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It's interesting watching the whole "back-to-downtown" movement, not just here but all across the country. I'm not sure if it's dissatisfaction with suburban sprawl or a far-reaching desire for community, but people all over the country are heading back into the hearts of cities large and small.

We see it here, and the amount of renovation work going on in Sanford means we're not alone. Where downtowns flourish, restaurants can't be far behind. Case in point, Da Vinci.

We see it here, and the amount of renovation work going on in Sanford means we're not alone. Where downtowns flourish, restaurants can't be far behind. Case in point, Da Vinci.

Da Vinci's chef and co-owner Kenny Stingone has a long and impressive career of feeding folks in the area. He has chef'd (is that a word?) at Bistro Capuccino, had a stint at Park Plaza Gardens in the mid-'80s and held the chef's spot at Café de France a couple of times. Upon that firm pedigree rests this first place of his own, nestled in the slowly revamping Magnolia Square section of downtown.

Da Vinci's chef and co-owner Kenny Stingone has a long and impressive career of feeding folks in the area. He has chef'd (is that a word?) at Bistro Capuccino, had a stint at Park Plaza Gardens in the mid-'80s and held the chef's spot at Café de France a couple of times. Upon that firm pedigree rests this first place of his own, nestled in the slowly revamping Magnolia Square section of downtown.

Co-owner Holliday Stingone, who led me to a table under one of several massive crystal chandeliers, asked how I found the place, and I had to answer truthfully – with difficulty. Because of one-ways and construction, you can't really get to Magnolia Square without making a good number of right-and left-turn combinations. I'd suggest Da Vinci for lunch first, just to see how to get there. The space itself is an old colonial-revival building with very high tin ceilings and aged walls. It's fitting to house what Chef Stingone calls his "Mediterranean-inspired" cuisine.

Co-owner Holliday Stingone, who led me to a table under one of several massive crystal chandeliers, asked how I found the place, and I had to answer truthfully – with difficulty. Because of one-ways and construction, you can't really get to Magnolia Square without making a good number of right-and left-turn combinations. I'd suggest Da Vinci for lunch first, just to see how to get there. The space itself is an old colonial-revival building with very high tin ceilings and aged walls. It's fitting to house what Chef Stingone calls his "Mediterranean-inspired" cuisine.

The "inspired" part means that some dishes, like the hearty and generous zuppa di pesce ($17.95), with fish, calamari and shellfish basted in spicy tomato, are quite authentic. Other items take creative liberties. I was pleased to see a non-veal alternative to saltinbocca made with chicken ($15.95), which featured a tender fillet with mozzarella and heaps of spinach. Pleased, that is, until I tried to chew through the thick slab of prosciutto gracing the top. "Shrimp Adriatic" ($15.95) was a better choice, huge shrimp combined with spinach and spicy sauce, then topped with crumbled feta cheese that gave it a tang. A couple of the shrimp had seen better days, but it was a good dish. The "escargot fricassee" appetizer ($5.95), rich snails in crustini with lemon butter and cheese, reminded me of dark woods and was very satisfying.

The "inspired" part means that some dishes, like the hearty and generous zuppa di pesce ($17.95), with fish, calamari and shellfish basted in spicy tomato, are quite authentic. Other items take creative liberties. I was pleased to see a non-veal alternative to saltinbocca made with chicken ($15.95), which featured a tender fillet with mozzarella and heaps of spinach. Pleased, that is, until I tried to chew through the thick slab of prosciutto gracing the top. "Shrimp Adriatic" ($15.95) was a better choice, huge shrimp combined with spinach and spicy sauce, then topped with crumbled feta cheese that gave it a tang. A couple of the shrimp had seen better days, but it was a good dish. The "escargot fricassee" appetizer ($5.95), rich snails in crustini with lemon butter and cheese, reminded me of dark woods and was very satisfying.

Da Vinci's is almost exactly 20 miles from downtown Orlando, a trip that probably takes less time than the aggravating trek to Disney. If you have a gas-guzzling SUV, that's about $6 for fuel plus around $60 for dinner for two in a slightly funky, potentially wonderful, as yet undiscovered restaurant. Seems like a bargain to me.

Most of what we're familiar with as "Indian food" comes from the northern part of the subcontinent. Tandoori, tikkas and yellow curry are wonderful things, but special treats are found to the south and western coast. Indian lobster? You bet.

Reggie D'Souza, who has owned the Northern-themed Far Pavilion restaurant on I-Drive for many years, says he wanted a place "where I could eat the foods I eat at home." And Dakshin (which means "south") is a reflection of his roots in the coastal town of Mangalore. The menu is alive with seafood recipes and tomato-based hot curries with influences of the Portuguese, who first brought hot peppers to India.

I started with the mixed starter platter ($9.95) to sample the goods, and good they were. Crunchy lentil patties, dense and flavorful fish cutlets, and bhonda -- sort of the Indian version of hushpuppies -- complemented pan-fried shrimp. If I'd known the shrimp was that good I'd have ordered more. Suhke tesriya ($8.95) turned out to be a plate of tender mussels cooked with a green coconut chutney for a rich delight.

A side of aloo paratha ($2.95), flat bread stuffed with peas and soft potatoes, makes a perfect accompaniment to the lobster curry ($18.95), with its meat simmered in spicy red-curry gravy and fragrant with anisette. My companion's lamb masala ($12.95), a rich, dark sauce spiced with curry leaves and pepper, was so tender it practically cut itself.

In a nod to northern cuisine, several biryanis appear, and the slow-cooked shrimp and rice casserole I ordered ($14.95) was flavored with a magnificently intense mixture of spices.

The vegetable dishes, like spicy "paneer capsicum" ($11.95) from Bombay (dense Indian cheese cooked with chilis), are too expensive to just sample, so most folks will miss a wonderful experience. Order bhendi sukhe ($10.95), a thick okra dish, and share.

There's also a full nonmeat menu available for dinner, with treats such as dosais -- lentil crepes filled with potato and onion -- and uthappam, which is called "Indian pizza" on the menu but turned out to be a savory rice-flour pancake. Try the tomato version ($7.25), topped with onion and thin flakes of coconut.

The place setting at each table confused me, so a quick lesson might help. On the table is a round copper tray and three bowls. Meat (or vegetables) and sauces go into the bowls for sharing and dipping with chapati or aloo paratha. Spread the rice into the tray, making it easy to pick up with a fork or bread. You'll get smiles from your waiter. And the food will get smiles from you.

More than 30 organic loose-leaf teas are offered at this socially conscious teahouse that's become a gathering ground for nonconformists, neo-cons and everyone in between. A predominantly vegan menu of wraps, salads and an outstandingly hearty chili will satisfy even the most ravenous of carnivores. Start with hummus with hemp seeds, and finish with the fluffernutter sandwich - a sweet proposition.


Teaser: More than 30 organic loose-leaf teas are offered at this socially conscious teahouse that's become a gathering ground for nonconformists, neo-cons and everyone in between. A predominantly vegan menu of wraps, salads and an outstandingly hearty chili will satisfy even the most ravenous of carnivores. Start with hummus with hemp seeds, and finish with the fluffernutter sandwich ' a sweet proposition.

Rigorous sustainability and local sourcing are integral to chef Cory York's  stellar seafood dishes, though you'll have to navigate the depths of Disney property to sample them The astoounding crab cake is an absolute must, though the eight fresh fish options are the real draw. Don't overlook prime cuts of beef - the 22-ounce T-bone is a budget-buster, but well worth the price. Desserts please, but won't necessarily wow. Validated parking offered.


Teaser: Rigorous sustainability and local sourcing are integral to chef Cory York's stellar seafood dishes, though you'll have to navigate the depths of Disney property to sample them. The astounding crab cake is an absolute must, though the eight fresh fish options are the real draw. Don't overlook prime cuts of beef ' the 22-ounce T-bone is a budget-buster, but well worth the price. Desserts please, but won't necessarily wow. Validated parking offered.

If T.S. Eliot had been around to take in the concrete scrap heap of East Colonial Drive and its brutal environs, he might have been prompted to pen a variant of 'The Waste Landâ?�: June is the cruelest month, breeding bahia out of the dead land; what are the roots that clutch Highway 50? What branches grow out of this stony rubbish?

The strip, particularly at the 417 junction, is pretty much devoid of any life, and yet there stands a café in contrarian glory, a simple structure carrying on a culinary tradition that has seen two others like it move or pass on. And the Courtesy Collision gives no shelter, the cricket no relief; and the dry stone no sound of water. Come in under the shadow of the transmission tower and I will show you something different �

Its name, Delightful Island Café, is fittingly defiant. Its interior is awash in yellow ' a beaming room overseen by an equally beaming Carron Bartley, as pleasant a proprietress as you'll meet, and her industrious son. The kitchen is manned by chef Garth, a former resort chef who now plies his craft in the kitchen once commanded by Millie Parker (of Mama Millie's Jamaican Café). 

After starting with a beef patty ($1.75), served quartered and toothpicked for ease of eating, we knew our dinner would ultimately give us gratification. Sure, the patties weren't made in-house, but still, we knew. Cooyah wraps ($2.50) amounted to stuffed soft tacos, but the luxuriant, turmeric-infused chicken curry ladled inside had us swooning. Thanks to a liberal pour of Scotch bonnet sauce into the tacos, beads of sweat materialized on my dining partner's depilated dome. Scotch bonnets, scotty bons, habañeros ' anyway you call 'em or cut 'em, these peppers are infernal. Knowingly eating one, at best, allows you to gird the proverbial loins. Unwittingly biting into one, as I did when enjoying the snapper escoveitch ($12), issues a delayed, not an immediate, gustatory siren. When I found myself suddenly gasping for relief in mid-sentence, my sweaty-headed comrade couldn't help but chuckle. 

A side of rice and peas proved palliative, and we even half-joked that a handful of rice could sop up the perspiration streaming down the napes of our necks. The snapper, it should be noted, was exquisitely fried, and the vinegar-based dressing didn't overpower the flavor of the fish. Again, beware camouflaged slices of Scotch bonnets amid the julienned carrots. The jerk chicken ($7) could've benefited from Mama Millie's savvy ' the fact that it required a dip into a cold (albeit amazing) jerk sauce to get the full flavor made the dish a bit unwieldy. The chicken itself was decent, but the dish as a whole didn't win me over. But fatty, lush and pliant goat meat was, in a word, delightful, especially when wrapped in a soft Jamaican-style roti ($8).

An on-site bakery is planned in the coming months, which should help the fledgling café build its customer base and further elevate its offerings. Businesses in the area help sustain it, as does Mama Millie (a close friend of Bartley's) who lends encouragement, guidance and love. So while the Delightful Island Café may sit in the heart of an urban wasteland, its kitchen aroused our palates and we responded, gaily to the hand expert with knives and spices.

Some of my greatest meal memories are from the original Dexter's in Winter Park. It was there that I discovered my love of sitting around a table for hours with friends, eating, drinking and conversing. The original Dexter's on Fairbanks Avenue was magnificent for this discovery, an absolutely pleasurable spot where you could linger and listen to music, sip wine and enjoy enlivening food.

Then came Dexter's in Thornton Park, which became my morning-after remedy from long nights at the Go Lounge. I loved getting up and riding my bike over to Washington Street to have brunch. There was no better way to nurse a hangover than with a basket of sweet potato chips and a Dexter's "special" – a honey-cured mesquite-smoked turkey sandwich. When the original Dexter's moved to another location, in west Winter Park, I went a couple of times, mostly on dates before the movies or to grab a quick sandwich and tasty salad.

I guess you could say that Dexter's and I have grown up together. Dexter's kind of supplied the comfort food of my early adult life, introducing me to such favorites as buccatini, jerk spice and smoked cheese. So when I heard Dexter's was growing again and moving north to the suburbs, I wasn't sure what to think. I mean, I'm not ready for the suburbs yet. And would it have the same cool warehouse-space feel? Would the food be just as simple and pleasing?

The new Dexter's in Lake Mary suffers a little from what I like to call Multiple Growth Restaurant Syndrome, the pesky disorder that occurs when a restaurant has been getting it right for so long that they become formulaic. Don't worry, though. Dexter's is up and running and handling this minor affliction quite well. The first sign of MGRS is in the restaurant's sterile location in a spanking-new shopping plaza. To get to the restaurant, I had to navigate I-4 up to the Lake Mary exit, then pass by the marquee of a shopping mall and drive past endless rows of parking spaces. There's not much of a chance that I'll wake up on a breezy morning and hop on my bike for a ride over here. Each of the other Dexter's locations is unique in the way the business molds itself to the surroundings. The new entry offers a more manufactured ambience, but my friends and I still found the experience enjoyable in every way. This Dexter's was still the Dexter's I knew and loved.

A beautiful glass wine-storage closet nestled in nicely by the bar, creating the fun, sophisticated flair Dexter's is so well known for. All of the comfort foods I crave were on the new menu, so I had to start with the basket of delicious "cha-cha" chips mixed with sweet chips ($1.95), which always kicks up my appetite.

From the café menu, my friends ordered my beloved garlic buccatini with fresh pesto ($6.95), a delectable mix of Alfredo sauce, basil, pine nuts and thick, hollow egg noodles. We also tried the "low country crab cakes" ($11.95) and our resident Marylander gave them the thumbs-up – flaky and tender, packed with sweet crab flavor and piqued by plenty of fresh red pepper and onion.

We tried some items from the chef's special menu and found them delicious, as well. The chef here has the familiar Dexter's flair for giving comfort-food ingredients an exciting twist. The "chipotle marinated pork tenderloin" ($17.95) was bursting with heady spices such as cumin and cilantro, complementing the smoky aroma of the chipotle pepper. The "grilled filet with Stilton-bacon-demi glace" ($22.95) was steak and potatoes at its best. The fillet, juicy and served medium rare, was compatibly married to the opulent flavors of bacon and blue cheese. All of the dishes were enhanced by the accompaniment of a reasonably priced bottle of Acacia pinot noir. To finish our dinner off, we virtually scarfed the very satisfying and solid crème brûlée ($4.50) and the decadently chocolate "two mousse brownie" ($4.50).

When I got up from my meal I realized that I had, once again, passed a lively two hours with friends at Dexter's. So even if Dexter's has become a bit formulaic, hey, the formula works.

With an attractive wait staff, eclectic art and 30-plus wines and champagnes, Dexter's makes you feel cool even if you're not. The unique selection of international beers is popular at this wine bar and café; the concrete floor means it can get noisy as hell.

The new Dexter's in Winter Park no longer sells wine for retail, a practice left behind when the hot spot relocated to west Winter Park. Still, the reinvented landmark offers a more elevated wine experience than before, with a sommelier on staff to advance the "captain's list" of rare vintages, stored in a smart, white-washed Chicago-brick vault.

With the oversized French doors open to the streetscape, the dining area is far more roomy. The butcher-block tables and stools have been replaced by low, cherry-wood tables with Art Deco chairs. And there's no shortage of parking (a problem that plagues Dexter's in Thornton Park). The dinner menu remains constant, and the "cafe menu" adds variety with seasonal items, such as the current hickory-smoked tuna tartare ($9.95). And from the buffed cement bar you can try 30 wines by the glass.

Steamed talapia with fresh ginger and scallion. Roast duck. New Zealand mussels. Sticky rice shumai. Buffet restaurant.

This is not a "what doesn't belong" quiz; rather, all of these things go together at Dim Sum Feast (5989 W. Colonial Drive; 407-293-7999), where cheap eats and surprisingly well-done dishes coincide.

Lunch is $5.99 while dinner will set you back $8.49 and for that tidy sum you'll find sautéed Singapore mai fun noodles, freshly made Cantonese har gow shrimp balls, steamed pork buns and sweet sesame dumplings.

All the typical buffet fare is here, so if you're a lo mein or General Tso's chicken fan, pigging out is encouraged. But it's not often you'll find a whole poached salmon and green-tea rice paste alongside fried rice and teriyaki chicken to perk up more discriminating palates.

Judging from their blissful, soporific smiles and stacks of leftovers, we passed a satisfied family on our way into Dixie Crossroads in Titusville. "We came all the way from Deltona, and it was worth it," someone said. We drove from Orlando to dine at this established beacon of fish-house cuisine, and we knew it would be worth the trip, too.

Confident that "if you cook it, they will come," management has skipped the Martha Stewart niceties of atmosphere and decorum. They don't waste time mixing tartar sauces; instead they serve the Ken's Steak House brand in disposable cups. Forks and knives are wrapped in wax paper and clunked on top of paper placemats. Hostesses communicate with each other on radio headsets while searching for the next empty table.

Confident that "if you cook it, they will come," management has skipped the Martha Stewart niceties of atmosphere and decorum. They don't waste time mixing tartar sauces; instead they serve the Ken's Steak House brand in disposable cups. Forks and knives are wrapped in wax paper and clunked on top of paper placemats. Hostesses communicate with each other on radio headsets while searching for the next empty table.

Lines are so long outside on weekends that Dixie carved a pond, built a pavilion and hired a band. Most patrons don't seem to mind waiting an hour or more to get seated.

Lines are so long outside on weekends that Dixie carved a pond, built a pavilion and hired a band. Most patrons don't seem to mind waiting an hour or more to get seated.

When it was our time, we were led to the Manatee Room, decorated with murals of sea cows and bubbles. We selected entrees and soups. There was hardly time to blink before the waitress returned with a tray of vegetable soup (OK), shrimp chowder (much better), creamy coleslaw (getting warmer) and gloriously golden, crispy corn fritters (hubba! hubba!). Without exaggeration these are the best fritters I have ever had – or probably ever will have. Crescents of sweet dough are blended with corn kernels and fried to a light, crisp finish.

When it was our time, we were led to the Manatee Room, decorated with murals of sea cows and bubbles. We selected entrees and soups. There was hardly time to blink before the waitress returned with a tray of vegetable soup (OK), shrimp chowder (much better), creamy coleslaw (getting warmer) and gloriously golden, crispy corn fritters (hubba! hubba!). Without exaggeration these are the best fritters I have ever had – or probably ever will have. Crescents of sweet dough are blended with corn kernels and fried to a light, crisp finish.

The seafood arrived shortly afterward, all a jumble on oversized platters. We chose to have it fried, rather than steamed or broiled. My shellfish combo ($10.95) came with shrimp, scallops and stuffed crab. The traditional shrimp and smaller rock shrimp were fried a dark brown. Both were sweet, fresh and delicious. Scallops were a little mushy and disappointing that day. Stuffed crab was actually breaded crab meat, molded into pucks and fried to crunchy hard shells. Very good. My guest's Indian River combo ($10.95) came with most of this and mullet as well. The fish fillet was fresh and firm, with a thick, flaky batter. Our baked potatoes were not on a par with the rest of the dinner – too steamy and heavy.

The seafood arrived shortly afterward, all a jumble on oversized platters. We chose to have it fried, rather than steamed or broiled. My shellfish combo ($10.95) came with shrimp, scallops and stuffed crab. The traditional shrimp and smaller rock shrimp were fried a dark brown. Both were sweet, fresh and delicious. Scallops were a little mushy and disappointing that day. Stuffed crab was actually breaded crab meat, molded into pucks and fried to crunchy hard shells. Very good. My guest's Indian River combo ($10.95) came with most of this and mullet as well. The fish fillet was fresh and firm, with a thick, flaky batter. Our baked potatoes were not on a par with the rest of the dinner – too steamy and heavy.

The lemon cake ($1.50) was a surprisingly good homespun yellow cake topped with a slab of citrus icing, though an unexpected touch came with the check: a cup of vanilla frozen yogurt, to clear the palate.

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