Ruth's Chris

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Orlando’s first Ruth’s Chris Steak House opened in 1990 in the very odd location of the second floor of the  Interior Décor Center on Douglas Avenue in Altamonte Springs. It was a beautiful restaurant with trappings befitting the upscale chain.
The food, however, was disappointing. Steaks were overcooked, steaks were undercooked, food was greasy, food was dry. And it was then, as it is now, expensive.
When I reported my findings, the founder and owner, Ruth Fertel, was furious. She took out a half-page ad disputing my review and touting the restaurant’s emphasis on quality. In the meantime, she dispatched her “kitchen Gestapo,” a term used by her publicist, from the headquarters near New Orleans to the Orlando restaurant where they found the ovens had not been properly calibrated, which explained the miscooked steaks.
Things got better, though to my mind never good enough to be considered the best steakhouse in the area. The original Central Florida location closed in the summer of ’99 and later that year a new Ruth’s Chris opened in Winter Park Village. A couple of years after that a second area Ruth’s opened on the nascent Restaurant Row.
Then, following the devastation of hurricane Katrina to the New Orleans area, Ruth’s Chris Steak House corporation moved its headquarters to Lake Mary (although the company’s Web site says it lives in Orlando). And not far from the home office, a newly built flagship restaurant has opened. It’s a large building, sufficiently upscale though devoid of the usual steakhouse trappings of dark woods and red carpets. The main dining room has a high, rounded ceiling that has the effect of being inside a Quonset hut. Along the sides of the room are cubby-hole booths scalloped into the walls. The décor has a post-modern feel.
I wonder what Ruth would think.
Fertel died in 2002, and in August of 2005, just two weeks before the storm, Ruth’s Chris became a publicly traded company on NASDAQ. It seems the staff has the concerns of the shareholders in mind. A meal at Ruth’s has always been an expensive proposition, but my recent experiences at the Lake Mary restaurant were clouded by instances of strong-arm sales tactics obviously designed to increase the company’s bottom line.
For example, on my first visit my party of six had no sooner been seated than a young woman appeared tableside holding two large bottles. She announced that we had a choice between sparkling water and still, and then without so much as taking a breath she said she would start with the ladies and asked one of my guests which one she preferred. I intervened – it turns out we also had the choice of tap water.
A few minutes later I ordered an array of appetizers for the table. The waiter congratulated me on my choices but said I had failed to order his favorite, the calamari, which he proceeded to describe in detail. When he was finished, he asked if I wanted to amend my order to include the squid. I didn’t anticipate him joining our group, so I didn’t find it necessary to order his favorite appetizer.
Instead, we made do with “osso buco”  ravioli ($11.95), crab cakes ($17.95), shrimp remoulade ($14.95) and barbecue shrimp ($11.50). The ravioli were wonderful, saffron-infused pasta pillows filled with a creamy blend of veal and mozzarella. And both shrimp dishes were good, based on large, firm yet tender shrimp. But the crab cakes, at nearly nine bucks, each a disappointment.
I did order the calamari ($12.95) on another visit just to see how fabulous it might be. It wasn’t. The fried squid were doused with a sweetish Thai chili sauce that rendered the breading a soggy mess.
Whoever is in charge of cooking the steaks in Ruth’s newest kitchen, he or she must have a special affinity for New York strip ($37.95). On both visits those cuts were cooked perfectly, and the meat showed itself to be of such quality as to warrant the cost. The person trimming the meat, however, needs to do a better job. The second steak had a gristly tail of fat that really should have been cut off prior to cooking.
Ribeye ($35.95) was another good cut, a beautifully juicy and well-marbled piece of meat. But something was terribly wrong with my t-bone ($44.95). Although it was cooked to the requested medium-rare, it tasted as though it had been seasoned with lighter fluid.
One of my guests had the lobster tail ($38.95), a laughably small sliver of otherwise sweet meat. And the lamb chops ($36.95) had a delightful gaminess that is all too often missing from domesticated lamb. The veal chop ($30.95), a milky textured and juicy cut grilled and topped with sweet peppers, did not fail to satisfy.
But a fish selection of halibut ($34.95) topped with garlic bread crumbs had to be sent back to the kitchen because it was undercooked.
Desserts were hit and miss. Banana cream pie ($7.70) seemed as though something was missing, but bread pudding ($7.45), a perfectly custardized slice topped with a sweet whiskey sauce, hit all the right notes.
On the visit with the miscooked fish, the manager appeared to give his apology and  offer to remove the cost of both entrees from the check. Had the critic been spotted? Perhaps, but the level of training and customer service at Ruth’s has always been such that I would like to think the same would have been done for any guest. And that’s what makes the attempts to “upsell” – a word one of my waiters actually used – all the more galling. Most people come here for a special occasion, and they know they’ll spend a lot of money. It shouldn’t be necessary to squeeze them for more.

Fancy steakhouses lure cash-strapped customers with high-quality burgers

Written by Scott Joseph on .

fleming's burgerHigh-end steakhouses are finding that fewer people are willing to shell out $30 to $40 for their slabs of marbled meat these days. The recession has provided variations on the “Champagne tastes on a beer budget” theme.

But people still go out to eat, and they still prefer meat. So what do you do if you’re a Fleming’s or a Ruth’s Chris or a Morton’s? You can’t buy a lesser grade of meat and expect to maintain your reputation for high-quality beef; and you can’t reduce your prices drastically enough to attract more business, at least not with the expectation that once the recession is over you can blithely raise them again.

But you can add something to your menu, something people love, something that will satisfy carnivorous cravings. And something you don’t have to charge and arm and a hindquarter for.

So that’s why the steakeries mentioned above -- and a few other restaurants -- have added burgers to their repertoires.

Hamburger -- it’s the new steak.

Great burgers of Central Florida

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Here's my list of places that serve a terrific burger:

The Tap Room at Dubsdread was a winner of the critic’s award for best burger when I was handing out the Foodies and it still does a terrific job.

The Ravenous Pig was the winner of the first SJO vote for best burger. It’s a good version, too, though a lot of people get it just so they can have the truffled fries, which are indeed quite tasty.

Hue Restaurant, the trendy Thornton Park hot spot, serves a surprisingly good burger, one that is good enough to be a contender for any burger award out there. I'm not kidding!

I’ve had an on-again, off-again love affair for the burger at Johnny’s Fillin’ Station for a number of years. Currently it’s on-again. This bar at the corner of Michigan Street and Fern Creek Avenue cooks up a big, fat juicy burger that is perfect -- until one day I go in and it’s not. Catch them on a good day and it’s still an award winner.

The Pit is another neighborhood kind of bar that has its sites set on toppling Johnny’s burger. The Pit has one that includes a fried egg (and by the way, Johnny’s Fillin' Station's newest entity, Johnny's Other Side, recently added such a burger to its repertoire).

And of course there’s Hamburger Mary’s, the happy little spot on Church Street that is all burgers all the time. Hard to go wrong there.

And a fairly new addition to the Thornton Park neighborhood, Graffiti Junktion, also manages a good-sized burger in a decidedly wild atmosphere that is more bar than restaurant.

A Land Remembered

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Today we’re visiting Rosen Shingle Creek’s A Land Remembered, a moniker so vague that in most references the hotel feels it necessary to add Steakhouse after the name. Of course, if we’re going to talk about strange names we could start with Shingle Creek, but let’s just let that one go for now.
A Land Remembered gets its name from the title of a novel by Patrick Smith, a Merritt Island writer. A Land Remembered (Pineapple Press, Inc.), first published in 1984 and still in print, is the story of three generations of a pioneer family in Florida. I have not read the book so I don’t know if there’s a logical reason to name a steakhouse after the novel. Perhaps the pioneer family were cattle ranchers. And, to be fair, there is a restaurant in Cross Creek called The Yearling, but at least there you have the possible connection of venison.
Anyway, the name doesn’t bother me as much as the designation, because of all the things I liked about A Land Remembered – and I liked quite a bit about it – the steaks were the least of it. But a lovely atmosphere, first-rate service and an extensive menu under the direction of chef James Slattery make this a dining experience worth recommending.
The best entrée I sampled was the prime rib ($36), a 24-ounce cut that was so large it looked as though it could tip over Fred Flintstone’s car. And just as impressive as its size were its buttery texture and mouth-filling flavor. It was topped with fresh horseradish shavings and served with creamy horseradish sauce and meat juices. For some reason prime rib is difficult to find in Central Florida. It’s nice to have a place that does it so well.
But then look at the New York strip paired with twin lobster tails in the Land Remembered surf and turf ($85; and shouldn’t that be Land and Sea Remembered?). The strip was surprisingly thin and looked more like a piece of meat you’d be served in a family-style restaurant, not an upscale one like this and not in a place that prides itself a steakhouse. The outside of the steak was gray, not charred, and the inside was, not so surprising given the thickness, a bit overcooked.
But then look at the lobster tails that came with it, two lovely South African morsels, beautiful grilled and with plenty of sweet meat to dip in the pure, melted butter.
On another visit I had the porterhouse ($48), a much better steak in quality and taste, this time with a seared and well-seasoned crust but still a tad overdone. Side items are an extra eight bucks each – yes, even at the prices charged. The baked potato was sufficiently “meaty,” and Vidalia onions were also good, but outrageously overpriced given the small serving.
I was disappointed with the crab cake appetizer ($15). The crabmeat was shredded and stringy and there was too much filler. Steak tartare ($18) was unevenly chopped and had a bit more mustard in the mix than was necessary.
I liked the Gator Creek stew ($8), aptly described by a server as a Manhattan-style clam chowder with gator meat instead of clams.
For dessert there was a wonderful bread pudding ($12) with a crisped crust over a creamy textured custard. The banana cream pie ($12), on the other hand, was a post-modern version with tiny amounts of the cream filling, gelatin and chocolate between two triangular wafers.
I have nothing but praise for the serving staff. The waiters and assistants were diligent, attentive, anticipatory and precise. The wine list is thorough and has some very nice selections by the glass.
A Land Remembered is in the clubhouse of the resort’s golf course, just steps from the main hotel building. It’s a comfortable space, not too big yet spacious enough that tables were far enough apart to afford privacy. Massive beams cross the high ceiling, but even with the expanse the noise level is low. The sound system plays lovely music from a bygone era. Seating is at booths and tables and lighting is provided mainly by some rather odd lampposts that features something like palm fronds or maybe ferns and lampshades with ball tassles. You have to see them. Tables are covered with nice linens – at these prices they can afford the laundry bill.
It is, ultimately, too overpriced. That will deter some people and perhaps attract others. And it’s sure to make the meal memorable.

A Land Remembered is at Rosen Shingle Creek, 9939 Universal Blvd., Orlando. It is open for dinner nightly (call first, they've been known to shut down if there aren't many advance reservations). The phone number is 407-996-3663. Here's a link to the Web site.

Surf Bar & Grill

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Bernard has left Bernard’s Surf.
In truth, there hasn’t been a Bernard at the Cocoa Beach restaurant since the ‘60s. The real news is that the seafood landmark on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Minuteman Causeway is no longer owned by a member of the Fischer family. Rusty Fischer, whose uncle Bernard opened the restaurant on October 30, 1948, sold the restaurant in November.
The new owners are Tomas Saronja and Niko Mihatovic, both natives of Croatia. Saronja has a restaurant and hospitality background with Radisson; Mihatovic is a real estate investor. (And it should be mentioned that I own a condominium in a complex that Mihatovic developed.)
The terms of the sale stipulated that the name of Fischer’s uncle come off the building, and so now it is simply The Surf Bar & Grill. Yet it clings to the history that has made it the destination restaurant of the Space Coast for so many decades.
Saronja and Mihatovic have made only minor changes, both in décor and on the menu. Many old menu items remain, as do for that matter many of the staff who have cooked and served them over the years. And while there are aspects of the dining experience that would prevent it from being a top-tier restaurant if it were located in Orlando, the food is good enough to qualify it as one of the better restaurants on the Central Florida coast, and not just by default.
Seafood is still a prime focus here, and the pompano amandine ($25.99) was one of my favorites. It featured a grilled fillet topped with slivers of almonds toasted under a broiler so the edges had just started to turn a deep brown. The nutty taste was a nice counterpoint to the flaky white flesh of the moist fish.
Raspberry tuna ($26.99), which I’ll admit sounds horrible, was actually quite enjoyable. The seared steak, cooked medium-rare at the request of my guest, was topped with a raspberry sauce that appropriately unsweet. Instead, the fruit added just the right grace note to the fresh-tasting tuna.
While seafood is a forte, nonfish items are not given short shrift. Blue cheese crusted filet mignon ($26.99), a holdover from the previous menu, was a lovely steak topped with a tangy blue cheese sauce that gave it a wonderfully salty edge. And the prime rib ($22.99) was a gorgeous 22-ounce cut with an herbed crust and juicy, tender meat. It was served au jus with creamy horseradish sauce on the side.
Scallops mignon ($9.99) was a satisfying appetizer. Big, plump scallops were surrounded by rashers of bacon, grilled just long enough to cook the bacon and served with a touch of teriyaki sauce. The crab cake, ($7.99), however, had too much breading and not nearly enough crab. Fried calamari ($7.99), on the other hand, had only the slightest bit of breading covering the rings of squid, which were fried perfectly so that the breading was a light brown but the calamari hadn’t become chewy.
Dinners come with a salad, which can be upgraded to a Caesar for an additional $4.99. The menu touts tableside preparation for the Caesar, and indeed it is assembled there. But it seemed the server was only making a show of it, grinding a clove of garlic in the wooden bowl then adding the romaine lettuce and previously-made dressing. My salad tasted primarily of raw garlic.
Bernard’s Surf was one part of three entities that also included Fisher’s Seafood and Rusty’s Seafood & Oyster Bar. Now it’s just The Surf Bar & Grill on one side and, down a couple of steps from the bar, The Surf Seafood & Oyster Bar. When I stopped in at the informal oyster bar one afternoon, I found a lone bartender laboriously shucking oysters, each one taking about a full minute to coax open. Although she looked up and saw me, she did not acknowledge my presence. Seeing that she had a long way to go to complete a dozen, I decided to leave and go to the bar next door. As far as I know, the menu was the same, and I figured I was better off there as long as I didn’t order any raw oysters.
I had a cup of clam chowder ($3.99), which had a not-too-floury base and lots of al dente potatoes, and a grouper sandwich ($9.99), a good-sized fillet on a soft bun.
Although The Surf boasts several longtime servers, the overall quality of service is lackadaisical. But that’s likely just a side effect of being in a beach town.
The main dining room has fresh paint and new lighting, but it seemed that renovations were still in progress. Tablecloths have been added but I never had the feeling I was in a fine dining venue.
One piece of the old décor has been kept: a window etched with the old name and photos of the restaurant. It’s the old photos, which can still be seen on the restaurant’s Web site, that give the place a sense of history. The parades of astronaut heroes in open convertibles riding by remind us that these pioneers lived, worked and dined in Cocoa Beach and Cape Canaveral. I thought it poignant that my first visit was on the evening of a recent shuttle launch. The young woman who seated me asked if I had seen it go off, when I told her I had she just shrugged and said it was no big deal to her because she grew up watching them.
Luckily, there are still people who don’t take the past for granted.

The Surf Bar & Grill is at 2 S. Atlantic Ave. (Minuteman Causeway), Cocoa Beach. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. Here's a link to the Web site. The phone number is 321- 783-2401.

Nonna Trattoria ed Enoteca

Written by Scott Joseph on .

I wonder how many Central Floridians, or even College Parkers in particular, remember when the restaurant at 1710 Edgewater Drive was known as Joann’s Chili Bordello? I have a hard time wiping it from my memory because the dining room, which was the living room of an old home, had thick shag carpeting that was so greasy-filthy that I had to eat my entire lunch with my feet raised off the floor.
It’s been a long while since that restaurant of ill repast darkened the dining scene. It closed in the ‘90s, and five other eateries – all using the restored wood flooring, thank you very much – have called the old house home since then.
The most recent occupant, and longest lasting of the group, was Babbo, a casual wine bar and trattoria that was owned and operated by some of the original owners of Bravissimo on Shine Avenue. It never set its aim too high and therefore was usually on the mark. It was a comfortable, reliable place to get a bite to eat, if not to dine.
The new tenants want to change that, it would seem.
Kevin Fonzo of K Restaurant and Wine Bar a few blocks to the north, has taken over the restaurant and renamed it Nonna Trattoria ed Enoteca. This time he’s taken a partner with whom he has shared a house before: his brother Greg. A sister, Lori, also works at the restaurant as the bookkeeper.
The Brothers Fonzo have kept the Italian theme started by the Babbo owners but seem to be striving for a more ambitious menu from what I recall of Babbo’s bill of fare. Still, there isn’t anything on the regular dinner menu priced over $21, something that will surprise fans of K, where entrees range from $24 to $36.
Nonna’s menu lists its appetizers as primi rather than antipasti, and entrees are grouped under carne and pesche instead of secondi. The best dishes I sampled here were the starters, and primo they were.
I loved the frito misto ($10), which had calamari, white fish and shrimp in lightweight jackets of crisply fried breading, served with a tangy lemon aioli.
“Our family” meatballs ($6), parentheses provided by the Fonzos, were bocci ball-sized orbs of beef, veal and pork, culled from a recipe of the boys’ nonna, or grandmother, although Kevin says he’s tweaked the recipe to use three meats instead of two and uses more bread. The result is a firm but not dry meatball that was delicious in the piquant tomato sauce with melted mozzarella.
Lobster sambuca risotto ($12) was a deftly executed dish with nutty nuggets of rice and huge, succulent hunks of lobster meat. I would have been thoroughly satisfied with this as my entrée.
In fact it would have been better than the pan-fried breaded veal Milanese ($21) I had on my first visit. Veal Milanese is one of my favorite Italian dishes, mainly because I love the tangy taste of arugula against the milky flavor of tender veal. But the Nonna version was virtually arugula free. A sprinkling of parsley (!) appeared to have been used as a substitute, and the meat was topped with a green olive relish, which had no business being there at all. But a proper presentation wouldn’t have saved this one because the breading was soggy, too.
Roast pork tenderloin (418), on the other hand, was a delicious offering of tender medallions in a mushroom and balsamic sauce, accompanied by gorgonzola infused polenta.
Sauteed swordfish ($21) was a tad dry, but I liked the preparation, which includedroast eggplant, fennel, tomato and artichokes, sauteed with white wine and olive oil.
I also tried the fiocchi ($14) from the list of pastas. This dish would not have satisfied as a stand-alone entrée, but the fontina cheese, and prosciutto tossed with the white beans and escarole made for a tasty side dish.
I enjoyed the desserts I tried. The bread pudding ($7) was fashioned out of panettone, the sweet bread of Milan traditionally served at Christmas. And torta Nonna ($6) was a dense sponge cake with almonds and apricot jam.
The house setting is quite small. The inside dining areas can be cramped and noisy. Most people seem to prefer dining on the porch that wraps around the front and part of the side of the house. (Maybe they remember the shag carpeting inside, too.) Kevin Fonzo says more renovations are to come.
In the meantime, he and Greg are cooking in the small kitchen, Kevin as the chef de cuisine and his brother as the sous chef. It’s a tight area for two chefs, perhaps tighter for siblings. But Kevin says that if there are any fights, “Mom is just a phone call away.”

Nonna Trattoria ed Enoteca is at 1710 Edgewater Drive, Orlando. It is open for lunch Tuesday-Friday and dinner Tuesday-Saturday. This link will take you to Nonn'a Web site. The phone number is 407-649-9770.

The Palm Restaurant

Written by Scott Joseph on .

In the world of steakhouses, there are two distinct types. There are the family style restaurants with casual settings and, often, for some reason, peanut shells scattered about the floors. These are your LongHorns, your Lone Stars and Outbacks, among others.
Then there are the high-end steakhouses, with no peanuts on the floor or in the pricing. In this category you’ll find the Del Frisco’s, Shula’s and Ruth’s Chrises.
Some of these restaurants fall under the same corporate umbrella – Lone Star and Del Frisco’s, for instance – sort of like Toyota and Lexus.
But just as luxury cars brands have their lesser models (a Lexus ES350 is basically just a Camry), so too the luxury steakhouses. Think of them as the low end of the high-end meateries. Or a third category: not casual enough to be a family restaurant and without the quality to be considered top-notch.
There are three restaurants that I would put in that category based on my previous experiences: Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar; Palm Restaurant; and the Capital Grille. The dinners I’ve had at these restaurants in the past have been OK but not good enough to justify the hefty price tags. I thought it might be time to check back to see if there have been any changes, especially in light of Darden Restaurants buying the Capital Grille (and getting LongHorn Steakhouse in the deal).
I don’t know if the new ownership had anything to do with it, but the Capital Grille was the most improved among the three, and that includes service and overall experience as well as the steaks.
And what steaks. I had the Delmonico ($40), basically a bone-in ribeye, that was had a flavorful, well-seasoned crust and beautiful red center. The higher fat content of the cut made it juicy and tender.
My companion chose the Kansas City sirloin ($40), offered as a special on the night I visited. Also a bone-in cut, the steak had a characteristically coarser texture but was cooked just as perfectly as the other and was every bit as flavorful.
So here’s the surprise: Capital Grille serves steaks graded USDA choice, not prime, although you wouldn’t know that from the pricing. Just as with luxury cars there are quality levels within each meat grade. And to demonstrate the vagaries of the USDA grading system, we move to Fleming’s Prime Steak House, where the meat grade is in the name.
But here the New York bone-in strip ($42.95) was tough and loaded with sinew. It was an aerobic exercise just to chew it. Prime rib ($27.95) was a laughingly thin cut of meat. This is not the sort of thing a fine steakhouse would serve.
The prime rib ($39) at the Palm Restaurant in the Hard Rock Hotel, on the other hand, was a shockingly immense slab of meat. And despite its size it was through and through medium-rare and about as tender a piece of prime rib I’ve had in recent memory.
The bone-in New York strip ($48) was good but not as impressive as the prime rib. The Palm also serves USDA prime, and all three restaurants cook the steaks in broilers.
Service at Fleming’s and Capital Grille was good. Previously at Capital Grille the servers were intrusively friendly; they seem to have toned it down a bit without sacrificing quality. The service at Palm was aloof and perfunctory.
The atmosphere at Palm is the least upscale of the lot. The bare floor is just begging for peanut shells to be tossed on it, and as with all Palm Restaurants, caricatures of national and local celebrities are drawn on the walls. It’s a casualness that belies the money about to be spent.
Capital Grille is classier and decorated more along the lines of a stereotypical steakhouse, with large portraits that evoke chairmen of boards. With an open kitchen and full restaurant it can be noisy.
Fleming’s was quieter, mainly because the restaurant had few customers. The atmosphere is more modern and sufficiently upscale.
But I can’t recommend Fleming’s, not with the poor quality of the meat. I’ll gladly recommend Palm for anyone looking for prime rib.
And I’m pleased to give Capital Grille my full endorsement and welcome it into the pantheon of the upper echelon of steakhouses. It’s a good choice, if not a prime choice.

The Palm is located in the Hard Rock Hotel, 5800 Universal Blvd., Orlando. It is open for dinner nightly. This link will take you to the Palm Restaurant Web site.  The phone number is 407-503-7256.

Izziban

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Sushi purists may want to divert their eyes; something wickedly creative this way comes.
Let’s get this out of the way at the beginning: Izziban, a new restaurant in South Orlando, serves some of the best sushi in town. The selections meet all the required standards for freshness and expert slicing and rolling. And presentation is artistically delicious.
And, dear purists, you will find your favorites, too. There are the usual California rolls, tuna rolls, spider rolls with soft shell crab and asparagus rolls. And of course you can also have basic nigirizushi with perfect pads of vinegared rice topped with buttery soft slabs of raw fish, sliced to accentuate tenderness and served at room temperature. Or you may choose to forgo the rice and have the fish sashimi style.
But then you’ll also find such things as a banana roll (deep-fried banana, cucumber and avocado); strawberry roll (cucumber, avocado, asparagus and strawberry); and even sushi selections with chicken and beef.
But even those are the heights of this menu, which was designed by Jae Lee, previously of Sushin in Longwood, and skillfully executed by Lee and John Nguyen. For something really special try the restaurant’s namesake Izziban roll ($11). It has tempura shrimp and asparagus with cream cheese rolled in rice. The cream cheese alone would be enough to give sushi purists the shudders. But then Lee topped the sliced sushi coins with a sauce of sorts comprised of mayonnaise, fish eggs, crab and cheese, baked so the cheese was melted and the sauce hot. Unusual, and amazingly delicious.
Butterfly roll ($8) had tempura crab with avocado and cream cheese topped with a lighter sauce and baked.
Beef roll ($9) was a simple nonseafood item that had medium-rare meat with asparagus and mushrooms rolled in rice. The coins were smaller than most of the other sushi selections but I loved the big beef flavor.
Izziban Sushi is at the corner of Sand Lake Road and Orange Blossom Trail, so how could I not order both the OBT roll ($13) and the Sand Lake roll ($11) together? The OBT had as its base a California roll. But that basic roll was deep-fried and topped with another cheesy white sauce that had crab, salmon and scallops.
Sand Lake was a little less exotic, a spicy tuna roll, with plenty of spice, topped with bite-size slices of salmon.
Unfortunately the restaurant’s skills do not translate to the kitchen foods. Seafood tempura ($18) was a bit too greasy, and featured too many vegetables instead of seafood.
Nabayaki udon ($15) was a cast iron cauldron of scalding broth with big, fat flour noodles. There was a tempura shrimp floating nearby, its jacket disintegrating from it, bits of chicken meat, rendered chewy, and an egg that was well beyond poached.
There are 77 appetizer selections on the menu, more than anyone really needs. My favorite was the wasabi shumai ($6.50), steamed pork dumplings with more than a little bit of wasabi mixed in. My first bite had me reaching for the Kirin to cool my tongue.
Kalbi ($9), short ribs marinated in soy, were hard and chewy, but then I haven’t had any that weren’t.
But the appetizer called scallop butter ($8) – really scallops in butter – was wonderful and rich. The scallops were sautéed with button mushrooms and served swimming in the butter.
Guests are offered a complementary appetizer of tempura sweet potato or other vegetable. A nice gesture, although on one occasion the tempura seemed to have been done some time before.
Guests are also offered a hot towel after seating to cleanse the hands. Service was pleasant and helpful. Everyone I had contact with smiled and made me feel welcome.
Izziban occupies the space that had been home to Saucy Bella, a half-service Italian restaurant that folded last year. Much of Saucy Bella’s basic décor is intact; the new owners simply added on. The floors are rough-surfaced, painted concrete. There are the ubiquitous large screen televisions hanging from the high ceilings. Tabletops are stainless steel stained, and colorful glass pendant lamps hang over the booths.
Sake bottles line the wall, an indication of the extensive sake list. Alas, only one sake is available by the glass; all others must be ordered by the bottle.
The atmosphere, as with so many of the newer sushi bars, is youthful and contemporary. The music is a bit louder than it needs to be, but it is fun to hear American standards sung in Japanese.
Sushi is an acquired taste. I’m always amused by people who are otherwise adventurous eaters who scrunch up their noses when sushi is suggested. I’m not sure if those people would be doubly disgusted by the sushi at Izziban or thoroughly delighted. Count me as the latter.

Izziban Sushi is at 1700 W. Sand Lake Road (just west of Orange Avenue), Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. Here's a link to the Web site. The phone number is 407-850-5088.

Gino's Pizza Italian Restaurant

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Sunday Buffet

I thought I knew all the old-time restaurants, those that have been around for what in restaurant terms would be considered a good, long time, say seven or eight years.

But here's a place that has been around since 1986, and I'm just hearing about it for the first time. It's Gino's Pizza Italian Restaurant, up Oviedo way, and it has the sort of mien that one person described as Stefano's-like. You can barely have better praise than that. Stefano's, of course, is the Italian family-style restaurant also in the northeast part of town, at the corner of Tuskawilla and Red Bug Lake Roads.

Gino's is at 43 Alafaya Woods Blvd, Oviedo, where it packs in hungry families and sends them packing full and happy. I had learned about Gino's when we first started our search for the best pizza in Central Florida (vote using the poll on the left side of this page if you haven't voted already). Gino's pizza didn't make the cut -- nothing wrong with it, just not among the top dozen pie producers in town. A less doughy crust might have helped, but I didn't have any trouble enjoying the pizza I acquired from Gino's.

Besides pizza, Gino's has a full menu of Italian dinners, with everything from basic spaghetti with sausage or meatballs to veal Marsala and fettuccine carbonara. Gino's is open for lunch and dinner daily. This link will take you to Gino's Web site. The phone number is 407-366-6873.

Also on the buffet today:

Vinito Tuscan Tavern

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Vinito Tuscan Tavern

Restaurant Review

I was invited recently to join some friends for dinner at Vinito Tuscan Tavern, a new restaurant in the Prime Outlets Mall on International Drive. The last time I had dinner at the mall was at Kafe Kalik next door, which was marginal at best. I had concluded that with the outlets being a big tourist attraction the restaurants there figured they didn’t have to try very hard.

So, I wasn’t expecting much from Vinito, just a good excuse to get together with friends. But it turns out that Vinito isn’t just interested in the tourist trade, they seem genuinely interested in doing genuinely good Italian food.