J. Alexander's

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J. Alexander's on Restaurant Row; good food from the dark side

A couple of weeks ago I gave you a First Bite impression of the new J. Alexander's, the upscale chain restaurant in the new Rialto strip on Sand Lake Road's Restaurant Row. I went back for a closer look and a second bite, and I liked what I tasted. I'd say I liked what I saw, but that wasn't so easy (I'll come back to that in a moment). Suffice to say that J. Alex serves fine, basic food, and it's a welcome addition to the Row's roster of good restaurants.

I don't think it's any secret that J. Alexander's is going after the Houston's market. Or at least the sort of person who likes Houston's food and atmosphere. I doubt that a restaurant in South Orlando will draw many of Houston's Winter Park regulars, but it may prevent some Bay Hillers and Windermerians from trekking up I-4 for a Houston's fix.

Just like Houston's, J. Alexander's doesn't accept reservations. But when I called, the chipper young woman who answered the phone said that guests can call ahead and get on the wait list before they leave home. That's better than nothing.
But there was not wait the evening my companion and I dined. We were greeted warmly by at least three hostesses -- one even stepped forward to open the door for us, a nice touch -- and were led into the dining room.

The dining room is not quite pitch black, but when you first enter, even at night, it takes a while for your eyes to adjust. There are bright pin spots that illuminate each of the bare wood tabletops in the room, as well as some artwork, but little of the light spills over so you can actually see other people, including those at your own table. My dinner guest was in the shadows all evening. I felt like I was dining in a spy movie.

No sooner had we been seated than a voice came through the dark asking us if we'd like to order a drink. It was, we could tell from the sound of the voice, a young woman. We told her we would like to order a glass of wine but hadn't had a chance to look at the list yet. She then started asking what type of wine we wanted, if we liked dry or sweet, etc. She was, of course, trying to be helpful, but in too forceful a way. We asked if she could possibly give us a moment to look the list over and come back.

She left, and it would be five minutes before anyone else came back to take our order. (Were we being punished?) The next voice we heard belonged to an exuberant young man. He explained that he would be our server and that he knew someone had already taken our drink order. We explained that the mix-up and he apologized and quickly fetched our wines. In the meantime, we looked the menu over and commented about the meager offering of appetizers, which, now that I think about it, is another way J. Alexander's is like Houston's. We ordered the spinach con queso ($9) because neither egg rolls nor gigantic onion rings appealed to us. We ended up wishing we'd skipped the starter course altogether. The pot of dip was quite unexciting.

For our entrees, my friend ordered prime rib ($21) and I selected the cilantro shrimp ($17). 
J. Alexander'sThe prime rib (left) was a pretty impressive slab for supposedly only 12 ounces. But more impressive than the portion was the tenderness -- exactly the buttery texture you expect from good prime rib, which in this case was more likely USDA choice. The plate included a cup of jus for dipping -- I preferred the creamy horseradish sauce that was served on the side -- and a massive mountain of loosely mashed potatoes that were more like a pile of potato lumps. They were, however, quite tasty.

The only complaint I had with the  cilantro shrimp was that the "black tigers" were a bit on the shrimpy side. And there were only 11 of them. My friend and I wondered what's the opposite of a baker's dozen? A stock broker's dozen? The shrimp were dusted with hot Cajun spices that overwhelmed the coolnessJ. Alexander's of the cilantro, but I liked the flavor a lot. They were served on rice that had speckles of cilantro and was a bit al dente in texture, whether intended or not. An overflowing cup of MBC cole slaw was included, MBC standing for Maytag blue cheese, which gave the chunky slaw a wonderful salty note.

That was the kind of saltiness that was welcome, as opposed to the steak and fries ($19) I had discussed in a previous post where the meat was salty almost to the point of being inedible. Desserts, like most of the other items on the menu, are made in-house. We decided to share a slice of carrot cake ($6), which was a large, flat square that had been heated (nuked, perhaps, but it doesn't matter) and the cream cheese icing slathered on top. Big hunks of carrot were evidence that it was the real thing.

Service was excellent and showed good training. The manager was present in the dining room and greeted most tables.
The wine list is not huge but hits all the right bases. I again enjoyed the Santa Ema Reserve merlot from Maipo Valley, Chile; my guest had the Pine Ridge (CA) blend of chenin blanc and viognier.
By the end of the meal our eyes had adjusted to the surroundings and we were able to find our way out of the restaurant without a guide. I'm sure we'll find our way back again.


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Ember, downtown Orlando: Is it a restaurant with drinks or a bar with food?

The short answer is a bar with food, but from the first taste I had the other night the food is encouraging. Ember takes over the space where Kate O'Brien's resided for many years. The facility has been redone quite lavishly in the style of a Mediterranean villa. There's a sizeable bar inside with a few feet-on-the-floor tables for dining; Outside is an even larger area -- (you sort of expect the outside to be larger than the indoors, don't you? That's why they call it the great outdoors, but you know what I mean.)

Most of the tables in the patio area are bar height, so I just chose to sit at the bar. One of the two unoccupied barkeeps took my drink order while I looked the menu over. It's mostly noshables, and there isn't anything over $13 -- in fact, most items are under $10. The menu, which was developed by the chef at Kres, although the two restaurants are owned by different entities, features soups and salads; flatbreads (to compete with Urban Flats, I suppose); pastas for the people who must have their carbs; and sliders and folds, the former being tiny burgers and the latter being wrap sandwiches.

I chose the choice burger ($9), which got me three of the little gut bombs, as we used to call the White Castle sliders. They were dense patties on Lilliputian sized buns, served with shredded lettuce, tomatoes and a small sweet pickle. The burgers were topped with cheese and they were pretty good.
They came with a handful of thick-cut fries, a more than ample amount. I'm torn whether to say they were worth nine bucks -- remember when we used to rail that the burgers and fries at Hard Rock Cafe were $7.50? I suppose for bar food they were priced accordingly, and one order should fill up the average person. Share? No, I don't think so.

Ember was quiet on the weeknight I visited, but I can imagine the place getting packed on the weekends, especially as we head into the best time of year for outdoor dining -- or outdoor drinking at a bar that also serves food.


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Paxia is fine Mexican in College Park

Paxia is what Colibri wants to be. Or what it should want to be. Colibri, you'll recall, unless you're lucky enough to erase unpleasantries from your memory, is the ill-guided Mexican restaurant in Baldwin Park. Nice atmosphere, but no follow through on the food. And don't get me started on the service.Paxia
Paxia has the atmosphere and good food and pleasant service to go with it. It doesn't do everything right -- in fact there was one really annoying thing that happened during my dinner -- but it hits the mark on enough points to warrant a recommendation.

Paxia touts itself as "alta cocina," which is Spanish for haute cuisine. The food is a little more upscale than the average Mexican restaurant, at least in presentation, but we're talking fine dining in relative terms.

For appetizers my guest and I chose the queso fundido ($9) and the "traditional" Mexican nachos ($4.50). The queso was a plate of melted cheese that was beginning to reharden. It was topped with cubes of spicy chorizo sausage and served with warm flour tortillas wrapped in a crisp white napkin. We scooped the deliciously greasy cheese and sausage into the tortillas and gobbled the whole thing down.
The nachos were small triangles of tortilla chips topped with a bit of refried beans, melted cheese and jalapenos -- different from the mound of chips and the globs of cheese seen in Tex-Mex restaurants. It was a fairly boring presentation with a flavor to match.

(By the way, did you know that in Mexico the International Day of the Nacho is celebrated every year on September 11? Something tells me that we'll never see that one co-opted as an American celebration the way Cinco de Mayo has been. Just a guess.)

For my entree I selected the tamales ($10.50), which are available with beef, chicken or cheese, but, curiously, not pork. I chose the beef version, which featured a large "cake" of steamed corn dough topped with shredded beef and a bit of cheese. It was good, but nothing like the usual tamale.

My friend selected the skirt steak fajitas ($13.50), your basic sizzling platter of tender strips of steak with onions and peppers. It was accompanied by a dollop of guacamole and sour cream and a few flour tortillas, presented as before in a white napkin.

We requested some more guac, which I expected would add a charge to the bill (it did: $1.50). But when the few flour tortillas proved not enough for all the fajita fixings and we asked for more, I was stunned to hear there would be an additional charge.

"For tortillas?" I asked with the right amount of incredulity? The young woman must have heard it before because her reply, something about the price of the entree being so low, blah, blah, blah, sounded rehearsed. We said no thanks -- I'm not paying extra for bread, and if the restaurant feels the need to charge more, add it to the cost of the entree.

But that was the only negative to the experience. The restaurant has brightly painted walls of burnt orange and yellow, though they are Spartanly decorated. Tables are topped with white cloths and annoying white butcher paper. The lounge area is stylish and moody.

Speaking of the lounge, the bar serves a delicious margarita ($6). And they don't charge extra for salt on the rim


Sakura Sushi

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Sakura Sushi only so-so

I finally made it to Sakura Sushi, the restaurant that replaced the popular Shiki on Park Avenue a while back. But I have to tell you I was neither overwhelmed more underwhelmed. I guess I was just whelmed. I tried the "white tuna" nigirizushi, which was smallish and did not adhere to the pad of rice. Still, it was fresh-tasting.

Monster roll was a spider roll with cream cheese, a substance that gives sushi snobs an opportunity to turn their noses up in unison. I happen to like cream cheese, especially when served with a crispy-fried soft-shell crab, the "spider" in a spider roll.

The restaurant on a whole seemed a bit unkempt and dark. I ate at the sushi bar, where a fan was blowing out over the heads of patrons. Also on the counter was a sample of some offering in a martini glass that had obviously been sitting there for a few hours. It was most unappetizing.

For many years, Shiki was the only sushi restaurant for Winter Parkers, at least in the Park Avenue area. Now there are other choices, most notably Kata Thai and Sushi, so Sakura can no longer rest on Shiki's laurels. It's time to try a little harder.

Sakura is at 525 Park Ave. S., Winter Park. The phone number is 407-740-8018. It is open nightly for dinner (no lunches).


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Less bistro, more bar

Stopped in the other day at the new location for Brix, the "Euro bistro" that had opened in 2007 in a small space on the ground floor of the Metropolitan condominiums, across the street from Lake Eola.
Back then, Brix was trying to be hip and trendy. The focus of the menu was fondue, something that puts a severe limit on one's ability to be hip and trendy. There was also a premium focus on wines. Brix, after all, is a term for the amount of sugar in wine.

The Washington Street site was a lousy location. It was small, hard to get to and the outdoor seating was hampered by the traffic on Rosalind Avenue.
So when Brix moved to the space on Central Boulevard that had been vacated by Tijuana Flats (as it prepared to open its new burritoria in Thornton Park), I thought maybe they'd be able to expand on their themes.
But what I experienced recently was basically just another bar, just like all the other bars in downtown Orlando. There is a menu, but it features your basic sandwiches and flatbreads. The fondues, apparently, have been relegated mostly to dessert offerings, although there may still be a savory wine fondue.
Nothing I tasted was bad, but nothing I tasted was stellar, either. It isn't a place I would recommend as a dining destination. But if you're downtown and want a drink, maybe a sandwich, then, sure, stop on in.

Brix is at 50 E. Central Blvd., Orlando. The phone number is 407-839-1707. The Web site is not yet operational.


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Hanamizuki is true Japanese in the heart of Orlando's Tourist World

Hanamizuki How Japanese is Hanamizuki? If you go to the International Drive restaurant's Web site, it pops up first in Japanese -- you have to opt-in to an English version.
Of course, that alone doesn't vouch for the authenticity of the food. But in a town that considers "steakhouses" that proffer overpriced food that has been been banged and whacked on a hot metal grill the diners sit around to be the epitome of Japanese food, Hanamizuki gives a deeper insight into the intricacies and nuances of a cuisine that involves much more than the chef being able to flip a shrimp tail into his hat.

Hanamizuki's menu features Kyoto style cooking, which tends to be more elegant and formal than many of the dishes served in most American Japanese restaurants. It also focuses more on fresh vegetables and seafood other than sushi, although that is also a part of it and is available at Hanamizuki.

But good sushi can be found at other restaurants around town. Come to Hanamizuki for something different.

Try the octopus and scallions in nuta, a sauce made with white soybean paste, hot mustard and vinegar. Or grilled salted tile fish.

Kyoto style food is a good choice for vegetarians, as Kyoto is known for its fresh tofu.

The I-drive location will be a turn-off for a lot of locals who don't want to brave the tourist traffic. Here's a tip: Instead of entering the strip mall Hanamizuki is located in via International Drive, go around to Universal Boulevard and go in the back way; leave that way, too.

But do give it a try. You'll find that it's possible to enjoy delicious Japanese food without having to sit around a hot griddle with a bunch of strangers.

Tap Room at Dubsdread

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Let the burger wars begin: Tap Room at Dubsdread takes an early lead

I visited the Tap Room at Dubsdread for lunch recently. I was meeting a friend who used to be the publisher of a major daily newspaper. We're thinking about starting a support group.

If you're the owner of a restaurant that has had a rough summer, you probably don't want to hear this next part: the place was packed and people were waiting for tables. I guess good food and service will always win out.

And it's not like the food is the cheapest around. My Tap Room classic cheeseburger was a hefty $9.95 -- not a lot but not exactly a bargain, either. Still, it was a darned fine burger. It featured a half-pound of beef topped with good Tillamook cheddar cheese, not the processed American cheese some places are using. Some lettuce, a thick slice of tomato and purple onions were included. And the bun was toasted and had a terrific buttery flavor. It was cooked to the requested medium-rare (or pretty close) and came with so-so fries.

The Tap Room retains its rustic golf clubhouse aura, but on the day I visited it had a distinct aroma -- some mustic to go with the rustic. But none of that seemed to bother the throng. And I forgot it as soon as I started plowing into the burger.
So Tap Room is the burger to beat, as far as I'm concerned. Anyone else have a better favorite?

Taverna Opa

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Taverna Opa is Greek gone wild

Frankly, I can Taverna Opa do without all the table-top dancing and the practice of constantly throwing fistfuls of paper napkins into the air that rain down on diners in something like a snowstorm with immense snowflakes. And I've never thought restaurants were the proper place for belly dancers; too much undulating isn't good for digestion.

And don't get me started on the ear-splitting music that accompanies the undulating, throwing and dancing.

But at the base of it all is the good Greek food that makes a dinner at Taverna Opa worth putting up with everything else.

The menu has most of the regulars that diners expect to find on Greek menus, at least in America. So you'll find your mousakas, your pastitsios and dolmades.

But you'll also find things like the lamb rib appetizer ($9), which were like any other ribs you might find in a barbecue joint but with a lemon sauce to offset the gamey flavor.

Country-style sausage ($5) -- Greece being the country in question -- served with red and green grilled peppers were another favorite. So was the taramosalata ($4), a creamy dip of salty fish roe.

Thallasino ($36), a sort of Greek version of the Portuguese cioppino, had a large skillet filled with lobster tail, shrimp, scallops, mussels, squid, crab legs and a grouper fillet in a broth of white wine flavored with lemon and garlic and tinged with tomatoes.

And the more pedestrian mousaka ($12) was a big brick of eggplant, potatoes and beef layers topped with a thick bechamel.
For dessert, be sure to try the house-made yogurt ($5), which had the texture of meringue but a tangy taste tempered by honey. There's baklava ($5) for the traditionalists.

Taverna Opa is in the Pointe Orlando, so the clientele tends to be comprised mostly of out-of-towners. But if you're going to get up on top of a table and dance with a stange woman wearing veils it's probably best that no one knows who you are.

Jiko - The Cooking Place

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Jiko -- The Cooking Place at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge finds its voice

JikoWhen Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge first opened nearly eight years ago, its signature restaurant, Jiko, left a bland impression. The name is Swahili for The Cooking Place, and the menu was supposed to focus on South African cuisine. But what was offered was a cuisine without a country. Soon after, Anette Grecchi-Gray, one of Disney's pioneering women chefs, took over and started making improvement. Now, Grecchi-Gray has left the company and left the restaurant in the hands of chef Brian Piasecki, who admitted when he took over Jiko that he had never been to Africa and knew little about the cuisine. Whatever he did to educate himself seems to have worked. Jiko now serves food that is creative and well-executed, a fusion of styles and techniques that utilize the seasonings and spices associated with African cuisine.

I liked the berbere-braised lamb shank ($27), a sizeable hunk of meat, slow-cooked so the meat was fall-off-the-bone tender. The berbere is a spice mixture of chilies, ginger, coriander and other flavors associated with Ethiopian cuisine. The rub gave a spicy note to the mild lamb. Arctic char ($31) was another favorite, a fatty-fleshed fish with characteristics of both trout and salmon (in flavor -- not in appearances; that would be an odd fish indeed). The fish was mild flavored and spiced up with fennel pollen salt. It was accompanied by mealie pap, a South African staple of cornmeal mush. Some good appetizer choices are kalamata olive flatbread ($9), or ostrich schnitzel ($13) -- try ordering that one five times real fast.

Service was of the type that Disney is well-known for. And be sure to give the wine list a good look-see. It's the largest collection of South Africa wines in North America. Ask for a taste of the Delheim Gewurztraminer, which goes perfectly with the Portland Pier scallops ($31) and its accompanying spicy eggplant kottu.
The restaurant was designed by Jeffery Beers and is a salute to the opening scenes of The Lion King. The columns are supposed to represent the decorative neck-stretching rings worn by Swahili women, and the light fixtures are floating sculptures of birds that get smaller as they disappear in the distance.
Of course, you do have to put up with the occasionally under-dressed tourist, but Jiko has become one of Disney's better dining choices.

Luma On Park

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Luma On Park is Winter Park at its snazziest

Luma On Park had a rocky start. It came to town with a sort of arrogance that suggested that as long as they had a tony atmosphere it really didn't matter if the food was any good. After all, what did the Central Florida rubes know about good food?

We knew plenty, and we weren't falling for the smoke and mirrors attitude of this restaurant group out of Atlanta.
The message was received. The original chef returned to Georgia, or elsewhere, and in his place we got Brandon McGlamery, a talented chef with credentials that reach from the French Laundry in California to Guy Savoy in Paris who didn't just let his resume speak for itself.

Luma's menu is divided between small plates and full entrees. While this is one of the pricier restaurants on the Avenue, one could make a meal of small plates and leave without a significant dent in the wallet.

Try the calamari fries ($9) or the crispy duck salad ($11), which went beyond a mere salad with the inclusion of a duck leg confit.
If you want to go for a full entree, try the Kobe flank steak ($26) or the black grouper ($27).

Service is exceptional and the decor is Miami spicy. But, thankfully, the attitude is strictly Central Florida friendly.