Holiday Harbor Nights

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at Portofino Bay Obscured by Blue Haze

I went to the Harbor Nights event at Portofino Bay hotel at Universal Orlando Friday and was having a pretty good time -- at first. The event took place on the resort's piazza that is designed to look like a Ligurian fishing village. There were food and wine stations set up throughout the plaza, and there were perhaps thousands of people standing in lines to sip and sample.
And there was good music, too. A jazz band played on a stage in the plaza, and for a special treat a group of operatic singers appeared on one of the hotel's balconies and performed songs made popular by singers such as Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman. And there were songs of the season.
But then I started to notice a foul odor. So I moved from where I was standing to get away from whatever it was. But I couldn't escape it. Then I realized what it was: there were cigar smokers everywhere, sitting, standing walking about. Men and women. Turns out that over in one of the plaza's corners was a cigar rolling station handing out big fat ones.
Nothing kills the enjoyment of food and wine faster than noxious fumes. Why wasn't this billed as an event for smokers? It's fine with me if that's what people want, but I won't be going to another Harbor Nights, not unless the organizers can separate the cigar smokers from the people who like the taste and smell of good food and wine.

The Ravenous Pig

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The Ravenous Pig -- Getting Better All the Time.

The Ravenous Pig continues to be one of my current favorites. There's so much to like about the place: the food is good, the service is friendly and the atmosphere is trendy and vibrant.The Ravenous Pig

As I reported when I first reviewed the Pig for the Orlando Sentinel, the owners are James and Julie Petrakis, who bring considerable experience to this endeavor. Julie was a sous chef at Primo at the J.W. Marriott when it opened and has cooked at the Waldorf Astoria and Union Square Cafe in New York. James worked under Clifford Pleau at the California Grill and then went with him to open Seasons 52.

The menu is not extensive, but what's there is almost invariably delicious. I loved the steak tartare, coarsely chopped beef that had a wonderfully fatty mouthfeel.

And roasted cod featured a beautifully flaky fillet cooked just right and served with a puree of cannellini beans and a bit of smoky chorizo.

The pub menu had lobster tacos, three crispy shells with lightly fried chunks of lobster and crunchy hot peppers. There were also lamb ribs, tender and aromatic, accompanied by lamb meatballs.

And, of course, suckling pig, big chunks of moist meat accompanied by doughy rye gnocchi dumplings.

The signature dessert is the pig tails, a whimsical dish of fried dough curlicues with chocolate espresso sauce for dipping.

I was lucky enough to be invited to a party recently where the hosts had hired the Petrakises to cater. They prepared a whole pig in a way I'd never seen. They de-boned a whole pig and then stuffed it with another de-boned pig, then trussed it up so that it looked sort of like a five-foot-long football. The meat was tender and juicy, but I think I would have preferred something more along the lines of a pulled pork or suckling pig presentation.

The Ravenous Pig is described as an American gastropub, but that doesn't do much to really describe it. It's much trendier than a gastropub, American or otherwise, and the food is far above the standard fare found in one.

But whatever it's called, it's wonderful to have such an exciting restaurant in town, and I'm pleased that it continues to improve.

For details and pricing, plus a sample menu (which changes occasionally) visit the Ravenous Pig Web site.

T-Rex: the Restaurant

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T-Rex: the Restaurant, the Review.

T-Rex I finally made it to T-Rex, the new restaurantasaurus at Downtown Disney. I put it off as long as I could because it’s operated by the same folks who run the Rainforest Café, which is known more for its retail shop than its food, and the hugely disappointing Yak & Yeti at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which has no redeeming qualities.

The T-Rex Website address refers to the place as a café, but that word suggests something quaint, something quiet and peaceful. This place may be the largest restaurant I’ve ever seen. It’s also a lot of fun, with plenty of things to look at, places to explore and sensory diversions.

And the food I sampled wasn’t bad, or at least it could leave the offerings at Rainforest and Yuk, I mean Yak & Yeti, in the dust, which is basically what the food in those places tastes like.

And what I had at T-Rex was only a sampling: one soup and an entrée, but the entrée had two items that are offered separately on the menu, barbecued ribs and rotisserie chicken. The soup was a tomato basil, listed on the menu as lava tomato basil. Turns out lava is fairly sweet; who knew?

The ribs, a generous half slab, were tender and the bones easily relinquished the meat, but there wasn’t a lot of distinctive flavoring. The same was true of the chicken, an even more generous half bird. It was nicely cooked and had juicy flesh. But there were no seasonings, no flavor. It’s a common problem with restaurants in tourist areas to dumb down the seasonings so as not to offend the common palate. Pity. The platter also included a healthy portion of waffle-cut fries. Maybe healthy isn’t the right word, but you know what I mean.

The real attraction here is the array of animatronics dinosaurs that “roam” the restaurant. These range from a gigantic version of the eatery’s namesake lizard to baby mastodons. An octopus of Jules Verne T-Rex proportions looms over the bar. Most of the monsters move. I watched as a young girl stroked the trunk of one of the baby mastodons and it actually seemed to react to her touch.

There are four or five distinct rooms in the restaurant. The most dominant is the ice cave in the center, which glows a glacial blue except during the occasional meteor shower when, for some reason, it turns pink. (The meteor shower involves lights streaking across the ceiling. Given that many surmise the age of dinosaurs came to an end because of a meteor hitting the earth, it seems a strange thing to highlight. You’d think they’d save it for “last call” each night.)

I was seated in front of the kitchen area that houses the rotisserie ovens. In front of the kitchen area is a row of gas flames behind a glass panel, which is labeled to be hot. Wonder how long before some child gets burned before the fire is doused permanently.

There are many photo opportunities, but, oddly, guests are prohibited from taking video. That’s just silly.

Another minor complaint: the lighting designers need to go in and refocus the spotlights so they shine on the dinosaurs and not in the eyes of the guests. Also, it’s unfortunate that the entrance of the restaurant is so large and open. The light pouring in from outside prevents a total immersion experience.
This is not a place to come for a gourmet food experience. But for people with young children it offers palatable enough food and something in every corner to grab their attention.

 

Tolla's

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Tolla's in Winter Park

I went with a couple of friends to Tolla's for dinner the other night. I was surprised that one of my companions, a longtime Winter Park resident, had never heard of it, even though I first reviewed it back in early 2004. I was further surprised that Tolla's was still open, not that I didn't think it should be. I liTollasked it well  enough back then, but its location -- on upper pennsylvania Avenue a couple of blocks away from the more bustling Park Avenue -- and the apparent lack of knowledge in how to run a restaurant seemed to be working against the owner, Gary Tolla.

But good food often wins out over lack of experience and lackadaisical service. Our dinner at Tolla's was very good, and in one aspect, excellent.

Tolla and his staff apparently still don't know how to properly run a restaurant. When we arrived and were led to the patio -- most of the seating is outside under an awning -- we discovered our choice of tables was rather limited. It wasn't because all the others were occupied but rather because they had been occupied and vacated but had not been cleared. There really is no reason for that. Every time the server headed back to the kitchen, she could have grabbed some dishes and glasses to take with her.

But we overlooked that shortcoming once the food started to arrive. Say what you will about his skills as a restaurateur, Tolla knows how to cook.

We started with an appetizer of Italian sausage ($3.95), spicy and seared and smothered in a thick, pulpy tomato sauce. Another companion chose the fresh buffalo mozzarella ($7.25) served alla Caprese with thick slices of tomatoes and a sprinkling of salt for flavor.

The only disappointment of the evening -- at least in terms of food -- was the pasta e fagioli ($3.95), which had a thin watery broth and precious few beans, which, given that beans are the fagioli in pasta e fagioli, is a big oversight.

But the entrees were all winners, and none better than the veal marsala ($13.95). What made it so good was not that the veal was perfectly tender, though it was, or that it had been sauteed just right, because it had. It was the sauce, a pitch-perfect blend of sweet marsala wine and butter, converted to a singular substance that lovingly accentuated the meat. Can you tell I liked the veal marsala?

Well, I liked the stuffed shells ($10.25), too. The large pasta shells were filled with a creamy ricottoa concoction and smothered with more of Tolla's wonderful red sauce. Simple as that. And by the way, in case you haven't noticed, the prices here are way below standard Winter Park fare.

There was no live entertainment on the evening I visited, though Tolla's has featured it in the past. It was early in the week, so maybe that's reserved for weekends. And it would be nice if Tolla's could stock some better wines on the list. I think the Winter Park clientele would welcome more variety, or at least better quality.

That is, if they can find it. Of course, it may be that many have found it and discovered the detritus among the tables that my friends and I saw. Many people would see such conditions and just walk away. I can understand that; I've done it a number of times myself. But I knew better about Tolla's and I was pretty sure the food would be worth putting up with the surroundings.

But I would urge Tolla to peek out of the kitchen when he can to manage the dining area a little more. Or else, hire someone who can.

Tolla's is at 240 N. Pennsylvania Ave., Winter Park. Lunch is served Tuesday through Friday and dinner is served Tuesday through Sunday. The phone number is 407-628-0068. Click here for more info and to read Tolla's menu.

Fiorella's Restaurant

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at the Westin Imagine: Imagine it getting better

I had a chance to dine at Fiorella's in the new Westin Imagine hotel last night. The Imagine sits behind the Orange County Convention Center on Universal Boulevard, not far from the Rosen College of Fiorella's Hospitality Management. Do you think we could get the hotel's staff signed up for some refresher courses on basic service?

The event was a media dinner to unveil a new work by local glass artist Charles Kiela, although the artwork wasn't veiled so it wasn't much of an unveiling, so never mind about that.

Since it was a media dinner the menu, under the direction of executive chef Richard Mendoza, was set. The evening started with a reception in the rather unattractive portico outside the restaurant (think bright halogen lighting and a space with all the charm of a typical patio in a tract housing subdivision). While guests sipped wine -- all wines for the evening were supplied by Antinori Winery -- serves passed hors d'oeuvres. No, that's not quite right; servers passed through the area holding a plateful of crostini but never offered them to anyone. I guess if we wanted one we were meant to flag someone down and ask politely.
We moved inside into the smallish but pleasant dining area. There is a lot of warm wood tones and mottled walls a la Tuscan-style plaster. Keila's glassworks decorate the walls and offer splashes of color.
Fiorella's It would be nice if the restaurant used tablecloths to add a touch of classiness (and absorb some of the noise). Hotel restaurants have the advantage of having an onsite laundry facility, so linens shouldn't be that big a deal.
The antipasta course was a platter of fresh mozzarella, wonderful hunks of pecorino romano, little balls of ricotta, soppresata, bresaola and salami. The course was paired with Marchese Antinori Chianti Classico Riserva 2003, a blend of 90% sangiovese and 10% cabernet sauvignon. It had wonderful well-rounded tones.
The fish course featured two shrimp wrapped in prosciutto and intertwined in something of a shellfish death grip -- it took a little coaxing to separate them, but they were delicious. The prosciutto lent a decidedly salty note that was not unpleasant. What was unpleasant was the Chianti butter sauce that was spread on the plate. It was a most unattractive grayish brown. Another Chianti Classico Riserva, the 2003 Badia a Passignano, which is 100% sangiovese, was just right with the seasonings.
The roasted veal tenderloin was superb. It was a beautiful medium-rare and was as tender as you'd expect veal to be. It was accompanied by a glop of polenta and assorted roasted vegetables. A 2006 Bolgheri Tenuta Guado al Tasso was the course's selected wine.
The mascarpone-filled poached pear covered with chocolate made the chianti butter sauce look pretty. But even with my eyes closed, the taste and texture didn't save this one for me.
There were plenty of staff members moving about but few seemed to know the basics of good service. I don't think they've had the training because I saw management making some of the same errors, such as back-handed pouring, reaching across guests to pour wine, picking up glasses to fill them and other stuff that are usually dismissed as rookie mistakes. A company like Westin, part of Starwood Hotels, should know better. Indeed, some of the finest service I've had has been at other Starwood properties.
Dust off those training manuals and this could turn into a destination restaurant for locals.

Rocco's Italian Grille

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Rocco's Italian Grille offers monthly menus featuring regions of Italy

I met some friends for dinner at Rocco's recently and was stunned by the lack of business the place had. There were three, maybe four occupied tables, and the restaurant was very quiet. It was 7:30 on a Friday night.

Now, I know that times are tough and a lot of restaurants are hurting for business. But I also know a lot of people are still going out to eat. And, quite amazingly, many of those people choose to eat at restaurants of questionable quality and spotty consistency.
Rocco's quality is excellent, and the consistency is reliable. So I'm stumped as to why it was so empty.

But Rocco's is trying to drum up business by offering monthly menus featuring the regions of Italy. This month it's Campania, the home of Naples.So you've got braised calamari and other seafood specialties of the seaside area.

Rocco's was my choice for Best Italian restaurant in last year's Foodie Awards. It's still award worthy. And if you're looking for good quality Italian food, you should think about dining at Rocco's. At least you'll have a nice quiet meal.

Here's the November menu:

Rocco’s Italian Grille & Bar-Winter Park

 

CAMPANIA

Regional Menu-Nov. 2008

 

Antipasti

 

TOTANI ALLA BELLA

NAPOLI

Braised calamari in a white wine tomato sauce in the style of beautiful

Naples

$12.00

 

  CALZONCINI DEL VOMERO

Mini calzone filled with ricotta cheese, Italian style ham and fresh basil served with marinara sauce $7.00

 

Primi

 

RIGATONI ALLE COZZE

          Rigatoni pasta tossed with mussels in a light tomato wine sauce $19.00

 

Secondi

 

CERNIA IN AQUA PAZZA

Fresh fillet of grouper braised with fresh tomatoes, herbs, garlic, distilled water and white wine $26.00


  SCALLOPINE DI VITELLO ALLA PIZZAIOLA

Veal scaloppini sautéed with a garlic, oregano and parsley light tomato sauce $24.00   

 

IL Dolce

 

LE CHIACHERE

Traditional dessert from the region of

Campania

$6.00

La Abundancia Bakery & Restaurant

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La Abundancia Bakery & Restaurant

I recently aimed the Houndmobile towards Winter Park to check out the former Chef Henry's Cafe, which is now called Chef Hans Cafe -- without an apostrophe and without the Brestowski family that had operated the Eastern European restaurant for many years at a couple of locations. They recently sold the cafe and returned to Eastern Europe.

But despite the Web site's assertion that Chef Hans was open for lunch, it was closed up tight when I arrived. So, I headed back down Howell Branch Road, turned left on Semoran and spotted a little place called La Abundancia. Why not? I thought.

La Abundancia is a little slip of a place on the far corner of a small strip mall. I had been to this very strip mall just before I left the Sentinel. I wrote about a charming little place called Golden Chicken. Ironically, I had stumbled upon Golden Chicken because the place I had intended to dine -- Sazon 436 on the other corner of this same strip mall -- treated me so shabbily that I up and left before I even made it into the dining room. Golden Chicken turned out to be delightful -- and a huge bargain.

La Abundancia is, too.

It's a Colombian restaurant owned by Milder Alzate and Eddy Gonzalez. The menu is on a board on the wall behind the counter, which holds various Latin American baked goods. I wasn't getting a lot of information from the Spanish language menu, so Milder approached and asked if she could offer some help. I asked her what the specialty of the house was, but she misunderstood and told me what the special of the day was -- a plantain soup and a serving of yellow rice and chicken for $7.

I was intrigued by the plantain soup, so I ordered the special.

I couldn't believe how much food I got for seven bucks. The soup was a full bowl, not just a measly cup, and it featured a hearty chicken broth with lots of vegetables and slices of green plantains. The soup could easily have been an entree.

The chicken and rice was also delicious. The yellow rice had lots of chicken meat and a few vegetables, including yummy peas, presented in a molded mound. It had just the right amount of greasiness to add flavor without being, well, greasy.

On the table was a small crock with a pepper sauce. Milder cautioned that it was hot, but the Hound is not afraid of hot.

This stuff was HOT!!! Somehow they found a way to turn fire into a liquid. Hot sauce lovers, you've got to try this one.

There are only a few tables in the place, but there are also a couple outside, though I wouldn't call it patio dining, more like some tables and chairs on the sidewalk. So you might have to be prepared to take the food home with you.

Actually, with the size of the portions, you should at least plan on taking home leftovers.

La Abundancia is at 1555 N. Semoran Boulveard, Winter Park. The phone number is 407-671-0511. Lunch and dinner are served daily. There is no Web site.

Oh, and apparently Chef Hans Cafe is still open. Call first.

Journeys

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Journeys Restaurant celebrates 1/20th Century

Journey's Journeys, the little restaurant that could -- and still can -- celebrated it's fifth anniversary with a special dinner this week.
Actually, Bram Fowler, who owns and operates the restaurant with his wife, Geraldine, and serves as the chef, says they prefer to refer to the milestone as the restaurant's half-decade anniversary. I suppose that shows some optimism for continued success -- a sort of glass-half-full philosophy.
To be honest, I never thought Journeys would see a first anniversary, let alone a fiver. I certainly had no qualms with the food -- it was all delicious, well-prepared and of high quality. But I worried about the location. It took over a spot in Longwood Village Shoppes down a short lane of storefronts, out of view of anyone driving by even in the parking lot. Other restaurants had tried their hand in that spot, the most recent at the time was a very nice Italian restaurant called Figaro's. And the Fowlers had never owned a restaurant before. It's a tough business for people who have been in it for a long time; tougher for neophytes, and even worse for neophytes in a lousy location.
But against the odds, Journeys has prevailed.

Journey's anniversary dinner was a reservations-only closed event held Wednesday at the Longwood restaurant with guests paying $125 for the seven-course meal with wine pairings.

The evening started on the patio with smoked salmon and American caviar served on blinis, and fresh oysters on the half-shell, paired with L'Aubry Fils nonvintaged brut sparkling wine.

Guests were then invited into the dining room where tables had been assembled into four or five long tables for 8-10 diners each. Someone at my table commented that it was a little like dining on a cruise ship where you're seated with people you don't know.

The first seated course featured Boston bibb and arugula lettuce dressed in mandarin vinaigrette topped with half of a small Maine lobster. It was a little awkward coaxing the meat out of the shell, and a little messy, too, but it was a substantial salad. A Star Lane sauvignon blanc (2006) accompanied the salad.

The next course was supposed to have featured black grouper wrapped in cellophane. Instead, Fowler said he decided to just bake the fish sans cellophane because unwrapping the fish would have been too messy for the guests. Those of us who had struggled with the lobster were relieved by that. A 2005 Dierberg chardonnay that was too big and buttery on its own mellowed with the fish sauce of lemongrass and coconut milk.

The pulled duck confit in a cannelloni fashioned out of puffed pastry was my favorite. The meat was tender and juicy and the pastry had a nice crispiness. It was topped with a small lobe of seared Hudson Valley foie gras and graced with a sauce of pomegranate seeds and orange cauliflower. Dierberg's 2005 pinot noir, a chewy, fruit-forward wine, was the perfect match.

Medallions of buffalo tenderloin dotted with four peppercorns followed, matched by the Star Lane cabernet sauvignon (2005). I preferred to stick with the pinot, which also went well with the cognac cream sauce.

Pumpkin creme brulee, served in tiny, hollowed pumpkins, was a whimsical dessert. It ws followed by a cheese course, back on the patio, with Port and Madiera for those who wished to linger.

The sold-out dinner was populated mostly by regulars, which is the way it should be. Judging from the reaction of the guests, they will help see the Journeys through the second half of the decade.

Paddy Murphy's

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Paddy Murphy's in Baldwin Park

Boy, have my ears been ringing. And it's not because people have been talking about me. It's because I ate at Paddy Murphy's, a newish Irish pub in Baldwin Park, and they had a band that was so loud I couldn't hear myself chew.Paddy Murphy's
The hostess couldn't hear me ask for a table, either, so I motioned beyond the indoor seating toward the outside patio. Using sign language, my guest and I were able to communicate to her that we preferred a table as far away from the band as possible without having to pay an extra charge for delivery of the food.

Even outside the sound resonated, and was even worse whenever someone opened the door to the pub, which was often.

A pleasant young man greeted us and then brought us the wrong beers. Turns out the door had opened just as we placed our orders and the waiter didn't hear us correctly.

But from that point on everything mostly went fine.
I started out with a cup of the potato & leek soup ($2.50), which startled my by its thickness: I was able to stand a spoon up in it. The taste was OK, but I think all the cornstarch or whatever thickener was used started to blossom in my stomach as I sipped my pint of Guinness.

My friend had the Irish stew ($8.99), a big serving of beef with carrots, onions and potatoes in a nice gravylike broth tinged with Irish whiskey.
I had the shepherd's pie ($8.99), which was mostly mashed potatoes (but real mashed potatoes) piped over a brown gravy with ground beef and vegetables. On another visit I had the corned beef with colcannon. The corned beef was sufficiently chewy, as most corned beef is destined to be, but the flavor was good. So, too, the colcannon, a traditional dish of mashed potatoes blended with cabbage.

Paddy Murphy's is in a newly constructed building overlooking the lake. It's been designed to look like a tradtional Irish pub, but only as far as the walls. The high ceilings have the exposed ducts and beams of the structure, with some Tiffanylike chandeliers hanging down. So the effect is like being on a movie set for a film about an Irish pub.

I might watch the movie again, but I am definitely not buying the soundtrack.

Paddy Murphy's is at 4982 New Broad St. in Orlando's Baldwin Park. The phone number is 407-622-4700. For other information, visit the Web site.

Enzian's Eden Bar

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Enzian's Eden Bar opens; Turns out the fabled garden was in Florida. Or is that Austria?

Maitland's Enzian Theater premieres its new bar/eatery tonight. Eden Bar occupies a 2000 square-foot outdoor space with seating for 70. The entire area is open-air, but the bar and much of the seating is under a sturdy roof allowing for continuous service even in a downpour. It was a beautiful evening when the Hound stopped by for a preview, so added protection wasn't needed.

Eden Bar It's a beautiful space; the circular bar has a rich deep wood tone that is complimented by the swooping ceiling. Colored pendant lights over the bar and recessed can lights throughout the rest of the space add just enough glow to allow the surrounding greenery to be seen. All along the wall the bar shares with the actual theater building is an elaborate mural painted by Oscar-nominated animator Bill Plympton. The mural is a whimsical depiction of a Floridian version of the Garden of Eden, which explains how the bar/restaurant got its name. It doesn't explain the Austrian items on the dinner menu.

It turns out, according to a note on the menu, that "Enzian Theater was conceived by Tina Tiedtke in the spirit of Friedstein Castle, home to her grandmother, Princess Felicitas Hohenlohe." The menu note continues: "The Eden Bar is offering a few selections from the kitchen, including recipes from the houses of Hapsburg and Rothschild."

Those offering include a salad, and cheese spread, one soup, a main course of brook trout smoked with pine needles, and an almond and hazelnut torte. Turn the page and you have a vast variety of other options, including other salads, sandwiches, steak tacos, bento box nachos, flatbread pizzas and other uncomplicated fare that won't overstretch the limitations of Enzian's small kitchens.

Old-timers will remember that the Enzian grounds used to have a separate building, an old house, that was converted into a restaurant. For many years it was the well-received Jordan's Grove, but when that business closed, as steady parade of other eateries took up residence with varying rates of success. The house was razed several years ago.

The Hound sampled the libtauer cheese spread, described on the menu as delightfully tart and smoky, served with pita bread. But instead of pita, the spread was served with dark bread from Yalaha Bakery. I didn't get tart or smoky from the taste, but I did get caraway. I couldn't tell, however, if the seeds were in the spread or in the bread.

My friend and I also sampled one of the pizzas, the Yukon Gold potato ($14), which had roasted garlic, house-cured bacon, parmigiano-reggiano  and mozzarella cheeses, and slices of potatoes. It was a pretty good pie, but I question the cost of $14 for such a small serving.

True to its name, Eden Bar features a full line of liquor and some nice wines. As I said in yesterday's post, one of the gimmicks of the bar is the offering of very old liquor, including pre-Prohibition bourbon and pre-Castro rum, at prices ranging from $75-$250 a shot.

Take that gimmick, the Floridian Garden of Eden theme and throw in an Austrian castle and you have a bit too much going on at once.

But I like the bar, it's a comfortable place to sit and chat, especially this time of year when outside is the place to be. I can see people coming to Eden Bar even if they don't have plans to see a movie.