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.

Aroma Italian Cafe

Written by SJO Staff on .

Aroma Italian Cafe and Wine Bar has Surprisingly Good Food

I say surprisingly because Aroma is housed in a little slip of a place that you wouldn't think could possibly muster up anything more than some ciabatta slathered with marinara and melted mozzarella. But the food here is not only substantial, it's also quite good.

"Housed," by the way, is the appropriate word because Aroma is in what used to be someone's home on Washington Street.

This is not the first time I've written about Aroma. I reviewed it in a Chow Hound column for the Orlando Sentinel almost exactly one year ago in the Dec. 14 issue of Calendar. Back then it was known as Aroma Coffee & Wine Bar, and was a new venture by the former owners of Babbo Italian restaurant on Edgewater Drive (which is now the Fonzo brothers' Nonna).

The new owners of Aroma, Jeff and Gloria Pattishall, have dropped coffee from the name and are focusing on the Italian cafe and wine bar aspects. And the food that I sampled recently indicates they're wise to do so.

It should be mentioned that this still isn't much of a restaurant, or even a cafe, in terms of service and overall experience, though don't get me wrong -- the Pattishall's are lovely hosts, it's just that the service is more casual. The tables are small, more suited to glasses of wine and small plates of appetizers than full-sized dinner plates. But there are bigger tables on the terrace out front, which is a nice place to people-watch in charming Thornton Park.

I liked Eustacchio's lentil soup, though I don't have the foggiest notion who the heck Eustacchio is. (The menu has a picture of an older man next to the soup entry, so we'll just assume that's Eust himself.) The soup was an entree-sized serving with multiple levels of flavors and lots of little lentils with fresh veggies. I thought it was a bit pricy at $9.95, but it did include a small salad and lots of fresh ciabatta bread.

(I asked Gloria who made the bread, though I knew the answer before she confirmed it -- Olde Hearth continues to make the finest breads in the area.)

One of my companions had lasagna, house-made with layers of perfectly al dente pasta and rich red sauce, with meatballs and sausage blended in.

The penne served with another companion's Italian sausage plate was not as nicely cooked. It was a bit over-boiled and had a mealy texture. But the sausage was wonderful, with terrific spicy notes. The meatball entree was tasty too.

It would be wrong to say that Aroma is a welcome addition to the neighborhood since it's been around for over a year. But let's just say the Pattishalls are a welcome addition to the neighborhood, and they're bound to make Aroma -- and Thornton Park -- an even better place to eat and drink.

Aroma is at 712 E. Washington Street, Orlando. The hours are 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday (as long as there are people there, they tell me, or else they'll close earlier), and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. The phone number is 407-426-8989. The cafe does not have a Web site yet, but you can download the menu pdf right here. icon Download the new Aroma Italian Cafe menu (227.9 kB)

We had started with the antipasto misto, which had olrives, roasted red peppers, wonderful hunks of asiago and parmesan cheeses, as well as fresh mozzarella, with prosciutto and salami. It was a feast in itself.

The wine list is extensive given the size of the place, and there are dozens of selections by the glass, which is how it should be in a wine bar.

Brick & Fire Pizza and Pasta Parlor

Written by SJO Staff on .

Brick & Fire Pizza and Pasta Parlor

It looks like Brick & Fire has found the perfect home.Brick & Fire Pizza and Pasta Parlor

You may remember Brick & Fire when it was located inside Church Street Station until late last year. Or, you may not remember, because precious few people found their way to that part of downtown during the obstructive construction of 55 West. But even without that distraction, there were other factors that prevented Brick & Fire from finding its niche.

A couple of those reasons had to do with Cameron Kuhn. B&F owner Mark Dollard has had a few concepts in that space, including the promising Absinthe Bistro. But when Kuhn bought the entertainment and dining complex, he dictated, according to Dollard, that if he wanted to stay he would have to offer a pizza concept. That was an element that was missing in the complex. And, said Dollard, Kuhn wanted it to be more upscale, so he wanted it to be called Brick & Fire Pizza and Wine Co.. The wine just made it oh so much more appealing, don't you agree?

Dollard complied, and when I reviewed Brick & Fire for the Sentinel last April, I thought he was doing a pretty good job. I especially liked the pizza, which had the appropriate elasticity in the crust, and was browned just right from the oven, an actual brick oven with real fire, just as the name promised.

But then Kuhn started having financial difficulties, and Church Street Station went into a bankruptcy situation. Dollard, like all the other restaurant and retail owners on the block, found himself in limbo. With a combination of poor traffic, an unsure future, and a present that included rent of $34,000 a month, Dollard decided to finally cut bait on Church Street. Over the course of just a few days in November, he and business partner John Dobson moved the business to a stand-alone building on South Orange Avenue near the Orlando Health medical complex. By all accounts, it seems to have been a very smart move.

The building  doesn't have the provenance of Church Street Station -- ironically, it started life as a Pizza Hut, but most recently it held a Moe's Southwestern fast fooder -- but it has a casual atmosphere that suits Dollard's cuisine quite nicely. This is your basic pizza joint. And with no one to dictate what they must call the restaurant, Dollard and Dobson dropped the Wine Co. and added Pasta Parlor.

I stopped in recently and ordered the four meat pizza pie, one that I had enjoyed at the old location. But being extra hungry, my companion and I asked our server what we could get super fast while we waited for the pie to bake. She suggested an appetizer order of the beef & pork meatballs. I'm glad she did. The meaty balls were compact and well-spiced, and the marinara sauce they swam in was piquant with bright flavors.

The pizza arrived and it was good -- loaded up with pepperoni, salami, capicola and sausage with meatballs and more good sauce. But there was something slightly different about this pie when compared to the one Dollard cooked on Church Street. He told me there was indeed a difference but it had nothing to do with the ingredients. The variance was the result of different ovens. The Church Street location had a $40,000 oven; this location had a less expensive, standard pizza oven, perhaps left over from the Pizza Hut days. It made a difference, but not so much as to detract from the overall result. Brick & Fire still serves a damn good pizza even without Bricks or Fire.

There is, by the way, still wine, even though it isn't part of the official name anymore. The offerings aren't stellar, but the prices are impressive: how about $1.99 for a glass of house wine? It isn't the most generous pour, but still, that's pretty good.

And the alcohol selections will remain only beer and wine. On Church Street Brick & Fire had a full liquour bar. Dollard and Dobson had planned to have a full bar in their new location. But when they saw that families made up a good portion of their clientele, they decided to scrap those plans.

For his part, Dollard seems much happier now. And why wouldn't he? He went from $34,000/ month rent to $4,000/month. And he has a lot more customers. And the customers are happy because they can park next door to the restaurant -- for free -- and have good food in a friendly atmosphere. Everybody wins.

Except Church Street Station.

Brick & Fire is at 1621 S. Orange Ave., Orlando. Lunch and dinner is served daily. Pasta dishes range from $9.95 to $12.95; pizzas are the same prices for 10-inch pies, $17.95-$23.95 for 16-inchers. The phone number is 407-426-8922. More infor and a look at the menu at Brick & Fire's Web site.

Ocean Prime

Written by SJO Staff on .

Ocean Prime serves seafood and steaks on Restaurant Row

This is a review of Ocean Prime that I wrote for the current issue of Orlando Style magazine. Note: Ocean Prime will be closed all day Super Bowl Sunday.

Ocean PrimeOcean Prime, an elegant supper club, is the latest tenant to open in the Rialto, a new development on Sand Lake Road’s Restaurant Row. The name is meant to convey the restaurant’s specialties: seafood (Ocean) and steaks (Prime).

It’s difficult to consider Ocean Prime without drawing comparisons to the Oceanaire Seafood Room at Pointe Orlando. Both offer a more upscale dining experience. In terms of décor and overall ambience, I’d give the edge to Ocean Prime. 

The main dining room features warm wood walls with huge five-foot portholes that look through to the lounge area. (The dining room has its own bar for more intimate imbibing, a nice touch.) Touches of blue neon and a soft glow from drumlike light fixtures offer romantic notes, and white tablecloths and candles with frosted shades add a touch of elegance.

But in terms of the food, the kitchen has not quite reached its prime. 

My guest and I started with the chef’s selection of East and West Coast oysters, which netted us two from each coast for a $12 charge. The person who delivered the bivalves could only tell us which side of the country they came from and was unable to narrow their origins further. The presentation was less than stellar, and the oysters themselves were rather puny.

(And by the way, the chef of the chef's selection is Todd Baggett, who is known to restaurant-goers in Central Florida from a number of venues, including the Boheme in downtown Orlando, Wolfgang Puck Cafe at Downtown Disney, Beluga at Winter Park Village and, just down the road from his new home, Moonfish.)

A “surf n turf” appetizer had lovely sea scallops and boneless short ribs plopped together in a smallish bowl with way too mashed potatoes. Good scallops, good ribs, bad presentation.

Onion soup was distinguished by a near lack of broth under heavy cheese; she-crab soup had a slight astringency and was not nearly as rich as it should have been.

I went the prime route with my entrée, choosing the ribeye, a gorgeous piece of meat cooked just right but unfortunately over salted.

Blackened swordfish, listed as a chef’s specialty, was a very nice hunk of fish, deftly cooked but fairly mundane. Wilted spinach and jalapeno corn tartar didn’t add much to the dish.

Desserts feature such creations as chocolate peanut butter pie, crème brulee and baked Alaska, which I’ve seen only on one other menu in town: the one at Oceanaire.

Service was professional and thorough, and once the kitchen makes the right improvements, Ocean Prime will be a good choice.

Ocean Prime is at the Rialto/Orlando, 7339 W. Sand Lake Road, Orlando. Dinner is served nightly. The phone number is 407-781-4880. Here's the Web address, but a workplace warning: the Web site plays loud music.

Bravo! Cucina Italiana

Written by SJO Staff on .

Bravo! Cucina Italiana

Restaurant Row is expanding westward beyond the Marketplace at Dr. Phillips Boulevard, its traditional boundary. And as it does, it takes on a decidedly Italian flair. Newly constructed strip malls give one the impression that a Venetian look was what the designers had in mind. Even the streets have Italian-sounding names, like Via Dellagio Way (well, the first two words sound Italian; Way, not so much).Bravo!

And in fact, Via Dellagio Way is the address of Bravo! Cucina Italiana, an Italian chain making its debut in the Orlando area, indeed in all of Florida. Sort of. When you visit Bravo! you may have the distinct feeling that you've been there before, especially if you've dined in a Brio restaurant.

Besides their names, which have several of the same letters, Brio and Bravo! also share the same owner, BDI, which stands for Bravo! Development Inc., a Columbus, Ohio, based company. The decor at Bravo! is similar to the Brios at mall at Millenia and Winter Park Village, at least to a casual observer. But according to a manager at Bravo! there are subtle differences, not only in the decor but also in the menu.

Bravo! is meant to be more casual and less expensive than Brio. Brio strives for a more Tuscan grill sort of environment, whatever that's supposed to mean. Brio's menu emphasizes more steaks than pastas; Bravo! the other way around. My most recent visits to the two Brio's were less than impressive. But my two visits to Bravo! were encouraging.

About 30-40% of the menu is the same as at Brio, according to the manager (I wonder what percentage of that includes the many items that Brio buys premade from a certain Orlando-based culinary kitchen?). Like Brio, Bravo! features several flatbread pizzas. I liked the chicken, spinach and bacon flatbread, which had creamy spinach dollops and chunks of chicken on top of a crispy crust. A sprinkling of bacon gave it a smoky flavor, applewood smoky, to be exact.

For an entree I had the lasagna, or, as it's called on the menu, Mama's lasagna Bolognese. The most impressive thing about the entree was that it was huge, easily enough for two people (and as it turns out, enough for two meals). It was also pretty tasty. The addition of Alfredo sauce gave it a texture similar to Greek moussaka -- and that's the first time I've compared a lasagna to moussaka; usually it's the other way around! There was also a hearty meat sauce, as you would expect from the presence of Bolognese in the name. (There was not, however, any Mama in it.)

Like Brio, Bravo! is a large open dining room, though not as big, with an onstage kitchen. Booths are comfy and the decor is nicer than casual, with big alabastery light fixtures and a large bar at the far end of the room. A nice feature of the restaurant is that there is another bar outside on the terrace, which overlooks -- no, not the Piazza San Marco -- Sand Lake Road below. It's a nice large patio and a pleasant place to dine when the balmy weather returns.

Service was good, not exceptional. Prices, according to the manger I spoke to, are roughly $3-$5 less than at Brio. As diners scale back during this recession, those few dollars saved will be more attractive, especially given the generous size of the portions. Pastas range from $11.99 to $15.99; other entrees are more, reaching to $25.99 for a steak. Most items, however, are well below the $20 mark.

Bravo! serves lunch and dinner daily. The address is 7924 Via Dellagio Way (one block west of Dr. Phillips Boulevard at Sand Lake Road), Orlando. The phone number is 407-351-5880. For information and menu, visit Bravo!'s Web site.

Cuba Libre

Written by SJO Staff on .

Cuba Libre opens at Pointe Orlando

I attended a media grand opening dinner last night of Cuba Libre, an impressively elegant new restaurant and nightclub at Pointe Orlando. It's a stunning settting: a two-story space that gives one a sense of what it must have felt like to stand in a plaza in the old Havana of the 1950s. Or maybe on a movie set depicting a scene from that era anyway. Though totally indoors, it's like standing in a outdoor courtyard, with a patio for dancing and entertainment and a grand staircase leading to balcony dining. The atmosphere is truly impressive.

The food and drinks, not so much.

Everything I sampled was rather bland or, in the case of the drinks, ill-prepared. And when you consider that this was an event for the media where, presumably, the restaurant was showing its best, that's all the more disappointing.

Let's start with the drinks. The full name of the restaurant is Cuba Libre Restaurant & Rum Bar, so you'd think rum drinks would be a specialty. The bar was pushing mojitos when I arrived, but the first one I tasted was sugary sweet. I dumped that in favor of a sangria, which tasted watered down.

Then someone suggested I order a premium mojito, which I presume was made with a higher grade of rum, but that didn't help either.

So I figured I'd order the restaurant's namesake: a Cuba Libre of light rum Coca Cola and limes. It was characterless. I was on my fourth cocktail and hadn't had more than one sip out of each.

For the fifth cocktail I requested a caipirinha, which is Brazilian instead of Cuban and made with cacacha instead of rum. This one was a keeper, but no sooner did I have it in hand than we were called to the dining room.

The menu is under the direction of Guillermo Pernot, a former James Beard Award winner for Best Chef of the Mid-Atlantic States as well as a Beard cookbook award for a collection of ceviche recipes. He was also named Chef of the Year by Esquire magazine in 1999, so he's no lightweight in the kitchen. I'm wondering who's pulling him back.

We started with a salad of watercress with crumbles of Cabrales, the tangy blue cheese of Spain. Fresh, but indistinguished.

A fish course followed comprised of sea bass a la plancha a Chino-Cubano. Yes, a Chinese version of a Cuban dish, complete with fried rice and a sesame sauce. I found it rather strange, although the quality of the fish was good.

The meat course had grilled skirt steak on a sugar cane skewer paired with roast pork stuffed mofongo -- not an ingredient in the bunch that I don't love. Yet it was all almost flavorless, without any seasoning. It looks like this will be another Latin restaurant that's afraid of offending the delicate palates of tourists. That's a shame.

The entertainment was impressive. A couple of dancers performed some hot and sexy salsa steps, and a young man who appeared to be a classically trained opera singer used his wonderful voice to interpret some Latin favorites. I would go back to Cuba Libre just to hear him sing again.

I wonder if they'd let me bring in my own cocktails.

Cuba Libre is at Pointe Orlando, 9101 International Drive, Orlando. It is open nightly for dinner and late night dining. Entrees range from $18-$31.50. The phone number is 407-226-1600.

Chez Vincent

Written by SJO Staff on .

Chez Vincent still serves classic French

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Nelore Churrascaria

Written by SJO Staff on .

Orlando has a number of churrascarias, the Brazilian-style steakhouses with the all-you-can-eat concept. The difference between a typical buffet and a churrascaria, however, is that for part of the meal the food comes to you. Among the local Brazilian steakhouses, Nelore does a terrific job.

The first part of the meal is like a regular buffet, but it’s a salad-bar on steroids. Here you’ll find various greens, dressing and other recognizable salad accouterments. But you’ll also see such things as hearts of palm, big artichoke heart bottoms, freshly sliced prosciutto, thick asparagus spears, taboule, chunks of Parmesan cheese, mozzarella, balls of red beets, earthly mushrooms and potato salad.

There are also some hot items in silver chafing dishes, including Brazilian style rice and beans, black beans, white rice, mashed potatoes, fried yuca, grilled plantains and, for reasons I cannot discern, chicken Stroganoff.

But pace yourself for the main event. Once you’ve finished with the salad items, it’s time for meat, meat, meat.

Once you’ve finished the salads you turn a small disc on your table to the green side and soon you’ll  be descended upon by servers dressed as gauchos, Brazilian cowboys with poofy pants. Don’t laugh at them because they’re carrying long pointy skewers and sharp knives. They’re also carrying the best part of the meal.

That would be the meats, and they start arriving at a dizzying pace as soon as one of the gauchos notices a green disc.

He – they were all men when I visited – asks if you would like what he is offering and upon your approval either slide it off the skewer onto your plate or slice the meat for you to grab. Don’t use your fingers; there are tiny tongs on the table for meat handling. After the gaucho slices a corner, grab it with the tongs as he slices the rest of the way through.

You’ll find sirloin and ribeye as good as you’ll find in a high-priced steakhouse. There’s also flank steak, chicken, sausages and seafood. Try as much as you’d like, have more of the best, and when you need a rest, turn the disk back over so the red side is showing – the gauchos will leave you alone.

All of this is a very reasonable $39.99, a terrific deal not only because of the volume but also because of the quality of the food.

And by the way, when the server asks if you’d like something to drink, order a caipirinha, the unofficial national cocktail of Brazil made with lime, sugar and alcohol distilled from sugar cane. Or a mojito with mint, lime and rum. Both were wonderful, quite possibly the best I’ve had of either, anywhere.

Nile Ethiopian Cuisine

Written by SJO Staff on .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cafe 118

Written by SJO Staff on .

Raw Food, Living Cuisine, Unusually Good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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