Sakura Sushi

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Sakura Sushi only so-so

I finally made it to Sakura Sushi, the restaurant that replaced the popular Shiki on Park Avenue a while back. But I have to tell you I was neither overwhelmed more underwhelmed. I guess I was just whelmed. I tried the "white tuna" nigirizushi, which was smallish and did not adhere to the pad of rice. Still, it was fresh-tasting.

Monster roll was a spider roll with cream cheese, a substance that gives sushi snobs an opportunity to turn their noses up in unison. I happen to like cream cheese, especially when served with a crispy-fried soft-shell crab, the "spider" in a spider roll.

The restaurant on a whole seemed a bit unkempt and dark. I ate at the sushi bar, where a fan was blowing out over the heads of patrons. Also on the counter was a sample of some offering in a martini glass that had obviously been sitting there for a few hours. It was most unappetizing.

For many years, Shiki was the only sushi restaurant for Winter Parkers, at least in the Park Avenue area. Now there are other choices, most notably Kata Thai and Sushi, so Sakura can no longer rest on Shiki's laurels. It's time to try a little harder.

Sakura is at 525 Park Ave. S., Winter Park. The phone number is 407-740-8018. It is open nightly for dinner (no lunches).


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Less bistro, more bar

Stopped in the other day at the new location for Brix, the "Euro bistro" that had opened in 2007 in a small space on the ground floor of the Metropolitan condominiums, across the street from Lake Eola.
Back then, Brix was trying to be hip and trendy. The focus of the menu was fondue, something that puts a severe limit on one's ability to be hip and trendy. There was also a premium focus on wines. Brix, after all, is a term for the amount of sugar in wine.

The Washington Street site was a lousy location. It was small, hard to get to and the outdoor seating was hampered by the traffic on Rosalind Avenue.
So when Brix moved to the space on Central Boulevard that had been vacated by Tijuana Flats (as it prepared to open its new burritoria in Thornton Park), I thought maybe they'd be able to expand on their themes.
But what I experienced recently was basically just another bar, just like all the other bars in downtown Orlando. There is a menu, but it features your basic sandwiches and flatbreads. The fondues, apparently, have been relegated mostly to dessert offerings, although there may still be a savory wine fondue.
Nothing I tasted was bad, but nothing I tasted was stellar, either. It isn't a place I would recommend as a dining destination. But if you're downtown and want a drink, maybe a sandwich, then, sure, stop on in.

Brix is at 50 E. Central Blvd., Orlando. The phone number is 407-839-1707. The Web site is not yet operational.


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Hanamizuki is true Japanese in the heart of Orlando's Tourist World

Hanamizuki How Japanese is Hanamizuki? If you go to the International Drive restaurant's Web site, it pops up first in Japanese -- you have to opt-in to an English version.
Of course, that alone doesn't vouch for the authenticity of the food. But in a town that considers "steakhouses" that proffer overpriced food that has been been banged and whacked on a hot metal grill the diners sit around to be the epitome of Japanese food, Hanamizuki gives a deeper insight into the intricacies and nuances of a cuisine that involves much more than the chef being able to flip a shrimp tail into his hat.

Hanamizuki's menu features Kyoto style cooking, which tends to be more elegant and formal than many of the dishes served in most American Japanese restaurants. It also focuses more on fresh vegetables and seafood other than sushi, although that is also a part of it and is available at Hanamizuki.

But good sushi can be found at other restaurants around town. Come to Hanamizuki for something different.

Try the octopus and scallions in nuta, a sauce made with white soybean paste, hot mustard and vinegar. Or grilled salted tile fish.

Kyoto style food is a good choice for vegetarians, as Kyoto is known for its fresh tofu.

The I-drive location will be a turn-off for a lot of locals who don't want to brave the tourist traffic. Here's a tip: Instead of entering the strip mall Hanamizuki is located in via International Drive, go around to Universal Boulevard and go in the back way; leave that way, too.

But do give it a try. You'll find that it's possible to enjoy delicious Japanese food without having to sit around a hot griddle with a bunch of strangers.

Tap Room at Dubsdread

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Let the burger wars begin: Tap Room at Dubsdread takes an early lead

I visited the Tap Room at Dubsdread for lunch recently. I was meeting a friend who used to be the publisher of a major daily newspaper. We're thinking about starting a support group.

If you're the owner of a restaurant that has had a rough summer, you probably don't want to hear this next part: the place was packed and people were waiting for tables. I guess good food and service will always win out.

And it's not like the food is the cheapest around. My Tap Room classic cheeseburger was a hefty $9.95 -- not a lot but not exactly a bargain, either. Still, it was a darned fine burger. It featured a half-pound of beef topped with good Tillamook cheddar cheese, not the processed American cheese some places are using. Some lettuce, a thick slice of tomato and purple onions were included. And the bun was toasted and had a terrific buttery flavor. It was cooked to the requested medium-rare (or pretty close) and came with so-so fries.

The Tap Room retains its rustic golf clubhouse aura, but on the day I visited it had a distinct aroma -- some mustic to go with the rustic. But none of that seemed to bother the throng. And I forgot it as soon as I started plowing into the burger.
So Tap Room is the burger to beat, as far as I'm concerned. Anyone else have a better favorite?

Taverna Opa

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Taverna Opa is Greek gone wild

Frankly, I can Taverna Opa do without all the table-top dancing and the practice of constantly throwing fistfuls of paper napkins into the air that rain down on diners in something like a snowstorm with immense snowflakes. And I've never thought restaurants were the proper place for belly dancers; too much undulating isn't good for digestion.

And don't get me started on the ear-splitting music that accompanies the undulating, throwing and dancing.

But at the base of it all is the good Greek food that makes a dinner at Taverna Opa worth putting up with everything else.

The menu has most of the regulars that diners expect to find on Greek menus, at least in America. So you'll find your mousakas, your pastitsios and dolmades.

But you'll also find things like the lamb rib appetizer ($9), which were like any other ribs you might find in a barbecue joint but with a lemon sauce to offset the gamey flavor.

Country-style sausage ($5) -- Greece being the country in question -- served with red and green grilled peppers were another favorite. So was the taramosalata ($4), a creamy dip of salty fish roe.

Thallasino ($36), a sort of Greek version of the Portuguese cioppino, had a large skillet filled with lobster tail, shrimp, scallops, mussels, squid, crab legs and a grouper fillet in a broth of white wine flavored with lemon and garlic and tinged with tomatoes.

And the more pedestrian mousaka ($12) was a big brick of eggplant, potatoes and beef layers topped with a thick bechamel.
For dessert, be sure to try the house-made yogurt ($5), which had the texture of meringue but a tangy taste tempered by honey. There's baklava ($5) for the traditionalists.

Taverna Opa is in the Pointe Orlando, so the clientele tends to be comprised mostly of out-of-towners. But if you're going to get up on top of a table and dance with a stange woman wearing veils it's probably best that no one knows who you are.

Jiko - The Cooking Place

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Jiko -- The Cooking Place at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge finds its voice

JikoWhen Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge first opened nearly eight years ago, its signature restaurant, Jiko, left a bland impression. The name is Swahili for The Cooking Place, and the menu was supposed to focus on South African cuisine. But what was offered was a cuisine without a country. Soon after, Anette Grecchi-Gray, one of Disney's pioneering women chefs, took over and started making improvement. Now, Grecchi-Gray has left the company and left the restaurant in the hands of chef Brian Piasecki, who admitted when he took over Jiko that he had never been to Africa and knew little about the cuisine. Whatever he did to educate himself seems to have worked. Jiko now serves food that is creative and well-executed, a fusion of styles and techniques that utilize the seasonings and spices associated with African cuisine.

I liked the berbere-braised lamb shank ($27), a sizeable hunk of meat, slow-cooked so the meat was fall-off-the-bone tender. The berbere is a spice mixture of chilies, ginger, coriander and other flavors associated with Ethiopian cuisine. The rub gave a spicy note to the mild lamb. Arctic char ($31) was another favorite, a fatty-fleshed fish with characteristics of both trout and salmon (in flavor -- not in appearances; that would be an odd fish indeed). The fish was mild flavored and spiced up with fennel pollen salt. It was accompanied by mealie pap, a South African staple of cornmeal mush. Some good appetizer choices are kalamata olive flatbread ($9), or ostrich schnitzel ($13) -- try ordering that one five times real fast.

Service was of the type that Disney is well-known for. And be sure to give the wine list a good look-see. It's the largest collection of South Africa wines in North America. Ask for a taste of the Delheim Gewurztraminer, which goes perfectly with the Portland Pier scallops ($31) and its accompanying spicy eggplant kottu.
The restaurant was designed by Jeffery Beers and is a salute to the opening scenes of The Lion King. The columns are supposed to represent the decorative neck-stretching rings worn by Swahili women, and the light fixtures are floating sculptures of birds that get smaller as they disappear in the distance.
Of course, you do have to put up with the occasionally under-dressed tourist, but Jiko has become one of Disney's better dining choices.

Luma On Park

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Luma On Park is Winter Park at its snazziest

Luma On Park had a rocky start. It came to town with a sort of arrogance that suggested that as long as they had a tony atmosphere it really didn't matter if the food was any good. After all, what did the Central Florida rubes know about good food?

We knew plenty, and we weren't falling for the smoke and mirrors attitude of this restaurant group out of Atlanta.
The message was received. The original chef returned to Georgia, or elsewhere, and in his place we got Brandon McGlamery, a talented chef with credentials that reach from the French Laundry in California to Guy Savoy in Paris who didn't just let his resume speak for itself.

Luma's menu is divided between small plates and full entrees. While this is one of the pricier restaurants on the Avenue, one could make a meal of small plates and leave without a significant dent in the wallet.

Try the calamari fries ($9) or the crispy duck salad ($11), which went beyond a mere salad with the inclusion of a duck leg confit.
If you want to go for a full entree, try the Kobe flank steak ($26) or the black grouper ($27).

Service is exceptional and the decor is Miami spicy. But, thankfully, the attitude is strictly Central Florida friendly.

Thai Lotus Cuisine

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

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

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

Two Blondes and a Shrimp

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Two Blondes and a Shrimp in Sanford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Antonio's La Fiamma

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

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

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

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