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.

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

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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.

Disney's Hollywood Brown Derby

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.

This week we look in on Hollywood Brown Derby at at Disney's Hollywood Studios. I hadn’t done a full review of HBD since it opened in 1989, so when I visited the full-service restaurant recently it was like going back in time.

Which is precisely what Disney culineers were going for when they designed the restaurant to emulate a 1930s era eatery. Though not a replica of the original, which, sadly, no longer exists, Disney’s Derby is reminiscent of an old-timey Los Angeles restaurant, with teak and mahogany accents, and the walls are filled with celebrity caricatures that duplicate those that hung in the West Coast restaurant. Actually, nearly 20 years after the first visit, those caricatures are less recognizable now than they were before as the stars fade further into the past. I could barely identify a fraction of the pictures.Brown Derby

But that isn’t important. What matters is the food, service and ambience. The latter is really kind of nice. The sunken dining room with mezzanine seating on two sides transports guests from the hubbub of the park outside into a Hollywoodland atmosphere. Sure, you’ve got big families with crying kids and people dressed casually, but just pretend you’re dining with the Jolie-Pitt brood and you’ll be fine.

Service was good on one of my lunch visits but lackadaisical and slow on another. The waiters are outfitted in white tuxedo jackets and most offer top-notch care.

I started my lunch with sweet Zellwood corn chowder ($9), which also had bits of applewood smoked bacon. It was a large bowl -- whether it was worth nine bucks is up for debate -- and the kernels of corn still had a nice bit of crunch. I would have liked to have seen some more bacon, and the drizzle of ancho chili oil on the top, which resembled something like an oil slick, didn't add a lot, but overall it was a nice chowder.

The original Brown Derby is where the Cobb salad was invented. It was the creation of former Derby owner Bob Cobb (you’d think he’d go by Robert, wouldn’t you?), who whipped up the salad as a late-night snack for a Hollywood VIP back in the '30s. The story goes that there wasn’t much in the fridge the night the bigwig came in so Cobb just chopped up what he could find. It’s the chopping that defines a Cobb today. A woman once wrote to me to chide me for my description of a Cobb salad at some restaurant saying that a Cobb salad was comprised only of ingredients that grew on a cob. Here the Cobb has greens, turkey breast, egg, bacon, tomatoes, blue cheese, avocado and chives. The basic salad is $15, but for two more bucks you can have some chicken cubes added. I splurged. The salad was delivered in a large bowl with the various ingredients grouped together. The man who brought the Cobb to the table asked if I would like him to toss everything together. I figured I’d let an expert do it.

Except for being unable to identify the greens – they looked sort of like soggy parsley but didn’t have that sharp taste – I liked the salad, especially the chewy bacon and salty blue cheese.

I also had the grilled Atlantic salmon (26), a sizeable, fresh-tasting fillet that had a delightful charred edge. It was served atop a bed of baby spinach on a platform of thickly sliced ugli tomatoes (I guess that would make it a platform bed). There were too many tomatoes and not enough cannellini beans, and I couldn't discern the bacon vinaigrette that the menu promised.

For dessert I had the grapefruit cake ($7), which the menu touts as a Brown Derby original! The exclamation point was unnecessary, and so were the calories. The yellow layer cake with cream cheese frosting was undistinguished in flavor.

I was a solo walk-in on a weekday and waited only a few minutes for a table. Either most guests are looking for something a little less pricey, or maybe something less formal, or I just got lucky. It’s always a good idea to make a reservation in advance, or, if you are already in the park, stop by and arrange a table for later in the day.

Disney's Hollywood Brown Derby offers a quiet respite from the park's hubbub, and a chance to feel as though you're dining in a stylish Hollywood restaurant among famous movie stars, albeit poorly dressed ones. In that respect, maybe this is less about the 1930s and more about the 2000s.

Hollywood Brown Derby serves lunch and dinner daily. Reservations can be made at 407-939-3463.

To vote for this restaurant at Theme Park Insider, click on the Hollywood Brown Derby link.

Hollywood Brown Derby on Urbanspoon

Zenzi, South Orlando Restaurant Doesn't Make Zense

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Zenzi I'd have to reach pretty far back in my memory to come up with a dining experience as disappointing as the one I had at Zenzi recently. Zenzi is the enigmatic name of a new restaurant south of downtown Orlando. I couldn't find any clue as to the origin of the name or whether it was supposed to evoke some sort of image. Is it an owner's name? Is it meant to imply something exotic in the cuisine? Probably not.

The menu, in fact, gives no clues as to the intended cuisine served here. You've got French steak au poivre, Italian veal saltimbocca, Indian chicken tikka and Caribbean grouper. I'm not crazy about a menu that tries to offer the world, but I have fewer qualms if it can deliver at least one good hemisphere. Zenzi's food train never quite leaves the station.

Now, I know these are difficult times for restaurants, and many established businesses are cutting corners or otherwise attempting to adjust or reinvent themselves. More than a few menus have been tweaked to lower food costs while maintaining quality. It's not an easy thing to do. A restaurant's regular customers expect to find all the favorites when they return.

Zenzi had the unique advantage, if it could be seen as such, of opening in the recession. It had no regular clients to disappoint if it started to cut corners. They could have begun by offering a menu that was manageable and offered quality appropriate to the price. I don't know that this is indeed the case with Zenzi, but everything about my meal had the air of trying to make something from next to nothing.

How else would you explain the veal satimbocca ($21) my friend ordered? First off, it had so little veal that it hardly warranted top billing. My companion and I were sure there must have been more veal beneath the massive mound of ham, or perhaps buried inside the stack of spinach. But no, the two tiny pieces were the lot.

That ham was an unfortunate choice. It was a mere cut above lunchmeat quality, and was overly salty. The mushroom and caper sauce rendered the dish a brown mass.It was accompanied by a small mound of rice that was pebbly in texture, and by that I mean the grains were so hard they could have broken a tooth.

My entree was the crab and brie stuffed grouper ($21) a perfectly fine fillet that was nicely broiled. But the crab and brie were minimal. The grouper was served atop a bed of lettuce, which someone probably thought would make a pretty presentation but didn't consider that the soggy greens would get in the way of actually eating the entree. And the entire thing was drenched in a sauce that looked as though it were pure egg yolk. Very yellow. The description on on the menu said the fish would be "smothered in a lobster sauce." I didn't get a lobster sauce out of it, but I'll have to admit the dish was murdered.

A friend had told me the mushroom soup ($6) was good, but the bowl I had, although showing nice meaty pieces of mushrooms, had a floury texture in the broth. And don't even get me started on paying six bucks for this small serving of soup.

The only problem I had with the crab cakes ($10) was with the name. Remove the word crab and you'd have a more apt description. And the two cakes were filled with pieces of red and green bell pepper. It's the first crab cake I've had that crunched.

After our entrees had been served I noticed that other tables had baskets of bread and we had none. I inquired about this and our server told us that bread was served only upon request. How would I know that, I asked, is it written on the menu? No, he said, some people just request it.

So I requested, and when he left I asked the people at the next table if they had requested the bread. No, they told me, their waiter (a different one) just brought it to them. I might deduce that the two waiters simply had different training manuals but that would be taking a leap of faith.

(While clearing the soup bowl from the table, the waiter dropped the soiled spoon onto the table, and even though he still had a free hand, he chose not to pick it up, and it stayed there until after the entrees were served. I'd love to know his rationale for leaving it there.)

I would have taken the issue up with a manager, but at no time during the entire meal did I spot one person I could have identified as in charge.

The interior of Zenzi is pleasant enough. There are door-sized fountains with sheets of water that cascade down glass, and several odd lamps that look either like paper Oscar statuettes or illuminated dress forms. Tables are covered with black leatherette sheets that, frankly, look tawdry.

As discombobulated as things are here I don't think the situation is hopeless. But it is going to take someone who knows what he or she is doing to fix it. And they'll pretty much have to reinvent the place, which is what they could have done when they first opened only months ago.

Zenzi is at 4120 S. Orange Ave. Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily, brunch on Sunday. The phone number is 407-855-9770.


Loving Hut: Vegan Fast Food. Really?

Written by SJO Staff on .

I had been driving west on Colonial, noticing all the closed restaurants along the way and thinking the area most immediately south of Baldwin Park is looking pretty blighted. What's up with that?Loving Hut


Then I got past Bumby Avenue and noticed a new sign: Loving Hut. I thought it was a massage parlor.

Looking closer, expecting to see specials for loofah scrubs or something, I noticed that it is a restaurant. In fact, it's in a space that has held various Asian restaurants over the years.

The last time I was in this building I left without ordering. The place was so unkempt and unclean looking that I just couldn't bring myself to eat there. Sometimes you just have a feeling about a place. My feeling told me to turn around and get out of there.

The owners of Loving Hut have really cleaned the place up. In fact, its interior is so shiny white that it almost glows.


Of course, Loving Hut doesn't give much of a clue as to what to expect in the way of a cuisine, and even once I was inside and looking over the menu I wasn't all that sure. The fare is still Asian influenced, but the menu is entirely vegan. What's more, Loving Hut is a chain restaurant that touts itself as the first vegan fast food restaurant.

Hmmm, my concept of veganism is more in line with slow food than fast. And I was a little surprised when the young woman at the counter, where I placed my order, described one of the entrees as having the taste and texture of chicken. Do vegans really want to have the sensation that they're eating flesh? I doubt it. But that's just me.

This Loving Hut is the first in the eastern part of the U.S. The menu features familiar appetizers, such as spring and summer, and not so familiar, like "large golden tofu" and "New York Steak" (remember that everything served here is plant-based). Other areas of the menu include salad & soup, rice & Noodles and western specialties. The latter a club sandwich, "happy dog" and savory spaghetti. I guess you would call it a spaghetti western menu.

I ordered the fresh spring rolls for an appetizer and something called noble rice for my entree. The spring rolls had a translucent rice paper wrapper filled with greens, noodles and bits of what I assume to be tofu. It was a hefty serving, about six half rolls, served with a peanutty dipping sauce and a bowl of vegetable broth with carrots.

The entree, despite the name noble rice, was the one that was described as resembling chicken, and indeed this tofu was so chickeny that they even were able to make it slightly tough. It was coated with a breding of sorts that made it seem deep-fried, and it had a slight curry flavor, but it was not hot. The white rice had a hint of coconut and was dotted with what I choose to believe were black seeds. (If it had been the previous tenants I might have guessed something else.)

The people running Loving Hut couldn't have been friendlier or more accommodating. After you place your order you're given one of those coaster pagers (which I have never, ever seen used as a coaster, but never mind about that right now). The pager is a bit superfluous because the place is so small that a staffer could whisper your name when your order is ready and you'd hear it.

Tabletops are white and chairs are a tight white leather, a choice I think I would have counseled against -- it's going to difficult to keep those lookiing pristine.

It will be interesting to see how the vegan community embraces this concept. There are a couple of other choices, including Ethos Vegan Kitchen and the more upscale Cafe 118. The latter is not an inexpensive option, so I would think those who strive to keep to a plant-based diet would welcome another restaurant dedicated to them

Those who stop in expecting a massage will be sorely disappointed.

Loving Hut is at 2101 E. Colonial Drive, Orlando. It's open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday. The phone number is 407-894-5673.

Update: Entrees are pretty cheap, ranging from $5.75 to $7.95.

Hamburger Mary's

Written by SJO Staff on .

Hamburger Mary's

Hamburger Mary's is a nice family restaurant. But we're talking a different type of family. Think Sister Sledge's "We Are Family."

Hamburger Mary's Orlando recently moved into the Church Street Station neighborhood in the space that TooJay's last occupied. If I'm not mistaken, in the old Church Street days it was the Buffalo Trading Co. It's part of a franchise that started in San Francisco in 1972. Are you getting the picture yet?

It's the first national chain to market specifically to the gay community. You might have figured it out if you had wandered in on a Tuesday for Bingo Night, hosted by local celebrity Miss Sammy (hint: it's not short for Samantha) or for the Maryoke sing-alongs on Wednesdays.

At other times, you might not have noticed anything different about the place at all. Indeed, on one of my lunch visits, there was a family at the next table, a father, mother and baby in a stroller.

Everyone is welcome at Mary's -- she does not discriminate. She is a terrific hostess, but I don't think anyone would call her the best cook in town, especially if you should wander away from the list of burgers. Suffice to say the place will never be called Meatloaf Mary's.

Stick with the burgers, and you'll be fine. The hard part is deciding on which burger to have. There are 11 variations, with names such as Queen Mary, Sloppy Mary, Spicy Mary and Blue Boy burger. And if you missed the Sister Sledge reference, I doubt you'd understand Blue Boy. (No, it's not served raw. The blue refers to the cheese.)

Most of the burgers are made with a half-pound of certified Angus beef, although one is bigger, made with a full pound of meat. That one is called the Proud Mary, and that's all I'm going to say about that.

I would have preferred a juicier patty, but the burgers I had I liked well enough. A favorite was the Sloppy Mary, slopped with chili and melted cheddar and jack cheese. It's served open-face and is meant to be eaten with a knife and fork. Sloppy is as sloppy does.

I also liked the Guacamole BJ, the initials representing bacon and jack cheese. It, too, could have been called the Sloppy Mary.

HMO's appetizers are hit-or-miss. The inevitably named Macho Nachos, chips piled high with chili, cheddar and jack cheese, black olives and jalapenos, were surprisingly good. Mary Mac & Cheese Balls were not only dry and flavorless, they weren't even balls. They were triangles.

Come here for burgers, come for the camaraderie, the drinks, the loud music videos or the even louder decor of purples and greens and geometric shapes. But if you're not looking to have a good time, you might as well stay home. As the motto says, "Eat, drink and be Mary."

Tamboras Grill Cafe

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Tamboras Grill Cafe

Tamboras Grill CafeTamboras Grill Cafe, a Latin styled restaurant in Ocoee, notes on its menu that its name is derived from tambor, which means drum, and "we cook to the beat of a different drummer." I guess that would explain the shrimp fettuccine, Portobello Marsala pasta and Asian salmon salad on an otherwise South American flavored menu.

Tamboras occupies a corner spot in a newish strip mall on Maguire Road about a half-mile south of U.S. Highway 50. It's a pleasant enough space, though there isn't a lot of character in the decor. The entrance is in the corner's peak; off to the right is a bar area and to the left is the dining room with booths and tables. Fairly small as full-service restaurants go.

I met a friend for lunch recently and we were warmly greeted by a young woman at the door. Service continued to be friendly and attentive throughout our meal.

I started with a bowl of chicken soup ($3.99), which the menu touted as "homemade." The broth had a richness that indeed indicated it was probably make on the premises. But it lacked much flavor or character. The soup included diced pieces of chicken and a few oddly chopped fettuccine noodles. There was no indication that cilantro had been used, as the menu had promised.

For my entree I chose the shrimp mofongo ($16.99), which the menu claims to be "our most traditional dish! From the Dominican Republic!" It was quite good, the timbale of mashed plantains laced with yummy fat and flavored with seafood broth, topped with medium to small shrimp. It was all surrounded by a delicate gravy. Delicious, but 17 bucks for mofongo? I don't think so.

My friend ordered Tamboras' Island pork roast, which is $13.99 on the dinner menu. But our server pointed out that a lunch version was available for several dollars cheaper and came with a house salad to boot. Unfortunately the pulled pork was very dry, and if there was any mojo criollo mixed in I couldn't taste it. It was, however, like my mofongo, nicely presented. The salad was more substantial than most restaurants offer and included chopped lettuce and kernels of corn. A side item of fluffy white rice and pinto beans could have been an entree all alone.

For dessert I had the arroz con leche, which fetched an astounding price of $5.99. It looked to my eye to be not much more than eight ounces of rice pudding with enough cinnamon blended in to render it treacly.

I suppose Tamboras is faced with the reality of having to charge higher prices to offset fewer seats. Sell enough rice puddings in one evening and you meet your monthly nut! But the drawback, of course, is that people will realize that the food, although presented in a style worthy of a more elegant restaurant, is fairly basic and can be found at other area Latin restaurants for less.

Tamboras Grill Cafe is at 1568 Maguire Road, Ocoee. It's open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. Beer and wine are available and credit cards are accepted. Phone number is 407-877-7171.

Shan Asian Cuisine

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Shan Asian Cuisine (Not TerraMia Pizzeria) in Lake Mary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now was that so difficult?

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

Vines Grille & Wine Bar

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Vines Grille & Wine Bar on Orlando's Restaurant Row

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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