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.

Kres Chophouse

Written by Scott Joseph on .

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

Kres is at 

Ming's Bistro

Written by Scott Joseph on .

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

Roy's

Written by Scott Joseph on .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Texas de Brazil

Written by Scott Joseph on .

This must be a wonderful time to own a churrascaria. Meat, after all, is the darling of the dining scene, and churrascaria means meat.
Well, not literally. Churrascaria (tchoo-huh-scah-REE-uh) actually means house of barbecue, but to fans of this type of Brazilian steakhouse, it means meat, meat and more meat.
Texas de Brazil is a small chain out of, no surprise here, Texas that is riding the wave of low-carb popularity with a new location on International Drive. This isn’t the first churrascaria to open in the area. There have been a few, and just last year we visited another on I-Drive, Crazy Grill, which does a fine job overall.
But Texas de Brazil takes this concept to a new level. The surroundings are almost luxuriant, the service is nearly fawning, and the food is well prepared and plentiful in the all-you-can-eat concept. As to whether the $38.50 charge is a value, that depends on just how much you can eat and still enjoy yourself. I had a good time at TdB, and if you were to have weighed me when I went in and again when I left, I think the price per pound would have made it a bargain.
The first thing you’ll notice about Texas de Brazil is the colorful décor. You’ll probably see it through the windows as you circle the building trying to find the front door. Such is the parking arrangement that the entrance is on the opposite side of the restaurant.
The interior is painted a startling deep ruby red, and throughout the restaurant are gigantic sprays of silk flower arrangements that radiate their colors into the room. Floors are hardwood and tables are covered with white cloths.
The columns and ceiling beams are fashioned to look like iron girders with extruding rivets. I didn’t quite get the connections, but a manager told me later it was meant to look like a large factory in Brazil.
The wine cellar is enclosed in a glass-walled chamber just off the center of the large room. Next to it is a square buffet/salad bar. This is where your meal begins and, if you’re not careful to pace yourself, where it will end too.
The salad selection includes fairly simple greens and dressings, but also has more unusual items, such as tabbouleh, sushi and hearts of palm. In between you’ll find artichoke hearts, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, roasted red peppers, beets, buffalo mozzarella, grilled portobello mushrooms, potato salad and pasta among others.
There are also cauldrons of soup, sauteed mushrooms, black beans and rice. The black beans weren’t very flavorful, and some of the items weren’t worth the wasted calories. The Brussels sprouts, for example, were practically raw, and the sushi wasn’t done well enough to warrant its inclusion on a Brazilian buffet. But the rest of it was perfectly acceptable.
Still, I think I’d rather concentrate on the meats, and wonderful meats they were.
There is a method to the meat service and it requires proactive participation on the diner’s part. Circling throughout the dining room you’ll see a horde of servers, called gauchos after the Portuguese word for cowboys, carrying large skewers and chef knives. Each place setting has a paper disk that is green on one side and red on the other. Place the green side up when you’re ready for meat and these gauchos will stop by to offer you whatever they’re carrying. In some instances the servers fairly swarmed about the tables, descending on diners with flashing knives.
Each diner also has a set of tongs. Some of the meats and sausages are in small chunks, which the gaucho can simply slide off the skewer onto your plate. (All the servers were careful not to allow their skewers to touch a guest’s plate – a sanitation issue.) Other meats, such as top sirloin, leg of lamb and pork ribs, must be sliced. The gaucho makes a small cut and then asks the diner to grab hold with the tongs while he slices through.
The meats were all cooked over charcoal fires and well-seasoned. They were imbued with a smoky taste that complemented the herbs and spices, and the quality of the cuts was unquestionably high. Oh, and as if all that weren’t enough, your lead server will bring mashed potatoes and fried bananas to your table.
If you need a break, or when you think you’ve had enough, turn the disk over to red and the gauchos will pass you by.
If for some reason you still have the ability to eat something more, the Brazilian papaya cream ($6.25) or the chocolate mousse cake ($6.25) for dessert. And for more Brazilian authenticity, try the caipirinha ($7), a drink made with lime, sugar and cachaca.
Texas de Brazil is more expensive than Crazy Grill, but it also offers a more upscale experience, especially considering the International Drive location. If you’re following a low-carb diet, or if you just appreciate good grilled meats, you’ll think you’ve gone to hog – and cow – heaven.
Texas de Brazil is at 5259 International Drive, Orlando. It’s open  5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prix fixe $38.50.
407-355-0355

Seasons 52

Written by Scott Joseph on .

The Seasons 52 that exists today, in the original location on Restaurant Row Orlando and in eight other locations around the southeast, is not exactly the restaurant that it started out to be. But most of the changes have been for the best.

No, there is no butter in the kitchen or anywhere else in the restaurant. But then neither are there rolls nor yeasty hunks of bread to slather it on.
This is Seasons 52, the prototype for a new concept from Darden Restaurants, from whence Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Bahama Breeze and Smoky Bones came. To say that it is different from anything else Darden has done doesn’t go quite far enough. Seasons 52 is innovative on a number of levels, and if it succeeds as a chain – and we’ll discuss that in a moment – it could change the way dine out.

There have been a number of misconceptions about what Seasons 52 is. The name is one of the sources of confusion: it is meant to conjure the notion that instead of four there are 52 seasons of the year, because, culinarily speaking, food items come into season every week somewhere in the world. And to exploit that phenomenon, Seasons 52’s menu changes weekly.

That doesn’t, however, necessarily mean that if you go in one week and find a dish you absolutely love – something that is entirely possible – you won’t see it two or three weeks later when you return. You may see the same dish, but the salmon that came from the northeast last time might now come from the northwest. Or maybe it’s just the tomatoes from that salad that have different points of origin. You may not notice a thing, or you may find you prefer one item over another.

Another misconception is that Seasons 52 is a health food restaurant. It’s true that every item on the menu is engineered to be nutritionally balanced and have fewer than 475 calories. And fried is considered a dirty word. But to call it a health food restaurant conjures images of bran muffins and tofu bean cakes. This is hardly the place where you’ll see people wearing earth shoes and hemp vests.

Then there is the notion that this was somehow supposed to be a chainable California Grill. That stems from the team of George Miliotes and Clifford Pleau, who guided the Disney World restaurant to its reputation as one of the best restaurants in Florida. Miliotes is again the manager extraordinaire, whose devotion for fine wines has been put to great use with a phenomenal global wine list (with no fewer than 56 selections available by the glass), and Pleau assumes the helm of executive chef, assisted by Toni Robertson, formerly of Sonona Mission Inn and Spa in California. But this is not California Grill.
But then there is that char crusted pork tenderloin ($14.75) on the menu. It was served with creamy corn polenta, roasted mushrooms and a cabernet jus that looked and tasted for all the world like Pleau’s signature dish from CG. And if it had been reimagined to fit into Seasons’ mission, it didn’t lack in taste or substance. It was, as it always has been, a favorite.

I also liked the oak grilled ruby trout ($14.75), which anywhere else might have been brushed with butter while grilling to give it extra flavor and moistness, but the butterflied fillet was fine by itself, a full-flavored fish with a mouth-filling texture. It was served with wild rice, simple slices of tomatoes that burst with flavor, and broccolini.

Simplicity was the key for the grilled jumbo sea scallops ($17.95), big, thick discs of tenderness, served with orzo, and grilled asparagus. And lest you think a kitchen counting calories would never feature a juicy steak, the grilled filet mignon ($19.75) will convince you otherwise. It was a meltingly tender hunk of meat, seemingly larger than its advertized six ounces, and coated with a tamarind glaze. This, by the way, was the most expensive item on the menu.
And while the bread basket has been banished, there are some breads of a sort. There are a number of flatbread appetizers, not quite crackers, not quite pizzas. My guest and I had the spicy firecracker shrimp flatbread ($9.75), topped with chili peppers and caramelized mozzarella. It was not light on the spice.
Other appetizers included a large bowl of Prince Edward Island black mussels ($8.50), steamed in chardonnay and flavored with shallots, which made a modest broth; and a rather ho-hum presentation of tamarind glazed chicken breast skewers ($7.25), although the pineapple salsa that accompanied them was wonderful.

You’d be hard pressed to find a more satisfying salad than the one of Early Girl and Sungold tomatoes ($5.75) topped with pleasantly bitter watercress and sprinkled with salty blue cheese crumbles.

Instead of going sugar-free on the desserts, although there might be one or two so promoted, the tray features an array of “mini indulgences,” shooter-sized shot glasses all sorts of goodies for $1.95 each. I especially liked the bing cherries jubilee and the carrot cake with rum raisin sauce.
The dining room exudes warmth with its dark woods, stone, comfortable booths and mood-setting lighting. There are a couple of large trees in the center of the room that look as though they’d rather be outside, but otherwise it’s a lovely ambience.

Service was superior. Menu knowledge was first-rate and the staff all carried themselves with professionalism. Another innovation that Seasons 52 is using is handheld devices that allow the servers to take orders electronically and send them instantaneously to the kitchen. It also allows credit cards to be processed right at the table – or curbside if you call in for takeout. There are still some kinks to work out, such as when buttons are accidentally punched and phantom orders sit on the pick-up counter, but they’re eventually figure it out.

The remaining question is whether Seasons 52, which has become instantly popular and is crowded most evenings with people willing to wait an hour or more, can work as a multi-unit chain. It would seemed to me you would have to clone Miliotes and Pleau, because certainly their mark is one this prototype. But they’ve also shown themselves to be masters of training, and if they can find the right people, die-hard foodies who share their passion for excellence in whatever they do, then there will be a Seasons for everyone.

Harmoni Market College Park

Written by Scott Joseph on .

I'm pleased to say that Harmoni Market  in College Park seems to have found its voice.

When I first told you about Harmoni, the then-new eatery/ market didn't quite seem to know what it wanted to be when it grew up. The market made a Moscow grocery store look well-stocked, and the food in the cafe was underportioned and overpriced, and too little of it was noteworthy for taste or quality.

But a new menu was released in June, and when I stopped by for a revisit I was impressed with what I saw, and especially what I tasted.

My guests and I started with the mezze, an array of appetizing bites that included hummus, sweet roasted tomatoes, compact stuffed grape leaves, tzatziki and olive tapanade.

One of my companions had the U-10 scallops, which sounds like a really weird band but were actually large scallops, deftly cooked, accompanied by a creamy risotto and sea beans.

I also sampled the Tanglewood Farms free-range bone-in chicken breast, served with baby carrots and turnips au gratin. The meat was tender and juicy and had a lovely mild flavor.

Seafood diablo had linguini tossed in a tomato sauce tinged with cream and made devilish with some crushed red pepper.

Harmoni Market is involved in Orlando's nascent slow-food movement and is dedicated to serving natural meats and local products. It isn't always easy -- there aren't enough locally raised meats and produce to fulfill a menu's promise, but at least they're trying.

And now they're also succeeding in more ways. I had hedged my recommendation of Harmoni last year; I'm now happy to endorse it wholeheartedly.

(The Market part of the business is still a bit meager, but let's end on a positive note.)

Harmoni Market is at 2305 Edgewater Drive, Orlando. Cafe hours are 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. Beer and wine are available, and credit cards are accepted. Entrees are $11 to $23. The phone number is 407-206-0033.

Ulyssee's Prime Steak House

Written by Scott Joseph on .

I’m just going to come right out and say this at the beginning and get it over with: Ulysses’ Prime Steakhouse is a restaurant of the highest caliber and may very well be one of the best in Central Florida.
That it should be located in Cocoa (Village, not Beach) makes it all the more delightful.
It was complete serendipity that I happened upon Ulysses’. I was on my way to Café Margaux, because after almost 12 years since visiting that fine restaurant I thought it was time to go back and check up on it. I had to pass Ulysses’ to get to Café Margaux, and it wasn’t until a few days later that I discovered both restaurants are owned by the same people, Alex and Pamela Litras.
Café Margaux has continued quietly over the years to provide east coasters with a brand of moderately upscale dining, a tad frilly in the décor, perhaps, but with delicious continental cuisine. Even though my absence lasted a dozen years, I continued to hear from satisfied diners that things were status quo, and my own recent experience proved that if the years had done anything at all to Café Margaux it was all on the plus side.
But Ulysses’ Prime Steakhouse is a different dining experience. It is more upscale, both in food and décor, and it offers a quiet and intimate dinner of exquisitely prepared food served with absolute precision.
One of the finest items I sampled was the seared duck liver, which though priced like an entrée at $19 was one of the standout appetizers and easily worth its cost. It featured a beautiful fat lobe, dearingly sauteed with figs braised in sauterne then glazed with mandarin-infused black pepper. It was served on challah toast and topped with chervil. Too many chefs feel a need to go overly sweet with foie gras; the chef here knows how to grace the taste of the liver instead of masking it.
Nearly as good were the diver scallops ($15), monster-sized mollusks served on the half shell with a tangy relish of kalamata olives.
The kalamata is clue to the underlying theme of the restaurant, which, as scholars of Homer will have guessed from the restaurant’s name, is Greek. Litras was attempting to pay homage to his heritage, but the Greek items tend to be the ones that don’t work. That may be because there are but a few passing nods to Greek cuisine.
Avgolemeno ($7) is one. The traditional chicken soup thickened with egg and tinged with lemon can be quite good when done well, but it is still a pedestrian soup that doesn’t blend well into a high cuisine menu. But the Greek notes are rare on the menu, and I’m grateful for that. I love Greek food, but to work it into this environment would have been a detriment.
Once you get past Ullyses’ in the restaurant’s name, you’re left with the words Prime Steakhouse, and that is were the Litras’s wisely focused their attention. The steaks were quite simply wonderful.
The menu features some Wagyu beef selections, though they are of course the domestic variety. True Japanese Wagyu can fetch astronomic prices. But the domestic variety sold here is fairly pricey, too.
How’s $56 for a 16-ounce Wagyu ribeye? For the true connoisseur it’s a mere pittance. The meat fairly meltet on the plate, let alone in the mouth. And it was cooked perfectly to the requested medium-rare. When you’ve got a product that costs as much as this does, you need a grill cook who isn’t constantly cooking re-dos.
I also had the Wagyu short ribs ($35), braised in a ragout of roasted vegetables and rose wine. The meat was delightfully fatty and coated the mouth with richness. The three ribs were served on a pallet of risotto blended with parmesan cheese and roasted garlic.
From the non-Wagyu meat list, the filet mignon stuffed with crab meat ($45) was a study in overindulgence. The USDA prime meat would have been treat enough; so could the lump crab meat that covered it. Put the two together and you’re willing to sacrifice an artery or two.
Meats are served with four sauces, served in ramekins arranged on a tiny bridge. They included rosemary cabernet demiglace de veau; chocolate demiglace de veau; pink and green peppercorn; and Maltaise, a hollandaise tinged with 150th Anniversary Grand Marnier for a slight orange flavor. All were good, but frankly the meat didn’t need saucing.
For dessert, bread pudding ($6), made with challah and dates, figs, raisins and apricots, was heavenly. The bread was custardized to a creamy texture and then sauced with rum caramel. And the macadamia pecan baklava ($8) was unlike any I had tasted before, covered with a tangerine glaze and drizzled with Mt. Ranier fireweed honey. Remember what I said before about the Greek theme not working on the menu? Forget it.
Service was positively top-notch. It wasn’t just the attentiveness – something that shouldn’t be hard in a restaurant with only 36 seats – it was also the intuitiveness, the ability to know what the diners want before they ask for it. Sometimes before they even realize they want it.
Pamela Litras designed the décor, which is sumptuously lush without being gaudy. Yards of alternating fabrics swoosh down the windows. Tables are draped with crisp white linens. And the kitchen is only slightly hidden behind glass panels that look as though they’ve been smeared with chocolate. The panels slide apart for kitchen staff to pass plates to the servers, like it was some elaborate Horn & Hardart’s automat.
I told you my assessment of Ulysses’ Prime Steakhouse at the top. There’s only one thing left to say: go.

Aubergine Bistro

Written by Scott Joseph on .

I don’t often have the chance to go back to restaurants unless there has been a major change, a new menu, new concept, different chef or word that there has been a drastic change in the quality, good or bad.

In the case of Aurberinge Bistro, which I first reviewed in early 2000, there were never any indications over the years that anything had changed. In fact, the tiny bistro in Casselberry often slipped my mind when I would try to think of places to recommend in that area. It just kept quietly offering its simple yet good food in an unassuming manner. When I dined with friends earlier this year it was just for fun. I didn’t realize than that it would be the last meal I’d have from then-owner Bernhard Schwab.

Word came a couple of months ago that Schwab had sold the restaurant to Paul D’Amelio and his parents, Mike and Judy. So, then, it became one of those conditions that warranted a revisit.

I’m delighted and relieved to report that anyone who knew Aubergine Bistro before will find it largely unchanged. There are still some things done quite well, -- exquisitely, even – and some things that fall flat. But overall it is still a lovely and unassuming café that obviously strives to produce a quality meal.

I was glad to see the signature Aubergine Napoleon appetizer ($8) is still on the menu and still easily one of the best things to come out of the kitchen. It’s a stacked tower of alternating layers of grilled eggplant, tomatoes and creamy-firm goat cheese with fresh basil and drizzles of balsamic vinegar. Instead of slashing through the layers, or toppling it over, one need only lift off the top three layers and leave the rest for one’s tablemates to do the same. What wonderful flavors of the smoky aubergine and tangy yet creamy chevre, and the red pepper coulis sauce was a perfect accompaniment. Even if more menu changes are in the future, this should be written in indelible ink.

Wild mushroom and andouille sausage ($8.99) was another winning starter. It had the main ingredients finely chopped and seasoned with fresh sage all rolled up in flaky phyllo dough, fried and served like some sort of cajun egg roll, with a creamy Boursin cheese sauce.

Stuffed mushroom caps ($8.50), tiny buttons filled with a crabmeat mix that included sun-dried tomatoes, were fairly pedestrian. But a soup of the day ($5), a creamy mushroom, was filled with lots of chewy mushrooms in a rich and flavorful broth.

Sea scallops Provencale ($19.95) was one of the better entrees. It featured thick, pan-seared scallops, the outsides brown and crisped and the insides still warm and moist, served with chopped tomatoes, mushrooms and a hint of garlic in a wine sauce.

One of my guests had the chicken cordon bleu ($18.50), which was offered as a special of the day – and I’ll have a word about the specials in a moment. The breast meat was rolled and baked the slices so the ham and cheese inside peeked out. It was served, as many of the main dishes were, with simply steamed veggies, uncomplicated and unadorned.

Our server told us the new chef seemed to like cooking fish, so I chose one of the fresh offerings, a wahoo ($23.50). It was the only complete stumble I saw from the kitchen, but it was a big one. The fish was hard and dry and not even the buttery sauce that came with it could do anything to save it.

That fish was one of three offered as a special of the day, along with the chicken dish and one or two other dishes. Each was recited by the server with details of the preparation and the sauces, and each time she moved on to the next one I completely forgot what she’d said before. When there are that many specials they should be written down. Surely there’s a printer somewhere in the office, or they could buy a blackboard for the dining room. Something.

When dessert time came there was another litany of items not printed on the menu. The white chocolate bread pudding ($5.50) was firm and had little surprises in the form of cranberries and almonds. The carrot cake ($6.50) was a tad dry, but the crème brulee ($6.50) had a rich and creamy custard under a crust that was only slightly burned.

Little has changed in the interior – not much that could be done with a small space that seats barely 40. But it’s pleasant enough, comfortable and welcoming.

D’Amelio could easily continue the quiet tradition of Aubergine Bistro and maintain a steady following. But I hope that as he becomes more comfortable with his new restaurant he’ll try new things and turn it into the sort of place that one wants to visit more often.

Aubergine Bistro is at 1455 State Road 436, Casselberry. It is open for lunch Tuesday-Friday and dinner Tuesday-Saturday. The restaurant does not currently have its own Web site. The phone number is 407-678-3300.

 

Moonfish

Written by Scott Joseph on .

A while ago I told you about the upscale seafood chain McCormick & Schmick’s, where the menu lists the origins of the featured fresh catches – blue marlin from San Jose, Costa Rica, for example.

This week we’re at another upscale seafood restaurant, Moonfish, where the menu gets even more specific. I not only know that my Black Island swordfish came from just off the coast of Cape Hatteras, I even know that it was caught – harpooned, to be exact – by Paul Josephs.
It may be more information than you need or want (heck, some people don’t even care what their waiter’s name is), but the bottom line, not to mention the hook and the sinker, is that the quality of seafood restaurants around here is getting better.
Moonfish is the latest concept from the Charley’s Steak House folks, Talk of the Town, Inc. They’re certainly not new to the seafood game. Just down Sand Lake Road you’ll find their other seafood restaurant, Fish Bones (not to be confused with Outback Steak House’s nearby Bonefish, and that you might perhaps find it confusing is the basis of a complaint against Outback by Talk of the Town calling for them to stop using that name, but that’s another story).
 
That swordfish, so ably harpooned by Josephs, was nicely grilled and had a smoky flavor to complement the firm texture and moist flakiness of the fillet.
More impressive was the Vietnamese basa, a catfishlike fish, fried whole and posed on the plate to make it look as though it might swim away. It had sweet flesh that was enhanced by slivers of whole ginger that had been placed in slits along the body. It was topped with a slaw tinged with toasted sesame oil that gave it an Asian edge.

The Alaskan halibut stuffed with blue crab, shrimp and brie just didn’t work. There wasn’t anything wrong with the fish itself; it had fresh qualities and good flavor. But that flavor was done no favor by the overpowering cheese.

It shouldn’t be surprising that steaks are properly prepared for those in the group that don’t care for fish. One of my guests had the 20-ounce bone-in New York strip ($18.95), grilled so the outside was crispy but the inside was pink and juicy, even with a requested temperature of medium-well.

For appetizers there was nothing better than the crab cake, which wasn’t very cakelike but rather a mound of lovely lump crab meat, slightly warm and rich in natural flavors.

For dessert there was an impressive sampler of sorbets, including pineapple, coconut, lemon and an unusual apple, all served in hollowed fruit. And the chocolate cake, an enormous slice of multi layers, moist and rich, the icing studded with chocolate chips, was also delightful.

Service tended toward the “let’s be friends” end of the spectrum. If you know the name of the person who caught your fish you’re certainly going to hear the name of the person serving it to you. The wine list has a number of good selections but precious few by the glass.

The moonfish, also known as opah, figures into the decor beginning with a manhole-sized door handle on the entrance. Round shapes, not necessarily fish in form, have been worked into the interior, which also features a slate entry way, dark woods and the signature wood-fired pit at the front of the kitchen.

Tables are covered with white cloths then topped with butcher paper. (Note to staff: check the stains on the portion of the cloth that hangs down, please, and change them when necessary.) The dining room is inexplicably noisy – there aren’t a lot of hard surfaces, but in a room that was only a little more than half full, my guests and I had trouble hearing each other across the table.

Still, the surroundings are mostly pleasant, and the quality of the seafood is encouraging.