Bar Louie

Written by SJO Staff on .

Bar Louie on Orlando's Restaurant Row

Bar Louie is one of the newer additions to Orlando's Restaurant Row, the stretch of Sand Lake Road west  of International Drive and Interstate 4. It occupies a space in the newly developed Rialto, where J. Alexander's and Ocean Prime also recently opened. Another restaurant, Bento, is now open as well.

Bar Louie is from the same organization that brought Red Star Tavern to Orlando a little more than a year ago. As the name would suggest, Bar Louie focuses mainly on the drinking part of the meal. But it also features a large menu of appetizers, pizzas, sandwiches anBar Louied burgers.

I stopped in on an early Friday evening as part of a party of six. We discovered that it was still happy hour, and therefore we could have anything from the appetizer list at half price. (The drink specials were pretty good too.) We decided to make a feast of appetizers and forgo dinner.
We ordered the Szechwan rib bites (regularly $8.99), chicken nachos ($9.99), cheeseburger sliders, ($8.99), crispy calamari ($9.99) and Buffalo wings ($7.99).

The sliders were quite good, greasy enough to be chic but meaty enough to satisfy. And the nachos were sufficiently glopped with grilled chicken, cheese sauce, beans, guacamole and sour cream.

The rib bites were not spicy at all, as a Szechuan designation would lead us to believe. And they weren't all that tender, either.

The calamari was, however, and the light dusting of flour gave a nice crisp jacket. The wings were just hot enough to satisfy the two wing lovers at our table.

The happy hour deal, which runs until 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, includes $3 drafts, $5 specialty drinks and $4 glasses of wine -- and that's any of the 20 wines that Bar Louie offers by the glass. That's a terrific bargain.

The dining room is dominated by the bar, but there are plenty of tables and booths. And there is a full outside bar for these balmy evenings.Bar Louie

Our server was affable and tried to keep our table manicured even as we kept messing it up by passing plates and platters of food.

We left very happy. And this is part of the reason: The total bill for our party of six, including all the food and drinks, was $95.

Bar Louie's happy hour just may be one of the best deals in town.

Lago

Written by SJO Staff on .

Lago Baldwin Park

 Some people just don't get it.
Lago
They don't understand that when you're in the restaurant business you're in the people business. It is necessary for you to interact with your guests. And by the way, guest is the preferred word, not customer. A guest is someone you cater to, someone you make feel welcome.

Not at Lago, a gorgeous new restaurant in Baldwin Park. There they convey an attitude that they are annoyed to have people come through the door.

On my visit it started with the dour hostess who showed me and my guests to our table. Never once did she smile. When one of my friends told her that another in our party was celebrating a birthday, she replied, "You can tell your server."

That's the sort of response you expect from an uncaring bureaucrat , not someone in the restaurant business. But hey, she's just a paid employee. It's not like she's the owner.

No, that would be the dour, unsmiling man wearing a white chef's jacket standing next to the open kitchen. All throughout our meal he stood there, occasionally pacing a few steps either direction. And never did he interact with any of his guests, or, as he might refer to them, customers.
 
The only person he had any contact with was a young man wearing faded jeans and an untucked shirt.
Now, let me tell you something about the way the place looks. It's beautiful and stylish, with a lakeside location. The large dining room has spacious and comfortable booths, most of which have a view of the well-appointed open kitchen where several cooks toil away. At a far end of the room is a bar and lounge where a pianist provided appropriate jazz that could be heard throughout the restaurant. The ceiling is high, but attention to lighting keeps it from feeling like an expanse. It's very comfortable, and it is decidedly upscale. In fact, a surprising number of men dining that night were wearing sport coats.

So back to the guy in dungarees with his shirttail hanging out: he's the manager. And the son of the owner. Why would you build a gorgeous, upscale restaurant and allow your manager to dress like he's going shopping at Home Depot? And for the record, this gentleman did not visit any tables either. Nor did he even deign to grunt an acknowledgment or look a guest in the eye when he passed one.

But you want to know about the food. Most of it was good; none of it was great, certainly not enough to make up for the rudeness.

I was very excited to see ribolilta ($7) on the menu. Ribollita is a Tuscan soup that I fell in love with in Florence. Calling it a soup is a bit of a misnomer because the use of bread in the making all but absorbs the broth. It's traditionally made with day-old bread because it was a way for peasants to reduce waste.

 I've seen it on only one menu in America, in New York. The reason it can't be found in abundance is that it requires black kale, which is hard to come by in the states. Sadly, it can't be found at Lago either. What is served as ribollita here is a brothy stew with beans, carrots, spinach and potatoes. And on top, some croutons. Croutons!

The stuffed meatball ($10) was a more satisfying appetizer, in fact the tomato sauce it sat in was deliciously full-flavored and well seasoned.

Grilled pork loin ($18) was a nice entree. The tender meat was served over mushroom, lardon and ramp risotto and finished with an apple Madeira sauce. Stuffed veal involtini ($21) was also good, the meat filled with a mix of pinenuts, raisins and sausage. Seared snapper ($25) is served with shrimp and crab mixed with arugula, kalamata olives and capers; mozzarella-stuffed chicken breast ($18) is simple but dressed up with prosciuotto and sun-dried tomato sauce.

It should be mentioned that our server was quite pleasant and did her best to make us feel like guests. The kitchen, for all its occupants -- we counted nearly a dozen -- was inexplicably slow in getting the dishes out.

The restaurant was well attended and buzzing with the sort of activity that makes one question whether we're in a recession. But in a recession we most definitely are. People are still going out to eat, but they will be very careful with their dining dollars. Lago has the advantage of being new. Everybody wants to check out the new place. It's getting them to return that is the key to survival.

If I were the owner of Lago, I would be working that room, thanking each and every person for coming to my restaurant, and I'd make certain I did everything to ensure they wanted to come back. 

And if I were the manager I would dress at least as nicely as my customers, whom I would treat as guests.

Lago is at 4979 New Broad St., Orlando. The phone number is 407-331-5246. The menu can be viewed at the restaurant's Web site.

Raglan Road

Written by Scott Joseph on .

St. Patrick's Day -- a Tuesday!? -- I'm predicting a really unproductive Wednesday this week. I'm thinking they should always hold St. Patrick's Day on the same day, so that it's always part of a three-day weekend, just like they do with other holidays. Except instead of a Monday it should be on a Friday every year. Let's work on that. 

To help get myself in the mood for SPD, I attended a media dinner to launch a new cookbook by Raglan Road's chef partner Kevin Dundon titled Great Family Food. Raglan Road is not your typical Irish pub. For one thing, it's huge. You could probably fit the entire village of Bray, Ireland, under its roof. And it's also atypical for its food, which is a bit more stylized than your basic corned beef and cabbage and Irish stew.

For example, for our dinner Dundon started us out with a seared scallop on a mint and pea puree. Just saying the words mint and pea puree will get you thrown out of most pubs in Dublin. But it was tasty, as was the potato and asparagus soup, lighter and smoother than you'd expect.

The next course was shepherd's pie, but as I said before, things aren't done in a traditional way at Raglan Road, and this was certainly the oddest shepherd's pie I've seen. Here, the ground meat mixed with gravy was dolloped onto a large spoon with a little mashed potatoes piped on top. It was a little more than one should shove into one's mouth all at once, but there wasn't quite enough to reallly get a feel for the flavor.

The main course was quite impressive. It was a whole roasted pig complete with an apple in its mouth (a green apple, of course). Dundon sliced the meat off the pig for each guest and we quite literally ate high on the hog. The meat was succulent and the crackling, though not quite crispy, delicious.

The pig was paired with a crown of lamb, two racks of lamb tied together to resemble headgear. And each table had its own platter of root vegetables and roasted potatoes. The potatoes were seriously good -- they must have been soaked with fat. Yum. If an Irish restaurant doesn't have wonderful potatoes there's something wrong.

Dessert was a trifle, which is not to say it was insignificant. It was a preparation of sponge cake with fruits and cream. Dundon served the guests out of two large glass trifle dishes, and more than a few guests did not say no to seconds. (That oink oink noise wasn't coming from the pig on the platter.) The dessert was paired with a shot glass of honeyed mead, a delicious but not too sweet concoction.

And throughout, we were entertained by the house band, which, it should be mentioned, keeps the place raucously rowdy and makes conversation a chore.

At least there's something that's reliably traditional.

Raglan Road is at Downtown Disney. Information at Raglanroadirishpub.com. Phone number is 407-938-0300.

And here's a list of other Irish pubs that also serve food.


Liam Fitzpatrick's -- 951 Market Promenade Ave., Lake Mary; 407-936-3782. This beautiful pub pays more attention to its ales than its food. Best to stop in for a pint or two, then head elsewhere for grub.

Paddy Murphy's -- 4982 New Broad St., Orlando; 407-622-4700. Undoubtedly the rowdiest place in Baldwin Park, Paddy Murphy's often features live bands that crank the voume to the max. But the food, which consists of the basics, such as shepherd's pie and corned beef, is fairly good, and the service is pleasant.

Scruffy Murphy’s -- 2625 Edgewater Drive, Orlando; 407-835-7158.  After leaving its downtown digs, Scruffy’s has taken over the space in College Park that was briefly Adair’s and even brieflier Gio’s. Despite some exterior decorating there isn’t a lot of Irishness in the ambience. (A granite bar? Well la-di-da.) But it has the requisite liquids and does a surprisingly good job with the food. I especially liked the scotch egg, a hard-boiled egg with a jacket of spicy ground sausage and bread crumbs deep-fried. If it was a prepackaged jobbie it sure didn’t taste like one. The shepherd’s pie was also good, with a rich gravy with lots of flavor and mashed potatoes lightly crusted under the broiler. Bartender was friendly and kept the glasses filled. The music when I visited tended toward rap, heavy metal and head-banger; I didn’t hear one tune by the Irish Rovers the whole night.


The Celt -- 25 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando; 407-481-2928. Go through one door and you’re in the Harp, an Irish restaurant. Go through the other and you’re at the Celt, a pub, and a pleasant one at that. There’s more of a Gaelic vibe in the décor, and little touches like the wood and slate floor and hardwood tables make it seem like it’s been there for decades. When I visited for a recent lunch and asked for a table, a young woman told me I would have to sit at the bar because “all the tables are either full or dirty.” Couldn’t do anything about the people sitting at the other tables but why couldn’t someone clear the others? Turned out fine because the bartender was pleasant enough to make up for the young woman’s rudeness. I had a cup of potato and leek soup, which was a bit over thickened and under seasoned, and the cottage pie, which was an ample serving and a good enough rendition. There’s a nice Irish stew on the menu as well. No Irish music here, either. In fact, there was a VH-1 rock movie on two large televisions the whole time I was there.


Claddagh Cottage -- 4308 Curry Ford Road, Orlando; 407-895-1555. This little hole-in-the-wall near Conway Road just might be one of the most Irish of the area’s Irish pubs. It’s dark and rustic and sports the requisite memorabilia. It’s named for a fishing village near Galway and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the regulars are from there too. It’s more about the drinking here, but there is good food, including cottage pie and Irish stew. 
Fiddler’s Green: 544 Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park; 407-645-2050. situated at the confluence of Orange and Fairbanks Avenues, this big pub started out as the Prince of Wales, which is hardly Irish. But it converted over a decade ago and changed the menu to include all the basics. Pub games are a part of the draw.
No web site.

And for other Irish bar options, check out the Bars & Clubs column from Kelly Fitzpatrick in last Friday's Calendar section of the Orlando Sentinel. Hey, with a name like Kelly Fitzpatrick she has to know where the good Irish parties will be.

Red Wing Restaurant

Written by SJO Staff on .

Red Wing Restaurant in Groveland

When I first wrote about Red Wing Restaurant, the old-Florida restaurant in Groveland, far west of Orlando, gasoline prices were just starting their skyward surge. So it was a pretty tough sell to recommend that people hop in their SUVs and drive out to Groveland for dinner. Red Wing

But now that gas has gotten a lot more reasonable -- and more people have junked their gas-guzzlers -- it's time to reconsider a visit to this terrific little spot.

This review appeared originally in the Orlando Sentinel.

If you’re looking for “old Florida,” you can’t get much older than Red Wing Restaurant.

For over 60 years the stone building, which at one time was a private home, has served as a meeting place for Lake County growers, farmers, truckers and others. It’s the sort of place where you might find a boothful of grimy construction workers next to a table with a family with children and, not far away, a couple on a date.

And you shouldn’t be surprised to overhear, as I did on one of my visits, a man tell someone else that he was just there biding his time until the vet could come by to geld his horse. Not there at the restaurant.

At least I don’t think so.

But you will find some obscure menu items. It isn’t often that you see Buffalo fried frog legs. Even less frequently will you hear me say they were really good. The appetizer featured three haunches, each with plenty of meat, deep-fried and tossed with a hot sauce, a la Buffalo wings, except there was more meat on the legs than you’ll ever find on a chicken wing.

And if fried frog legs don’t appeal to you, or even if they do, you might want to try the fried dill pickles. Why this delicacy is seen so seldom I don’t know. But usually they’re served as dill chips. Here they’re long spears with enough surface area to hold the light batters and even substance to give a good, salty crunch.

Fried green tomatoes had a crisp breading with firm fruit inside. The ranch dressing was the perfect accompaniment.

If you’re appalled by all the fried food, try the crab cake, which was sautéed. Better yet, don’t. As one might guess from the $6.99 price, little crab meat was involved.

On a dinner visit my guest had the combination duck breast and butterflied quail. The grilled duck was a bit tough, but the quail was moist, although it lacked any gamey characteristics.

I had the special elk chops, which were also a bit bland but more tender than you’d expect elk to be.

On a lunch visit my guest had the fish and chips, which featured big chunks of pure white grouper with a golden crisp jacket. At first I thought it odd the fish was served without sauce, but after a couple of bites I realized none was necessary. The chips were sweet potato fries, which were firm, decidedly ungreasy and thoroughly delicious.

The black and blue burger was less enjoyable. It was cooked a bit beyond the requested medium-rare, and neither the patty nor the blue cheese that topped it offered much in the way of flavor.

For dessert there was an unusual cobbler made with multiple fruit and loaded with sugar. In fact the “cobbler” part of it seemed to be more sugar than anything else, but it wasn’t at all cloying.

Service was casual but not neglectful. The staff was as warm and welcoming to the city folks who stopped in as they were to regulars.

No one would ever confuse Red Wing with a fine dining restaurant. The place shows its age, and so do the various stuffed heads that decorate the dark paneled walls. The occasional beer sign also keeps the ambience from getting too highfalutin.

There is a long bar inside the front door, but it seems more of a lunch counter than a drinking spot. To the left and right are dining rooms, and in the back is a large screened area for private functions.

B.B. King's Blues Club at Pointe Orlando

Written by SJO Staff on .

Don’t go to B.B. King’s Blues Club expecting to see the music legend on the stage. Chances are he’s off in some other part of the world with Lucille, his famed guitar. But you can still expect to be entertained by some terrific musicians, if not one of the special acts booked at the club throughout the year then by the very able house band, a group of 10 singers and instrumentalists who get the place jumping every night.

And you can expect to chow down on Southern comfort foods, signature items from Memphis, the Mississippi delta and the bayous of Louisiana.

Well, OK, not all of it is authentically Southern, such as the nachos, unless you’re talking south of the border. My guest and I had put ourselves in the hands of the chef who sent out this massive mound of chips and cheese and other accouterments, including pulled pork. The chips were surprisingly crispy, and there were plenty of toppings.

However, I preferred the platter of fried dill pickles, smallish but crisp, and the meaty barbecued ribs with a sweetish sauce.

Better still was the bowl of gumbo ya ya, with smoked chicken, andouille sausage, crawfish and peppers in a roux as dark as the bayou.

For my entree I had the chicken fried chicken, a meaty breast with a jacket of buttermilk breading topped with pan gravy and accompanied by macaroni and cheese.

My friend had the Carolina bbq salmon, grilled and served on corn with shrimp in a creamy sauce, topped with shredded “tobacco” fries.

For dessert there was a decadently dense and rich chocolate brownie and a banana bread pudding with a firm texture that was a lot lighter than it looked.

The club is a huge warehouse like space with a high stage as the focal point. Tabletops are painted in the manner of folk art. The atmosphere is appropriately rustic and downright grungy -- you wouldn’t expect anything else from a blues club.

B.B. King's is at Pointe Orlando, 9101 International Drive; 407-370-4550.

Anh Hong

Written by SJO Staff on .

Anh Hong Vietnamese restaurant; quality takes a dive

I had the most unpleasant dining experience at Anh Hong the other night. Anh Hong, you may recall, is a past winner of Foodie Awards for best Vietnamese cuisine. There wasn't a thing about my recent visit that I would call positive, not the food, not the service and especially not the atmosphere.

And by atmosphere, I don't mean just the decor, which, to be sure, was dreary and had an unkempt and worn appearance. I also include the loud, head-banger music that was blaring in the restaurant, which apparently was being plaAnh Hongyed merely for the benefit of the server. Perhaps the owner figured that with the server's don't-give-a-damn attitude, playing his music was the only way to keep him there. (I say let him go.)

Even without the heavy metal, the food would not have been acceptable. My guests and I started with the Hanoi crepes, which the menu said included pork. But there was so little meat inside the largely bland pancakes that a vegetarian could have eaten them without guilt. We also had the summer rolls, with a smidgen of shrimp inside. They tasted as though they had been made some time before.

For my entree I had the rice platter with beef marinated in wine. There was little evidence of butter ins the sauce, as promised. One of my guests had the beef noodle soup, which was short on noodles and beef.

And to think I once awarded this place my Foodie Award for best Vietnamese. It's interesting that the plates the food was served on bore the name of Viet Nam Town, the now-closed restaurant across the street. Same owners, someone told me. If the food and service at that restaurant had dropped to the same level as it has at Anh Hong, it's no wonder it has closed.

Anh Hong is at 1124 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando. The phone number is 407-999-2656.

Padrino's Cuban Bistro

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Padrino's Cuban Bistro serves excellent Cuban cuisine

By virtue of sheer proximity, Florida has always been home to good Cuban restaurants, and Central Florida has had a pretty good share of them, though certainly not as many as South Florida.Padrino's

Now a popular South Florida restaurant, Padrino’s Cuban Cuisine, has opened a Central Florida outpost. To distinguish it from its Hallandale, Plantation and Boca Raton siblings, the new restaurant is called Padrino’s Cuban Bistro, and it’s presenting Central Floridians with a stylishly creative rendition of Cuban food in an atmosphere that is classy yet festive.

I'm prepared to call this the best Cuban food is Central Florida; it's really that good.

The menu is a mix of classic dishes, old family recipes and imaginative interpretations. My guest and I started our dinner with the classic empanadas, crisp, flaky pastries filled with a spicy ground beef mixture. They were served with a wonderful guava chutney that I could have eaten by the spoonful.

We also had a selection of tostones topped with ropa vieja, ground beef and chicken. The shredded beef of the ropa vieja was a favorite.

For my entree I chose Mayi’s mahi mahi, a colorful dish of red, green, orange, yellow, golden and white that featured a fresh-tasting fillet topped with fresh mango and pineapple chutney, served with mashed sweet potatoes and fresh vegetables.

My companion had the lechon asado, which was a study in browns. But what it lacked in color it made up for in flavor, a roast pork seasoned with a tangy citrus mojo. The meat was accompanied by arroz moro, a blend of fluffy white rice and black beans, and boiled yuca. The rice could have used some broth and was a bit under spiced, but the yuca, or casava, was delicious, specifically because it wasn’t too over-seasoned. Many Cuban restaurants tend to douse their yuca with so much garlic sauce that it takes on a acidic taste. Here there was just enough garlic to still enjoy the mild flavor of the root.

We couldn’t decide which of the desserts to try, so we sampled all three. And I still can’t decide which one I liked best. Pudin de pan, which I usually order just because I like saying it, was a perfectly custardized bread pudding with coconut and raisins graced with a rum-tinged dulce de leche.  Tres leches featured white sponge cake soaked with three sweet milks. And the flan -- one couldn’t possibly have a Cuban restaurant without flan on the menu -- had a creamy yet firm custard topped with sweet caramel sauce.

Service was friendly and helpful. Our waitress was able to answer questions about the menu with authority, and she kept the meal moving at a casual, unhurried pace.

One of the more distinctive things about Padrino’s is its decor, a bright and tidy spot that earns it the bistro designation.

The restaurant’s logo, a simple palm frond motif, is incorporated into the busy carpet. Colorful Cuban paintings that look like a form of cubism -- Cuban cubism? -- adorn the walls and lively Latin music plays at just the right volume in the background. Tabletops are bare, dark wood, decorated with a simple candle in a crackle glass lantern.

Padrino’s is very much a family business. Diosado Padrino opened the first Padrino’s Cuban Cuisine with his wife, Candida Rosa, in 1976 a few years after the family emigrated from Cuba. In 1982 their son, Mario, joined the business, and soon his wife, Nayade, did too. Mario and Nayade have relocated to Central Florida to oversee Padrino’s Cuban Bistro, and Nayade, who graduated from culinary school in 2006, is spearheading recipe development. They are usually at the restaurant tending to the customers and making sure that everything is first-rate. And it usually is.

Padrino's Cuban Bistro is at 13586 S. John Young Parkway, Orlando. The phone number is 407-251-5107

K2 Food Lounge

Written by SJO Staff on .

K2 Food Lounge a clever way to deal with restaurant recession

This is the sort of thing a clever restaurateur does to survive these difficult economic times.

K Restaurant Wine Bar in College Park is, of course, a fairly pricey place. With its signature porcini dusted filet mignon demanding $36, it isn't the sort of dinner you have to celebrate your latest 401(k) statement.

Many restaurants have made adjustments with less expensive ingredients, as I'm sure K has. And they're offering deals, such as prix fixe nights where the diner can have a three-course dinner for less than it would cost to order a la carte. K has such a deal. A prix fixe menu is offered each evening, and on Monday nights it is the only menu available.K2 Food Lounge But increasingly it isn't whether it's a good deal you're getting, it's how much you're spending. So now, Thursdays though Saturdays, K is offering K2, a food lounge that specializes in small plates with small(er) prices.

K2 is set up in the side dining room that was added to the restaurant several years ago to handle overflow from the main dining room. Overflow doesn't happen too often these days, so instead of sealing the room off, owner Kevin Fonzo and general manager Dan Francoforte repurposed it with the very clever name K2.

Offerings here are more along the lines of a tapas bar. The menu includes "firecracker" quail legs (I told you they were small plates); braised escargot; K2 fries with applewood smoked bacon salt; beef carpaccio; dork (that's duck and pork) sliders; lobster corn dogs; and charcuterie and cheese options. Prices range from $4 to $10.

My friend and I stopped in on a Friday evening. Actually, we had stopped in before on a Tuesday not knowing K2 was not open nightly. There was a group mingling in the K2 area and it became clear they were using it as a staging area while they waited for the rest of the group to arrive for a dinner in the main dining foom (K1). There were no staff members in the area to greet us, so we took a seat and waited for someone to come by. Evenutally a server came into the area and looked around, then, ignoring us, left the room. So I got up and went to the main dining room to find out if we had done something wrong by entering K2 through its separate door and not through K's main entrance.

No, said the fellow who moments ago had ignored us, we were fine where we were. And when I pointed out that no one had come by to take our order, he actually looked a bit peeved that I would suggest he was being inattentive.

Once we were finally greeted properly and assigned a waiter (not that one, thank goodness) things started moving. We ordered the sliders -- how could you not try something called a dork? -- which were spiced nicely and complemented with a house-made ketchup. Very tasty.  Fried oysters were a bit soggy and the cheese plate was interesting but fairly small, even for a small plate concept.

The by-the-glass wine list tries to reflect the lower price ideology, with choices as low as $5. Didn't find anything stellar, but I appreciated the effort.

The K2 space could use some spiffing up. It's a long narrow room with a very high ceiling. Something could be done with lighting to make it more comforatble. With the brick walls and the bowling alley effect I found the space cold and unwelcoming. K has always championed local artists by displaying their works on the restaurant's walls, but the narrowness of the room doesn't allow for good viewing angles.

Still, I think K2 is on the right track. People still want to go out to eat, and they want to go to good restaurants. Instead of trading down to a chain, they can visit K2, and have some decent food and affordable prices. No, the portions aren't big, but let's face it, restaurants serve too much food on a plate as it is. On the other end, this recession may turn out to be the best thing for the American waistline since Atkins.

K2 and K Restaurant Wine Bar are at 2401 Edgewater Drive, Orlando. The phone number is 407-872-2332. View the menu at the K Restaurant Web site.

Portobello

Written by SJO Staff on .

Portobello at Downtown Disney

Portobello

My experiences with the Chicago-based company have been less than stellar over the years. They all but ran Fulton’s Crab House aground, and when they took over ownership of his café, Wolfgang Puck came close to demanding they take his name off of it.

So I didn’t have high hopes when I visited Levy’s newly revamped Portobello, which did drop the words “Yacht Club” from its name, though not because of a maritime complaint.  

You may recall -- and if you do, boy, are you old! -- that when Pleasure Island first opened, everything had a theme and a story behind it. The island was the project, so the cockamamie tale went, of Merriweather Adam Pleasure who built the warehouse district for his own enjoyment, or, if you will, pleasure.

The structure that is the restaurant we speak of today was supposedly originally the home of Pleasure and his wife, Isabella. Disney, we were led to understand back in 1989 (I told you you were old!), along with Levy Restaurants had restored the old home into a yacht club. Never mind that there were no boats about, other than the faux paddlewheeler that was then called the Empress Lily, which is now home to Fulton’s Crab House. The restaurant featured Italian cuisine because of Mrs. Pleasure’s heritage and all the recipes were her own. (You may roll your eyes here, if you like.)

Portobello Yacht Club was quite good, as was Fulton’s when it first opened. The Fireworks Factory -- Merriweather fancied himself a fireworks fiend -- also run by Levy, was modestly OK. (The Fireworks Factory, which had the most un-Disneylike men’s room you could imagine, eventually became a country western bar and then was torn down for other projects I've forgotten about because I'm older than you.)

But then something happened, presumably in the ranks of Levy. Fulton’s, which once had been the best seafood restaurant in town, suddenly was only mediocre at best. And Portobello Yacht Club’s quality flagged too. I’ve already mentioned Wolfgang Puck’s reaction to the way they handled his namesake restaurant.

But the restaurant I found at Downtown Disney recently was very different from the old place.  The food was top-notch – creative interpretations of Italian dishes that were flavorful and filling. And I suddenly find myself able to once again recommend it as a destination. What a treat to have a restaurant to suggest for before or after a La Nouba performance.

My companion and I put ourselves in the hands of chef Steven Richard for the evening. Richard developed the menu in concert with Tony Mantuano, a James Beard Award-winning chef from Levy’s Chicago restaurant Spiaggia.

We started with an array of antipasti, including bresaola, capicolla, lentil salad, roasted beets, Gorgonzola, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and crostini with ricotta and honey. All were good, though the cheeses might have been better if they hadn’t  been so cold.

The restaurant is pushing its sambuca shrimp appetizer as a signature item, even presenting a recipe card upon seating. It featured four large shrimp on a layer of paper-thin sliced potatoes in a small iron Portobello skillet doused with liqueur and flambéed. Good, though I don’t quite understand the push to sell them (other than the price -- $13.95 – fetches nearly $3.75 per shrimp!).

Our pasta course featured ravioli gigante, distinctive in their size, which was comparable to a cocktail napkin, the creamy ricotta and spinach filling and the tangy tomato sauce.

The main course was a massive porterhouse steak, presented sliced in a skillet, the strip side sufficiently steaky in texture and the tenderloin side creamy tender. We also sampled the grilled lobster, presented split, sweet meat with a smoky note. There was, however, a preponderance of rosemary – and this from someone who adores rosemary.

Dessert brought a chunky tiramisu and a smooth crème brulee, though the server preferred to call it something else because creme brulee isn’t Italian.

The atmosphere is a little more bustling and informal than when it was the Portobello Yacht Club. The restaurant is sectioned into separate dining areas but each is open to the other, so there is an expansive feel. The decor gives more of a Tuscan steakhouse sort of feel. It’s a little less formal, though white tablecloths keep it from sinking into too casual a mood.

Speaking of sinking, the reason the restaurant is now known simply as Portobello is that when Disney closed Pleasure Island there was no reason to keep up with the whole legend from the past. Taking Yacht Club off the name removed any need to keep explaining the absence of yachts.

Our server was capable and knowledgeable, able to answer questions with authority. I was also impressed with the manager, who did more than just stand around and watch (I actually saw him wiping down countertops in the restroom!).

It’s that kind of dedication that makes a restaurant work.

I can’t wait to see if they’re working that hard at Fulton’s and Puck’s.

El Coqui Mexicano

Written by SJO Staff on .

I was a little hesitant when I suggested to a friend that we meet for lunch at El Coqui Mexicano. The last time I attempted a rendezvous at the little cafe, back toward the end of January, my friend and I were greeted with a hastily drawn sign on the front door that announced the restaurant would be closed until the end of the month.

Right, I thought. It's been my experience that whenever a sign like that appears on a door it means the owners have no intention of repening, and are usually several states away by the time anyone notices.

But El Coqui is open once again, and I've come to understand that the impromptu closing was the owners' unusual way of  doing things. It wouldn't be the most unusual thing, and certainly not the most annoying, but I'll come back to that in a moment.

For the most part I enjoyed my visit to El Coqui, which is named for a tree frog common to Puerto Rico. Oh, that's another unusual thing about this place -- not that it's named for a tree frog but that a place called El Coqui Mexicano would feature Puerto Rican food.

But that's a nod to the heritage of its two owners, Rico and Evelyn Martinez. Rico, despite what you might guess from his name, is from Mexico; Evelyn is from Puerto Rico. So the menu has food from both lands. They're separate on the compact menu, rather than presented as fusion cuisine, although that could certainly be interesting. If they ever try it, I think they should trademark the term Mexi-Rico.

I was in the mood for Mexican, and the huevos rancheros caught my eye immediately, and not just because it was the first entry on the menu board on the back wall. I just happen to love huevos rancheros, and so few places offer it that I usually grab it whenever I can.

But our server mentioned another dish, guarache, which seemed to have all the things I like about huevos rancheros with the added attraction of beefsteak. That's what I ordered.

My friend requested the chilaquiles, four tubes of crisply deep-fried tortillas rolled with shredded chicken inside. They were topped with a mildly spicy green tomatillo sauce and slathered with sour cream and white cheese.

My friend generously shared the chilaquiles, which was fortunate because it was several minutes more before my entree would be brought to the table -- just another unusual way of doing things here (but still not the oddest thing).

The guarache was delicious. Two seemingly fresh-made tortillas provided the foundation for refried beans, a thin beefsteak and two fried eggs, topped with the same toppings as the chilaquiles but more of them, especially the fresco queso.

El Coqui is a charming and compact place. Originally intended, I was told, to serve only as a takeout restaurant, tall tables and chairs were added when folks showed no intention of taking their food elsewhere. The walls and ceiling panels are painted in bright colors, and paintings of the restaurant's namesake adorn the walls. It is a very neat, clean space in every sense.

During our meal, my guest and I sipped our diet sodas. These were not our first choice. We had both requested only a glass of water. But our server told us the only water they served was bottled water. That's right: El Coqui will not serve its guests tap water. Buy something or go thirsty. According to a source at the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, there is no law that says a restaurant has to give its patrons free water. Though not to do so is simply lousy customer service. But I must add that the overall attitude of everyone there is welcoming and friendly. Still, in nearly 21 years of reviewing restaurants I never came across this one (even Ronnie's gave its patrons a glass of water!).

But, as I said, they tend to do things differently here. And the prices are quite low, so you can afford to buy some liquid refreshment. The chilaquiles were $7 and at $12 my guarache was the most expensive thing on the menu (my friend was buying!).

El Coqui Mexicano is at 2406 E. Washington St., Orlando (just east of Bumby Avenue behind a small bookstore). The restaurant is open Tuesday through Saturday until 7 p.m. each day, but don't hold me to that. On Sundays you can find the owners selling food at the farmers market at Lake Eola. The cafe's phone number is 407-601-4928. There is no Web site.