Claddagh Cottage

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Claddagh exterior

Was it ever really gone?

Any out-of-towners wandering into Claddagh Cottage Irish Pub in the last few weeks might be surprised to learn that it has been away for close to a year and a half. It thrums with the laughter and chatter of a full house, background to the lilt of traditional music, sometimes recorded, sometimes live. Despite its relative newness, it feels comfortably worn, familiar.

We in-towners know that this is a new location for Claddagh, which was forced out of its small strip mall spot to make way for a new Walgreens. (You can blame us aging Baby Boomers and our need to have a pharmacy close enough get to using a walker.) The original closed its door after a last New Year's Eve celebration Dec. 31, 2016.

Since then, owners Scott Vocca and Vicki Gish searched for a new location that wouldn't leave a loyal customer base behind, struggled with construction and permitting setbacks, and fought to get the taps flowing again.

They may not think it was worth it. I would guess if they could go back to that last New Year's Eve and were given the option to stay they would. But for all the woes and tribulations of moving and restarting, the new Claddagh Cottage, just a hair over a mile from the old spot, is better than the one it replaced.

California Tortilla

Written by Scott Joseph on .

California Tortilla ext

I find the name California Tortilla unmemorable. It's generic. Non descriptive. And the logo for the chain restaurant that opened recently in downtown Orlando isn't very helpful: it's an avocado. Also, the specialty is burritos. Oh, and despite the California designation there don't appear to be any locations in that state.

Then again, there isn't much else about the place that's all that memorable, either. Certainly not the staff, most of whom barely acknowledge a customer's existence.

AJ's Press

Written by Scott Joseph on .

AJs Press sandwich

I knew I was going to like AJ's Press the moment I stepped inside.

That's when I was welcomed, warmly and genuinely, and when, upon hearing that it was my first time there, someone shoved a Jalapeño Bacon Hush Puppy at me.

AJ's Press is, despite the name, which makes it sound like a news organization, a Longwood sandwich shop in a small strip mall near the railroad tracks. The Press part of the name refers to the device that applies heat and pressure to flatten the sandwiches, á la a Cuban sandwich.

Chef Wang's Kitchen

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Chef Wang array

The young man who was waiting to take my order at Chef Wang's Kitchen pointed helpfully (if not a little impatiently) at one of the pictured menu items. "Foreigners seem to like that one," he offered.

To understand the level of authenticity, or at least a level that rises above many westernized Chinese restaurants, you need to know that when he said foreigners he was referring to Americans.

Chef Wang interior

Chef Wang's Kitchen is located in the repurposed yet still worn looking shopping mall now known as Chinatown. The West Colonial Drive restaurant occupies a modest storefront tastefully appointed with stone-look tables and substantial dark wood chairs (sturdy enough for any foreigners who come in).

Rustic Table

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Park Station exterior

Park Station was the name of the restaurant that opened in 2015 at 212 Park Ave. N. in Winter Park. The restaurant that is there now is called Rustic Table. The name is the only real change here.

It's the same owners, same concept. Even the menu is basically the same. So why the name change? I couldn't hazard a guess. Well, I could, but it would just be conjecture based on hearsay. Suffice to say that the owner felt a need to do so.

As with my review of Park Station in October of 2015, my experience at Rustic Station...I mean Table was a mostly pleasant one. The food was good, service was amiable, and the chance to dine at a sidewalk table on Park Avenue added allure.

Wonton Asian Kitchen

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Wonton exterior

Wonton Asian Kitchen has all of the trappings of being a chain restaurant, including the good things that can be, such as a standardized and well-thought-out design and a regimented system for ordering and preparing.

Unfortunately, that can also mean roboticized staffers and lifeless food.

I observed all of the above at the Winter Park restaurant before discovering that it is not a chain. At least not yet. I'd bet just about anything that the owners have visions of multi-unit sales in their dreams.

Ali Baba's Deli

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Ali Baba ext

I'm pretty sure the first puppet show I ever saw, and most likely the first theatrical production of any type, was "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," performed by a professional traveling troupe that had set up in the gymnasium of Garfield Elementary School in Moline, Ill. I was probably 8 or 9. I think we were told it was the Bil Baird Marionettes, but I doubt that was true.

I don't remember much about it except the Open Sesame line and the horribly gruesome deaths of the thieves who had boiling oil poured over them as they hid in large pottery jars. I still have nightmares. And I'm fairly certain that some of the other grisly plot lines were omitted, such as Ali's brother being quartered and the chunks left outside the thieves' den as a warning. And Ali Baba still gets top billing even though it was the slave girl Morgiana who saved the day; it was she who poured the boiling oil into the jars. (Hey, Disney: next animated princess alert!)

None of this has anything to do with Ali Baba's Deli, but you try coming up with an opening for a review after you've written more than four thousand of them.

Enzo's Hideaway

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Hideaway interior

In terms of splashiness and go-for-the-awe design and decor, Enzo's Hideaway, from Patina Restaurant Group, offers much less than its sister restaurants at Disney Springs. Morimoto Asia has an opulent two-story dining room with elegant chandeliers; The Edison resides in what was supposed to have been an abandoned power producing facility, and Maria & Enzo's has the dramatic effect of a grand old airline terminal with large windows overlooking the lagoon.

Enzo's Hideaway has no windows and no double-height ceilings. It's dark and slightly dank and several of the walls are covered in graffiti. I enjoyed myself here more than at the others.

Which is not to say that I don't like the other restaurants; I do. But I think the absence of splash and distractions allows one to focus more on the food here. And the food here is really quite good.

Tartine

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Tartine interior

How could I not order something called a Tallow Candle? Tallow is a more lyrical name for lard, and the very thought of it whisked me back to a bar in Firenze that listed lardo as one its bar snacks. And it was just what it promised: little chunks of lard to put on a cracker or slice of bread. With each bite it was like saying, "Here it comes, arteries; deal with it."

Tartine tallow

A Tallow Candle, as presented at Tartine in College Park, sounded like a more inventive presentation. And it was. Essentially, the tallow was in the form of a tea candle with a lighted wick that was to melt the lard into a spreadable goo. Unfortunately, unless you're willing to wait a long time, the flame is insufficient to melt the lard. And it wasn't really worth the wait. But I appreciated the effort.

Maria & Enzo's

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Maria and Enzos balcony still

Grand is a word that might come to mind when you enter Maria & Enzo's Ristorante, one of a few new dining venues that opened recently at Disney Springs.

Although guests enter the building from street level (or walkway level, as the case may be), they walk past the host stand to discover themselves standing on a mezzanine overlooking the vast dining room below, accessed by a sweeping staircase. The far wall is comprised of two-story floor to ceiling windows with a commanding view of the lagoon outside. It reminds me a little of the opulence of La Coquina, the late lamented fine dining venue at Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress, but on a larger scale. It's among the most impressive dining venues in Central Florida.