Thursday, January 17, 2002

True colors

Posted on Thu, Jan 17, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Many people know the strip of shops along Mills Avenue near Virginia Drive as the Rainbow District. Judging by what the diners were wearing the other night in HUE: A Restaurant, Thornton Park runs the risk of picking up the moniker of the Monochrome District.

The advice I was given by a friend -- "wear black" -- was appropriate. Good thing HUE (for Hip Urban Environment, no comment necessary) is well lit, or there would be constant dark-clad collisions. The restaurant swoops around a well-stocked bar, with two-story windows overlooking Summerlin Avenue and an outdoor dining patio. It's comfortable in a slightly forgettable way.

HUE is the first of the new eateries to open in Thornton Park Central, as the $30-million loft-apartment and retail-space enclave is called. The restaurant is a design of Culinary Concepts (Harvey's Bistro, Manuel's on the 28th) and Pebbles creator Manny Garcia.

I'll get the quibbling out of the way upfront and suggest that the servers could use some hip and urban training, certainly some seminars in promptness. And the Pan-Asian crab-cake appetizer ($10), while good, tasted slightly fishy, as if it had been extended. But that's all I can complain about.

The talents of Chef Cheryl Clark, with an honors' degree from the Culinary Institute of America and years of overseeing restaurants from Texas to Hong Kong, make me wonder again why there aren't more women running kitchens in Orlando.

HUE's fish and oysters are hand-picked every day from the fabled Gary's Seafood. Order the crispy oysters ($8 appetizer), six enormous, tender, fried shellfish, tasting of the ocean and salt flats. You will not be disappointed. Ask for a side of the dark sesame sauce that usually comes with the crab cakes.

Like the appetizers, entrees are large portions, and yet you'll wish there was just one more bite. Filet mignon ($24) is prepared to your order, the fine cut served with a staggeringly good portobella mushroom polenta and HUE's own vinegary sauce. And the roasted duck breast was an ample portion of dark meat, moist and tender under a crispy tamari-basted crust ($14).

There's a large and varied wine menu, with almost everything available by the glass.

Like the servers, prep people in the kitchen could be a bit more attentive. The baby bok choy served with both entrees was cooked nicely, but had some grit. And when a filet costs $24, there shouldn't be the slightest hint of gristle. But the place just opened, and the food is so good that the biggest problem you'll have is finding a black jacket to go with your black shirt.


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