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Way back in 1988, when sushi was considered more of a punchline than a serious dinner option, Ichiban bravely opened on Orange Avenue, offering sushi and sashimi along with tempura and grilled fare. Ten years later, this spunky downtown pioneer is like the woman scorned in the Gloria Gaynor song -- it has survived. And, its dance card is still filled up with admirers.

Not everyone knows this, and those are the uninformed who show up on Friday and Saturday nights without reservations. There was a whole flock of them waiting outside when we visited. But with reservations, we were whisked into the dining area. It's the same as always -- soothing and casually elegant, with kimonos displayed on blond-brick walls, and a translucent glow thrown off by rice paper lanterns.

Not everyone knows this, and those are the uninformed who show up on Friday and Saturday nights without reservations. There was a whole flock of them waiting outside when we visited. But with reservations, we were whisked into the dining area. It's the same as always -- soothing and casually elegant, with kimonos displayed on blond-brick walls, and a translucent glow thrown off by rice paper lanterns.

Seated on tatami mats in one of the booths, we decided we were in a sushi mood and perused the options: rolls made with gator meat ($4.50), asparagus tempura ($3.95), sea urchin ($5) and even quail egg ($1.50). My guest gave up and chose the special ($9.50): tuna, cucumber and California rolls. Ichiban turned this sushi cliché into quite a presentation, slicing the rolls diagonally and arranging them like blossoms on a chop block.

Seated on tatami mats in one of the booths, we decided we were in a sushi mood and perused the options: rolls made with gator meat ($4.50), asparagus tempura ($3.95), sea urchin ($5) and even quail egg ($1.50). My guest gave up and chose the special ($9.50): tuna, cucumber and California rolls. Ichiban turned this sushi cliché into quite a presentation, slicing the rolls diagonally and arranging them like blossoms on a chop block.

"Dancing eel" turned out to be a happy surprise as well, if an expensive one ($11.95). Crab, cucumber, avocado and flying-fish eggs were rolled up together, bonded by cream cheese and topped with barbecued eel boldly glazed with a dark caramel sauce. Teamed with robust jolts of wasabi, the sushi did exactly what we wanted it to do: primed us for the main course.

"Dancing eel" turned out to be a happy surprise as well, if an expensive one ($11.95). Crab, cucumber, avocado and flying-fish eggs were rolled up together, bonded by cream cheese and topped with barbecued eel boldly glazed with a dark caramel sauce. Teamed with robust jolts of wasabi, the sushi did exactly what we wanted it to do: primed us for the main course.

For dinner, seafood tempura ($12.99) has to be one of the best deals in town. An abundance of shrimp, scallops and grouper fingers were deep-fried in a fine, frothy batter that melted in your mouth. Teamed with broccoli and zucchini tempura, and even a fried banana, they were artfully propped against a lacy "fan" of fried rice noodles.

For dinner, seafood tempura ($12.99) has to be one of the best deals in town. An abundance of shrimp, scallops and grouper fingers were deep-fried in a fine, frothy batter that melted in your mouth. Teamed with broccoli and zucchini tempura, and even a fried banana, they were artfully propped against a lacy "fan" of fried rice noodles.

And the "Ichiban special," while pricey at $20.99, was a solid investment. A polished black box was divided into quarters, which were heaped with delicacies sized just-right for chopsticks: grilled lobster tips nestled into a split lobster tail; chargrilled shrimp and scallops that cast off a sweet, oceanic perfume; slivers of sweet teriyaki steak; and mixed grilled vegetables.

And the "Ichiban special," while pricey at $20.99, was a solid investment. A polished black box was divided into quarters, which were heaped with delicacies sized just-right for chopsticks: grilled lobster tips nestled into a split lobster tail; chargrilled shrimp and scallops that cast off a sweet, oceanic perfume; slivers of sweet teriyaki steak; and mixed grilled vegetables.

Ichiban offers the kind of choices that sushi and sashimi adventurers crave, along with tempura and grilled fare more agreeable with mainstream tastes. It may not break culinary ground, but it's good food, prepared skillfully, and served with attention and a sense of fun. Ichiban continues to inspires quiet confidence.

If you don’t know your Toftbo from your Gutvik, an interminable stroll through the labyrinthine aisles of IKEA will sock your vocabulary like a Mats Sundin hip check, so that by the time you manage to find the exit (that is, if you find the exit), you’ll feel disoriented by the loony lexicon and the harsh, unnerving whiteness of this immense structure. Georges Pompidou himself would likely extol the virtues of the restaurant’s antiseptic postmodernism, but I found myself distracted from the need to order a meal by an inexplicable desire to buy a floor lamp. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself in a similar predicament. If it’s ultimately Swedish meatballs you crave, you’ll extol the virtues of the Euro-cafeteria’s kottbullar: 15 meaty orbs slathered in a sour-cream gravy with some damn fine mashed potatoes and killer lingonberry preserves, all for a reasonable $4.99.

The thought of eating fish in a furniture warehouse may strike some as frighteningly Scandinavian, but the gravad lax ($4.99), cured salmon served with a mustard-dill sauce, wasn’t too bad. Washing it down with apple cake ($2.29) and a bottle of Kristian lingonberry-apple sparkler ($2.29) almost made me forget I was dining inside an iPod. And when the exit doors finally came into view, the sweet scent of fresh-baked cinnamon buns halted me in my tracks. Another distraction – how Swede it is.

There are times when a quiet meal in quiet surroundings is all you want. No chatting from people nearby, no loud noise -- you get enough of that at work -- just sitting down in front of a plate of food and tucking in. Doesn't even matter what kind of food, really ... just peace.

On those days, don't go to Il Pescatore. But if you crave a good dinner in an atmosphere that will remind you more of Sunday afternoon at Aunt Marie's than Ristorante di Silenzio, head as quickly as possible to east Orlando and grab a table.

Marie, by the way, is usually at the front counter. She greets diners as if they're old friends, and the amazing thing is, most are. Before this place was Il Pescatore ("the fisherman"), it was Jocelyne's, a French and Italian place, and before that, just plain Italian as Sorrento's. Back then, Stefano Lacommare was the chef, and he and his wife Marie left in '95 to open Stefano's Trattoria on Aloma Avenue. But the little place got too little, and while Stefano's is still there under different ownership, Lacommare has returned to Primrose Drive.

With wood-paneled walls and uncovered wood tables, Il Pescatore is more relaxed than your typical restaurant. There's a never-ending flow of people walking in the front door, out the side door and heading to tables. There's talking, continuously -- chatter behind you, a discussion across the room, an explosion of laughter from the back. In other words, this is an Italian restaurant, the kind I'd all but given up on seeing again outside of New York's Arthur Avenue.

And the food lives up to that image. Nothing comes out of a jar. The cozze marinara appetizer ($6.95) consists of lovely mussels simply served on half-shell with a rich tomato sauce full of garlic and a slightly dark basil taste. There's an extensive list of pasta dishes, including sautéed tortellini with cream sauce and a touch of prosciutto ($6.95), and more than a dozen sauces that you can mix with your choice of pasta.

There are almost too many dinner choices, from traditional house specialties like "trippa del Pescatore" (tripe in tomato sauce; $12.95) to linguini with clams, conch or squid ($10.95). The cannelloni ($10.95) is splendid: pasta envelopes stuffed with ground chicken, ricotta cheese and mushrooms that tasted like they were marinated in garlic, then topped with mozzarella. The chicken special on one visit was a sheet of chicken breast wrapped around a four-cheese risotto. The softball-sized dish is baked, then served in a marsala wine sauce.

Go welcome Stefano back to the neighborhood. Tell 'em Joe sent ya.

Tony Chen likes it hot. With his wife, Kathy, he used to own a restaurant in Vermont, but moved to Florida because it was "too cold" up north. At the Chens' latest restaurant, Imperial Dynasty in Longwood, one of Tony's specialties is Empress Chicken, which he describes as being "known throughout northern Vermont." The entree includes nicely battered strips of chicken with fresh broccoli, cauliflower, peppers and carrots in a very hot brown sauce. I guarantee there was less snow in Vermont whenever that dish was ordered.

Taiwanese-born Tony's first restaurant in Florida was the Royal Dynasty in Ormond Beach, opened in 1993. In March, the Chens moved to their current location on State Road 434 and a space formerly occupied by Cara Mara Restaurant and, before that, a Shoney's. The exterior still has the corporate-food look, not much different than the Denny's next door.

The style of food at Imperial Dynasty reminded me of those "Polynesian" restaurants my folks and cast members of television's Route 66 used to enjoy in the 1960s. Among the entrees are such dishes as beef and broccoli ($9.25), egg foo young ($6.25 to $9.95) and chicken chop suey. Fortunately, the food at Imperial Dynasty is a step up from the Polynesian lounges, but it's not without some flaws.

Perhaps because of my lingering first impression, the menu didn't strike me as the type to include spicy dishes. But, by paying close attention to the tiny pepper symbols when ordering, you'll avoid being surprised like I was.

Unexpected appetizers included kimchi ($2.95, which was marked "hot"), ground chicken wrapped in lettuce leaves ($5.45), and a lovely dish of several different kinds of bright green, chewy seaweed in sesame oil ($3.95). A thick and mild chicken and corn chowder ($1.95) was blessed with savory roast chicken threads.

The food is good, but tastes are aimed at Western palates, just like at Polynesian eateries. And that might be the shortfall of Imperial Dynasty. The ingredients in the "house special" Triple Delicacy ($13.95) were first-rate: Extremely tender chicken and juicy, fresh shrimp were served atop thin pan-fried egg noodles. But it was all covered in a sauce that was much too salty.

Stuffed dumplings ($4.95), either fried or steamed, were enormous and enormously heavy: The ground-meat interior was the consistency of meatloaf, like an American version of dimsum.

In sum, Imperial Dynasty offered not disappointing cooking, but not terribly adventurous, either.

I'll be frank. When I first learned that India Palace was located in a strip-mall in the middle of Tourist World, I sighed deeply and thought, "Do I gotta?"

Let me tell you, I'll be making the trip frequently.

It's not that the place is, well, a palace. But it is immaculate and attractive: a large room painted soft pink; pink table linen; silk flowers; lovely brass chandeliers; glittery Indian prints on the walls; quiet Indian music in the background.

My dining companion and I began our meal by perusing a mouthwatering selection of eight Indian breads ($1.25-$3.95). We sampled a delicious chapati ($1.25), which is thin and roasted, and aloo paratha ($3.25) -- a grilled version that's stuffed with delicately spiced potatoes.

The eight-item appetizer selection was ample and varied and ranged from papadam ($1) -- thin bean wafers -- to Madras fried shrimp ($7.95). I went with the vegetable samosa ($2.50). These crisply prepared patties, stuffed with potatoes and peas and a touch of spices, were delicious, as was the onion bhaji, vegetable fritters that combine onions, green peppers, potatoes and spinach.

The gosht section of the menu ($10.25-$11.95), eight beef or lamb options, includes gosht rogan josh, in which the meat is cooked with cream, fresh tomato sauce, onions, green peppers and spices. For chicken (murgh) lovers there's everything from murgh curry ($9.95) -- a straightforward, boneless curried chicken -- to the Madras-style murgh ($10.95), which simmers the chicken with fresh tomatoes and special spices. My companion gave raves to his jeera chicken ($10.95) with butter, cumin seed, garlic, ginger, onion and green pepper.

And there are tandoori choices ($9.95-$18.95) cooked in the traditional Indian clay oven and a dozen vegetarian dishes ($7.95-$8.95), all featuring the exotic spices for which Indian cuisine is famous. I found the eggplant bhartha delectable, the vegetable simmered and blended with spices. Equally tasty was the aloo gobhi, which featured cauliflower, potatoes and green peas, and the mushroom bhaji, a spicy concoction of 'shrooms, green peppers, onions and tomatoes.

I'd drive a lot farther than the Palace's Buena Vista location to partake of its dishes. The first bite made a Himalayan trek seem reasonable.

As we sauntered into our friends' kitchen, in anticipation of a delicious home-cooked meal, we were handed glasses of a refreshing sparkling wine that we downed while watching the making of the feast. These friends are the most adventurous and skillful at this very task. I couldn't help but comment on the smell of spices that filled the kitchen, and when handed the cookbook from which our meal was inspired, I found there were no less than 25 ingredients required, most of them exotic spices and hard to find ingredients.

"Where can you get annatto?" I asked. "And tamarind pulp?"

Our host winked: A cook's secret was about to be revealed.

"India Spice House," she whispered.

India is so rich with spice that almost all other cultures have incorporated Indian varieties into their cuisine. Just about any seasoning called for in a recipe can be purchased on the shelves of an Indian market – usually at a great price.

India Spice House is located in a south Orlando K-mart shopping center. The messy storefront is plastered with product printouts and hand-written specials; inside it is neat and perfumed with exotic ingredients. With only three aisles, this store is packed with wondrous surprises. All of the ingredients for a Moroccan dish I wanted to make were available in abundance: Turkish pistachios, orange flower water, cumin, coriander and mint. There were also exciting new things to try: A delightful jar of lime relish and mace, which totally captivated me with its spicy-sweet smell and turned out to be the outer hull of the nutmeg fruit. And safetida, an alluring powder that was both musky and fruity, is a crucial ingredient in Indian vegetarian cooking and comes from a hybrid of the fennel plant. I picked up some prepared Indian food as well as some frozen paneer cheese that mixed nicely with a ready-made curry for a quick weeknight meal. There's something for everyone.

Sitting at Infusion Tea on Edgewater Drive, sipping Assam black tea ($2) and munching on delicious vegetarian hummus ($6), I reflect on what this place has in common with my favorite hot dog counter in the East Village: They are both what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls "Third Places." Naturally the First Place is home; the second is work (damn). Third Places are the gems, providing us the precious community we so often lack in our lives.

I went to Infusion for the third time in four days last night. I met up with a friend I hadn't seen in a while, and we closed ourselves off to the outside world to concern ourselves only with conversation and the vast menu of tea before us. Suddenly the choice of black, oolong, white, green or herbal seemed the most important thing in the world. Jasmine pearls? Or monkey-picked oolong?

Some places can just sweep you off your overworked and/or bored-at-home feet, and Infusion has the charm to do it. The quaint corner spot in a little retro building on Edgewater begs you to bike over and stay for hours. Owner Christina Cowherd is interesting and kind, and has created a special atmosphere where visiting and lingering reign over efficiency and the bottom line. She and her husband, Brad, got the idea to open Infusion Tea while in the Peace Corps in Guatemala, and moved back to College Park to be near their families and down the street from their alma mater, Edgewater High School. Incorporating into their business many of the lifestyle changes they learned in Guatemala, they are avid recyclers, conscientious organic-food buyers and dedicated composters. Among their fantastic food choices are banana bread ($1.75) and gazpacho ($5) – recipes that Christina created with her Guatemalan students – and delightful organic tea-time bites such as scones ($1.75) with fresh cream and jam (add 75 cents).

I couldn't help but ask about their goal in opening the tea shop. "This may sound hokey," Christina said, "but I read this book called Great Good Places by Ray Oldenburg …"

"The one about Third Places?" I asked.

"That was my primary goal," she said.

Doesn't sound hokey to me at all. In fact, I'm happy to switch my affection from all-beef kosher dogs to Assam tea when it provides me with something nourishing that I crave: community.

With the addition of the International Market and Deli near the British Shoppe and the Brit-populated Chuck's Diner, you can make a culinary trip across Europe on one single block. But what the International Market's got over the others is the feeling that, when stepping into their large, warm space, you've wound up in the Old World.

Most European countries are represented somewhere on the store's many shelves, but when you get to the deli case, it's all pretty much Eastern Bloc. Chicken and cheese-stuffed pierogis, sweet and savory blintzes, stuffed cabbage (served with fresh sour cream, of course) ' it's all made in-house and can be enjoyed at the cafeteria tables while Russian soap operas play on the television. 

A good start is the chicken cutlet, stuffed with a variety of light, creamy cheeses then breaded and fried to crispy, cheese-melting perfection. Not even the mightiest hangover stands a chance. 

The traditional Japanese izakaya is a raucous late-night sake house that serves the Japanese equivalent of tapas ' basically, bar food. Izakaya Toshi slings a handful of sakes, plenty of Kirin Ichiban, and the small plates are served until the wee hours (that's midnight in Altamonte Springs), but the scene is much less boisterous than your average Ginza grog shop. The light of the swinging red lantern out front illuminates a largely empty dining room inside, but on the Saturday night we visited, that only served to make our dinner all the more personal. Yoshi Kushibiki, proprietress and wife of chef Toshi Kushibiki, was as pleasant a hostess as you'll find anywhere. She spoke of her emigration from Sapporo to Orlando and took the time to translate menu items in between joking with us.

Surprisingly, neither oshibori (wet towel) nor otoshi (amuse) were offered, as is the custom, but a version of the latter was presented mid-meal to us in the form of kombu (kelp) cooked with soy sauce, sugar and a dash of seven-spice shichimi togarashi powder. More a condiment, the kombu, I found, went well with a little steamed rice. In fact, it would've made an ideal wrap for the onigiri ($5), mistakenly advertised as a rice 'bowlâ?� instead of 'ball.â?� The nori-wrapped triangle of rice came filled with umeboshi, a tart pickled plum paste. A bowl is what the yamakaze tororo ($10) came in, though the mucilaginous texture may turn some diners off. The grated Japanese mountain yam is the main ingredient in a runny broth layered with a bit of wasabi and fresh ruby-red squares of tuna. Yoshi encouraged us to finish the broth once the fish was eaten, as the yams, she said, were quite expensive. From the sushi menu, the yum yum rolls ($9) lived up to the name. A thin layer of panko breading was followed by the crunch of asparagus and, finally, a spicy mix of tuna. Nothing too adventurous, but the rolls were little works of art, and they were wholeheartedly devoured.

Mains comprise meats that are either breaded (katsu/tempura), kebabbed (kushiyaki) or sauced (teriyaki/misoyaki). We chose to enjoy our New York strip ($20) with misoyaki, a sweet soybean paste lighter in flavor than teriyaki, and enjoy it we did. The beef was soft and pliant, though instead of the lackluster pasta salad on the side, I would've preferred a starch with more substance. Chicken yakisoba ($13) was a stir-fried wonder, with plenty of fresh vegetables ' broccoli, green beans, celery and asparagus ' mixed with the thin noodles. And the dish held up quite nicely the next day.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention their miso soup, which was the finest I've sampled anywhere in the city. If the complimentary bowl isn't enough, another can be had for $3.

Desserts aren't listed on the menu, but if you're interested, just ask. More than likely, you'll be served a cantaloupe boat ($4) artistically sided with kiwi and strawberries with cream. The trio of fruit, perfectly cut and so wonderfully sweet and fresh, had us humming. Too bad they didn't have any karaoke machines ' if they'd served us some more, we would've broken out in song.

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