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.

Chez Vincent

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Chez Vincent still serves classic French

Chez Vincent is one of the area’s happier success stories. Chef/owner Vincent Gagliano has worked in kitchens all his life, beginning as a teenager in France. After moving to the U.S., he worked in French restaurants, including the estimable Café de France on Park Avenue. He left there to open his own place in what at the time was a newly regentrified part of town – literally across the railroad tracks from trendy Park Avenue.Chez Vincent

That was 12 years ago, and Chez Vincent continues along. The food is still above average and the experience is delightfully serene and unhurried.

L’assitte gourmande, a plate of five tidbits from the fruits de mer list, is a favorite. Best on the plate was the coquille St. Jacques in a deftly executed tarragon sauce. There was only a single scallop but it was a large one, dense but soft and with a sweet taste that was well complemented by the creamy herb sauce. The shrimp in dill sauce was a little too small and was rather shriveled. The rest of the fish – snapper, salmon – was only modest. Next time I’ll order a full course of the coquilles.

 

My guest made a good choice with the venison, a thin filet that was nevertheless cooked to the requested medium-rare and graced with a Montmorency sauce of sun-dried cherries in port wine.

Gagliano offers two types of escargot dishes: the more traditional with butter, garlic and parsley and one with the snails baked in tiny puff pastry. The snails were tender-firm and the pastry was chewy. The port wine sauce was a nice accompaniment.

Desserts are classic with a nice crème brulee and a tarte Tatin ($5.95). The brulee had a perfect burned sugar topping over a creamy custard. The tarte had firm apples coated with a sweet caramel created by the butter and sugar they were baked in.

Service is mature and professional. The surroundings are a bit rundown looking, but if you want modern, go next door to Hannibal’s, the stylishly modern lounge newly acquired by Gagliano. Luckily, he serves food there, too.

Nelore Churrascaria

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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.

Nile Ethiopian Cuisine

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Over the years a number of Ethiopian restaurants have tried to make a go of it in Orlando but all failed. But Nile Ethiopian Cuisine has been around for a good year and a half now, about a year longer than any of the others. I think this one is going to make it.

At the base of all Ethiopian food – literally – is injera, a spongy bread that resembles an immense pancake. (Indeed, injera is cooked like a pancake.) It is made from teff, the world’s smallest cereal grain. Whatever food you order, injera will serve as the platform, covering the bottom of a large round platter, the various stews grouped on top of it.

Stews, called wat, are the most common dishes. These might include variations of beef or chicken, but pork is never served. There are a few seafood selections on Nile’s menu, but Ethiopia is a landlocked country and seafood dishes are not common. Vegetarian wat versions feature lentils or split peas.

Ethiopian restaurants are wonderful places for vegetarians to dine as meatless meals are a big part of the country’s cultural heritage. About half of Ethiopia’s population is Muslim and the other half is comprised of Christians who observe nearly 200 days of fasting annually during which meat, poultry and dairy products may not be consumed.

Most wat include finely chopped onions and berbere, a red paste that might be compared to an Indian curry in that it is made with myriad spices and can be quite hot. Less spicy foods, called alicha, can be found on an Ethiopian menu but I wouldn’t call them mild – they’re still infused with onion, garlic and green pepper and have multiple layers of flavors.

At Nile, the vegetarian kik alicha ($10.95) was one of my favorites. It featured yellow split peas blended with onions and green peppers seasoned with a touch of garlic.

Doro wat ($12.95), something of a national dish, had small pieces of chicken blended with berbere and onions and served with a whole hard-boiled egg. Gored gored ($12.95), another well-known dish, had cubes of beef seasoned with red peppers, mitmita (another hot blend of spices) and butter.

Nile serves its own tej, a wine made from honey. It’s a cloudy, pale yellow liquid with a taste that is just a tad bitter, despite the honey base. It is presented in a small bulb with a narrow neck that looks like it is the decanter. But you drink the wine from this vessel, holding it between your first and second fingers with your palm up.

Coffee is Ethiopia’s top commodity and the coffee ceremony is a big part of a traditional meal. The coffee service area occupies a space in the front of the dining room. The whole beans are roasted in a small metal saucepan while incense burns nearby. When the beans are roasted the pan is brought to the table and waved about so the guests can enjoy the aroma. Once the beans are ground and brewed, the coffee is poured from a clay pot called a jebena into small handleless cups. It’s a very strong brew with a chewy texture and an aroma that is earthy and slightly charred. Desserts are not a part of a traditional Ethiopian menu.

I always thought one of the problems with past Ethiopian restaurants was their choice of location. Nile should do well in this location, at least with the influx of tourists who are usually up to trying something new. The question is whether locals will swallow their pride in order to swallow some wonderful Ethiopian food.

Cafe 118

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Raw Food, Living Cuisine, Unusually Good.

I had the most unusual lunch earlier this week: I ate an entire meal raw.

No, I mean the food was raw; I was fully dressed.

It wasn't sashimi and it didn't consist of shucked oysters. In fact, there were no meat or animal by-products involved at all.

And yet all the food I had at Cafe 118, a new restaurant in Winter Park, was wonderfully complex and had multiple levels of flavors and textures. I'm sure much of this will sound odd to the uninitiated, but trust me on this one: if you didn't know Cafe 118 served only raw, nonmeat foods, you might never figure it out.

Actually Cafe 118 goes even further -- all the foods here are organic. If you consider veganism to be extreme vegetarianism, think of what Cafe 118 does as severe veganism, although the words vegan or vegetarian appear nowhere on the menu.

The 118 in the restaurant's name refers to the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit that some foods are heated to. I stew myself in temperatures higher than that in the steam room at the Y. Going above that temperature, aficionados of raw cuisine profess, saps foods of their vitamins, enzymes and minerals. Raw foods, they assert, aid in digestibility and cell reconstruction, among other things, according to information on Cafe 118's menu. I can't attest to any of that. But I can tell you that the food I had at Cafe 118 was all quite delicious, and it's presented in a stylish and even (dare I say?) gourmet fashion.

I took along a friend who is a practicing vegan, except he has a sense of humor. He had, of course, known all about Cafe 118 and had tasted everything on the menu. He ordered the beet ravioli for himself and suggested I try the shiitake mushroom "lasagna."

The "lasagna," as you might guess from the quotation marks, had no pasta -- that would have required cooking, as well as an egg or two most likely. Instead, this lasagna was made with strips of thinly sliced zucchini layered with sun-dried tomatoes, herb pesto and a ricotta-cheeselike substance fashioned out of raw macadamia nuts. Assuming the tomatoes had been dried in the sun under 118 degrees, the only thing in the dish that had been so processed was the stack of chewy shiitake mushrooms on top. It was a delicious mix of textures and all quite tasty.

But as much as I enjoyed my lasagna, I liked my friend's ravioli even more. No pasta here either, of course. This time the wrapper was made from pureed and dried beets that formed sheets. The filling was more of the wonderful macadamia ricotta, which was even better with the bright flavor of the beets. A stack of tangy arugula with a pear wine sauce accompanied the dish.

For dessert we had the banana almond butter cup ice cream, which, of course, had no cream. No dairy at all, to be sure. Yet it was as cool and creamy as any Haagen-Dazs concoction.

Juices and "milk" shakes are another specialty at Cafe 118. I had the divine cherry, blended with almond milk and coconut butter. It was good, but not something I think I'd order again.

If your concept of vegan restaurants is all hemp and tie-dyed designs, you'll be surprised at Cafe 118. The decor features polished tile floors and granite tabletops. The restaurant occupies a small but bright and cheery spot on Morse Boulevard, just east of Park Avenue. Its ambience befits its address.

So do the prices. You may be thinking that raw foods would be less expensive than cooked foods. After all, the utility bill should be lower at this place. But as explained by our waiter (who was, by the way, a knowledgeable and helpful guide who answered all of my questions with expertise), the food here takes a great deal of preparation. And there's the organics factor, as well. That's why the entrees range from $13 to $18.

And something else I should mention. I found the food to be quite filling. Several hours after my lunch I was still feeling full and satisfied.

The menu here, by the way, was developed by raw foodist Matthew Kenney, whose name will be familiar to those who follow this type of cuisine and who has had several restaurants, all of which failed, in New York. However, despite what was reported in the Orlando Sentinel earlier this year (and re-reported by New York Magazine), Kenney is not a partner in Cafe 118; he merely consulted on the menu and spent a couple of weeks at the opening training the chefs.

He obviously did a good job. I thoroughly enjoyed my meal here, and I now have a new appreciation for the levels vegan cuisine can achieve.

Cafe 118 is at 153 E. Morse Blvd., Winter Park. It's open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. The phone number is 407-389-2233. For a full menu, visit Cafe 118's Web site.

Thai Singha

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Thai Singha

Since leaving the Sentinel, I don't dine at as many Thai restaurants. I don't know why. I like Thai, but I suppose I'm a little wary of visiting a Thai restaurant that doesn't try hard enough, or one that assumes a Western diner can't handle real Thai food. Too many times I had to order the food "Thai hot" if I wanted an authentic spicy dish -- many Thai restaurant owners apparently think most of us would keel over if we had truly spicy Thai food. (Some of us probably would, but it should be our choice.)

But Thai restaurants that do good food and offer an authentic dining experience are wonderful. That's why I like Thai Singha.

Don’t be too quick to judge Thai Singha. I did, and I couldn't have been more wrong.

I thought I had the place figured out before I even opened the front door. It looked nice enough, though quite small. It was, I figured, the sort of place I could pay a quick visit and if the food was even halfway decent give a mention sometime as place you could grab a quick bite.

But I was so thoroughly charmed by the graciousness of the staff and seduced by the exceptional quality of food that I realized this was a restaurant that deserved closer inspection.

You can understand my initial reaction. It is a typical shopping center storefront space. The dining room, while neat, is sparse. Table tops are set with laminated placemats and decorated with a vase with a fake flower in it. The walls have artwork that includes paintings on black velvet, though, thankfully, none of Elvis. And at the far end – far being a relative term – is one of those refrigerated display cases that you see in delicatessens. Those are always ambience killers, the fluorescent lights throwing a harsh glow into the room.

But as soon as I walked through the door I was greeted by a broadly smiling staff member who motioned to a table near the front of the room. And a few minutes later I was enjoying the first marvelous sips of tom ka gai, the traditional chicken soup with a coconut milk broth. The creaminess of the coconut was blended with the sour tinge of lemongrass and kaffir lime. Some fresh cilantro leaves added a note of fragrance.

They had me with the soup; the red curry with beef sealed it. The meat was sauteed with bamboo shoots and fresh basil in a red curry cream sauce that was spiked with red chili peppers. The evenness of the heat in the curry was what made it so flavorful. And the cook’s sense of balance was evident in all the subsequent dishes I sampled.

Such as the spicy basil duck, sliced breast meat sauteed with mushrooms, basil and chili paste to create a lovely brown sauce to spoon over fluffy white rice.

Or the traditional pad Thai with long flat rice noodles stir-fried with shrimp, egg, crushed peanuts and a smidgen of bean sprouts, garnished with a wedge of lime and a stack of bean sprouts. The shrimp, bland and slightly rubbery, were the sole disappointment among my visits.

Thai fried rice with pork was less oily than the typical fried rice from a Chinese restaurant. Besides the generous slices of meat it had egg, onions, bright red bell peppers, cilantro, a tomato wedge and slices of cucumber.

Among the appetizers the fish cakes were a favorite. Six discs fashioned out of minced fish and chili paste, deep-fried and served with a cucumber sauce that first coated the tongue with sweetness and then startled it with the heat of chili peppers.

Thai summer rolls had mostly noodles and julienne vegetables rolled in rice paper with just a bit of chicken in the mix. But the peanutty dipping sauce made them more flavorful.

If the main courses aren’t enough to convince you that this isn’t your average Thai restaurant, surely the desserts will, although these pastries are more western than eastern, more Viennese  than Siamese. They featured a lemon meringue ($4.95) inside a delicate sponge cake; and a chocolate cake base topped with a raspberry cream. Only rice pudding ($4.95), served in tiny ceramic dishes, might remotely be considered Asian. But all the desserts were delicious and impressively presented.

Aficionados of world beers will recognize the name Singha as the popular beer from Thailand. The owners obtained permission to use the name from the Boon Rawd Brewing Co. In fact the laminated place mats are advertisements for the beer. I suppose it would be a little like an American going to Thailand and opening a restaurant called Coors. But Singha also means lion, and the owners liked the good-luck karma a lion brings.

Thai Singha would have been noteworthy simply for being the first to bring Thai food to East Orlando. The fact that it is very good Thai food, wonderfully prepared with a careful sense of authenticity, and served by a staff who probably couldn’t give bad service even if they tried really really hard makes it all the more praiseworthy.

Waterford Town Center, 863 N. Alafaya Trail, Orlando, 32827
Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. daily; dinner 5-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Reservations: Not accepted
Beer and wine
Entrees: $8.95-$16.95
Credit: AE, MC, V
407-382-8201
 

Narcoossee's

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Walt Disney World Restaurant Review: Narcoossee's

Every time I visit Narcoossee's at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa I leave thinking it really should be better than it is. Especially after my most recent visit when my check for one glass of wine, an appetizer and an entree totaled almost $60.

I'd like to say that the food was worth it, but it was not. The crab cake was very good -- plenty of crab and little filler. But the grilled scallop entree, which featured a corn and crab risotto and a sherry reduction sauce, was marred by scallops that had not been properly cleaned and thus were gritty on the tooth. The crab cake might have been worth the $13 charge, but uncleaned scallops shouldn't cost $32.

Making it all the less enjoyable was a server who was at first dismissive and then, when it came closer to paying the check, artificially friendly.

And Narcoossee's atmosphere has always been a slight poop deck above your basic wharfside kitsch. (As far as I can figure, its popularity is due primarily to its view of the Magic Kingdom across the lagoon.) The high conical ceiling and predominant wood surfaces make it one of the noisiest restaurants around. Those prices should buy the guests a better atmosphere. And better service. And far better food.

Circa 1926

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Circa 1926 in Winter Park serves an exciting menu

Circa 1926There are some who think the restaurant on the corner of Park Avenue North and West Canton Avenue is cursed. They site as evidence the businesses that have come and gone with frightening frequency in the last several years. They include East of Paris, which was too clever for its own good; Chapters, a concept that thought it was clever and good but was neither; and Zak's, which I thought was good, but which closed fairly quickly after it opened. Zak's was 2002, Chapters in 2003 and East of Paris 2005. So, yes, those were some pretty quick turnarounds.

But don't forget that before that spate of revolving door restaurants, the space was occupied by Park Avenue Grill, which opened in 1988 and closed more than a dozen years later only after it was sold to someone who didn't have the same standards as the original owners.

And that is what I assume sealed the fate of East of Paris and Chapters, too. Zak's I can only guess was a matter of poor management -- the quality of the food certainly wasn't at issue.

And it is management of the latest tenant at 358 Park Avenue North that ultimately will determine the success of Circa 1926. It won't be the food, which is inventive and skillfully prepared. And it won't be the service, which, on my visit, was professional and congenial. And it won't be the atmosphere, which is the toniest on the avenue since Luma on Park opened.

No, if Circa tanks it will be the sole fault of the management team, which has made some rather clueless moves.

Take for example the Web site, which just barely exists at circa1926.com. The address of the restaurant is listed as 58 Park Avenue. And the phone number listed apparently is a nonworking one. You might think the absence of a Web site is a petty oversight, but given that this restaurant has been in the works for well over a year, you'd think someone could have had a working site up and running even before the kitchen's stoves were fired up.

And on a recent stroll up Park Avenue, a friend and I thought we would pop in for an appetizer and glass of wine. But the restaurant was doing business that was brisk enough that the man at the host stand thought he could give attitude to people showing up without reservations. As the dining public retrenches further with the recession such unkindnesses won't go unremembered.

But in spite of all that, Circa is a very good restaurant and one I hope will be around long enough to break Park Avenue Grill's old record and whatever curse may still be floating around the old place. (The name, by the way, is a reference to the year it is believed the building was constructed, though no one seems to know for sure.)

The menu is under the direction of James Slattery, who until recently was the executive chef of Rosen Shingle Creek's A Land Remembered steakhouse. (Slattery was also the subject of a profile I wrote for the Orlando Sentinel about his move from a career in chemistry to one in the kitchen.)

Slattery describes the food as "Classic American but with my twists." I'm not sure what that means, but chicken-fried frog's legs with vanilla brandy glaze might be a clue. Most of the menu is less twisted.

Well, there was the appetizer called a dirty martini with grilled artichokes and pickled asparagus ($12). It featured tomato water spiked with a bit of gin poured over meaty artichoke hearts and more or less garnished with the asparagus. Interesting and ultimately delicious, but a bit too odd to order twice.

My companion's crawfish beignets ($9) were much more mainstream, even if they were related more to Southern fritters than Louisiana beignets. There was a big pile of the deep-fried fritters, which were filled with chopped crawfish meat and served with a remoulade of celery root.

For my entree I chose the veal chop stuffed with prosciutto and goat cheese ($32), a lovely piece of meat with only a subtle bit of the promised stuffing. The goat cheese was especially mild flavored. But the veal chop itself was perfect. The dish was rounded out with creamed potatoes, giant spears of grilled asparagus and creamy sauce Diane.

My friend had the pan roasted Long Island duck breast ($29), an ample serving of tender medallions graced with a sun-dried tomato reduction sauce. A creative wild mushroom bread pudding, which was more like a typical stuffing but tastier, was also included.

Desserts include such enticements as chocolate cream pie ($7), pecan pie with Tahitian vanilla gelato ($6) and lemon pound cake with strawberry coulis ($5).

There are two main and distinct dining areas at Circa. The front room is open and very comfortable. French doors open on warmer evenings to give an al fresco feel. The alabaster bar features a back wall with water trickling down and lighting that gives it more of a waterfall effect. In the front corner, a pianist plays old standards, just like a supper club should, and sets a romantic mood.

The front tables look a little chintzy. They have white cloths wrapped and stapled to the underside of the tables and then a sheet of glass on top.

The back dining area offers a more intimate setting, but it seemed pretty dull when I peeked back there.

Upstairs is a lounge worthy of South Beach. A beautifully decorated and chic atmosphere that will feature live music and dancing.

The waiter who served me and my guest was very good and quite accommodating. He had excellent menu knowledge and answered questions with authority. Maybe some of his professionalism will rub off on the guy at the door.

I hope so. Circa was a long time in the making, and I'd hate to see some mismanagement ruin it for the rest of us.

Cala Bella

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at Rosen's Shingle Creek: Italian for the Upper Crust

Cala Bella

I recently reviewed Cala Bella for Orlando Style magazine. Here's the review:

Cala Bella

It’s been a little over two years since Harris Rosen opened the jewel in his pantheon of hotels, Rosen Shingle Creek. In that time, the elegant Italian restaurant Cala Bella has become a bit more refined and the food a bit more certain.

It’s still shockingly expensive.

When I dined there in 2006 I was stunned by the $40 price tag on the seafood pescatore. It’s now $46 – and there are still no flecks of gold in the broth. Well, if you don’t count the saffron that seasons the fish stock tinged with tomato. And, in truth, there was a lot more seafood in the soup this time, headlined by an Australian lobster tail, two impressively plump scallops, shrimp, clams and mussels. Under it all was a nest of fresh pappardelle pasta.

The al dente ribbons were part of my companion’s entrée of pappardelle ai bistecche, which was listed under the menu’s pasta heading, though in truth this was a steak dish. It featured 10 ounces of New York strip from Harris Ranch, cooked to a perfect medium-rare and sliced, the noodles piled on top with a sauce of mushrooms and tomato ragout. Quite nice.

We had started our meal with the mozzarella stuffed Bella meatballs, three bocce ball-sized orbs of moist ground meat braised in Barolo wine. The meatballs were more enjoyable than the calamari fritte, which was a little too damp.

The highlight of the dessert menu is the deconstructed tiramisu, which takes the various elements of the omnipresent dolce -- chocolate, mascarpone, lady fingers – and presents them stacked instead of blended. I first found it odd, but its uniqueness has grown on me. The chocolate sabayon, with dollops of white chocolate garnished with diced strawberries, was also good. (Mention you’re a local, I’m told, and dessert is on the house.)

Service was exceptional. Menu knowledge was impressive, and the meal moved with a leisurely pace.
The dining space is cavernous, but has been softened a bit with swaths of burgundy draperies that now frames the high archways.

This is still one for the expense account crowd, but the quality is more consistent and closer to matching the prices.