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Friday, November 18, 2016

Tony Roma's I-Drive reboot will change everything about the rib joint

Posted By on Fri, Nov 18, 2016 at 2:20 PM

click to enlarge The main dining room at Tony Roma's on International Drive. - IMAGE COURTESY TONY ROMA'S
  • Image courtesy Tony Roma's
  • The main dining room at Tony Roma's on International Drive.
Before last week, I'd only been to a Tony Roma's one time — after a funeral. The food was, shall we say, appropriate. Since then, I haven't been back, and have shared the general feeling of my generation when it comes to the Famous For Ribs restaurant: It's old, boring and mediocre.

My visit to the new, revamped Tony Roma's on International Drive across from Pointe Orlando changed my opinion completely.

The new Tony Roma's was not only chic but sophisticated, with a private dining area perfect for holiday gatherings, family reunions and birthday bashes, a well-stocked bar with mixologists who really know what they're doing, and a warm and open floor plan that feels as cozy as TR would have wanted it to. In the words of CEO Stephen Judge, "This is Tony Roma's mid-life crisis. This is his Corvette."

Beyond the decor (Roma Corp is obviously very good with design, as I mentioned in my review of TR Fire Grill), the food was so good I was shocked. Everything that came out of the kitchen was thoughtful, hot (one of my biggest pet peeves is lukewarm food), well-executed and full of flavor. It's difficult to make crowd-pleasers like ribs, meatballs and Buffalo wings interesting and fun, but the new Tony Roma's did it.

In culinary school, we were taught that a good sauce covers a lot of sins, and if there's something that Tony Roma's knows how to do, it's make sauce. That being said, there weren't a lot of sins to cover, so the sauces did exactly what they were supposed to do: enhance.

Here are some of our favorite plates from TR's newly minted lineup (about 85 percent of the items are new).

click to enlarge HOLLY V. KAPHERR
  • Holly V. Kapherr
Pork-Strami Ribs
They're admittedly weird, but they're so good. The mustard BBQ sauce recalls Carolina 'cue, and the pastrami seasonings complement the baby backs as well as they do fatty brisket from which pastrami is made. Inspired. ($6)
click to enlarge HOLLY V. KAPHERR
  • Holly V. Kapherr
Chicken Lollipops
OK, yeah, the coleslaw is runny. But THANK YOU, Tony Roma's, for figuring out a way to "french" chicken wings so eating them isn't a 10-napkin affair. Watch for these to make their way to TR Fire Grill's menu in the coming months. ($10) 
click to enlarge HOLLY V. KAPHERR
  • Holly V. Kapherr
Blazin' Buffalo Ribs
There are certain things on restaurant menus known as "critic bait" – bizarre preparations meant to lure in restaurant reviewers and test the kitchen's mettle. These are one. The ribs are coated with crushed Ritz crackers, deep-fried and then covered with TR's buffalo sauce. The best advice we can give for these is to dive in right when they get to the table so the Ritz crumbs don't get soggy. If you don't, you'll sacrifice the texture, but the flavor will still be there. ($6)

click to enlarge HOLLY V. KAPHERR
  • Holly V. Kapherr
Boneless Beef Short Rib
Another instance where the sauce carried the day, the long-braised rib pulls apart like buttah and you'll want to tilt your dish slightly so the red-wine demi-glace coats the mash as much as possible. Also a good choice for those exercising portion control. ($18)

click to enlarge HOLLY V. KAPHERR
  • Holly V. Kapherr
Lamb Ribs
As far as I know, there aren't any other restaurants in town serving full racks of lamb ribs. They're fatty and unctuous and, according to management, incredibly popular with Tony Roma's Indonesian market. They're glazed with a sweet plum and tarragon sauce and served with asparagus, which I always eat with my fingers anyway – even at restaurants – so you literally need no flatware for this dish. ($28)

click to enlarge HOLLY V. KAPHERR
  • Holly V. Kapherr
Crispy Brownie Bite Sundae
Just as a warning, we were served a half portion (the whole one comes in a giant skillet and could feed half a small town). Fried brownie, scoops of ice cream, chocolate drizzle – it's all too indulgent, and exactly what a cheat dessert should look like. Thank God for those strawberries. ($6.50)

click to enlarge HOLLY V. KAPHERR
  • Holly V. Kapherr
Banana Cream Pie
The ratio of actual banana pie to whipped cream is completely off, but the textures here are what make the dessert sing (pardon the bizarre plating, too). Banana custard sits inside a cookie crust with banana slices, cookie crumbs and mini Chessmen cookies. Oh, and an Everest of superfluous whipped cream. ($6.50)

click to enlarge HOLLY V. KAPHERR
  • Holly V. Kapherr
Seasonal Cobbler & Vanilla Ice Cream
First off, I'd like to point out that the seasonal cobbler was peach and blackberry, which is literally my favorite cobbler of all time, so I started out biased anyway. But this cobbler is perfection. Not an overstatement. The vanilla ice cream, warm fruit, fluffy and crunchy topping and fresh berry garnish all equal a home run. Order this one for sure. ($6)

Tony Roma's
8560 International Drive

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