Emeril's Tchoup Chop

Written by Scott Joseph on .

It took a while, but Lagasse's restaurant is now worth visiting

For the first time since it opened six years ago I can finally recommend Emeril’s Tchoup Chop. That’s thanks in no small part to the restaurant’s new chef, Gregory Richie, who joined on at the beginning of the year.

Greg RichieRichie’s name will be familiar to many. He opened the Roy’s on Sand Lake Road in 2001 as its chef and operating partner, following a stint at Roy Yamaguchi’s restaurant in Hawaii.

So it would make sense that Emeril Lagasse would tap Richie to head up Tchoup Chop, which is themed as an Asian / Polynesian restaurant to complement the Royal Pacific hotel’s motif.

But part of the reason that Tchoup Chop now works is that, ironically, Richie’s menu doesn’t try to overemphasize the Hawaiian theme, which previously was strained and artificial. The menu now is more subtly pan Asian, more in the list of ingredients than in the dishes themselves.

But it wasn’t just a strained menu and theme that prevented me from endorsing Tchoup Chop in the past.

Relax Grill at Lake Eola

Written by Scott Joseph on .

I suppose the name of the place should have been my first clue that things wouldn’t move apace here. But even with a name like Relax Grill, one shouldn’t expect a lunch to last over an hour.Relax_Grill

Especially one in downtown, where a good deal of the clientele are likely to be workers from surrounding businesses who have to get back to the office to deal with their own clientele.

Or, if they didn’t walk to the lakeside location, parked in a metered space and put in only enough quarters to cover a reasonable time for lunch, then have to race back to their cars to try to beat the parking enforcement officer. (I swear those ticket-writers have brain implants that receive a signal from the parking meter the second it expires.)

It’s not like Relax Grill isn’t the kind of place you’d like to enjoy a leisurely meal. It occupies the space -- as so many have before -- of the glorified concession stand next to the swan boats at Lake Eola. All seating is outdoors under umbrellas and leafy trees at metal patio tables with plastic (and comfortable) deck chairs.

On a recent weekday, I arrived for a lunch meeting ahead of my friend. I stood waiting at the entrance to the patio. Although several servers passed by, no one greeted me or acknowledged my presence. Eventually, another party arrived behind me and one of them said I could just sit wherever I wanted. “How would I know that?” I asked her. She shrugged and said, “I come here a lot.” “But how would a new person know that?” I demanded, forgetting that she was just another customer and not the owner. Frightened, she and her friends hurried off to grab a table, and I did the same.

My friend eventually arrived and we sat and waited a while longer to be acknowledged and receive menus.

Wait a minute. All of this has started to sound very familiar. So I just went to check what I wrote about the last tenant here, Erik’s on the lake. This is from the June 22, 2007, Chow Hound column:

Chefs de France, home to the world's first celebrity chef

Written by Scott Joseph on .


Each year, in July, the excellent Web site Theme Park Insider announces its awards for excellence in various categories among the country's theme parks. Best theme park restaurant is one of the categories.

This year, all five finalists are in Orlando theme parks, so TPI founder and editor, Robert Niles, has asked me to post my reviews of those restaurants for his readers, as well as readers of the flog here. I don't have a say in selecting the winner, that's up to you. At the end of each review, I'll give you a link to TPI's listing for that restaurant so you can vote or leave a comment. Robert will announce the winner on July 4th.

Previous reviews: Hollywood Brown Derby, Le Cellier, Mythos and Sharks Underwater Grill.Chefs de france exterior

The final finalist: Les Chefs de France.

 The Orlando area is home to myriad restaurants owned or licensed by “celebrity” chefs. We have two by bam-king Emeril Lagasse (Emeril’s Orlando and Emeril’s Tchoup Chop); Wolfgang Puck Cafe; Norman Van Aken’s Norman’s at the Ritz-Carlton; Todd English’s bluezoo; Melissa Kelly’s Primo; and, this fall, Kouzzina by Cat Cora, a partnership between the Iron Chef and Walt Disney World.

But the area is also home to a restaurant whose owners include not only one of the most famous chefs in the world but arguably the first celebrity chef the world ever knew. Ironically, his name is not on the restaurant, Les Chefs de France. Even more ironic is that Paul Bocuse became famous because, in 1965, he was the first chef to put his name on his restaurant outside Lyons.

Before that, chefs were no more than hired kitchen help. Restaurants were owned by the maitre ‘d or the hotels where they were located.

Banshoo sushi bar opens at Rosen Centre

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Latest in a mini trend of hotel lobby sushi bars

The Rosen Centre Hotel is the latest in the area to install a lobby sushi bar, joining Royal Pacific, JW Marriott and Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress. Not sure how this mini trend started, but I don’t mind it.Banshoo sushi bar

Especially when the sushi bar has a chef who takes pride in his or her craft. That seems to be the case with Banshoo at the Rosen Centre where Yoshi does the slicing and rolling.

Yoshi, whose full name is Tadayoshi Kohazame, received his sushi training in his native Okinawa and has worked as a chef for over 20 years. His resume includes Ran Getsu, just up the road a bit from his new gig.

The name Banshoo means sunset, which is the time of day the sushi bar opens. Located adjacent to the less romantically named Lobby Lounge, Banshoo features a granite-topped bar that seats six and a large communal table for 12.

Tuesday was the official grand opening of the bar with a ceremonial ribbon-cutting. It also featured a ceremonial sushi rolling conducted by Yoshi with hotelier Harris Rosen and Gary Sain, president of Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Yoshi and fellow chefs put out a beautiful spread of nigirizushi, sashimi and norimaki. You know how when you go to a sushi bar and order a sample and it comes in a miniature boat? This could have filled an actual boat. And everything I sampled was delicious. Can’t wait to go back and enjoy a more leisurely dinner.

Rosen Centre Hotel is at 9840 International Drive, Orlando. Banshoo is open at 5 to 10 p.m. nightly. And guests dining at any of the hotel’s restaurants -- Banshoo included -- receive complimentary valet parking (take advantage of that). The phone number at Rosen Centre is 407-996-9840.

Sharks Underwater Grill at SeaWorld Orlando

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Each year, in July, the excellent Web site Theme Park Insider announces its awards for excellence in various categories among the country's theme parks. Best theme park restaurant is one of the categories.

This year, all five finalists are in Orlando theme parks, so TPI founder and editor, Robert Niles, has asked me to post my reviews of those restaurants for his readers, as well as readers of the flog here. I don't have a say in selecting the winner, that's up to you. At the end of each review, I'll give you a link to TPI's listing for that restaurant so you can vote or leave a comment. Robert will announce the winner on July 4th.

Previous reviews: Hollywood Brown Derby, Le Cellier and Mythos.

 Next up: Sharks Underwater Grill at SeaWorld.

When you walk into Sharks Underwater Grill at SeaWorld Orlando, it’s easy to see why it would be a favorite restaurant of so many. There aren’t many places in the world where you can dine next to a titanic aquarium while scores of exotic and dangerous sea creatures swim by. (OK, with Epcot’s Coral Reef restaurant we have two such places in Orlando -- we’re special.)

SUG also offers SeaWorld guests a (somewhat) quieter haven from the manic pace of the park and its seemingly inescapable rock music soundtrack. The lower light levels in the restaurant provide a serene respite, as well as better viewing of the deep-blue deep blue on the other side of the glass, and the music in here is a softer jazz.

Also, the staff is friendly and helpful, skilled at serving and knowledgeable about the fish floating by. They help provide an enjoyable and educational experience.

So there you have it. Sharks Underwater Grill is one terrific restaurant.

Oh, wait...I guess we should talk about the food.


Durian Durian Thai restaurant in Lake Nona

Written by Scott Joseph on .

 As the burgeoning medical city in the area known as Lake Nona continues to, um, burgeon, the ancillary businesses that will serve the community of doctors, researchers, students and educators are growing too.Durian Durian

That of course means restaurants, and among the inevitable Outbacks and fast fooders are a handful of hopeful independent restaurants. It’s nice to see them take an enterprising role in this frontier. But I hope more of them put more effort into their business than Durian Durian.


Oceanaire Seafood Room

Written by Scott Joseph on .

The Oceanaire Seafood Room is meant to take you back in time with its interior that suggests a 1930s ocean liner. I felt transported on my visits to the new Pointe Orlando restaurant, but not nearly that far back.
My trip in time was to 1996 and another venue meant to resemble a ship. That was the year the Empress Lily riverboat at Disney’s Pleasure Island was rechristened Fulton’s Crab House with a registry under the Levy Restaurants flag. Fulton’s chef had a passion for a variety of fish and delighted in bringing the freshest to Central Florida.
But a few years after it opened, the restaurant shifted course. It still specialized in seafood, but its manifest was more mundane, sticking to the snapper, tuna and salmon that one could find in any other restaurant.
So when I visited The Oceanaire and saw its list of fish that included wahoo, coho salmon, hogfish and marlin, I was heartened. And when I discovered that the quality of the seafood was good and the kitchen had an expertise in cooking it, I was pleased that Central Florida finally had another fine seafood restaurant.
Not that everything here is first-rate. In fact there were some mind-numbing stumbles and some annoying service policies. But overall, The Oceanaire offers an exceptional dining experience.
The menu, which is printed daily, as it should be in any fresh fish restaurant, requires some explanation from the servers. The top of the menu has a roster of 20 or so fish, but only those with a checkmark next to them are available.
Those that are checked may be simply grilled or broiled. Or they may be featured as one of the special preparations, such as the stuffed Alaskan halibut ($29.95) I enjoyed on my first visit. It featured a firm fillet wrapped around a satisfying mixture of shrimp, crab and creamy brie.
I also liked the black and blue swordfish ($28.95). The fillet wasn’t as thick as you might find in some swordfish, but it was deliciously tender and nicely blackened. The blue was provided by a splotch of Roquefort butter served atop the fish. Underneath was a confit of sweet onions.
Cioppino ($24.95) was a bit of a disappointment. Although ostensibly a stew, this cioppino had precious little broth, though I must say the soupcon that was there was delicious. But the chunks of fish that were served with it were overcooked.
The two simple preparations of fresh fish I sampled were quite good. On one visit my companion had the wahoo ($22.95), or ono, a mild fish similar to the mackerel. On another visit there was a monkfish ($23.95) from Georges Bank. It had the characteristic texture that mimics lobster meat but was a thick steak cut with the center cord intact. Not the prettiest presentation but quite good.
The crab cake ($14.95) was the most impressive appetizer. There was barely enough binding to hold the thick and sweet pieces of lump meat together. And fried calamari ($10.95) was better than the run of the mill variety with squid from Point Judith delicately breaded and fried. And I loved the shrimp De Jonghe ($8.95), an old-time appetizer, tender-firm shrimp sauteed in garlic butter and topped with bread crumbs.
The biggest disappointment came in the “grand shellfish platter,” and not just because the cost of the petite was a whopping $38. It consisted of a large saucer of shaved ice served on an elevated stand. Shoved in the ice were crab legs, a half lobster, shrimp, oysters, mussels and crab claws. Nothing on the pricey platter stood out as exceptional. The crab legs were a tad rubbery and the oysters, from Netart Bay, were a bit mushy. But the crab claw had gone bad and had the distinctive taste and odor of vinegar to prove it.
Baked Alaska ($5.95), flamed tableside, featured a bland ice cream center under a meringue igloo. The caramel brownie ($13.95), on the other hand, was wonderful chocolate goo.
The skill of the servers would be much more appreciated if they’d cut down on their spiel. Managers were on hand and readily stepped in to handle situations like spoiled crab claws. The wine list is limited but has plenty of fun seafood-pairing selections.
The interior is wood and palms and white tablecloths and avoids the trap of being too seaworthy or over-nautical. Obscure references to seafood and the sea are printed on the walls of the restaurant and restrooms. The men’s room has an odd quote, “The snotgreen sea. The scrotum tightening sea,” that is unattributed, although a well-read companion was sure it is by James Joyce. (It is.)
The Oceanaire Seafood Room has a number of touches to take the diner back in time – when was the last time you were served a relish tray? But its best attribute is the promise of a brighter future for Central Florida’s seafood scene.

Mythos Restaurant at Universal's Islands of Adventure

Written by SJO Staff on .

Each year, in July, the excellent Web site Theme Park Insider announces its awards for excellence in various categories among the country's theme parks. Best theme park restaurant is one of the categories.

This year, all five finalists are in Orlando theme parks, so TPI founder and editor, Robert Niles, has asked me to post my reviews of those restaurants for his readers, as well as readers of the flog here. I don't have a say in selecting the winner, that's up to you. At the end of each review, I'll give you a link to TPI's listing for that restaurant so you can vote or leave a comment. Robert will announce the winner on July 4th.

Previous reviews: Hollywood Brown Derby, Le Cellier

This week: Mythos

 It's been nearly 10 years since Universal Studios opened Islands of Adventure and, with it, Mythos, one of only two full-service restaurants in the park (Confisco Grille is the other). When I first reviewed Mythos in August of 1999, I concluded that the restaurant was suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. It didn't quite know what kind of restaurant it wanted to be. That shouldn't have been so surprising: Universal was still trying to figure out the identity of its two theme parks and had umbrellaed them under the “Universal Studios Escape” name. Remember that?

Mythos restaurantBut I had expected more from Mythos at the time. It was to have been the showcase for Steven Jayson, the highly respected and much acclaimed chef whose title is vice president and corporate executive chef for Universal Orlando. Even though he wouldn't be stationed in the kitchen, Jayson wanted Mythos to be his special project.

But the grand plan for Mythos didn’t pan out. It may be because Universal and Jayson wanted the restaurant to be one thing and the guests wanted it to be another. The original menu had such things as wood-roasted Maine lobster and tempura shrimp sushi, items you might expect to find in a fine dining venue. But the park goers weren’t looking for fine dining, they just wanted a place to eat where they didn’t have to stand in line for their food.

The need for a fine dining restaurant inside Islands of Adventure is further diminished when you consider that the park closes at 6 on most days and that Mythos takes its last priority seating at 4:30. Even the early bird diners don’t come out that early.

So Mythos today is somewhat different than the restaurant it started out to be. And it’s a better place for it. There are still some of the original items on the menu -- the risotto of the day and individual pizzas, for example -- but it has taken on a more casual air.

Two Brevard Restaurants: River Rocks and Tonic

Written by SJO Staff on .

I recently visited two Brevard County restaurants, both on the same evening. The first was River Rocks, on the western shore of the Indian River Lagoon in Rockledge. The second was back over the causeway and south a bit to Indian Harbour Beach. It's a trendy little place called Tonic. It would have been a perfect restaurant experience if I could have combined the two into one.River Rocks Restaurant

I loved the setting for River Rocks. The name is perfect, for that's the view for those who choose to sit on the wood deck. And why wouldn't you? The view is lovely, and the breeze is as salty as the ocean. It was a wonderful place to sit and relax and sip some nice wine.

It would have been a lovely place to have some good food, too, but that wasn't to be. 

Redrock Canyon Grill at Pointe Orlando

Written by SJO Staff on .

It's been more than two years since Pointe Orlando announced the major restaurants that would be part of the reinvention of this struggling entertainment/shopping/dining complex. We've visited Capital Grille (before it was purchased by Darden), Tommy Bahama's Tropical Cafe, Oceanaire Seafood Room, Maggiano's Little Italy, Taverna Opa and B.B. King's.

The last of the originally announced restaurants is Redrock Canyon Grill. Like those others, Redrock is part of a chain, but, also like the others, a one-off for this area.

But there is something distinct about Redrock : It doesn't seem to have an easily grasped purpose or reason to be. With all the others, there is a central focus -- steak, seafood, Italian, Greek, etc. Redrock Canyon Grill claims as its specialty rotisserie chicken, but that's hardly reason enough to open a restaurant. And it's certainly not reason enough for you to drive to Pointe Orlando.

And I also don't quite get the Redrock Canyon bit. If it is meant to be a theme, it's pretty subtle.

Still, I have to say that a lot of the food I had at Redrock Canyon Grill was pretty good. I still don't think the rotisserie chicken is anything special, but I had plenty of other things that I considered quite tasty.

And it's not that there was anything wrong with the chicken, which is good, because besides being available as a stand-alone item, it is included in several other dishes.

I sampled the rotisserie chicken as part of a combination the menu annoyingly lists as cluck-n-oink ($22). The bird was paired with pork ribs. If you don't know which is which, ask a 4-year-old to give you a refresher course on "Old McDonald's Farm."

It may also be mentioned here that the chicken is sometimes paired with steak, thereby known as cluck-n-moo, and at times the chicken is left out of the equation, and the ribs and steak are offered together. You'll be expected to order the moink.

I ordered the chicken and ribs. "You mean the cluck-n-oink?" asked the server. No, I told her, the chicken and ribs.

The chicken part was better than the pig, which were rather dry St. Louis-style ribs. The cluck, I mean chicken, was at least moist and well-seasoned. (By the way, you can watch the whirling birds on the wood-fired rotisserie to one side of the open kitchen.)

Melodie's chicken pot pie ($11) elicited no sound, neither from Melodie nor the pie. It was a pretty good pot pie, however, with a flaky crust filled with chunks of chicken, carrots, peas and redskin potatoes in less gravy than one usually finds in a pot pie.

One of my guests had the hickory grilled tenderloin filet ($26.75), a tender steak cooked just a tad beyond the requested rare and topped with Gorgonzola cheese butter and cabernet reduction sauce. Mashed potatoes and sweet glazed carrots rounded out the plate.

Persimmon Hill meatloaf stack ($14) wasn't exactly a stack, and I can't begin to guess what Persimmon Hill had to do with it unless that's some sort of code for spiciness. Because that was the main distinction of this ground-beef-and-sausage loaf, a bit of peppery heat. Not too hot, though, and quite nice with the thick mashed potatoes and al dente green beans.

On a lunch visit, I had the Western bacon cheeseburger ($10), a very large patty on a fresh bun with lettuce and tomato, enough bacon to cover the top and lots of melted cheese. For the first time in recent memory, a burger ordered medium-rare came undercooked, so much so that I considered sending it back. I didn't, for fear it would be overcooked when returned.

Appetizers included a rather anemic pollo quesadilla ($9) and shrimp cargot ($10), which I thought would be served a la escargot, but I've never had snails topped with melted cheese. The fiesta egg rolls ($9), stuffed with chicken, of course, along with corn and bell peppers, were an unlikely favorite.

For dessert, the Key lime pie ($6) was a fairly decent rendition, with a tarty filling on a graham cracker crust. The pineapple upside-down cake ($6) had a little too much Jim Beam bourbon sauce for my taste, something I never thought I'd say.

The serving staff is young and exuberant. There's a lot of "so, where are you from?" kind of chatter, but overall they were attentive and quick.

The restaurant is large and is basically one continuous room with a bar in the center. Ceilings are low, and with bare floors and the open kitchen, the noise level can be high. There are touches of stonework in the décor, which I suppose is meant to evoke a setting in the mountains, or, more specifically, in a canyon .

Redrock Canyon Grill has several items worth ordering, but I can't think of anything it offers that makes it unique, like some of its neighbors.

But for locals who might need a place to meet up with visitors in the International Drive area it is a good choice, especially if you stick to the more reasonably priced entrées. Then it's worth the trip.

9101 International Drive, Orlando. When: 11 a.m.-10:05 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11:05 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Reservations: Accepted. Beverages: Full bar. Sound level: Noisy. Wheelchair access: Good. Entrees: $10-$26.75. Credit: AE, D, DC, MC, V. Call: 407-363-3933. Web site: rrcanyongrill.com