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

Funky Monkey

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Funky Monkey  Wine Company has a number of barriers that might prevent most people from going inside. First, of course, there's the name. Despite its playful alliterative rhyming, it does not bode fine dining.

The outside of the building isn't very inviting, either. It sits on Mills Avenue north of Marks Street among a row of storefronts whose appearances don't suggest they have been recently rehabbed. The building Funky Monkey occupies sports a fresh coat of paint -- yellow, of course, because one assumes the color of bananas to be favored by monkeys -- but still the overall appearance and zeitgeist of the neighborhood would prompt most people to just drive right on by.

And even if you didn't drive on by, finding a parking spot can be an annoyance. You may not use the parking lot closest to the restaurant -- that's for another restaurant whose owner will have patrons of other businesses towed. Your best bet is a space on the street where cars whiz by at alarming speeds threatening to take your car door with them if you open it too far. And God help you if you have to park on the opposite side of the street and cross Mills Avenue.

But if you can get past all those obstacles and actually make it through the front door, you'll find a perfectly charming space that is nothing like the outside. Well, OK, it's painted yellow, too, but not quite as startling a hue. Tables are covered with black cloths and are set with fine stemware and contemporary flatware with colorful side plates. The front of the bar, which has a dominant presence in the small room, has turquoise tiles, and here and there you'll find visual reminders of the restaurant's name.

But even more surprising than the contrast between outside and in is the discovery of a sophisticated menu under the direction of chef de cuisine Penelope Brown and food that is well-prepared and pleasantly presented.

The selections are a bit eclectic -- maybe that's the funky part -- and I'd be hard-pressed to tell you the menu's theme. You'll find bison, ostrich, salmon and Maryland crab cakes alongside sushi, lo mein and Asian ginger chicken.

Guests are presented a bowl of complimentary edamame to nibble on. The soy pods were heavily seasoned with lime juice and more garlic than necessary, but with the sprinkling of salt they were addictively delicious.

I liked the lump Maryland crab cake appetizer ($8). It had a bit more filler than I usually prefer in my cakes of crab, but there was enough shellfish to balance the blend, and the seasonings complemented the sweet taste of the crab.

Fried goat cheese ($9) featured a crust of almonds and panko around the tangy cheese, with tomato concasse and sun-dried tomato spread to accompany the cheese on toast points.

From the short sushi list, I sampled the Funky Monkey roll ($9), which seemed to have been made in advance and refrigerated because the rice had become hard and dry. There wasn't enough tuna, cucumber and cream cheese inside to make up for the rice.

Wild red snapper ($21) was a favorite entree. The fish, which was coated in seasoned panko crumbs, was moist and fresh-tasting and served with tomatoes and mushrooms flavored with ginger and garlic.

Grilled sockeye salmon ($11) on a lunch visit was also nicely done. The red flesh of the salmon was dusted with mild chili powder and served with a citrus chutney that included mandarin oranges.

Ostrich filet ($32) featured the red meat of the big bird grilled medium-rare, sliced and fanned on the plate in a puddle of blueberry sauce. The meat was good, but it seemed an odd choice to include on the menu considering it required a price that was considerably higher than most other entrees.

The raspberry sauce was the downfall of the duck breast entree ($24). It was too sweet and overbearing for the mild waterfowl, although it might have been the organic honey that caused the cloying notes.

The bison burger ($13), which, according to the menu, is Fed-Exed to the restaurant over-nightly from North Dakota, was thick and meaty but with no characteristics that would suggest it was from anything other than a lowly cow that had traveled less extravagantly. Still, it was a pretty good burger, one that I'd have again.

I would not order the desserts I sampled again, even though I love bananas and they are featured as main ingredients in a majority of the selections. FM's version of bananas Foster ($6) was a soupy, goopy mess, and banana cream pie ($5) was mostly whipped cream.

As the full name of the restaurant suggests, there is an extensive wine list, several of which are appropriate and worth sipping. The inclusion of such wines as Blue Monkey or Monkey Bay merely play into the theme and do nothing to elevate an otherwise thoughtful list. In fact the vile Blue Monkey zinfandel lowers the overall quality a great deal.

But consider that just another obstacle to get past, one that can be more easily overcome than the location or the name. You shouldn't let any of them deter you from experiencing a fun, if not funky , new restaurant.

Citricos

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Disney's Grand Floridian Restaurant Continues Serving Fine Food

The reason for my most recent visits to Citricos was the installation of a head chef to replace the hugely talented Gray Byrum, who recently accepted a position out of state. Byrum took the floundering Citricos, which in its earlier days lacked focus and direction, and gave it both. He created a menu that was imaginative and upscale, with nuances of citrus that were meant to be part of a restaurant called Citricos  in a resort called the Grand Floridian.

Filling Byrum's empty toque is Phil Ponticelli, who had been executive chef at Narcoossee's, also at the Grand Floridian. My experiences at Narcoossee's have never been memorable, but perhaps Ponticelli has grown as a chef, or he has just been waiting for the right venue to demonstrate his skills. Either way, his menu keeps Citricos in the upper echelon of area restaurants.

Citricos
The menu is mostly Mediterranean with only hints of citrus notes in sauces or garnishes. A favorite was the braised veal shank ($35), an impressively large hunk of tender meat served with a puree of carrots and potatoes and roasted vegetables.

The grilled swordfish Provencal ($32) was another winner, a firm filet lightly seasoned and accompanied by pearl pasta and grape tomatoes plus clams in a tomato and saffron-tinged broth.

Tile fish ($31) also was done nicely -- seafood apparently is something Ponticelli knows well. Here the fresh-tasting fish had a crispy crust over perfectly white flesh. It sat atop a mushroom risotto, not nearly as well-executed, and a cabernet-butter broth.

The citron rotisserie pork chop ($32) was a disappointment, not only because it was tough but also because it was so blandly presented. The Citricos filet Sicilian ($36) would have been fine, a lovely filet of beef grilled over oak, but the veal glace that surrounded it was too salty.

From the list of appetizers I enjoyed the gateau of crab ($12), exceptional crab cakes of sweet lump meat served with an orange fennel cream. There was a little crabmeat in the roasted butternut squash bisque ($9), a seasonal soup, thick and aromatic.

Arancini ($8) were little balls fashioned out of risotto and deep-fried, not the best way to enjoy a risotto. Winter antipasto ($14) was an odd and disappointing platter of eggplant caponata, ham, asparagus and buffalo mozzarella. Boring to both the eyes and the palate.

The same could not be said of any of the desserts. Because Citricos is in the Grand Floridian, it has the services of the talented Erich Herbitschek, pastry chef extraordinaire. His creations are not only delicious but served with flair, decorated with moulds and figures that sometimes look like tiaras. You don't know whether to eat them or wear them. I loved the warm chocolate banana tart ($8), and the tropical fruit creme brulee ($8), a Citricos mainstay, has become a classic.

Service was good once my guests and I were seated. But the treatment at the host stand, which included another query about a meal plan, was less than welcoming. There also was a bit of a guest-relations meltdown when my guests and I said the first table the greeter showed us to was not to our liking, and we would rather sit at another vacant table near the open kitchen. But things got better. I also appreciated the chef coming by the table to discuss the food allergies of one of my guests, a nice personal touch.

Le Cellier

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Canada Pavilion Steakhouse Finalist for Best Theme Park Restaurant Award

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.

Le Cellier Last week: Hollywood Brown Derby.

Next up: Le Cellier

Le Cellier is the Canadian steakhouse operated by our neighbors to the north, though in relation to its World Showcase location, the Canada pavilion is more east-northeast from America. 

Among Disney regulars, Le Cellier enjoys an almost cultlike following of fans. Visit any of the theme park forums and you'll find someone waxing eloquent about the food, the service and the atmosphere.

Frankly, I don't get it.

I'll go along with them on the service. The folks here are as friendly as any you'll find at Walt Disney World, which is the most authentic aspect of this restaurant -- Canadians are among the friendliest people you'll ever encounter.

But I don't care at all for the atmosphere. Of course, one shouldn't expect much from a place called The Cellar, and in fact it was designed specifically to shield theme park-wary visitors who need a respite. A sensory deprivation tank might be a better choice.

Sanaa at Kidani Village

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Artful African with Indian Influences

Sanaa is the newest full-service restaurant to open at Walt Disney World, the first since the Wave washed up at the Contemporary Resort a year ago.

Sanaa (say it with me: sah-NAH) opened May 1st with the Kidani Village, one of the properties in the Disney Vacation Club (say it with me: timeshare). Kidani Village is part of the Animal Kingdom Lodge compound, and Sanaa, Like the Lodge’s Jiko and Boma restaurants, has an African theme both in decor and menu. But unlike those restaurants, Sanaa uses the spices and cooking techniques of India to inspire the food.

I recently was treated to a menu tasting at Sanaa, and I must say I liked most of what I tasted.

I certainly liked what I saw. The dining room, which is supposedly modeled after an African market, is beautifully decorated and nicely appointed with  hanging bottles that represent the market’s wares, and light fixtures that resemble loosely woven baskets. It’s colorful and bright, though not nearly as garishly so as the publicity photos depict. In fact, when the sun goes down the ambience is dark and moody.Sanaa

Before sunset, however, through the nine-foot floor to ceiling windows, you’re likely to spot numerous wildlife (well, I guess technically they’re not wild) roaming about the resort’s “savannah.” Just after my companions and I were seated, an ostrich that had been pecking about several yards on away moved out of sight and two giraffes galloped  by. Then a small herd of horned beasts, oxen perhaps, but I could be wrong, stopped by to graze. I don’t know of too many places in this country that can offer that sort of vista.

I recalled thinking that it was a good thing Jiko didn’t have views like that or it would be awkward ordering that restaurant’s ostrich strudel. But there was none on this menu, which was developed by John Clark, who oversees all the Animal Kingdom Lodge restaurants, and Sanaa chef Bob Getchell.

Disney's Hollywood Brown Derby

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.

This week we look in on Hollywood Brown Derby at at Disney's Hollywood Studios. I hadn’t done a full review of HBD since it opened in 1989, so when I visited the full-service restaurant recently it was like going back in time.

Which is precisely what Disney culineers were going for when they designed the restaurant to emulate a 1930s era eatery. Though not a replica of the original, which, sadly, no longer exists, Disney’s Derby is reminiscent of an old-timey Los Angeles restaurant, with teak and mahogany accents, and the walls are filled with celebrity caricatures that duplicate those that hung in the West Coast restaurant. Actually, nearly 20 years after the first visit, those caricatures are less recognizable now than they were before as the stars fade further into the past. I could barely identify a fraction of the pictures.Brown Derby

But that isn’t important. What matters is the food, service and ambience. The latter is really kind of nice. The sunken dining room with mezzanine seating on two sides transports guests from the hubbub of the park outside into a Hollywoodland atmosphere. Sure, you’ve got big families with crying kids and people dressed casually, but just pretend you’re dining with the Jolie-Pitt brood and you’ll be fine.

Service was good on one of my lunch visits but lackadaisical and slow on another. The waiters are outfitted in white tuxedo jackets and most offer top-notch care.

I started my lunch with sweet Zellwood corn chowder ($9), which also had bits of applewood smoked bacon. It was a large bowl -- whether it was worth nine bucks is up for debate -- and the kernels of corn still had a nice bit of crunch. I would have liked to have seen some more bacon, and the drizzle of ancho chili oil on the top, which resembled something like an oil slick, didn't add a lot, but overall it was a nice chowder.

The original Brown Derby is where the Cobb salad was invented. It was the creation of former Derby owner Bob Cobb (you’d think he’d go by Robert, wouldn’t you?), who whipped up the salad as a late-night snack for a Hollywood VIP back in the '30s. The story goes that there wasn’t much in the fridge the night the bigwig came in so Cobb just chopped up what he could find. It’s the chopping that defines a Cobb today. A woman once wrote to me to chide me for my description of a Cobb salad at some restaurant saying that a Cobb salad was comprised only of ingredients that grew on a cob. Here the Cobb has greens, turkey breast, egg, bacon, tomatoes, blue cheese, avocado and chives. The basic salad is $15, but for two more bucks you can have some chicken cubes added. I splurged. The salad was delivered in a large bowl with the various ingredients grouped together. The man who brought the Cobb to the table asked if I would like him to toss everything together. I figured I’d let an expert do it.

Except for being unable to identify the greens – they looked sort of like soggy parsley but didn’t have that sharp taste – I liked the salad, especially the chewy bacon and salty blue cheese.

I also had the grilled Atlantic salmon (26), a sizeable, fresh-tasting fillet that had a delightful charred edge. It was served atop a bed of baby spinach on a platform of thickly sliced ugli tomatoes (I guess that would make it a platform bed). There were too many tomatoes and not enough cannellini beans, and I couldn't discern the bacon vinaigrette that the menu promised.

For dessert I had the grapefruit cake ($7), which the menu touts as a Brown Derby original! The exclamation point was unnecessary, and so were the calories. The yellow layer cake with cream cheese frosting was undistinguished in flavor.

I was a solo walk-in on a weekday and waited only a few minutes for a table. Either most guests are looking for something a little less pricey, or maybe something less formal, or I just got lucky. It’s always a good idea to make a reservation in advance, or, if you are already in the park, stop by and arrange a table for later in the day.

Disney's Hollywood Brown Derby offers a quiet respite from the park's hubbub, and a chance to feel as though you're dining in a stylish Hollywood restaurant among famous movie stars, albeit poorly dressed ones. In that respect, maybe this is less about the 1930s and more about the 2000s.

Hollywood Brown Derby serves lunch and dinner daily. Reservations can be made at 407-939-3463.

To vote for this restaurant at Theme Park Insider, click on the Hollywood Brown Derby link.

Hollywood Brown Derby on Urbanspoon

Zenzi, South Orlando Restaurant Doesn't Make Zense

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Zenzi I'd have to reach pretty far back in my memory to come up with a dining experience as disappointing as the one I had at Zenzi recently. Zenzi is the enigmatic name of a new restaurant south of downtown Orlando. I couldn't find any clue as to the origin of the name or whether it was supposed to evoke some sort of image. Is it an owner's name? Is it meant to imply something exotic in the cuisine? Probably not.

The menu, in fact, gives no clues as to the intended cuisine served here. You've got French steak au poivre, Italian veal saltimbocca, Indian chicken tikka and Caribbean grouper. I'm not crazy about a menu that tries to offer the world, but I have fewer qualms if it can deliver at least one good hemisphere. Zenzi's food train never quite leaves the station.

Now, I know these are difficult times for restaurants, and many established businesses are cutting corners or otherwise attempting to adjust or reinvent themselves. More than a few menus have been tweaked to lower food costs while maintaining quality. It's not an easy thing to do. A restaurant's regular customers expect to find all the favorites when they return.

Zenzi had the unique advantage, if it could be seen as such, of opening in the recession. It had no regular clients to disappoint if it started to cut corners. They could have begun by offering a menu that was manageable and offered quality appropriate to the price. I don't know that this is indeed the case with Zenzi, but everything about my meal had the air of trying to make something from next to nothing.

How else would you explain the veal satimbocca ($21) my friend ordered? First off, it had so little veal that it hardly warranted top billing. My companion and I were sure there must have been more veal beneath the massive mound of ham, or perhaps buried inside the stack of spinach. But no, the two tiny pieces were the lot.

That ham was an unfortunate choice. It was a mere cut above lunchmeat quality, and was overly salty. The mushroom and caper sauce rendered the dish a brown mass.It was accompanied by a small mound of rice that was pebbly in texture, and by that I mean the grains were so hard they could have broken a tooth.

My entree was the crab and brie stuffed grouper ($21) a perfectly fine fillet that was nicely broiled. But the crab and brie were minimal. The grouper was served atop a bed of lettuce, which someone probably thought would make a pretty presentation but didn't consider that the soggy greens would get in the way of actually eating the entree. And the entire thing was drenched in a sauce that looked as though it were pure egg yolk. Very yellow. The description on on the menu said the fish would be "smothered in a lobster sauce." I didn't get a lobster sauce out of it, but I'll have to admit the dish was murdered.

A friend had told me the mushroom soup ($6) was good, but the bowl I had, although showing nice meaty pieces of mushrooms, had a floury texture in the broth. And don't even get me started on paying six bucks for this small serving of soup.

The only problem I had with the crab cakes ($10) was with the name. Remove the word crab and you'd have a more apt description. And the two cakes were filled with pieces of red and green bell pepper. It's the first crab cake I've had that crunched.

After our entrees had been served I noticed that other tables had baskets of bread and we had none. I inquired about this and our server told us that bread was served only upon request. How would I know that, I asked, is it written on the menu? No, he said, some people just request it.

So I requested, and when he left I asked the people at the next table if they had requested the bread. No, they told me, their waiter (a different one) just brought it to them. I might deduce that the two waiters simply had different training manuals but that would be taking a leap of faith.

(While clearing the soup bowl from the table, the waiter dropped the soiled spoon onto the table, and even though he still had a free hand, he chose not to pick it up, and it stayed there until after the entrees were served. I'd love to know his rationale for leaving it there.)

I would have taken the issue up with a manager, but at no time during the entire meal did I spot one person I could have identified as in charge.

The interior of Zenzi is pleasant enough. There are door-sized fountains with sheets of water that cascade down glass, and several odd lamps that look either like paper Oscar statuettes or illuminated dress forms. Tables are covered with black leatherette sheets that, frankly, look tawdry.

As discombobulated as things are here I don't think the situation is hopeless. But it is going to take someone who knows what he or she is doing to fix it. And they'll pretty much have to reinvent the place, which is what they could have done when they first opened only months ago.

Zenzi is at 4120 S. Orange Ave. Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily, brunch on Sunday. The phone number is 407-855-9770.

 

Loving Hut: Vegan Fast Food. Really?

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I had been driving west on Colonial, noticing all the closed restaurants along the way and thinking the area most immediately south of Baldwin Park is looking pretty blighted. What's up with that?Loving Hut

 

Then I got past Bumby Avenue and noticed a new sign: Loving Hut. I thought it was a massage parlor.

Looking closer, expecting to see specials for loofah scrubs or something, I noticed that it is a restaurant. In fact, it's in a space that has held various Asian restaurants over the years.

The last time I was in this building I left without ordering. The place was so unkempt and unclean looking that I just couldn't bring myself to eat there. Sometimes you just have a feeling about a place. My feeling told me to turn around and get out of there.

The owners of Loving Hut have really cleaned the place up. In fact, its interior is so shiny white that it almost glows.

 

Of course, Loving Hut doesn't give much of a clue as to what to expect in the way of a cuisine, and even once I was inside and looking over the menu I wasn't all that sure. The fare is still Asian influenced, but the menu is entirely vegan. What's more, Loving Hut is a chain restaurant that touts itself as the first vegan fast food restaurant.

Hmmm, my concept of veganism is more in line with slow food than fast. And I was a little surprised when the young woman at the counter, where I placed my order, described one of the entrees as having the taste and texture of chicken. Do vegans really want to have the sensation that they're eating flesh? I doubt it. But that's just me.

This Loving Hut is the first in the eastern part of the U.S. The menu features familiar appetizers, such as spring and summer, and not so familiar, like "large golden tofu" and "New York Steak" (remember that everything served here is plant-based). Other areas of the menu include salad & soup, rice & Noodles and western specialties. The latter a club sandwich, "happy dog" and savory spaghetti. I guess you would call it a spaghetti western menu.

I ordered the fresh spring rolls for an appetizer and something called noble rice for my entree. The spring rolls had a translucent rice paper wrapper filled with greens, noodles and bits of what I assume to be tofu. It was a hefty serving, about six half rolls, served with a peanutty dipping sauce and a bowl of vegetable broth with carrots.

The entree, despite the name noble rice, was the one that was described as resembling chicken, and indeed this tofu was so chickeny that they even were able to make it slightly tough. It was coated with a breding of sorts that made it seem deep-fried, and it had a slight curry flavor, but it was not hot. The white rice had a hint of coconut and was dotted with what I choose to believe were black seeds. (If it had been the previous tenants I might have guessed something else.)

The people running Loving Hut couldn't have been friendlier or more accommodating. After you place your order you're given one of those coaster pagers (which I have never, ever seen used as a coaster, but never mind about that right now). The pager is a bit superfluous because the place is so small that a staffer could whisper your name when your order is ready and you'd hear it.

Tabletops are white and chairs are a tight white leather, a choice I think I would have counseled against -- it's going to difficult to keep those lookiing pristine.

It will be interesting to see how the vegan community embraces this concept. There are a couple of other choices, including Ethos Vegan Kitchen and the more upscale Cafe 118. The latter is not an inexpensive option, so I would think those who strive to keep to a plant-based diet would welcome another restaurant dedicated to them

Those who stop in expecting a massage will be sorely disappointed.

Loving Hut is at 2101 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando. It's open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday. The phone number is 407-894-5673.

Update: Entrees are pretty cheap, ranging from $5.75 to $7.95.

Hamburger Mary's

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Hamburger Mary's

Hamburger Mary's is a nice family restaurant. But we're talking a different type of family. Think Sister Sledge's "We Are Family."

Hamburger Mary's Orlando recently moved into the Church Street Station neighborhood in the space that TooJay's last occupied. If I'm not mistaken, in the old Church Street days it was the Buffalo Trading Co. It's part of a franchise that started in San Francisco in 1972. Are you getting the picture yet?

It's the first national chain to market specifically to the gay community. You might have figured it out if you had wandered in on a Tuesday for Bingo Night, hosted by local celebrity Miss Sammy (hint: it's not short for Samantha) or for the Maryoke sing-alongs on Wednesdays.

At other times, you might not have noticed anything different about the place at all. Indeed, on one of my lunch visits, there was a family at the next table, a father, mother and baby in a stroller.

Everyone is welcome at Mary's -- she does not discriminate. She is a terrific hostess, but I don't think anyone would call her the best cook in town, especially if you should wander away from the list of burgers. Suffice to say the place will never be called Meatloaf Mary's.

Stick with the burgers, and you'll be fine. The hard part is deciding on which burger to have. There are 11 variations, with names such as Queen Mary, Sloppy Mary, Spicy Mary and Blue Boy burger. And if you missed the Sister Sledge reference, I doubt you'd understand Blue Boy. (No, it's not served raw. The blue refers to the cheese.)

Most of the burgers are made with a half-pound of certified Angus beef, although one is bigger, made with a full pound of meat. That one is called the Proud Mary, and that's all I'm going to say about that.

I would have preferred a juicier patty, but the burgers I had I liked well enough. A favorite was the Sloppy Mary, slopped with chili and melted cheddar and jack cheese. It's served open-face and is meant to be eaten with a knife and fork. Sloppy is as sloppy does.

I also liked the Guacamole BJ, the initials representing bacon and jack cheese. It, too, could have been called the Sloppy Mary.

HMO's appetizers are hit-or-miss. The inevitably named Macho Nachos, chips piled high with chili, cheddar and jack cheese, black olives and jalapenos, were surprisingly good. Mary Mac & Cheese Balls were not only dry and flavorless, they weren't even balls. They were triangles.

Come here for burgers, come for the camaraderie, the drinks, the loud music videos or the even louder decor of purples and greens and geometric shapes. But if you're not looking to have a good time, you might as well stay home. As the motto says, "Eat, drink and be Mary."

Tamboras Grill Cafe

Written by SJO Staff on .

Tamboras Grill Cafe

Tamboras Grill CafeTamboras Grill Cafe, a Latin styled restaurant in Ocoee, notes on its menu that its name is derived from tambor, which means drum, and "we cook to the beat of a different drummer." I guess that would explain the shrimp fettuccine, Portobello Marsala pasta and Asian salmon salad on an otherwise South American flavored menu.

Tamboras occupies a corner spot in a newish strip mall on Maguire Road about a half-mile south of U.S. Highway 50. It's a pleasant enough space, though there isn't a lot of character in the decor. The entrance is in the corner's peak; off to the right is a bar area and to the left is the dining room with booths and tables. Fairly small as full-service restaurants go.

I met a friend for lunch recently and we were warmly greeted by a young woman at the door. Service continued to be friendly and attentive throughout our meal.

I started with a bowl of chicken soup ($3.99), which the menu touted as "homemade." The broth had a richness that indeed indicated it was probably make on the premises. But it lacked much flavor or character. The soup included diced pieces of chicken and a few oddly chopped fettuccine noodles. There was no indication that cilantro had been used, as the menu had promised.

For my entree I chose the shrimp mofongo ($16.99), which the menu claims to be "our most traditional dish! From the Dominican Republic!" It was quite good, the timbale of mashed plantains laced with yummy fat and flavored with seafood broth, topped with medium to small shrimp. It was all surrounded by a delicate gravy. Delicious, but 17 bucks for mofongo? I don't think so.

My friend ordered Tamboras' Island pork roast, which is $13.99 on the dinner menu. But our server pointed out that a lunch version was available for several dollars cheaper and came with a house salad to boot. Unfortunately the pulled pork was very dry, and if there was any mojo criollo mixed in I couldn't taste it. It was, however, like my mofongo, nicely presented. The salad was more substantial than most restaurants offer and included chopped lettuce and kernels of corn. A side item of fluffy white rice and pinto beans could have been an entree all alone.

For dessert I had the arroz con leche, which fetched an astounding price of $5.99. It looked to my eye to be not much more than eight ounces of rice pudding with enough cinnamon blended in to render it treacly.

I suppose Tamboras is faced with the reality of having to charge higher prices to offset fewer seats. Sell enough rice puddings in one evening and you meet your monthly nut! But the drawback, of course, is that people will realize that the food, although presented in a style worthy of a more elegant restaurant, is fairly basic and can be found at other area Latin restaurants for less.

Tamboras Grill Cafe is at 1568 Maguire Road, Ocoee. It's open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. Beer and wine are available and credit cards are accepted. Phone number is 407-877-7171.