Thai Lotus Cuisine

Written by SJO Staff on .

First bite: Thai Lotus Cuisine in Winter Park; have you been?

There's a concentrated grouping of casual restaurants on that corner of Aloma Avenue and Semoran Boulevard in Winter Park. You've got Tex-Mex, Mex, sports bar, Polish/European and 24-hour breakfast.
Now you can add Thai. Thai Lotus has taken over a space that looks as though it was once a sandwich place with a long ordering counter that is unused.

Instead, guests sit at tables and wait for someone to take an order. On a recent lunch visit that was a considerable wait, especially for the only other occupied table in the restaurant. The young couple sitting across the room from me were extraordinarily patient with the man who kept forgetting things they had requested.
The regular menu shows promise, with over 70 appetizer and entree listings that will sound familiar to Thai lovers all over.
The lunch menu was had limited selections and was rather odd -- it seemed to have been copied from a small Chinese restaurant. I had the tom ka gai, a coconut milk based woup with galanga, mushrooms and lime juice with a few chunks of chicken. The soup's broth was thin but the flavors were multilayered.
For my entree I had red curry with beef, which featured a sauce of coconut milk and pepper spices with basil leaves. It also featured chunks of pineapple, which I found annoying. Red curry recipes aren't set in stone and are up for variations, but if you're going to add something as unusual as fruit to a curry recipe it should at least be listed in the menu's description.
Also, a dish called red curry beef should have more than a few slivers of meat. I'm just saying.
But this was just a first visit. Perhaps another -- maybe an evening meal where the menu stays more focused on Thailand -- will show more promise.
In the meantime, have you eaten here? What do you think? Write a comment and let other know.

Two Blondes and a Shrimp

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Two Blondes and a Shrimp in Sanford

Two Blondes and a Shrimp was one of the restaurants I had lined up to review for the Sentinel when my tenure there ended. But I don't see any reason not to tell you about it now.

First, let's get past that name. The two owners -- this really shouldn't come as a big surprise -- are towheads. The shrimp refers to the small child of one of the owner, a kid who undoubtedly will be in therapy because of an inferiority complex by the time he's 18.

TBaaS is in the space that most recently held Blue Dahlia (and, not so recently, Sanford's first newspaper). It's a long, narrow space with lots of old brick, an old-timey tiled floor, and a really cool bar that runs the length of the room. There's a lot of good moodiness in the decor, but if you don't like it inside, there's a covered courtyard for outdoor dining.

The menu leans a bit to the South with an occasional dip in the Caribbean. You'll find such things as she-crab soup, Caribbean meatloaf and Cuban pulled pork.
For my appetizer I had the tomato pie ($5.50)which had slices of tomatoes and cheddar cheese in a flaky cream cheese pastry. It was pretty tasty and would have been perfect if the tomatoes had been a bit firmer.

For the entree I figured I should order something with shrimp (there weren't any small children on the menu), so I chose the barbecue shrimp and grits ($16), which featured good-sized shellfish sauteed with chorizo sausage on a bed of creamy, cheesy grits. I liked both dishes just fine.

Service, at least when I visited, was a bit lacadaisical, but that may just be some of the Caribbean flavor coming through.
Beer and wine are available, and the wine list features some nice by-the-glass selections.

Sanford has been doing pretty good with its downtown dining scene over the last few years. Hollerbach's Willow Tree German restaurant is just around the corner, and there are a couple of good Italian restaurants nearby as well.

If the Two Blondes can keep improving on service and putting out good food, they'll still be around when the kid no longer fits the diminuitive moniker.
Click here for information on Two Blondes and a Shrimp.

Antonio's La Fiamma

Written by SJO Staff on .

Antonio's La Fiamma still serves fine Italian food in Maitland

I had the pleasure of speaking to the members of the Meridian Club of Winter Park this noon (noon; meridian, get it?). And it was all the more pleasurable because they meet at Antonio's La Fiamma in one of the restaurant's upstairs private dining rooms.
Antonio's is the restaurant that wasn't supposed to survive, at least no one in the restaurant community thought it would make it, including me. Greg Gentile built his folly in 1990, taking an old Ponderosa steakhouse and adding a second floor to it. Must have cost millions, everyone whispered. He'll have to fill every seat at least twice every night of the week to even break even, they (we) sneered.

But Gentile knew what he was doing. On the first floor he installed a deli and market with imported Italian foodstuffs. One of his most brilliant moves was to allow the people dining in the deli to purchase a bottle of wine from the retail store to enjoy with their meal without the restaurant markup. He sold a lot of wine (and he wasn't giving it away). The deli featured a bakery that made fresh bread -- and at the time a lot of locals had never seen bread that didn't come out of a wrapper.
Upstairs, Gentile created a fine Italian restaurant, complete with honest-to-buono Italian waiters. So in this one building he had something for everyone. And just about everyone liked it. (I didn't at first, but I came around.)
Today's luncheon was not from the menu but rather something the kitchen created just for the meeting. It was a pork loin rolled with greens and cheese sitting on a mound of some rather delicious risotto. But even without tasting more from the menu, I could tell the kitchen still has it.

I'm happy to continue to recommend Antonio's La Fiamma. Gentile's spinoffs, in Celebration and on Sand Lake Road's Restaurant Row, go on as well. To get more information on all of them, click here.

The Pit

Written by SJO Staff on .

The Pit, a neighborhood pub with some interesting grub

You don't really know what to expect from a place that calls itself The Pit. Or maybe you do. Whatever your preconceived notion, it's not likely to be lofty. And that's just fine with this particular Pit, a fun little neighborhood pub with ties to the British Isles.

The Pit is in the strip mall that occupies the corner of Michigan Street and Conway Road in Orlando. It occupies the storefront that was the original location of Conway's BBQ, but let's not hold that against them.

The owners are from Wales and England, and they bring the camaraderie that British pubs are famous for to their South Orlando bar.

They don't really bring the food, although The Pit's Web site claims the menu is an amalgam of American, South African and British cuisine. I see mostly American, with a heavy emphasis of wings, sandwiches and burgers. In fact it was a particular burger, one called the Dagwood, recommended by a Sentinel reader, that sent me looking for The Pit in the first place.

I'm not sure why it's called the Dagwood; it has little to do with the sandwich made famous in the Blondie cartoon. This is a basic burger, albeit a good and thick one, made distinct with the addition of a fried egg on top. Interesting, maybe a little gimmicky, but it was a good burger even without the egg, which, by the way, had a hardened yolk so it wasn't too messy to eat. The Pit crew is obviously trying to outdo the burger at Johnny's Fillin' Station farther down Michigan Street. (I haven't made up my mind yet if they've succeeded; let me know what you think.)

I also tried the pork loin sandwich thinking it might be the breaded and fried variety found in the Midwest (the Midwest United States, not the Midwestern British Isles). But this wasn't that. It also wasn't a sandwich, really. It featured three slices of roast pork loin, seasoned with plenty of rosemary, laid atop a slice of bread. The meat was tender and the rosemary made it especially tender. And I have to say that for $8.49, which included fries, this was a bargain of a meal, even though the fries in question weren't very good.

There are a few tables and chairs hugging the wall of the narrow space, but the best seating is in the big comfy stools at the bar. But don't sit there if you have an aversion to being chatted up by the friendly owners. If you're the type that hates being made to feel welcome, you're just not going to like this place at all.

The Pit is in the Mariner's Village, 4580 E. Michigan St., Orlando. For hours, phone and menu, click here.

Enzo's on the Lake

Written by Scott Joseph on .

I stopped in for dinner at Enzo's on the Lake in Longwood the other evening. It was the first time I'd dined there since Enzo Perlini died in October 2006. I hadn't really expected to see much change. After all, Perlini had pretty much turned over operations to his ex-wife, Joann Ross, after he became ill and, for a time, returned to Rome. She was doing a fine job when I last visited for a review in the Orlando Sentinel in 2005. Here are my latest observations...

Enzo's is situated in an old converted house on the shores of Lake Fairy. The old house is showing some age, but then aren't we all. Still, it would benefit from a little sprucing up. (And, again, wouldn't we all.)

The food is still first-rate, however. My dinner companions and I started with the antipasti, a platter of assorted goodies that our server culled from the table at the back of the main dining room. (Note: you are not allowed to go to the table to collect your own selections; it's not a buffet.) There were wonderful roasted peppers, olives and tangy cheese.

We followed with an arugula salad -- rocket salad, the Italians call it -- with a light vinaigrette.

Snapper was the feature of the main course, a slightly soft fillet but nicely grilled and dressed with oil and capers. We also enjoyed a side of pasta in a light cream sauce.

Other favorites remain on the menu. I've always been a fan of the bucatini alla Enzo, which features fat, hollow pasta tossed tableside with prosciutto, peas, bacon and mushrooms, all topped off with a sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan cheese. And the costaletta di vitello is about as good a veal chop as you're likely to find in the town, grilled to perfection and finished with butter and just the slightest waft of truffle essence.

And the abbachio del duca, delicate lamp pops stuffed with siitake mushrooms and fresh herbs, is a real treat.

When dessert rolls around, and if you're not rolling around too much yourself by then, go for the tiramisu.

Enzo's has been around a long time now. It's another testament to the growing sophistication of Central Florida's diners. When it first opened, locals didn't understand that what Perlini was serving was authentic Italian fare -- most wanted to know where the spaghetti and tomato sauce or manicotti were. (They were in the Americanized chain restaurant down the street.) Slowly, Central Floridians came to embrace true Italian food. Now it can be found in dozens of local Italian restaurants, and many do it quite well.

But few do it as well as Enzo's did, and still does.

Chatham's Place

Written by SJO Staff on .

Chatham's Place

Chathams Place

It had been a while since I'd dined at Chatham's Place -- five years, I think. And that time I was someone else's guest so I wasn't officially "working" and I wasn't paying close attention to what was going on. I do remember the food being quite good, as it always has been in the past.

Chatham's Place has gone through some changes, and much more than the fact that there are no members of the Chatham family involved in the restaurant. That's not an issue; Louis Chatham, who served as executive chef, and his mother, Bettye, who ran the dining room in those first years, sold the operation years ago to Chatham's sous chef, Tony Lopez, the maitre d', Maurice Colindres, and a hostess, Carol Conwell. The three of them kept it going as strong as ever, perhaps stronger. It was clear that this was an operation of love for the three of them, and they worked together to make it a continued success.

Late in 2006, Carol Conwell died. Lopez and Colindres have kept the place running pretty much the way it has always been run, as a fine dining restaurant with a small but versatile menu served with professionalism and grace in a romantic atmosphere.

Many of the dishes that became signatures back in Louis Chatham's days remain on the menu, including the Florida black grouper ($34), which has been one of my favorite Central Florida entrees for many years. It features a fresh fillet, thick and white, lightly sauteed and topped with pecan butter and scallions, dusted with just a soupcon of cayenne pepper. The pecan butter places the dish firmly in the south and the pepper points it towards New Orleans. But with the use of Florida black grouper I think we can just claim this one as one of our native dishes, don't you?

My companon had the rack of lamb ($34), another long-time favorite, this one distinguished only by its high quality meat, pan-roased to a flacid medium-rare, and served with rosemary infused jus.

Appetizers weren't as stellar as in the past. The lobster bisque ($7/cup) was heavy and with too little lobster flavor. Crabmeat en croute ($19.50) featured a very large puff pastry with jumbo lump crabmeat and shiitake mushrooms dressed in a garlic and Cajun butter sauce. The puff pastry overwhelmed in this case.

Service is still stellar, with Colindres handling the bulk of the dining room duties. It doesn't appear that much has changed in the decor, which is tastefully elegant with white tablecloths and red napkins in the intimately small dining room. The window into the kitchen, however, has never offered much of a pretty view.

When Conwell died, Colindres told me that it was the intention of the remaining partners to keep the restaurant open in her honor. They've done her memory proud. It's still one of the gems of Restaurant Row, and I hope it will continue to be for many years to come.

Liam Fitzpatrick's Irish Pub

Written by SJO Staff on .

Liam Fitzpatrick's Irish pub in Lake Mary

Liam Fitzpatrick's Irish Pub

Liam Fitzpatrick's is a new Irish pub in Lake Mary's Colonial Town Park complex, just across from  Dexter's and Amura and almost next door to the restaurant space that has had at least three tenants in just a few short years. Lake Marians, it seems, will not suffer inferior restaurants gladly.

So it will be interesting to see how they accept this new business. On one hand, it's a beautiful pub, elaborately styled with painstaking details that call to mind a sort of upscale Dublin drinking house.

On the other hand there's the food.

The menu has all the traditional pub favorites. There's shepherd's pie, fish and chips, and, of course, herb-marinated Hawaiian sunfish.

Huh?

I stuck with the shepherd's pie, a dish that, frankly, one never expects too much from. It's really quite basic. But this one was particularly disappointing. The meat was meager and the mashed potatoes that topped the soupy gravy were too thin. However, I did like the fresh vegetables that were served on the side. There were zucchinis. yellow squash and carrots, all in big hunks and all al dente.

I also liked the practice of bringing a bowl of thick, kettle-cooked potato chips to the table. It reminded me a little of Gallagher's in New York.

My server made a couple of missteps, but overall she was good. When a guest left all his change in the check folder, the server returned after picking up the folder to make sure he had meant to leave all that change for a tip. (He hadn't.) You don't see too many waiters do that, so kudos to her.

With only a single visit, my assessment of Liam Fitzpatrick's is that it would be a fine place to go for a pint or three, but they need a little help with the food.

For more information, go to Liam Fitzpatrick's Web site.

Tabla Bar & Grill

Written by SJO Staff on .

Tabla Bar & Grill Indian restaurant near Universal Studios

Tabla

Tabla Bar & Grill is a terrific Indian restaurant in a really lousy location and space. The dining room has the feel of having once been the sort of diner you usually find attached to a motel. And, in fact, it seems to be attached to something similar, perhaps a timeshare facility. To get to the restaurant you have to pass a booth touting tickets to local attractions as well as a convenience store of sorts.

But the important things, the food and the service, are first-rate. The cuisine is authentic, and the staff is welcoming and friendly and they go out of their way to do a little extra.

Take, for example, the offering of rasam as an amuse bouche, or whatever the Indian words for that would be. Rasam is like a spicy, thinner tomato soup. At times it can be quite fiery, as was the case when I reviewed Udipi Cafe for the Orlando Sentinel. Tabla's rasam was delicious, although it was odd that on one occasion it was served warm and on another it was room temperature. One of the servers -- not our waiter but they all seem to work together to help each other out -- picked up the empty glasses the rasam was served in and told us if we liked it that way we should try it with pepper-infused vodka. We agreed that it sounded like a terrific idea. And a few minutes later she returned with two cocktails of a rasam-based bloody mary with a salt rim. Delicious. (And for those of you who know the area Indian restaurants, you'll be surprised to know that Tabla is apparently the only one in Central Florida with a full liquor bar -- no need to limit yourself to a Kingfisher beer.)

Another helpful server on a lunch visit suggested that instead of ordering two appetizers, each costing about $8, I could order a sampler of any three apps for a mere $9. That' a great bargain.

And the appetizers were very good. I especially liked the momo, steamed dumplings filled with ground lamb. The vegetable filled samosas were also good, light and crispy with seasoned potatoes and peas inside.

My favorite among the entrees was the alu bukhara gosht ($20), hunks of lamb in a sauce seasoned with plum and ginger, which gave a sweet note to counter the spiciness. I also enjoyed the murgh dhansak ($15), chicken in a sauce flavored with pumpkin and fenugreek with lentils. It was ordered medium-spicy, which was just hot enough to perk up the taste buds without singeing them.

Lamb rogan josh ($18) was a more recognizeable dish of lamb with tomatoes and almonds. There is a long list of vegetarian dishes. I had the cauliflower mussallam ($12), which had florets in a creamy sauce tinged with tomatoes.

One low point: the rice served with the dishes was a bit too dry and lacked the flavor usually found in basmati rice.

There is a good list of naans, the traditional Indian breads cooked in a tandoor. My guest and I favored the keema naan, which was baked with ground lamb in the bread.

TablaOne of the odd things about Tabla is that the sign out front doesn't say anything about it being an Indian restaurant, and most people who see it -- if anyone sees it, given its location behind the Twin Towers hotel (I've lost track of whether they're a Sheraton, Radisson or Crowne Plaza) -- will probably think it's Italian for table. However, tabla is a drum used in Indian music. A couple of them are displayed on the front table, part of a minimalist decorating scheme. 

But don't let the location or atmosphere sway you. Tabla is a good Indian restaurant, and those who love the cuisine with find some wonderful tastes not found at many of the other area restaurants specializing in the foods of India.

K Restaurant and Wine Bar

Written by SJO Staff on .

K Restaurant and Wine Bar

K Restraurant

It's nice to see that K Restaurant and Wine Bar is doing good business, at least at lunch time. With all the talk about people cutting back on eating out, it was good to see so many tables occupied there today.

Actually, it's probably a sign of the economic times that people are shifting their dining out patterns. Those who would go to a fancy restaurant at dinner now go to a more casual eatery. Or, instead of dinner as their meal out, they choose the more upscale restaurant for lunch.

Whatever, K is a good choice for either. I reviewed it in the Sentinel almost exactly one year ago, and that assessment stands. Add to it the delicious experience I had at lunch recently, with a plate of potato chips smothered in crumbled and slightly melted blue cheese. Sort of an upscale plate of nachos.

I had the Nicoise salad, which featured two big hunks of seared tuna on mesclun greens with chunks of potatoes, wedges of hard-boiled eggs and tangy olives.

I also had a taste of the diver scallops entree, three massive discs seared just so with a slight bit of salt to season. Tender yet with firmness.

Service was the usual K quality of attentiveness without hovering. My companions and I were allowed to set the pace.

K is still a terrific choice, lunch or dinner. And, by the way, if you're looking for a dining deal, try K's Monday night prix fixe menu.

Norman's

Written by SJO Staff on .

Norman Van Aken Celebrates Five Years of Fine Dining in Orlando at Anniversary Dinner with Dean Fearing

Norman's Norman's, the fine dining restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes Resort in Orlando, celebrated its fifth anniversary Sunday with a lavish five-course meal co-cooked by Dean Fearing. Fearing, who, like Van Aken, is a James Beard Foundation award-winner, rose to fame as the chef of the estimable Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas. He now has his own restaurant, Fearing's, at the Ritz-Carlton Dallas.

Van Aken, of course, was one of the innovators of New World Cuisine, also known as Floribbean, that caused a culinary sensation in the late '80s. Van Aken and others, including Mark Militello, recognized that Florida didn't really have a cuisine of its own, so they co-opted the cooking techniques of the islands and adapted them to Florida's ingredients.

Saturday's sold-out dinner filled the posh restaurant with regulars who paid as much as $250 per person for the special occasion. The evening began with a champagne reception with tapas, including wonderful ceviche served in spoons and doughy pot stickers.

Guests were seated at 10-top tables that circled the marble-floored room. The first course was a chilled salad of red and yellow beets garnished with a dollop of apple wasabi sorbet, toasted pistachios and a bit of paddlefish caviar, which gave the beets a delightful little pop. The salad was accompanied by a Portuguese white wine, a 2005 Quinta Do Feital Alvarino "Dorado."

WineDean's barbecued shrimp taco was next, a fresh flour tortilla rolled more taquito style and served with mango-pickled onion salad. A 2007 Melville Estate viognier, which had a wonderfully fruity nose and complex tastes of peaches and apricots in the mouth. A delightful little sipping wine, with or without food.

The fish course featured a salmon fillet rolled with lapsang souchong, a black, smoked tea, sitting atop creamy Yukon Gold potatoes and topped with three pearl onions and crispy wafer fashioned out of salmon skin, which people either loved or hated (it had a nice salty taste). Patz & Hall's 2005 Pisoni Vineyard pinot noir from Santa Lucia Highlands in California was the accompanying wine. It was chosen, we were told, because the sauce with the fish was made with pinot noir. I didn't quite taste the connection, but I loved the wine nonetheless.

But the best wine came with the meat course, a buffalo tenderloin crusted with maple and black pepper. The meat was surprisingly tender -- grass-fed, we were told -- and the plate included jalapeno grits and a wonderful taquito filled with butternut squash.

Two wines, both made with syrah grapes, were offered with the meat course, a 2006 French Crozes-Hermitage Silene from Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, and a 2005 Domaine Serene Rockblock from Seven Hills Vineyard in Oregon's Walla Walla Valley. The French wine was fine, but the Oregon Rockblock, so named because the vines grow in rocky soil, blew it away. The Oregon wine had rounder notes with tastes of black cherries and currants. 

The meal ended with stylized "s'mores" fashioned out of crushed graham crackers topped with brandied chocolate ganache and toasted marshmallow. A Spanish dessert wine, a 2004 Bodegas Olivares Dulce Monastrell, was offered, but I preferred to stick with the Rockblock.

It's wonderful to have a restaurant of Norman's quality as part of Orlando's fine dining scene. Here's to many more years of innovative cooking.

Visit  Norman's for information.