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    I don't know why, but I was expecting a dive. Maybe it was the fact that R.J. Gator's seemed to be named after somebody's uncle. Maybe because it was called a "Florida sea grill." Maybe just because it was founded 20 years ago. But R.J. Gator's was far from being a dive. It was more like an efficient urban development in dive disguise. Think of it as a warehouse-sized, Everglades-themed Cheesecake Factory attached to a mall.

    We first came upon the restaurant's outdoor bar, which wraps around the building's facade. Among the few tables, the music was blaring, giving one the fleeting feeling of drinking in an outpost in the thick of a swamp. Pulling on the gator-head door handles, my friends and I stepped inside.

    The hostess started to show us to a booth near the front window when we noticed a gimmick that we had to partake of: rocking booths. "Can we sit at one of those?" I demanded, pointing to the middle of the room. She mechanically turned and led us to our very own swinging banquet, where we delighted in play as we rocked the booth with our feet, testing to see if our drinks would spill on the swaying but steady table.

    As we waited for our food, a wall of hot sauces kept us entertained. We grabbed a handful and tested them with saltine crackers, then kept our favorites and smothered our meals in them when they arrived. The menu was enormous, and we only scratched the surface of what they offered, sticking mostly to the Florida specialties and bar/grill food.

    We rocked and rocked until a dozen oysters were placed in front of us, half raw and half steamed. A few minutes later, the refuse of Hurricane Oyster left a trail of cocktail sauce, drawn butter, crackers and shells across the table. R.J. Gator's is no Lee & Rick's Oyster Bar (on Old Winter Garden Road), but the huge, delicate mollusks nestled in their shells were still completely satisfying. Next came alligator tail ($5.49), tender chunks of golden fried meat served with cocktail sauce and another thyme-laden Caribbean-style one. We also got a plate of "strings" ($6.99), a mile-high pile of thin, fried onions that had been rolled in a spicy batter before being plunged into hot fat – definitely bar food at its best. Actually, any pub fare you could dream up, R.J. Gator's touches on – nachos, quesadillas, spinach dip, wings, fingers, pizza, burgers. And they always feature a fresh Florida catch, so don't hesitate to consider a grouper sandwich, too ($8.99).

    Actually, we tried an assortment of recommendable seafood dishes. The selection of fried seafood is astounding, including platters of scallops, clams, shrimp and myriad types of fish. We munched down an order of pleasingly crunchy coconut shrimp ($13.99) that had an alluringly tropical flavor. The Florida-style crab cakes ($12.99) live up to their name: fluffy cakes seasoned with Caribbean flair and with a texture that could live up to any Maryland taste test.

    R.J. Gator's serves several dishes "Havana banana"-style, which is a grilled piece of jerk-seasoned meat (I tried mahi-mahi for $11.99) covered in orange sauce and served with black beans, rice and fried plantains.

    Skip their desserts, which tended to be gooey, over-the-top messes, except perhaps the Key lime pie. Their version was a creamy tart custard nuzzled into a graham cracker crust and finished with an unnaturally bright green lime concoction that tasted like a Now and Later candy – the kind of sauce that a true dive would dish up.

    dining@orlandoweekly.com

    I've always considered Irish food to be similar to British food in the sense that it's something you eat because you're already at the pub, have had a few pints and don't feel like driving somewhere else to get a real meal. So it's bangers and mash, maybe a shepherd's pie, to soak up the hooch and settle the stomach; not bad, but not stellar. It'll do.

    Now that I have been to Raglan Road, an Irish pub and restaurant at Disney's Pleasure Island, however, I'm going to have to reconsider that assessment. Their Irish fare is tasty enough to entice a teetotaler into a pub, and I now understand that there is no excuse for mediocre Irish food.

    My expectations of the place, frankly, were low. Given the location, I assumed they were slinging the same old Emerald Isle standards at the tourists and doubling the prices. Surely the menu would be nothing but boiled this and cabbage that, heavy on the corned beef and a crock of stew on the side.

    But once inside the place, I quickly sensed that it was not a typical Americanized Irish pub, and it turned out that it wasn't. While walking back to our table after a short wait, the chatty hostess informed us that the room we were dining in was actually an Irish estate house, disassembled there and shipped here piece by piece. The furniture is all antique, and the framed photos hanging on the dark wooden walls are authentic. The result is an amazingly cozy atmosphere for such a large restaurant.

    We started with an appetizer named "Smokie City" ($10.95) which sounded sketchy ("oven baked layers of smoked cod with mature Wexford cheddar and double cream") but turned out to be brilliant. The smoked cod, dense and lovely, was offset perfectly by the tangy cheddar sauce in which it swam. We lapped up every bite, smearing it like a spread on large slices of crusty sourdough, then turned the crock over to get the last few drops.

    Entree No. 1 was "Planxty" ($19.95), a dish that I ordered because I liked the name. What I got was roast pork shank poking up out of a bed of mashed potatoes, with a side of apple chutney. About that roast pork: When the meat falls off the bone before you can get it on the fork, it's tender. And this was tender. The chutney added a note of sweetness, and the potatoes were nice and lumpy, so no complaints at all. It was a very satisfying dish.

    Entree No. 2, "It's Not Bleedin' Chowder," was similarly expensive ($19.95) and just as good. The name is supposedly a quote from the chef when he was asked exactly what the dish was, which is a rich mix of scallops, fish, mussels and prawns, mixed in a white wine sauce infused with saffron and finished with cream. At that price it better not be bleedin' chowder, and it better not look like anything that came out of a can. It wasn't, and it didn't. The seafood was fresh, the sauce was tangy and lively, and I can't recall having tasted a better fish stew, if you can call it that.

    The only item that disappointed was the bowl of "Down the Middle" ($5.50), a hearty but bland tomato and vegetable broth soup. That was for the vegetarian in the family, because there wasn't much else on the menu she could eat.

    Dessert, which took almost 20 minutes to get to the table for some reason, was "Ger's Bread & Butter Pudding" ($7.99). I'm not much of a bread pudding fan, which is exactly why I ordered it. So far the meal had exceeded all my expectations. Would dessert disappoint? Not a chance. Ger, whoever he/she may be, has concocted a heavenly bread pudding. It comes out in a warm crock with tiny pitchers of butter and butterscotch that you add yourself, as much or as little as you like. The sourdough bread soaks it up, and you get a raisin-infused mush that's sweet, rich and cinnamony. Once again I upended the serving dish to coax out the last drop.

    This being Disney, there's entertainment in the form of table dancing and an Irish band. But that's just dressing. This is a pub you can come into for dinner, and maybe hang around to grab a Guinness or two or three.

    It's not that we weren't given a thoroughly warm welcome. And sure, at least half of the customers that night were women. Even the restaurant is named after a woman. But my girlfriend and I agreed: Ruth's Chris Steak House has the definite vibes of a "guy" restaurant.

    The whole place is steeped in masculine energy. It's all clubby and private, with lustrous mahogany woods, low lighting, starched white linens on the tables, and secluded booths with swinging doors. The portions are massive, and the prices will hit you in the wallet big time, unless, of course, you're there with an important client on a business expense account. Although dinner for two can easily climb upward of $100, it's a carnivore's dream, steak at its very finest.

    The whole place is steeped in masculine energy. It's all clubby and private, with lustrous mahogany woods, low lighting, starched white linens on the tables, and secluded booths with swinging doors. The portions are massive, and the prices will hit you in the wallet big time, unless, of course, you're there with an important client on a business expense account. Although dinner for two can easily climb upward of $100, it's a carnivore's dream, steak at its very finest.

    This New Orleans-based chain deals only with corn-fed Hereford cows. Meats are aged several weeks for added flavor and tenderness. Each cut is seared on an 1,800-degree grill, hot enough to fire pottery, which quickly seals the meat and locks in juices. They arrive at your table sizzling in butter. The results are sometimes so tender that a steak knife isn't necessary to dig in; a mere fork will do.

    This New Orleans-based chain deals only with corn-fed Hereford cows. Meats are aged several weeks for added flavor and tenderness. Each cut is seared on an 1,800-degree grill, hot enough to fire pottery, which quickly seals the meat and locks in juices. They arrive at your table sizzling in butter. The results are sometimes so tender that a steak knife isn't necessary to dig in; a mere fork will do.

    Our waiter greeted us by our party's name, which he evidently got from the host at the front door. It was a small touch that helped us to relax. He steered us through the menu, making informed suggestions. We had an excellent barbecued shrimp appetizer ($8.95), which was sautéed in a sauce of reduced white wine, butter, garlic and spices. We also had a dish that was generously loaded with escargot and hearts of artichoke ($8.25) sautéed in white wine with heaps of scallions and mushrooms.

    Our waiter greeted us by our party's name, which he evidently got from the host at the front door. It was a small touch that helped us to relax. He steered us through the menu, making informed suggestions. We had an excellent barbecued shrimp appetizer ($8.95), which was sautéed in a sauce of reduced white wine, butter, garlic and spices. We also had a dish that was generously loaded with escargot and hearts of artichoke ($8.25) sautéed in white wine with heaps of scallions and mushrooms.

    Our waiter described the "cowboy rib-eye special" ($29.95) in such tempting detail that we couldn't resist. It weighed in at a jaw-dropping 22 ounces and was indeed extremely flavorful, drawing some of its impact from the bone, which was left intact. It was seared to medium-cooked perfection with a bright pink center, just as we requested. We also ordered a trio of lamb chops ($29.95), which were delicately marbled and extremely juicy, served with a pot of "emerald mint" dressing.

    Our waiter described the "cowboy rib-eye special" ($29.95) in such tempting detail that we couldn't resist. It weighed in at a jaw-dropping 22 ounces and was indeed extremely flavorful, drawing some of its impact from the bone, which was left intact. It was seared to medium-cooked perfection with a bright pink center, just as we requested. We also ordered a trio of lamb chops ($29.95), which were delicately marbled and extremely juicy, served with a pot of "emerald mint" dressing.

    There are eight ways to have potatoes at Ruth's, from mashed with roasted garlic to au gratin. We went with the Lyonnaise treatment ($4.50), sliced and sautéed with onions. Back home, we call them fried potatoes, but Ruth's version was handled skillfully. The tenderly steamed asparagus is another good choice, served with a delicate Hollandaise sauce ($6.95).

    There are eight ways to have potatoes at Ruth's, from mashed with roasted garlic to au gratin. We went with the Lyonnaise treatment ($4.50), sliced and sautéed with onions. Back home, we call them fried potatoes, but Ruth's version was handled skillfully. The tenderly steamed asparagus is another good choice, served with a delicate Hollandaise sauce ($6.95).

    Among the killer assortment of desserts, crème brûlée ($5.95) is a favorite with the clientele. Served with a handful of berries, it was eggy yet feather light, and the sugar crystals on top were torched into a glassy, crisp coating. Ice-cream freezes are a house specialty, made with Haagen Dazs and top-shelf liqueurs such as creme de cacao and brandy that go into the "velvet hammer" ($5.25).

    Among the killer assortment of desserts, crème brûlée ($5.95) is a favorite with the clientele. Served with a handful of berries, it was eggy yet feather light, and the sugar crystals on top were torched into a glassy, crisp coating. Ice-cream freezes are a house specialty, made with Haagen Dazs and top-shelf liqueurs such as creme de cacao and brandy that go into the "velvet hammer" ($5.25).

    Although we didn't sample the wine, there is a well-crafted menu that includes dozens of choices by the bottle or glass. We tried to find at least one thing about our entire dinner that wasn't perfect but came up empty-handed. We had to admit that Ruth's Chris Steak House has earned its reputation as a landmark restaurant worthy of visiting on special occasions -- or better yet, when you're on someone else's expense account.

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