Magic number

In a previous life, I spent a lot of time traveling for business, which brought me to a lot of hotel restaurants, usually alone (sniff). Being perched at a noisy, dimly lit table trying to read a book and eat affords ample time to experience the food, and let me tell you, it was usually a bad experience.

So my hopes for Bistro 1501, the slightly upscale restaurant at the Orlando Marriott Lake Mary, weren't high, although I always go into an establishment hoping for a fabulous meal. This time, my hopes were answered.

The room isn't overwhelmingly large, and sitting at the high, cushy banquettes is like having your own private little dining area. I liked the décor -- wood walls and gorgeous glass accents -- and the casual attentiveness of the staff. The food was damn good, too.

Scott Dickenson, former executive chef for the Church Street Station complex, is behind the stove at Bistro, turning out his own recipes of what management calls "American food," which means that the influences are from everywhere.

Half the menu features seafood. The fish arrives whole in the kitchen and is filleted there.

My fried-oyster and spinach salad ($7.95) was a huge bowl of tender leaves dressed in a lemony vinaigrette and accompanied by crisp, flattened, fried oysters, sort of shellfish fritters. If you only order this dish, you'll be happy.

A simple bowl of seafood chowder is far from simple here, a $3.95 feast of grouper chunks, shrimp (a little overcooked, but delectable) and crabmeat in a thick tomato and corn base with perhaps a bit too much salt.

The cream of asparagus "carpe diem" soup du jour ($3.50) didn't suffer from a salt problem and came out rich and marvelously green tasting.

The "Captain's grouper" ($19.95) is a guilty pleasure. Topped with lump crabmeat, the perfectly sautéed fish is coated in what tastes like a richly caramelized breading, but is actually a crust of pulverized Captain Crunch cereal. Yes, it sounds disgusting but, heaven help me, it's delicious. And you won't have to eat breakfast the next morning.

Over on the carnivorous side of the menu, the 12-ounce New York strip ($20.95) comes to the table glistening from the grill and basted in a red wine reduction. The steak was a bit fatty and not tough, but resistant ... but that's a NY strip after all. The taste was worth it.

Dessert choices are varied and unique, including a must-have apple caramel custard pie, and a very strange-sounding "cheesecake burrito" that I just couldn't get myself to order.

All in all, the surroundings, service and bill of fare makes Bistro 1501 well worth the drive up I-4.

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