Padrino's Cuban Bistro

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Padrino's Cuban Bistro serves excellent Cuban cuisine

By virtue of sheer proximity, Florida has always been home to good Cuban restaurants, and Central Florida has had a pretty good share of them, though certainly not as many as South Florida.Padrino's

Now a popular South Florida restaurant, Padrino’s Cuban Cuisine, has opened a Central Florida outpost. To distinguish it from its Hallandale, Plantation and Boca Raton siblings, the new restaurant is called Padrino’s Cuban Bistro, and it’s presenting Central Floridians with a stylishly creative rendition of Cuban food in an atmosphere that is classy yet festive.

I'm prepared to call this the best Cuban food is Central Florida; it's really that good.

The menu is a mix of classic dishes, old family recipes and imaginative interpretations. My guest and I started our dinner with the classic empanadas, crisp, flaky pastries filled with a spicy ground beef mixture. They were served with a wonderful guava chutney that I could have eaten by the spoonful.

We also had a selection of tostones topped with ropa vieja, ground beef and chicken. The shredded beef of the ropa vieja was a favorite.

For my entree I chose Mayi’s mahi mahi, a colorful dish of red, green, orange, yellow, golden and white that featured a fresh-tasting fillet topped with fresh mango and pineapple chutney, served with mashed sweet potatoes and fresh vegetables.

My companion had the lechon asado, which was a study in browns. But what it lacked in color it made up for in flavor, a roast pork seasoned with a tangy citrus mojo. The meat was accompanied by arroz moro, a blend of fluffy white rice and black beans, and boiled yuca. The rice could have used some broth and was a bit under spiced, but the yuca, or casava, was delicious, specifically because it wasn’t too over-seasoned. Many Cuban restaurants tend to douse their yuca with so much garlic sauce that it takes on a acidic taste. Here there was just enough garlic to still enjoy the mild flavor of the root.

We couldn’t decide which of the desserts to try, so we sampled all three. And I still can’t decide which one I liked best. Pudin de pan, which I usually order just because I like saying it, was a perfectly custardized bread pudding with coconut and raisins graced with a rum-tinged dulce de leche.  Tres leches featured white sponge cake soaked with three sweet milks. And the flan -- one couldn’t possibly have a Cuban restaurant without flan on the menu -- had a creamy yet firm custard topped with sweet caramel sauce.

Service was friendly and helpful. Our waitress was able to answer questions about the menu with authority, and she kept the meal moving at a casual, unhurried pace.

One of the more distinctive things about Padrino’s is its decor, a bright and tidy spot that earns it the bistro designation.

The restaurant’s logo, a simple palm frond motif, is incorporated into the busy carpet. Colorful Cuban paintings that look like a form of cubism -- Cuban cubism? -- adorn the walls and lively Latin music plays at just the right volume in the background. Tabletops are bare, dark wood, decorated with a simple candle in a crackle glass lantern.

Padrino’s is very much a family business. Diosado Padrino opened the first Padrino’s Cuban Cuisine with his wife, Candida Rosa, in 1976 a few years after the family emigrated from Cuba. In 1982 their son, Mario, joined the business, and soon his wife, Nayade, did too. Mario and Nayade have relocated to Central Florida to oversee Padrino’s Cuban Bistro, and Nayade, who graduated from culinary school in 2006, is spearheading recipe development. They are usually at the restaurant tending to the customers and making sure that everything is first-rate. And it usually is.

Padrino's Cuban Bistro is at 13586 S. John Young Parkway, Orlando. The phone number is 407-251-5107

K2 Food Lounge

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K2 Food Lounge a clever way to deal with restaurant recession

This is the sort of thing a clever restaurateur does to survive these difficult economic times.

K Restaurant Wine Bar in College Park is, of course, a fairly pricey place. With its signature porcini dusted filet mignon demanding $36, it isn't the sort of dinner you have to celebrate your latest 401(k) statement.

Many restaurants have made adjustments with less expensive ingredients, as I'm sure K has. And they're offering deals, such as prix fixe nights where the diner can have a three-course dinner for less than it would cost to order a la carte. K has such a deal. A prix fixe menu is offered each evening, and on Monday nights it is the only menu available.K2 Food Lounge But increasingly it isn't whether it's a good deal you're getting, it's how much you're spending. So now, Thursdays though Saturdays, K is offering K2, a food lounge that specializes in small plates with small(er) prices.

K2 is set up in the side dining room that was added to the restaurant several years ago to handle overflow from the main dining room. Overflow doesn't happen too often these days, so instead of sealing the room off, owner Kevin Fonzo and general manager Dan Francoforte repurposed it with the very clever name K2.

Offerings here are more along the lines of a tapas bar. The menu includes "firecracker" quail legs (I told you they were small plates); braised escargot; K2 fries with applewood smoked bacon salt; beef carpaccio; dork (that's duck and pork) sliders; lobster corn dogs; and charcuterie and cheese options. Prices range from $4 to $10.

My friend and I stopped in on a Friday evening. Actually, we had stopped in before on a Tuesday not knowing K2 was not open nightly. There was a group mingling in the K2 area and it became clear they were using it as a staging area while they waited for the rest of the group to arrive for a dinner in the main dining foom (K1). There were no staff members in the area to greet us, so we took a seat and waited for someone to come by. Evenutally a server came into the area and looked around, then, ignoring us, left the room. So I got up and went to the main dining room to find out if we had done something wrong by entering K2 through its separate door and not through K's main entrance.

No, said the fellow who moments ago had ignored us, we were fine where we were. And when I pointed out that no one had come by to take our order, he actually looked a bit peeved that I would suggest he was being inattentive.

Once we were finally greeted properly and assigned a waiter (not that one, thank goodness) things started moving. We ordered the sliders -- how could you not try something called a dork? -- which were spiced nicely and complemented with a house-made ketchup. Very tasty.  Fried oysters were a bit soggy and the cheese plate was interesting but fairly small, even for a small plate concept.

The by-the-glass wine list tries to reflect the lower price ideology, with choices as low as $5. Didn't find anything stellar, but I appreciated the effort.

The K2 space could use some spiffing up. It's a long narrow room with a very high ceiling. Something could be done with lighting to make it more comforatble. With the brick walls and the bowling alley effect I found the space cold and unwelcoming. K has always championed local artists by displaying their works on the restaurant's walls, but the narrowness of the room doesn't allow for good viewing angles.

Still, I think K2 is on the right track. People still want to go out to eat, and they want to go to good restaurants. Instead of trading down to a chain, they can visit K2, and have some decent food and affordable prices. No, the portions aren't big, but let's face it, restaurants serve too much food on a plate as it is. On the other end, this recession may turn out to be the best thing for the American waistline since Atkins.

K2 and K Restaurant Wine Bar are at 2401 Edgewater Drive, Orlando. The phone number is 407-872-2332. View the menu at the K Restaurant Web site.


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Portobello at Downtown Disney


My experiences with the Chicago-based company have been less than stellar over the years. They all but ran Fulton’s Crab House aground, and when they took over ownership of his café, Wolfgang Puck came close to demanding they take his name off of it.

So I didn’t have high hopes when I visited Levy’s newly revamped Portobello, which did drop the words “Yacht Club” from its name, though not because of a maritime complaint.  

You may recall -- and if you do, boy, are you old! -- that when Pleasure Island first opened, everything had a theme and a story behind it. The island was the project, so the cockamamie tale went, of Merriweather Adam Pleasure who built the warehouse district for his own enjoyment, or, if you will, pleasure.

The structure that is the restaurant we speak of today was supposedly originally the home of Pleasure and his wife, Isabella. Disney, we were led to understand back in 1989 (I told you you were old!), along with Levy Restaurants had restored the old home into a yacht club. Never mind that there were no boats about, other than the faux paddlewheeler that was then called the Empress Lily, which is now home to Fulton’s Crab House. The restaurant featured Italian cuisine because of Mrs. Pleasure’s heritage and all the recipes were her own. (You may roll your eyes here, if you like.)

Portobello Yacht Club was quite good, as was Fulton’s when it first opened. The Fireworks Factory -- Merriweather fancied himself a fireworks fiend -- also run by Levy, was modestly OK. (The Fireworks Factory, which had the most un-Disneylike men’s room you could imagine, eventually became a country western bar and then was torn down for other projects I've forgotten about because I'm older than you.)

But then something happened, presumably in the ranks of Levy. Fulton’s, which once had been the best seafood restaurant in town, suddenly was only mediocre at best. And Portobello Yacht Club’s quality flagged too. I’ve already mentioned Wolfgang Puck’s reaction to the way they handled his namesake restaurant.

But the restaurant I found at Downtown Disney recently was very different from the old place.  The food was top-notch – creative interpretations of Italian dishes that were flavorful and filling. And I suddenly find myself able to once again recommend it as a destination. What a treat to have a restaurant to suggest for before or after a La Nouba performance.

My companion and I put ourselves in the hands of chef Steven Richard for the evening. Richard developed the menu in concert with Tony Mantuano, a James Beard Award-winning chef from Levy’s Chicago restaurant Spiaggia.

We started with an array of antipasti, including bresaola, capicolla, lentil salad, roasted beets, Gorgonzola, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and crostini with ricotta and honey. All were good, though the cheeses might have been better if they hadn’t  been so cold.

The restaurant is pushing its sambuca shrimp appetizer as a signature item, even presenting a recipe card upon seating. It featured four large shrimp on a layer of paper-thin sliced potatoes in a small iron Portobello skillet doused with liqueur and flambéed. Good, though I don’t quite understand the push to sell them (other than the price -- $13.95 – fetches nearly $3.75 per shrimp!).

Our pasta course featured ravioli gigante, distinctive in their size, which was comparable to a cocktail napkin, the creamy ricotta and spinach filling and the tangy tomato sauce.

The main course was a massive porterhouse steak, presented sliced in a skillet, the strip side sufficiently steaky in texture and the tenderloin side creamy tender. We also sampled the grilled lobster, presented split, sweet meat with a smoky note. There was, however, a preponderance of rosemary – and this from someone who adores rosemary.

Dessert brought a chunky tiramisu and a smooth crème brulee, though the server preferred to call it something else because creme brulee isn’t Italian.

The atmosphere is a little more bustling and informal than when it was the Portobello Yacht Club. The restaurant is sectioned into separate dining areas but each is open to the other, so there is an expansive feel. The decor gives more of a Tuscan steakhouse sort of feel. It’s a little less formal, though white tablecloths keep it from sinking into too casual a mood.

Speaking of sinking, the reason the restaurant is now known simply as Portobello is that when Disney closed Pleasure Island there was no reason to keep up with the whole legend from the past. Taking Yacht Club off the name removed any need to keep explaining the absence of yachts.

Our server was capable and knowledgeable, able to answer questions with authority. I was also impressed with the manager, who did more than just stand around and watch (I actually saw him wiping down countertops in the restroom!).

It’s that kind of dedication that makes a restaurant work.

I can’t wait to see if they’re working that hard at Fulton’s and Puck’s.

El Coqui Mexicano

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I was a little hesitant when I suggested to a friend that we meet for lunch at El Coqui Mexicano. The last time I attempted a rendezvous at the little cafe, back toward the end of January, my friend and I were greeted with a hastily drawn sign on the front door that announced the restaurant would be closed until the end of the month.

Right, I thought. It's been my experience that whenever a sign like that appears on a door it means the owners have no intention of repening, and are usually several states away by the time anyone notices.

But El Coqui is open once again, and I've come to understand that the impromptu closing was the owners' unusual way of  doing things. It wouldn't be the most unusual thing, and certainly not the most annoying, but I'll come back to that in a moment.

For the most part I enjoyed my visit to El Coqui, which is named for a tree frog common to Puerto Rico. Oh, that's another unusual thing about this place -- not that it's named for a tree frog but that a place called El Coqui Mexicano would feature Puerto Rican food.

But that's a nod to the heritage of its two owners, Rico and Evelyn Martinez. Rico, despite what you might guess from his name, is from Mexico; Evelyn is from Puerto Rico. So the menu has food from both lands. They're separate on the compact menu, rather than presented as fusion cuisine, although that could certainly be interesting. If they ever try it, I think they should trademark the term Mexi-Rico.

I was in the mood for Mexican, and the huevos rancheros caught my eye immediately, and not just because it was the first entry on the menu board on the back wall. I just happen to love huevos rancheros, and so few places offer it that I usually grab it whenever I can.

But our server mentioned another dish, guarache, which seemed to have all the things I like about huevos rancheros with the added attraction of beefsteak. That's what I ordered.

My friend requested the chilaquiles, four tubes of crisply deep-fried tortillas rolled with shredded chicken inside. They were topped with a mildly spicy green tomatillo sauce and slathered with sour cream and white cheese.

My friend generously shared the chilaquiles, which was fortunate because it was several minutes more before my entree would be brought to the table -- just another unusual way of doing things here (but still not the oddest thing).

The guarache was delicious. Two seemingly fresh-made tortillas provided the foundation for refried beans, a thin beefsteak and two fried eggs, topped with the same toppings as the chilaquiles but more of them, especially the fresco queso.

El Coqui is a charming and compact place. Originally intended, I was told, to serve only as a takeout restaurant, tall tables and chairs were added when folks showed no intention of taking their food elsewhere. The walls and ceiling panels are painted in bright colors, and paintings of the restaurant's namesake adorn the walls. It is a very neat, clean space in every sense.

During our meal, my guest and I sipped our diet sodas. These were not our first choice. We had both requested only a glass of water. But our server told us the only water they served was bottled water. That's right: El Coqui will not serve its guests tap water. Buy something or go thirsty. According to a source at the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, there is no law that says a restaurant has to give its patrons free water. Though not to do so is simply lousy customer service. But I must add that the overall attitude of everyone there is welcoming and friendly. Still, in nearly 21 years of reviewing restaurants I never came across this one (even Ronnie's gave its patrons a glass of water!).

But, as I said, they tend to do things differently here. And the prices are quite low, so you can afford to buy some liquid refreshment. The chilaquiles were $7 and at $12 my guarache was the most expensive thing on the menu (my friend was buying!).

El Coqui Mexicano is at 2406 E. Washington St., Orlando (just east of Bumby Avenue behind a small bookstore). The restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday until 7 p.m. each day, but don't hold me to that. On Sundays you can find the owners selling food at the farmers market at Lake Eola. The cafe's phone number is 407-601-4928. There is no Web site.

Aroma Italian Cafe

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Aroma Italian Cafe and Wine Bar has Surprisingly Good Food

I say surprisingly because Aroma is housed in a little slip of a place that you wouldn't think could possibly muster up anything more than some ciabatta slathered with marinara and melted mozzarella. But the food here is not only substantial, it's also quite good.

"Housed," by the way, is the appropriate word because Aroma is in what used to be someone's home on Washington Street.

This is not the first time I've written about Aroma. I reviewed it in a Chow Hound column for the Orlando Sentinel almost exactly one year ago in the Dec. 14 issue of Calendar. Back then it was known as Aroma Coffee & Wine Bar, and was a new venture by the former owners of Babbo Italian restaurant on Edgewater Drive (which is now the Fonzo brothers' Nonna).

The new owners of Aroma, Jeff and Gloria Pattishall, have dropped coffee from the name and are focusing on the Italian cafe and wine bar aspects. And the food that I sampled recently indicates they're wise to do so.

It should be mentioned that this still isn't much of a restaurant, or even a cafe, in terms of service and overall experience, though don't get me wrong -- the Pattishall's are lovely hosts, it's just that the service is more casual. The tables are small, more suited to glasses of wine and small plates of appetizers than full-sized dinner plates. But there are bigger tables on the terrace out front, which is a nice place to people-watch in charming Thornton Park.

I liked Eustacchio's lentil soup, though I don't have the foggiest notion who the heck Eustacchio is. (The menu has a picture of an older man next to the soup entry, so we'll just assume that's Eust himself.) The soup was an entree-sized serving with multiple levels of flavors and lots of little lentils with fresh veggies. I thought it was a bit pricy at $9.95, but it did include a small salad and lots of fresh ciabatta bread.

(I asked Gloria who made the bread, though I knew the answer before she confirmed it -- Olde Hearth continues to make the finest breads in the area.)

One of my companions had lasagna, house-made with layers of perfectly al dente pasta and rich red sauce, with meatballs and sausage blended in.

The penne served with another companion's Italian sausage plate was not as nicely cooked. It was a bit over-boiled and had a mealy texture. But the sausage was wonderful, with terrific spicy notes. The meatball entree was tasty too.

It would be wrong to say that Aroma is a welcome addition to the neighborhood since it's been around for over a year. But let's just say the Pattishalls are a welcome addition to the neighborhood, and they're bound to make Aroma -- and Thornton Park -- an even better place to eat and drink.

Aroma is at 712 E. Washington Street, Orlando. The hours are 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday (as long as there are people there, they tell me, or else they'll close earlier), and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. The phone number is 407-426-8989. The cafe does not have a Web site yet, but you can download the menu pdf right here. icon Download the new Aroma Italian Cafe menu (227.9 kB)

We had started with the antipasto misto, which had olrives, roasted red peppers, wonderful hunks of asiago and parmesan cheeses, as well as fresh mozzarella, with prosciutto and salami. It was a feast in itself.

The wine list is extensive given the size of the place, and there are dozens of selections by the glass, which is how it should be in a wine bar.

Brick & Fire Pizza and Pasta Parlor

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Brick & Fire Pizza and Pasta Parlor

It looks like Brick & Fire has found the perfect home.Brick & Fire Pizza and Pasta Parlor

You may remember Brick & Fire when it was located inside Church Street Station until late last year. Or, you may not remember, because precious few people found their way to that part of downtown during the obstructive construction of 55 West. But even without that distraction, there were other factors that prevented Brick & Fire from finding its niche.

A couple of those reasons had to do with Cameron Kuhn. B&F owner Mark Dollard has had a few concepts in that space, including the promising Absinthe Bistro. But when Kuhn bought the entertainment and dining complex, he dictated, according to Dollard, that if he wanted to stay he would have to offer a pizza concept. That was an element that was missing in the complex. And, said Dollard, Kuhn wanted it to be more upscale, so he wanted it to be called Brick & Fire Pizza and Wine Co.. The wine just made it oh so much more appealing, don't you agree?

Dollard complied, and when I reviewed Brick & Fire for the Sentinel last April, I thought he was doing a pretty good job. I especially liked the pizza, which had the appropriate elasticity in the crust, and was browned just right from the oven, an actual brick oven with real fire, just as the name promised.

But then Kuhn started having financial difficulties, and Church Street Station went into a bankruptcy situation. Dollard, like all the other restaurant and retail owners on the block, found himself in limbo. With a combination of poor traffic, an unsure future, and a present that included rent of $34,000 a month, Dollard decided to finally cut bait on Church Street. Over the course of just a few days in November, he and business partner John Dobson moved the business to a stand-alone building on South Orange Avenue near the Orlando Health medical complex. By all accounts, it seems to have been a very smart move.

The building  doesn't have the provenance of Church Street Station -- ironically, it started life as a Pizza Hut, but most recently it held a Moe's Southwestern fast fooder -- but it has a casual atmosphere that suits Dollard's cuisine quite nicely. This is your basic pizza joint. And with no one to dictate what they must call the restaurant, Dollard and Dobson dropped the Wine Co. and added Pasta Parlor.

I stopped in recently and ordered the four meat pizza pie, one that I had enjoyed at the old location. But being extra hungry, my companion and I asked our server what we could get super fast while we waited for the pie to bake. She suggested an appetizer order of the beef & pork meatballs. I'm glad she did. The meaty balls were compact and well-spiced, and the marinara sauce they swam in was piquant with bright flavors.

The pizza arrived and it was good -- loaded up with pepperoni, salami, capicola and sausage with meatballs and more good sauce. But there was something slightly different about this pie when compared to the one Dollard cooked on Church Street. He told me there was indeed a difference but it had nothing to do with the ingredients. The variance was the result of different ovens. The Church Street location had a $40,000 oven; this location had a less expensive, standard pizza oven, perhaps left over from the Pizza Hut days. It made a difference, but not so much as to detract from the overall result. Brick & Fire still serves a damn good pizza even without Bricks or Fire.

There is, by the way, still wine, even though it isn't part of the official name anymore. The offerings aren't stellar, but the prices are impressive: how about $1.99 for a glass of house wine? It isn't the most generous pour, but still, that's pretty good.

And the alcohol selections will remain only beer and wine. On Church Street Brick & Fire had a full liquour bar. Dollard and Dobson had planned to have a full bar in their new location. But when they saw that families made up a good portion of their clientele, they decided to scrap those plans.

For his part, Dollard seems much happier now. And why wouldn't he? He went from $34,000/ month rent to $4,000/month. And he has a lot more customers. And the customers are happy because they can park next door to the restaurant -- for free -- and have good food in a friendly atmosphere. Everybody wins.

Except Church Street Station.

Brick & Fire is at 1621 S. Orange Ave., Orlando. Lunch and dinner is served daily. Pasta dishes range from $9.95 to $12.95; pizzas are the same prices for 10-inch pies, $17.95-$23.95 for 16-inchers. The phone number is 407-426-8922. More infor and a look at the menu at Brick & Fire's Web site.

Ocean Prime

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Ocean Prime serves seafood and steaks on Restaurant Row

This is a review of Ocean Prime that I wrote for the current issue of Orlando Style magazine. Note: Ocean Prime will be closed all day Super Bowl Sunday.

Ocean PrimeOcean Prime, an elegant supper club, is the latest tenant to open in the Rialto, a new development on Sand Lake Road’s Restaurant Row. The name is meant to convey the restaurant’s specialties: seafood (Ocean) and steaks (Prime).

It’s difficult to consider Ocean Prime without drawing comparisons to the Oceanaire Seafood Room at Pointe Orlando. Both offer a more upscale dining experience. In terms of décor and overall ambience, I’d give the edge to Ocean Prime. 

The main dining room features warm wood walls with huge five-foot portholes that look through to the lounge area. (The dining room has its own bar for more intimate imbibing, a nice touch.) Touches of blue neon and a soft glow from drumlike light fixtures offer romantic notes, and white tablecloths and candles with frosted shades add a touch of elegance.

But in terms of the food, the kitchen has not quite reached its prime. 

My guest and I started with the chef’s selection of East and West Coast oysters, which netted us two from each coast for a $12 charge. The person who delivered the bivalves could only tell us which side of the country they came from and was unable to narrow their origins further. The presentation was less than stellar, and the oysters themselves were rather puny.

(And by the way, the chef of the chef's selection is Todd Baggett, who is known to restaurant-goers in Central Florida from a number of venues, including the Boheme in downtown Orlando, Wolfgang Puck Cafe at Downtown Disney, Beluga at Winter Park Village and, just down the road from his new home, Moonfish.)

A “surf n turf” appetizer had lovely sea scallops and boneless short ribs plopped together in a smallish bowl with way too mashed potatoes. Good scallops, good ribs, bad presentation.

Onion soup was distinguished by a near lack of broth under heavy cheese; she-crab soup had a slight astringency and was not nearly as rich as it should have been.

I went the prime route with my entrée, choosing the ribeye, a gorgeous piece of meat cooked just right but unfortunately over salted.

Blackened swordfish, listed as a chef’s specialty, was a very nice hunk of fish, deftly cooked but fairly mundane. Wilted spinach and jalapeno corn tartar didn’t add much to the dish.

Desserts feature such creations as chocolate peanut butter pie, crème brulee and baked Alaska, which I’ve seen only on one other menu in town: the one at Oceanaire.

Service was professional and thorough, and once the kitchen makes the right improvements, Ocean Prime will be a good choice.

Ocean Prime is at the Rialto/Orlando, 7339 W. Sand Lake Road, Orlando. Dinner is served nightly. The phone number is 407-781-4880. Here's the Web address, but a workplace warning: the Web site plays loud music.

Bravo! Cucina Italiana

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Bravo! Cucina Italiana

Restaurant Row is expanding westward beyond the Marketplace at Dr. Phillips Boulevard, its traditional boundary. And as it does, it takes on a decidedly Italian flair. Newly constructed strip malls give one the impression that a Venetian look was what the designers had in mind. Even the streets have Italian-sounding names, like Via Dellagio Way (well, the first two words sound Italian; Way, not so much).Bravo!

And in fact, Via Dellagio Way is the address of Bravo! Cucina Italiana, an Italian chain making its debut in the Orlando area, indeed in all of Florida. Sort of. When you visit Bravo! you may have the distinct feeling that you've been there before, especially if you've dined in a Brio restaurant.

Besides their names, which have several of the same letters, Brio and Bravo! also share the same owner, BDI, which stands for Bravo! Development Inc., a Columbus, Ohio, based company. The decor at Bravo! is similar to the Brios at mall at Millenia and Winter Park Village, at least to a casual observer. But according to a manager at Bravo! there are subtle differences, not only in the decor but also in the menu.

Bravo! is meant to be more casual and less expensive than Brio. Brio strives for a more Tuscan grill sort of environment, whatever that's supposed to mean. Brio's menu emphasizes more steaks than pastas; Bravo! the other way around. My most recent visits to the two Brio's were less than impressive. But my two visits to Bravo! were encouraging.

About 30-40% of the menu is the same as at Brio, according to the manager (I wonder what percentage of that includes the many items that Brio buys premade from a certain Orlando-based culinary kitchen?). Like Brio, Bravo! features several flatbread pizzas. I liked the chicken, spinach and bacon flatbread, which had creamy spinach dollops and chunks of chicken on top of a crispy crust. A sprinkling of bacon gave it a smoky flavor, applewood smoky, to be exact.

For an entree I had the lasagna, or, as it's called on the menu, Mama's lasagna Bolognese. The most impressive thing about the entree was that it was huge, easily enough for two people (and as it turns out, enough for two meals). It was also pretty tasty. The addition of Alfredo sauce gave it a texture similar to Greek moussaka -- and that's the first time I've compared a lasagna to moussaka; usually it's the other way around! There was also a hearty meat sauce, as you would expect from the presence of Bolognese in the name. (There was not, however, any Mama in it.)

Like Brio, Bravo! is a large open dining room, though not as big, with an onstage kitchen. Booths are comfy and the decor is nicer than casual, with big alabastery light fixtures and a large bar at the far end of the room. A nice feature of the restaurant is that there is another bar outside on the terrace, which overlooks -- no, not the Piazza San Marco -- Sand Lake Road below. It's a nice large patio and a pleasant place to dine when the balmy weather returns.

Service was good, not exceptional. Prices, according to the manger I spoke to, are roughly $3-$5 less than at Brio. As diners scale back during this recession, those few dollars saved will be more attractive, especially given the generous size of the portions. Pastas range from $11.99 to $15.99; other entrees are more, reaching to $25.99 for a steak. Most items, however, are well below the $20 mark.

Bravo! serves lunch and dinner daily. The address is 7924 Via Dellagio Way (one block west of Dr. Phillips Boulevard at Sand Lake Road), Orlando. The phone number is 407-351-5880. For information and menu, visit Bravo!'s Web site.

Cuba Libre

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Cuba Libre opens at Pointe Orlando

I attended a media grand opening dinner last night of Cuba Libre, an impressively elegant new restaurant and nightclub at Pointe Orlando. It's a stunning settting: a two-story space that gives one a sense of what it must have felt like to stand in a plaza in the old Havana of the 1950s. Or maybe on a movie set depicting a scene from that era anyway. Though totally indoors, it's like standing in a outdoor courtyard, with a patio for dancing and entertainment and a grand staircase leading to balcony dining. The atmosphere is truly impressive.

The food and drinks, not so much.

Everything I sampled was rather bland or, in the case of the drinks, ill-prepared. And when you consider that this was an event for the media where, presumably, the restaurant was showing its best, that's all the more disappointing.

Let's start with the drinks. The full name of the restaurant is Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar, so you'd think rum drinks would be a specialty. The bar was pushing mojitos when I arrived, but the first one I tasted was sugary sweet. I dumped that in favor of a sangria, which tasted watered down.

Then someone suggested I order a premium mojito, which I presume was made with a higher grade of rum, but that didn't help either.

So I figured I'd order the restaurant's namesake: a Cuba Libre of light rum Coca Cola and limes. It was characterless. I was on my fourth cocktail and hadn't had more than one sip out of each.

For the fifth cocktail I requested a caipirinha, which is Brazilian instead of Cuban and made with cacacha instead of rum. This one was a keeper, but no sooner did I have it in hand than we were called to the dining room.

The menu is under the direction of Guillermo Pernot, a former James Beard Award winner for Best Chef of the Mid-Atlantic States as well as a Beard cookbook award for a collection of ceviche recipes. He was also named Chef of the Year by Esquire magazine in 1999, so he's no lightweight in the kitchen. I'm wondering who's pulling him back.

We started with a salad of watercress with crumbles of Cabrales, the tangy blue cheese of Spain. Fresh, but indistinguished.

A fish course followed comprised of sea bass a la plancha a Chino-Cubano. Yes, a Chinese version of a Cuban dish, complete with fried rice and a sesame sauce. I found it rather strange, although the quality of the fish was good.

The meat course had grilled skirt steak on a sugar cane skewer paired with roast pork stuffed mofongo -- not an ingredient in the bunch that I don't love. Yet it was all almost flavorless, without any seasoning. It looks like this will be another Latin restaurant that's afraid of offending the delicate palates of tourists. That's a shame.

The entertainment was impressive. A couple of dancers performed some hot and sexy salsa steps, and a young man who appeared to be a classically trained opera singer used his wonderful voice to interpret some Latin favorites. I would go back to Cuba Libre just to hear him sing again.

I wonder if they'd let me bring in my own cocktails.

Cuba Libre is at Pointe Orlando, 9101 International Drive, Orlando. It is open nightly for dinner and late night dining. Entrees range from $18-$31.50. The phone number is 407-226-1600.

Nelore Churrascaria

Written by SJO Staff on .

Orlando has a number of churrascarias, the Brazilian-style steakhouses with the all-you-can-eat concept. The difference between a typical buffet and a churrascaria, however, is that for part of the meal the food comes to you. Among the local Brazilian steakhouses, Nelore does a terrific job.

The first part of the meal is like a regular buffet, but it’s a salad-bar on steroids. Here you’ll find various greens, dressing and other recognizable salad accouterments. But you’ll also see such things as hearts of palm, big artichoke heart bottoms, freshly sliced prosciutto, thick asparagus spears, taboule, chunks of Parmesan cheese, mozzarella, balls of red beets, earthly mushrooms and potato salad.

There are also some hot items in silver chafing dishes, including Brazilian style rice and beans, black beans, white rice, mashed potatoes, fried yuca, grilled plantains and, for reasons I cannot discern, chicken Stroganoff.

But pace yourself for the main event. Once you’ve finished with the salad items, it’s time for meat, meat, meat.

Once you’ve finished the salads you turn a small disc on your table to the green side and soon you’ll  be descended upon by servers dressed as gauchos, Brazilian cowboys with poofy pants. Don’t laugh at them because they’re carrying long pointy skewers and sharp knives. They’re also carrying the best part of the meal.

That would be the meats, and they start arriving at a dizzying pace as soon as one of the gauchos notices a green disc.

He – they were all men when I visited – asks if you would like what he is offering and upon your approval either slide it off the skewer onto your plate or slice the meat for you to grab. Don’t use your fingers; there are tiny tongs on the table for meat handling. After the gaucho slices a corner, grab it with the tongs as he slices the rest of the way through.

You’ll find sirloin and ribeye as good as you’ll find in a high-priced steakhouse. There’s also flank steak, chicken, sausages and seafood. Try as much as you’d like, have more of the best, and when you need a rest, turn the disk back over so the red side is showing – the gauchos will leave you alone.

All of this is a very reasonable $39.99, a terrific deal not only because of the volume but also because of the quality of the food.

And by the way, when the server asks if you’d like something to drink, order a caipirinha, the unofficial national cocktail of Brazil made with lime, sugar and alcohol distilled from sugar cane. Or a mojito with mint, lime and rum. Both were wonderful, quite possibly the best I’ve had of either, anywhere.