Sharks Underwater Grill at SeaWorld Orlando

Written by Scott Joseph on .

Each year, in July, the excellent Web site Theme Park Insider announces its awards for excellence in various categories among the country's theme parks. Best theme park restaurant is one of the categories.

This year, all five finalists are in Orlando theme parks, so TPI founder and editor, Robert Niles, has asked me to post my reviews of those restaurants for his readers, as well as readers of the flog here. I don't have a say in selecting the winner, that's up to you. At the end of each review, I'll give you a link to TPI's listing for that restaurant so you can vote or leave a comment. Robert will announce the winner on July 4th.

Previous reviews: Hollywood Brown Derby, Le Cellier and Mythos.

 Next up: Sharks Underwater Grill at SeaWorld.

When you walk into Sharks Underwater Grill at SeaWorld Orlando, it’s easy to see why it would be a favorite restaurant of so many. There aren’t many places in the world where you can dine next to a titanic aquarium while scores of exotic and dangerous sea creatures swim by. (OK, with Epcot’s Coral Reef restaurant we have two such places in Orlando -- we’re special.)

SUG also offers SeaWorld guests a (somewhat) quieter haven from the manic pace of the park and its seemingly inescapable rock music soundtrack. The lower light levels in the restaurant provide a serene respite, as well as better viewing of the deep-blue deep blue on the other side of the glass, and the music in here is a softer jazz.

Also, the staff is friendly and helpful, skilled at serving and knowledgeable about the fish floating by. They help provide an enjoyable and educational experience.

So there you have it. Sharks Underwater Grill is one terrific restaurant.

Oh, wait...I guess we should talk about the food.

 

Durian Durian Thai restaurant in Lake Nona

Written by Scott Joseph on .

 As the burgeoning medical city in the area known as Lake Nona continues to, um, burgeon, the ancillary businesses that will serve the community of doctors, researchers, students and educators are growing too.Durian Durian

That of course means restaurants, and among the inevitable Outbacks and fast fooders are a handful of hopeful independent restaurants. It’s nice to see them take an enterprising role in this frontier. But I hope more of them put more effort into their business than Durian Durian.

 

Oceanaire Seafood Room

Written by Scott Joseph on .

The Oceanaire Seafood Room is meant to take you back in time with its interior that suggests a 1930s ocean liner. I felt transported on my visits to the new Pointe Orlando restaurant, but not nearly that far back.
My trip in time was to 1996 and another venue meant to resemble a ship. That was the year the Empress Lily riverboat at Disney’s Pleasure Island was rechristened Fulton’s Crab House with a registry under the Levy Restaurants flag. Fulton’s chef had a passion for a variety of fish and delighted in bringing the freshest to Central Florida.
But a few years after it opened, the restaurant shifted course. It still specialized in seafood, but its manifest was more mundane, sticking to the snapper, tuna and salmon that one could find in any other restaurant.
So when I visited The Oceanaire and saw its list of fish that included wahoo, coho salmon, hogfish and marlin, I was heartened. And when I discovered that the quality of the seafood was good and the kitchen had an expertise in cooking it, I was pleased that Central Florida finally had another fine seafood restaurant.
Not that everything here is first-rate. In fact there were some mind-numbing stumbles and some annoying service policies. But overall, The Oceanaire offers an exceptional dining experience.
The menu, which is printed daily, as it should be in any fresh fish restaurant, requires some explanation from the servers. The top of the menu has a roster of 20 or so fish, but only those with a checkmark next to them are available.
Those that are checked may be simply grilled or broiled. Or they may be featured as one of the special preparations, such as the stuffed Alaskan halibut ($29.95) I enjoyed on my first visit. It featured a firm fillet wrapped around a satisfying mixture of shrimp, crab and creamy brie.
I also liked the black and blue swordfish ($28.95). The fillet wasn’t as thick as you might find in some swordfish, but it was deliciously tender and nicely blackened. The blue was provided by a splotch of Roquefort butter served atop the fish. Underneath was a confit of sweet onions.
Cioppino ($24.95) was a bit of a disappointment. Although ostensibly a stew, this cioppino had precious little broth, though I must say the soupcon that was there was delicious. But the chunks of fish that were served with it were overcooked.
The two simple preparations of fresh fish I sampled were quite good. On one visit my companion had the wahoo ($22.95), or ono, a mild fish similar to the mackerel. On another visit there was a monkfish ($23.95) from Georges Bank. It had the characteristic texture that mimics lobster meat but was a thick steak cut with the center cord intact. Not the prettiest presentation but quite good.
The crab cake ($14.95) was the most impressive appetizer. There was barely enough binding to hold the thick and sweet pieces of lump meat together. And fried calamari ($10.95) was better than the run of the mill variety with squid from Point Judith delicately breaded and fried. And I loved the shrimp De Jonghe ($8.95), an old-time appetizer, tender-firm shrimp sauteed in garlic butter and topped with bread crumbs.
The biggest disappointment came in the “grand shellfish platter,” and not just because the cost of the petite was a whopping $38. It consisted of a large saucer of shaved ice served on an elevated stand. Shoved in the ice were crab legs, a half lobster, shrimp, oysters, mussels and crab claws. Nothing on the pricey platter stood out as exceptional. The crab legs were a tad rubbery and the oysters, from Netart Bay, were a bit mushy. But the crab claw had gone bad and had the distinctive taste and odor of vinegar to prove it.
Baked Alaska ($5.95), flamed tableside, featured a bland ice cream center under a meringue igloo. The caramel brownie ($13.95), on the other hand, was wonderful chocolate goo.
The skill of the servers would be much more appreciated if they’d cut down on their spiel. Managers were on hand and readily stepped in to handle situations like spoiled crab claws. The wine list is limited but has plenty of fun seafood-pairing selections.
The interior is wood and palms and white tablecloths and avoids the trap of being too seaworthy or over-nautical. Obscure references to seafood and the sea are printed on the walls of the restaurant and restrooms. The men’s room has an odd quote, “The snotgreen sea. The scrotum tightening sea,” that is unattributed, although a well-read companion was sure it is by James Joyce. (It is.)
The Oceanaire Seafood Room has a number of touches to take the diner back in time – when was the last time you were served a relish tray? But its best attribute is the promise of a brighter future for Central Florida’s seafood scene.

Mythos Restaurant at Universal's Islands of Adventure

Written by SJO Staff on .

Each year, in July, the excellent Web site Theme Park Insider announces its awards for excellence in various categories among the country's theme parks. Best theme park restaurant is one of the categories.

This year, all five finalists are in Orlando theme parks, so TPI founder and editor, Robert Niles, has asked me to post my reviews of those restaurants for his readers, as well as readers of the flog here. I don't have a say in selecting the winner, that's up to you. At the end of each review, I'll give you a link to TPI's listing for that restaurant so you can vote or leave a comment. Robert will announce the winner on July 4th.

Previous reviews: Hollywood Brown Derby, Le Cellier

This week: Mythos

 It's been nearly 10 years since Universal Studios opened Islands of Adventure and, with it, Mythos, one of only two full-service restaurants in the park (Confisco Grille is the other). When I first reviewed Mythos in August of 1999, I concluded that the restaurant was suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. It didn't quite know what kind of restaurant it wanted to be. That shouldn't have been so surprising: Universal was still trying to figure out the identity of its two theme parks and had umbrellaed them under the “Universal Studios Escape” name. Remember that?

Mythos restaurantBut I had expected more from Mythos at the time. It was to have been the showcase for Steven Jayson, the highly respected and much acclaimed chef whose title is vice president and corporate executive chef for Universal Orlando. Even though he wouldn't be stationed in the kitchen, Jayson wanted Mythos to be his special project.

But the grand plan for Mythos didn’t pan out. It may be because Universal and Jayson wanted the restaurant to be one thing and the guests wanted it to be another. The original menu had such things as wood-roasted Maine lobster and tempura shrimp sushi, items you might expect to find in a fine dining venue. But the park goers weren’t looking for fine dining, they just wanted a place to eat where they didn’t have to stand in line for their food.

The need for a fine dining restaurant inside Islands of Adventure is further diminished when you consider that the park closes at 6 on most days and that Mythos takes its last priority seating at 4:30. Even the early bird diners don’t come out that early.

So Mythos today is somewhat different than the restaurant it started out to be. And it’s a better place for it. There are still some of the original items on the menu -- the risotto of the day and individual pizzas, for example -- but it has taken on a more casual air.

Two Brevard Restaurants: River Rocks and Tonic

Written by SJO Staff on .

I recently visited two Brevard County restaurants, both on the same evening. The first was River Rocks, on the western shore of the Indian River Lagoon in Rockledge. The second was back over the causeway and south a bit to Indian Harbour Beach. It's a trendy little place called Tonic. It would have been a perfect restaurant experience if I could have combined the two into one.River Rocks Restaurant

I loved the setting for River Rocks. The name is perfect, for that's the view for those who choose to sit on the wood deck. And why wouldn't you? The view is lovely, and the breeze is as salty as the ocean. It was a wonderful place to sit and relax and sip some nice wine.

It would have been a lovely place to have some good food, too, but that wasn't to be. 

Redrock Canyon Grill at Pointe Orlando

Written by SJO Staff on .

It's been more than two years since Pointe Orlando announced the major restaurants that would be part of the reinvention of this struggling entertainment/shopping/dining complex. We've visited Capital Grille (before it was purchased by Darden), Tommy Bahama's Tropical Cafe, Oceanaire Seafood Room, Maggiano's Little Italy, Taverna Opa and B.B. King's.

The last of the originally announced restaurants is Redrock Canyon Grill. Like those others, Redrock is part of a chain, but, also like the others, a one-off for this area.

But there is something distinct about Redrock : It doesn't seem to have an easily grasped purpose or reason to be. With all the others, there is a central focus -- steak, seafood, Italian, Greek, etc. Redrock Canyon Grill claims as its specialty rotisserie chicken, but that's hardly reason enough to open a restaurant. And it's certainly not reason enough for you to drive to Pointe Orlando.

And I also don't quite get the Redrock Canyon bit. If it is meant to be a theme, it's pretty subtle.

Still, I have to say that a lot of the food I had at Redrock Canyon Grill was pretty good. I still don't think the rotisserie chicken is anything special, but I had plenty of other things that I considered quite tasty.

And it's not that there was anything wrong with the chicken, which is good, because besides being available as a stand-alone item, it is included in several other dishes.

I sampled the rotisserie chicken as part of a combination the menu annoyingly lists as cluck-n-oink ($22). The bird was paired with pork ribs. If you don't know which is which, ask a 4-year-old to give you a refresher course on "Old McDonald's Farm."

It may also be mentioned here that the chicken is sometimes paired with steak, thereby known as cluck-n-moo, and at times the chicken is left out of the equation, and the ribs and steak are offered together. You'll be expected to order the moink.

I ordered the chicken and ribs. "You mean the cluck-n-oink?" asked the server. No, I told her, the chicken and ribs.

The chicken part was better than the pig, which were rather dry St. Louis-style ribs. The cluck, I mean chicken, was at least moist and well-seasoned. (By the way, you can watch the whirling birds on the wood-fired rotisserie to one side of the open kitchen.)

Melodie's chicken pot pie ($11) elicited no sound, neither from Melodie nor the pie. It was a pretty good pot pie, however, with a flaky crust filled with chunks of chicken, carrots, peas and redskin potatoes in less gravy than one usually finds in a pot pie.

One of my guests had the hickory grilled tenderloin filet ($26.75), a tender steak cooked just a tad beyond the requested rare and topped with Gorgonzola cheese butter and cabernet reduction sauce. Mashed potatoes and sweet glazed carrots rounded out the plate.

Persimmon Hill meatloaf stack ($14) wasn't exactly a stack, and I can't begin to guess what Persimmon Hill had to do with it unless that's some sort of code for spiciness. Because that was the main distinction of this ground-beef-and-sausage loaf, a bit of peppery heat. Not too hot, though, and quite nice with the thick mashed potatoes and al dente green beans.

On a lunch visit, I had the Western bacon cheeseburger ($10), a very large patty on a fresh bun with lettuce and tomato, enough bacon to cover the top and lots of melted cheese. For the first time in recent memory, a burger ordered medium-rare came undercooked, so much so that I considered sending it back. I didn't, for fear it would be overcooked when returned.

Appetizers included a rather anemic pollo quesadilla ($9) and shrimp cargot ($10), which I thought would be served a la escargot, but I've never had snails topped with melted cheese. The fiesta egg rolls ($9), stuffed with chicken, of course, along with corn and bell peppers, were an unlikely favorite.

For dessert, the Key lime pie ($6) was a fairly decent rendition, with a tarty filling on a graham cracker crust. The pineapple upside-down cake ($6) had a little too much Jim Beam bourbon sauce for my taste, something I never thought I'd say.

The serving staff is young and exuberant. There's a lot of "so, where are you from?" kind of chatter, but overall they were attentive and quick.

The restaurant is large and is basically one continuous room with a bar in the center. Ceilings are low, and with bare floors and the open kitchen, the noise level can be high. There are touches of stonework in the décor, which I suppose is meant to evoke a setting in the mountains, or, more specifically, in a canyon .

Redrock Canyon Grill has several items worth ordering, but I can't think of anything it offers that makes it unique, like some of its neighbors.

But for locals who might need a place to meet up with visitors in the International Drive area it is a good choice, especially if you stick to the more reasonably priced entrées. Then it's worth the trip.

9101 International Drive, Orlando. When: 11 a.m.-10:05 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11:05 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Reservations: Accepted. Beverages: Full bar. Sound level: Noisy. Wheelchair access: Good. Entrees: $10-$26.75. Credit: AE, D, DC, MC, V. Call: 407-363-3933. Web site: rrcanyongrill.com

Funky Monkey

Written by SJO Staff on .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Citricos

Written by SJO Staff on .

Disney's Grand Floridian Restaurant Continues Serving Fine Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Le Cellier

Written by SJO Staff on .

Canada Pavilion Steakhouse Finalist for Best Theme Park Restaurant Award

Each year, in July, the excellent Web site Theme Park Insider announces its awards for excellence in various categories among the country's theme parks. Best theme park restaurant is one of the categories.

This year, all five finalists are in Orlando theme parks, so TPI founder and editor, Robert Niles, has asked me to post my reviews of those restaurants for his readers, as well as readers of the flog here. I don't have a say in selecting the winner, that's up to you. At the end of each review, I'll give you a link to TPI's listing for that restaurant so you can vote or leave a comment. Robert will announce the winner on July 4th.

Le Cellier Last week: Hollywood Brown Derby.

Next up: Le Cellier

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

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

Frankly, I don't get it.

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

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

Sanaa at Kidani Village

Written by SJO Staff on .

Artful African with Indian Influences

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

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

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

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

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

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