Seafood in Orlando

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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

    If someone said, "Let's go to Roy's for dinner," you might think they were referring to a chicken shack. But you should hope they're talking about Roy's Restaurant, the latest entry in fine dining along the amazingly fertile Sand Lake and Dr. Phillips intersection.

    Restaurants and shops are springing up like weeds along this stretch of land that was formerly filled with, well, weeds. Roy Yamaguchi, cookbook author, TV host and restaurateur, has opened the latest branch of his empire on it.

    Restaurants and shops are springing up like weeds along this stretch of land that was formerly filled with, well, weeds. Roy Yamaguchi, cookbook author, TV host and restaurateur, has opened the latest branch of his empire on it.

    From the hype, I expected someplace fancier. The decor varies: a bistro feel with quilted copper panels above an open kitchen and a smattering of small tables; upscale diner with booths and bare wood tables against a beautiful river-rock wall; and a section of wine-cellar gone mad, with enormous glass-walled wine racks. A key ingredient in the Roy's experience is wine. The chain (there's more than a dozen) has partnerships with wineries that put the "Roy's" label on select bottles and sell him truckloads of premium vintages. The guy buys 1,100 cases of Pinot Gris at a time, so you'll have lots of choices.

    The food also gives you choices. The menu reads like a primer in Hawaiian and Asian cooking and combinations thereof. Inamona sauce (candlenut kernels from the island of Hana) is served with ahi tuna. Shutome swordfish is basted in Thai curry sauce. I had a lovely serving of hebi (Hawaiian spearfish), a dark, oily meat that's firmer and more pronounced in taste that tuna, nicely grilled with cilantro leaves ($25). My companion had the "surfah" combination ($25), seared mahi with macadamia lobster sauce along with triple tails with Parmesan crab sauce. Unfortunately, it was presented with the two fish stacked on each other, and the sauces sort of blended around them. They were damn good sauces, even though the fish seemed a bit too bland to carry them.

    Appetizers were beautiful in presentation but ordinary in taste. Coconut shrimp sticks weren't any better than standard Chinese-restaurant fare. The topping on the "dynamite" oysters reminded me of broiler-browned mayonnaise.

    Certain desserts take 20 minutes to prepare. If you're like me (and of course you are), you probably can't think about dessert so far in advance, so just order the "haupia," coconut pudding in a chocolate shell that looks like a little coconut.

    Certain desserts take 20 minutes to prepare. If you're like me (and of course you are), you probably can't think about dessert so far in advance, so just order the "haupia," coconut pudding in a chocolate shell that looks like a little coconut.

    Roy's prides itself on "aloha service." In this case, "aloha" must be the island word for "waiter hovering over you at alternate mouthfuls." Maybe I'm getting curmudgeonly in my old age. Maybe that's why Roy's has so much wine.

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