Thursday, November 20, 2003

Full of temptation

Posted on Thu, Nov 20, 2003 at 4:00 AM

Imagine a place where food is served on little plates, and just when you think you've eaten enough of one exciting gem, another plate appears with an even more enticing item.

The land of the endless lilliputian meal may exist only in dreams, but a similar vision, and your appetite, can be fed while you're awake at Taste, the restaurant that moved in hard on the heels of Chapters Bread & Books Cafe's exodus to Winter Park.

Owners Paul Daniel and Tracy Reinstein -- from New York and San Francisco, respectively -- have revamped the place with backlit paintings and big swatches of color for a new urban, contemporary feel. It's amazing how much space was added by removing the walls of bookcases. Be careful coming in; the new expanse is so captivating that many people don't see the step up into the dining room -- including me.

"California cuisine in tapas style" is how Dennis describes the menu, share-a-bite-sized portions conjured up by Chef "Brooks," formerly of Antonio's La Fiamma and Trastevere. Touches of Asia, Italy and the West Coast appear in these bites, and it's difficult to know how to categorize a meal made up of appetizers. The tapenade trio of pepper, olive and roasted garlic spreads ($5.95) are a good warm-up, but ask for extra bread.

The plates roll in as they leave the kitchen, so even though the service is exceptional, plan on a leisurely experience. A tangy and so-fresh ceviche ($5.95) of shrimp, teeny calamari and spectacular chunks of fish, "cooked" in lime juice and cilantro, was polished off in time for the entrance of seared scallops ($6.95), tender without being underdone, with hints of basil and chipotle peppers.

There's not a bad plate in the place, with high points going to slender grilled asparagus drizzled with pale-green garlic and wasabi dressing ($4.95), and a "Southwest cornbread souffle" ($3.95) that combined hot, sweet and creamy to best advantage.

There are too many great items to mention, and with every plate under 10 bucks, it's easy to think you'll get away cheap at Taste, and you can. A quick meal of cannellini and green-bean salad, along with a surprisingly large serving of green mussels in a fragrantly exotic lemongrass/coconut broth, comes in at under $12. But, like the lure of sushi when it's time to order, one more amuse-bouche calls out and the bill can add up. Still, the value is in sharing, and the portions are large enough that everyone leaves the table satisfied.

Impressive is too pedestrian a word for Taste, a unique experience that will require many return visits.


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