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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Show and sell

A visual and gastronomic feast are cause for Celebration

Posted on Wed, Apr 21, 2010 at 4:00 AM

The Celebration outpost of the world-renowned Columbia restaurant is practically embryonic when compared to the grande dame in Ybor City, the chain's flagship locale widely considered to be Florida's oldest restaurant. But founder Casimiro Hernandez's century-old recipes live on in the hamlet that Disney built (as well as at five other locales around the Sunshine State), and while the restaurant is, without question, a tourist trap, it's also a destination dining hotspot. Why? The picturesque lakeside locale for one, coupled with the knickknack-laden charm of the colorful dining room ' it's a pretty space in which to enjoy the Columbia's Spanish and Cuban delicacies. Whether they're outside under the Moorish arches or inside under the shadow of the sculpted Andalusian horse, the place teems with diners every night of the week.

Waiters, crisp-collared and sharply dressed, are often seen pulling carts around. Now, I'm all for a little gimmicky show-and-sell, but these guys take tableside preparation to a whole new level. The Columbia Restaurant may be the only place in town where you can order a four-course meal (sangria, salad, filet and sponge cake, for example) and have each dish prepared, or finished, right next to your chair. Their famous '1905â?� salad ($8.95) is one of those dishes, though I have to say it made for a mediocre start. What's special about iceberg lettuce, green olives, tomatoes, cheese and julienned ham tossed in a garlicky vinaigrette? Not much. Prior to the greens, we opted, at the urging of our harried waiter, to whet our appetites with a glass of red: sangria ($4.95,) to be precise. The aperitif, too sweet to be refreshing, was a cloying disappointment. Cool gazpacho andaluz ($4.95), however, provided the proper refreshment thanks to a base of cucumbers, green peppers, tomatoes, onions and garlic. Chicken croquettes ($5.95), served with a tasty house hot sauce, were a righteous fry.

Our waiter also advised passing on the arroz con pollo Valenciana ($18.95) and opting for the signature mar y tierra ($24.95) instead. Gambling on the surf and turf, thankfully, paid off. The tenderloin was just that ' tender ' and superbly so, even if it was unevenly cooked. The chimichurri sauce was expertly prepared, and the trio of Panamanian prawns were a healthy size and nicely grilled. I really enjoyed the 'good rice,� flavored with saffron, buttered and fried. Snapper 'alicante� ($24.95), another signature dish, proved to be our favorite: flaky Gulf snapper cooked in a casserole of sweet sauterne wine, green peppers and onions, and flecked with shaved almonds. You'd think the essence of the fish would be lost under the weight of these ingredients, but that wasn't the case at all. I found the side of sweet fried eggplant to be at odds with the flavor of the snapper, but my companion thought otherwise. 

Skipping out on dessert isn't really an option, though you can pass on the grainy crema catalana ($4.95 and, yes, it's caramelized tableside) and opt for the ridiculously rich brazo gitano ($4.95), which literally translates to 'gypsy's arm,� instead. The sponge cake is soaked in a sherry syrup, filled with Spanish cream and strawberries, topped with meringue and then flambéed with kirschwasser. Needless to say, you'll need at least four arms, gypsy or otherwise, to help finish it.

At Disney, there are times when I want to hop right back on a roller coaster the moment I get off. The same could be said about Columbia's gastronomic ride, but take my advice ' do it on an empty stomach.

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