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

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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.

Shan Asian Cuisine

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Shan Asian Cuisine (Not TerraMia Pizzeria) in Lake Mary

IShan have been trying to get to Lake Mary to try TerraMia, a pizzeria and trattoria, for the better part of a year. I just never quite got around to it. The reason I was anxious to try it out was that it is owned by Rosario Spagnolo, whose Terramia restaurant in Altamonte Springs is a longtime favorite of mine. I awarded it the Critic's Choice Foodie for best Italian multiple times.

This week I told myself it was time to just head up to Lake Mary and give the place a go. I'd given up on trying to arrange schedules with other people to drive along with me and just decided to enjoy a lunch solo. That, apparently, was not acceptable to the young woman who greeted me at the door.

After learning that I would be only "one for lunch," she tried to steer me the bar. I told her I didn't care to sit at the bar. Then she pointed to a small, tall table in the back, next to the bar. I said I'd really prefer a seat where my feet could touch the ground. She looked back and forth at the two empty tables in the small dining area, then plaintively at me. "I only have two tables available," she said. I told her that was perfect because I needed only one table. And keep in mind that this was after1:30 p.m., not at the height of any noontime rush. She motioned to the table so close to the front door that if the door had swung in instead of out it would hit the table. I aksed why I couldn't have the other table, the nice one in the front window. She frowned, turned to another server passing by and said, not quite under her breath, "You're getting a one-top."

She turned back to me with a forced smile on her face and told me I could take a seat. I said, "I don't feel welcome here." "No, it's fine," she said. I assured her it wasn't fine; her treatment of me was shabby. At first I started to take the seat at the table -- I told you, I really wanted to try this restaurant, and after waiting so long and driving so far, I didn't want to walk out. But that's what I did. I decided the food couldn't possibly be good enough to make up for the service.

So instead, I went around the corner to Shan Asian Cuisine, another restaurant that has been on my list for over a year.

Shan is in the space that had previously been occupied by Jinja, a sort of pan-Asian restaurant that was showing improvement the last time I visited, in 2006, but which apparently couldn't overcome its earlier shortcomings.

A manager at Shan told me that she and Shan's owner had gone to Jinja for lunch one afternoon and found a sign on the door saying the restaurant had closed only a week earlier. Instead of getting lunch, they got the restaurant.

Shan's owner is one of the original owners of Eastern Pearl, a Chinese restaurant in Altamonte Springs that also is a recipient of multiple Foodie Awards from me. At first, I thought I was going to have the same issue as I did at TerraMia. The greeter wanted to seat me at a table in the middle of the dining room. I asked if I might have one of the booths, but instead of protesting, she said she would have one cleared and set right away, and while I waited, perhaps I'd like to sit at the bar and look over the menu. She offered to bring me something to drink and said she would have the server stop by if I'd like to give my order while I waited for the table.

And the server couldn't have been more pleasant either. After I took my seat, I ordered the sushi sampler ($7) and the lunch special of cumin beef ($10). The sushi included four pieces, salmon, tuna, white fish and shrimp, a tad smallish but nicely formed and applied to the pads of vinagared rice. (It's a sign of a good sushi chef when you can pick the piece up, flip it over to dip in the soy sauce and the fish stays put on the rice.)

The lunch special included a choice of soup, salad or egg roll. I chose soup, and from among the available selections, the egg drop. It was a rich broth with a velvety mouthfeel and had lots of feathery wisps of egg. And I liked that the soup was served with a metal spoon instead of one of those plastic dippers that look more like spoon rests than spoons.

The cumin beef, a Szechuan specialty, was unusual and good. There was a generous portion of sliced beef with diced peppers and onions coated with the cumin sauce, which had a dominant and pleasant aroma and only a mildly spicy flavor. I wish I had chosen the steamed white rice instead of the fried, which had no distinct taste.

Shan's decor is rather dark, perhaps more so on the dreary rainy day that I visited. But mahogany stained wainscotting, and ox blood colored floor and black laminate tabletops don't do much to cheer the place up. (I did notice the waiters were starting to set tables for dinner and were putting white cloths on them, so that might help brighten it up in the evening.)Shan

So my drive to Lake Mary hadn't been a waste, and in fact had turned out rather pleasantly. And as I was leaving the restaurant, someone made a point of calling from a side room "thank you for coming."

Now was that so difficult?

Shan Asian Cuisine is at 1541 International Parkway, Lake Mary. The phone number is 407-833-3883. For menu and other information, visit Shan Asian's Web site.

Vines Grille & Wine Bar

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Vines Grille & Wine Bar on Orlando's Restaurant Row

The last time I reviewed Vines Grille & Wine Bar it was in a different location. And it wasn't called Vines Grille & Wine Bar.

Back then, in 2003, it had just opened with the name Woodstone Grille. I never got confirmation, but it was my assumption that a certain Stonewood Grill and Tavern took exception to the similar name. Even flipping the wood and the stone and adding an e onto grill wasn't enough to remove confusion in the minds of potention customers, or that's how I'm guessing the attorney's letter probably read. And it was bad enough that Restaurant Row already had Bonefish and FishBones, not to mention Moonfish, causing enough bafflement. (They still do.)Vines Grille and Bar

So it wasn't very long after it opened that Woodstone became Vines. It operated out of the small, narrow space in the Fountains Plaza strip that also holds Antonio's and Ayothaya Thai restaurant, and where Anaelle & Hugo's was a neighbor before that French restaurant closed and Jeffery's moved in.

When Jeffery's closed, Vines's owners saw an opportunity to move out of the claustrophobic confines and into a more spacious, not to mention elegant, venue.

Vines has several things that distinguish it, not the least of which is the decor. The restaurant occupies a large space that is reminiscent of an open loft. The bar slashes the lounge diagonally. Behind the bar is a boxed-in private dining room and the rest of the space is primarily the main dining area, with polished wood floors and brick walls (Woodstone Grille would have been a perfect name for this place!).

Dominating a large wall of the main dining room is a bank of flat-screen televisions that play only one thing: the lapping flames of a roaring fireplace. It's a stunning visual that would have looked chintzy if it had been just one tv screen but instead has a great wow factor with a row of three.

Another distinction is Vines's dedication to providing live entertainment, often provided by a jazz trio. The band is a bit cramped in the lounge, right behind the cable waterfall at the restaurant's entrance. Maybe they liked the crammed in feeling of the old place. But the music is easily heard throughout the restaurant, and there's nothing like live entertainment to set a mood.

And then there are the bar snacks to set Vines further apart from other area restaurants. It's quite a surprise to see a tall cone cup, the sort of holder one usually finds filled with bread sticks, stuffed with crispy rashers of bacon. Saltier than peanuts, I suppose, but maybe they should also have a bowl of Lipitor or Plavix on the counter.

On my first visit to Vines I dined in the main room. I sampled the onion soup ($9), a hearty bowl of beefy broth topped with stringy cheese. For my entree I had the braised beef short rib ($34), oh-so-tender meat that had long given up the bone, served with polenta infused with blue cheese and Brussels sprouts roasted with bacon. (They love bacon in this joint.)

On another visit, dining solo, I decided to make a feast of a couple of appetizers while sitting at the bar. I selected the steak tartare ($16) and seared day boat scallops ($14). The tartare looked as though it were a burger patty ready for the grill. It was surrounded by the usual accouterments, capers, onions, as well as hot sauce drizzled on the plate and a pile of salt. It was topped with a raw quail egg, cracked open and still in the shell. The bartender/server asked if I had ever had the tartare there before and I allowed as to how I had not. She made the suggestion that I blend everything together, the hot sauce and salt included, before eating. It was good advice. The meat was fresh tasting and delicious, and the salt and hot sauce added just the right flavor notes.

I wish the scallops had been half as good. The four scallops were so small that most day boats would have tossed them back. And they had been cooked so long as to become hard and rubbery. Nothing could save them.

Service was superb all around. The kitchen doesn't move with alacrity, but at least there's good music to listen to. Besides the wine list, which includes well over 20 selections by the glass, there is a full bar. I question the wisdom of the menu's prices in these times. With appetizers that reach $20 and steaks that climb to $46 ($65 for American Kobe), Vines apparently is going after the expense account trade. (Does anyone still have an expense account?)

Such splurges are hard to justify these days. But if you're celebrating something special, or you just want a fun night out with good food and music, Vines would be a good choice.

Vines Grille & Wine Bar is at 7533 W. Sand Lake Road, Orlando. The phone number is 407-351-1227. You can see the menu here, or get more information at the Web site.

Kafe Kalik

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Kafe Kalik is unique in a number of ways. First is its location, tucked among myriad retail stores at the Prime Outlets Mall, the only full-service restaurant in the shopping center. Then there’s the restaurant itself, a sprawling space with a lively decor, bright and pleasant and just a bit upscale. There is a large, open kitchen with a long row of seating at a low counter for those who want to watch the cooks in action. Bright orange backlit panels give the place a colorful glow.

Kafe KalikThe main focus of the menu is the Bahamas and the Caribbean Islands, but the kitchen steps out a bit with other worldly tastes, including a version of fajitas, called bahitas, sandwiches, called baninis instead of paninis, some pasta dishes, and sushi.

The sushi, our server told us, was an ideal way for the chef to feature the fresh fish that is central to the Bahamian diet. But while the sushi we sampled was just fine, I preferred some of the other seafood selections in the appetizer platter. I especially liked the cracked calamari, slices of squid steaks that were fleshy and tender. And the grilled shrimp with balanced, even spicing.

For our entree the chef presented us with the pan roasted spiny lobster skillet, an impressive array of a split lobster, tomale intact, splayed over jasmine rice and sauced with roasted mango and pineapple butter.

It was OK, but I think next time I’ll go for the lamb shank curry, or jerk chicken in a bag or herb-crusted whole red snapper.

Our dessert was also unique: a coconut creme brulee served in a big coconut shell. This island version had a thicker texture and was a bit eggy, but we loved the ice cream that accompanied it.

Service was efficient and fast -- also unusual for a Bahamian restaurant -- and everyone greeted us with the trademark friendliness of the islands.

Kafe Kalik is at the Prime Outlets mall, 4969 International Drive, Orlando; 407-248-0889. More information and the menu at KK's Web site.

Nine Dragons

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Nine Dragons at Epcot's China pavilion

Nine Dragons I field a lot of questions from people planning vacations to Walt Disney World who want to know about various restaurants. The queries are for restaurants throughout the resort, but it seems the bulk of them are about dining at Epcot. That's not so surprising -- the restaurants in the country pavilions have always been big draws to tourists and locals alike. They offer some of the better dining options on Disney property.

So I see a lot of questions about Les Chefs de France and Bistro de Paris, the Biergarten at Germany, and a stupefying amount of inquiries about Le Cellier, the darkly sequestered steakhouse at Canada.

But no one ever asks about Nine Dragons in the China pavilion.

At first I thought it was an aversion to more exotic cuisines, if Chinese food could be considered exotic. I figure the unadventurous American palate is the reason so many people seek to dine at Le Cellier. But that wouldn't explain the interest in places like Teppan Edo and Tokyo Dining in the Japan pavilion, the herring at Norway's Akershus or the Moroccan Restaurant Marrakesh, of course for the latter many red-blooded American men are willing to give up their red-blooded steaks to watch belly dancers while they dine.

But on a recent visit to check out the newly renovated Nine Dragons dining room and updated menu, it occured to me the reason so few people are interested in eating here. And it was the memory of sitting in another Chinese restaurant two decades earlier that made me think of it.

 That restaurant was Ming Court on International Drive. When it opened near the convention center in 1989 it drew a lot of attention for its elegant design, which featured a wall that resembled the rolling back or a dragon and floor to ceiling windows that looked out on a serene koi pond.

While I sat at Ming Court looking at the menu, I noticed more than a couple of people come in, sit down, look over the menu then get up and leave without ordering.

The reason wasn't because the menu was missing their favorite egg roll or moo goo gai pan, it was because it had something most of them were unfamiliar with: food prices similar to those at other fine dining restaurants. For most people, Chinese restaurants are synonymous with inexpensive meals, food served in large portions at prices that make it an even better bargain. They don't expect Chinese restaurants to have entrees that drift over $20.

I think most people still have that notion, which is why I get so few questions about Nine Dragons, and why it was virtually empty when I visited recently.

Too bad because the food is very good, and the refreshed dining room is comfortable and affords diners a view of people passing by rushing to make their reservation times at Tutto Italia or San Angel Inn.

I popped in for a lunch and started with a bowl of chicken consomme with pork dumplings ($3.98), a golden broth with a rich mouthfeel. It had two big dumplings of chewy dough filled with well-spiced ground pork.

For my entree I had the shrimp with spinach noodles ($17.98), which looked very much like something you'd find served in the Italy pavilion. (But remember that Marco Polo is said to have introduced Italians to pasta after a voyage to China.) The noodles were fettuccinelike and were mixed with red and green sauteed bell peppers and dotted with flecks of hot pepper flakes and topped with cool, fesh coriander.

The shrimp had a thin film of crispiness and peppery spice.

For dessert there was a sponge cake with fruit filling that was slightly dry.

The dining room is a vast space, but for all its expanse it is a tranquil place, at least when not full. A variety of lanters decorates the room. Tabletops are polished wood and set with paper placemat adorned with Chinese figures, both ancient and present-day, with spaces for diners to practice writing the words for mountains, rain, sun and moon. There was one major annoyance: tables are set with a knife and fork; diners must request chopsticks. It should be the other way around.

The staff was friendly though not obsequious. And even though I paid with a credit card, none of the Chinese nationals questioned my ability to repay my debt.

Nine Dragons is in the China pavilion at Epcot. For dinner reservations, call 407-939-3463.

Cantina Laredo

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Cantina Laredo on Orlando's Restaurant Row

Cantine Laredo Cantina Laredo is among the latest in an explosion of new eateries that have opened in recent months on Restaurant Row. It joins J. Alexander's, Ocean Prime, Bar Louis, Bento Cafe and, in the same new development, Bravo! There haven't been this many new restaurants on that stretch of Sand Lake Road since early in 2001 when I first started calling the area Orlando's new Restaurant Row.

Cantina Laredo is something of an upscale Mexican restaurant and is a brand of Consolidated Restaurants out of Dallas, although I would equate its upscalishness along the same lines as Seasons 52, another Restaurant Row inhabitant. It's more of an upscale casual atomsphere.

It's an attractive restaurant, with comfortable booths and moody lighting. A fireplace in the dining room on the cool night I first visited added a sense of warmth if not actual heat.Cantine Laredo

The menu isn't exactly authentic Mexican -- the nachos, fajitas and crepes would't be found on many menus south of our border, unless it was a restaurant specializing in Ameri-Mex cuisine.

My guest and I started with the "top shelf guacamole" ($9.49). Actually, we started with margaritas, which were pretty darned tasty. And it's a good thing, too, because we had to wait a ridiculously long time for the guacamole engiineer to bring the guac fixings to the table. I've never quite understood the allure of tableside guacamole presentation -- it's not quite as dramatic as watching someone flambe bananas Foster or even mash anchovies and toss a Caesar salad. I suppose it's done to prove that the ingredients are fresh, but I don't think I would have had a question about that. The avocados were loosely chopped, as they should be, and blended with tomatoes, red onions and a bit of lemon. It could have used some salt to draw out the flavors, but we took care of that by adding our own. I don't think it quite was worth the hefty price tag, but it was darned good guac.

For my entree I chose four: the Cantina laredo platter ($16.29) that had cheese chile relleno, tamale, chicken enchilada and taco al carbon. The chile relleno was the star of the platter, a mildly piquant poblano filled with creamy cheese. But the chicken enchilada was a close second.

My friend had the enchiladas de mole ($12.29), which featured the same delicious chicken enchilada but smothered with a complexly seasoned mole. The Cantine Laredosauce was nicely done.

Service was inexplicably slow and unapologetic about it, too. There didn't seem to be any management types about.

Except for the obscenely overpriced guacamole (labor charges were undoubtedly tacked on) most of the items are fairly priced, with many in the low teens. My platter was a bargain at $16.29.

I would return to Cantina Laredo, maybe even just to have a margarita and some chips and appetizers. I would hope by then they will have improved the service and gained a better sense of timing.

Cantina Laredo is at 8000 Via Dellagio Way, Orlando (one block west of Dr. Phillips Blvd.). The phone number is 407-345-0186.

 

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Le Coq Au Vin

Written by SJO Staff on .

Le Coq Au Vin; Life without Louis

Le Coq Au Vin When Louis Perrotte announced in November that he was taking on Reimund Pitz and his wife, Sandy, as partners in Le Coq Au Vin, one of Orlando's consistently acclaimed restaurants, he admitted that it was with an eye toward eventual retirement for him and his wife, Magdelena. But he said he would still be in the kitchen for a while.

I wondered at the time what "a while" meant. I also wondered how two master French chefs could co-exist in one small kitchen. That old adage "too many cooks spoil the broth" is referring to more than one.

The first question, apparently, has been answered. When I asked my waiter on a recent visit to Le Coq Au Vin who was cooking that night, he replied, "Chef Reimund Pitz." When asked if Perrotte didn't still do some of the cooking, the server smiled and said Chef Louis was concentrating on taking it easy.

So then it would seem we have arrived at the moment that so many Central Florida gourmands have dreaded: the reality of Le Coq Au Vin without the Perrottes, Louis commanding the kitchen and Magdalena the consummate hostess at the front door. Would it ever be the same?

It turns out that Louis Perrotte, besides being an excellent restaurateur, is also a pretty smart cookie. He hand-picked Pitz to take over his pride and joy, the restaurant he has built up since 1976, knowing that Pitz had the same high standards and dedication to quality and tradition.

Are there changes? Well, the place seemed a bit brighter and the main dining room had the appearance of having been spiffed up. And the whimsical rooster bidding guests "Bon appetit, y'all" apparently has been replaced with the more subdued logo seen above.

But beyond that, I doubt even the most frequent visitors will notice much change. The service is still as attentive and skilled, and, most important, the food is the same high quality, and the icon Le Coq Au Vin Dinner Menu (98.41 kB) still has most of the expected favorites.

With Mardi Gras just passed, Le Coq Au Vin was featuring a special menu of New Orleans favorites. My dining companion, who usually orders the onion soup without hesitation, instead opted for the gumbo ($6.50) from the Mardi Gras menu. After I had a sip of the rouxy stew and tasted the spicy andouille, he almost didn't get it back.

But I was perfectly happy with my appetizer of steak tartare ($8.95), a mound of shaved beef blended with a bit of onion, mustard and a touch of Worcestershire sauce, served with crusty bits of toast and sweet cornichons.

I really like that Coq Au Vin offers half portions of most of its entrees. It's a smart thing both nutritionally and, in the current financial climate, economically. And the half portions here are ample enough to satisfy. Even with a favorite like the cassoulet ($16.95), which I had to order before it almost certainly disappears for the summer months. I wasn't disappointed, although I would have enjoyed more beans in the mix. Still, there was plenty of lamb, duck, garlic sausage and pork in the dish, which was sprinkled with duck cracklings and bread crumbs.

My friend had the beef tenderloin ($25.95), sauteed to a perfect medium-rare juciness, topped with a beautiful lobe of duck foie gras, a Port wine sauce the ideal grace note. The meat was tender, and the foie gras filled the mouth with a delightful buttery texture.

The iconic Grand Marnier souffle is still available, but instead we opted for a simple creme brulee ($6), a deftly rendered custard with a solidly creamy texture and a thin crust of burnt sugar on top. We also had the rhubarb tart ($6.50), which was surprisingly mild flavored.

Service was attentive without being fawning, and we were allowed to proceed at our own pace. There was a long lull between courses, but I came to realize it was due to our place in line behind a large party in another room. 

At one point during our meal, Reimund Pitz came out to the dining room and went to each table, greeting his guests and thanking them for coming. Besides having the same skills in French cuisine as Louis Perrotte, and the same passion for integrity in his food, Pitz also knows that it's important to be a gracious host.

Le Coq Au Vin is going to be just fine. Le Coq Au VinLe Coq Au Vin is at 4800 S. Orange Ave., Orlando. The phone number is 407-851-6980. The restaurant is once again serving lunch Tuesday through Friday (Perrotte had dropped noontime service a few years ago). Dinner is served Tuesday thorugh Sunday. More information at Le Coq Au Vin's Web site.

New owners (from left) Sandy and Reimund Pitz with sommelier Peter Burke and Louis and Magdalena Perrotte.