .

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

Rincon Cubano

Written by Scott Joseph on .

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

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

Capital Grille

Written by Scott Joseph on .

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

Park Plaza Gardens

Written by Scott Joseph on .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.