Steakhouse in Orlando

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    Judging from the packed parking lot, we thought we were about to experience Steaks "R" Us. And since we spotted quite a few "Jeb!" and Confederate flag bumper stickers, we weren't quite sure what else to expect. A gaudy marquee announced Sam Seltzer's Steakhouse to the traffic on State Road 436, and a small group of fiberglass cow statues greeted us at the front door.

    And so we found ourselves lining up with hundreds of other carnivores at the restaurant that bills itself as "the biggest steakhouse in town." Steak World might be a better name. The smoking section alone seats about 110 people, and the restaurant holds a total of 375 customers. On a busy night, it's almost like visiting a Disney satellite attraction, where hundreds of animatrons sit neatly at tables, chewing politely on their red-meat fix.

    And so we found ourselves lining up with hundreds of other carnivores at the restaurant that bills itself as "the biggest steakhouse in town." Steak World might be a better name. The smoking section alone seats about 110 people, and the restaurant holds a total of 375 customers. On a busy night, it's almost like visiting a Disney satellite attraction, where hundreds of animatrons sit neatly at tables, chewing politely on their red-meat fix.

    The seating is arranged into dining clusters through a series of rooms, so at least you aren't elbow-to-elbow with the masses. After scanning the appetizer menu, we chose the deep-fried onion blossom -- of course. It's required eating in a steakhouse, and it seems like every restaurant trots out the same basic version these days. Here, it's called "Sam's wild onion rose" ($4.95), and it was not bad at all -- crisp and crunchy, not greasy a bit, served with a peppery horseradish-Thousand Island dressing.

    The seating is arranged into dining clusters through a series of rooms, so at least you aren't elbow-to-elbow with the masses. After scanning the appetizer menu, we chose the deep-fried onion blossom -- of course. It's required eating in a steakhouse, and it seems like every restaurant trots out the same basic version these days. Here, it's called "Sam's wild onion rose" ($4.95), and it was not bad at all -- crisp and crunchy, not greasy a bit, served with a peppery horseradish-Thousand Island dressing.

    "Sam's wings & ribs" ($6.95) turned out to be drummettes and ribs, but they were fall-off-the-bone tender, glazed with a sweet barbecue sauce. In fact, they were far more tender than my 16-ounce rib-eye ($13.95), which the menu promised would be "exquisitely tender" but wasn't. My guest's 10-ounce filet mignon ($14.95) was the best thing we had that evening. It was cooked properly medium, with a hot, pink center. Our dinners came with a choice of salads and sides, and our favorite was the garlic mashed potatoes. The creamed spinach was excruciatingly bland.

    "Sam's wings & ribs" ($6.95) turned out to be drummettes and ribs, but they were fall-off-the-bone tender, glazed with a sweet barbecue sauce. In fact, they were far more tender than my 16-ounce rib-eye ($13.95), which the menu promised would be "exquisitely tender" but wasn't. My guest's 10-ounce filet mignon ($14.95) was the best thing we had that evening. It was cooked properly medium, with a hot, pink center. Our dinners came with a choice of salads and sides, and our favorite was the garlic mashed potatoes. The creamed spinach was excruciatingly bland.

    If you have room for dessert, there is a great "chocolate explosion" ($4.50) that features a triple-whammy of cake, mousse and brownie, dunked with hot fudge sauce and topped with vanilla ice cream.

    If you have room for dessert, there is a great "chocolate explosion" ($4.50) that features a triple-whammy of cake, mousse and brownie, dunked with hot fudge sauce and topped with vanilla ice cream.

    Our waiter was on the ball, obliging every request and checking on us frequently, which couldn't have been easy considering how fast the place filled up. Sam Seltzer's is a notch above the more generic steak shacks, but it's also handy for those times when you don't want to part with the monthly power-bill allowance to feed your craving at Ruth's Chris Steak House or Del Frisco's.

    Some images naturally evoke romance – not the Harlequin variety, but a more decadent version made up of long, luscious nights of freedom and beauty, love and passion. For me, this fantasy is colored in a tropical patina that conjures Havana in the 1950s, something the Samba Room also effects. OK, so you're not exactly sitting oceanfront at a deco hotel sipping mojitos: You know you're in a suburban strip mall that sidles up to a sinkhole. But you don't really care because you're having fun, eating good food, and the atmosphere is convivial and very romantic.

    Samba Room's change of ownership back in 2003, from Carlson Restaurant Group (TGI Fridays) to E-Brands Restaurants, has done it justice. E-Brands has a careful hand in the kitchen and a wonderful way of creating ambience.

    "Would you like to sit inside," the smiley hostess asked, "or out by the lake?"

    Inside was festive and enticing with loud Latin music and brightly colored Diego Rivera-esque murals. Airy white curtains, so gossamer that every draft becomes a tropical breeze, bring life to the darkest corners. But it was a beautiful night, so we chose to dine outside by the lake. We sat, sipping cocktails beneath white rattan paddle fans, and peered inside at larger parties crowded around tables, talking loudly, laughing, engaged in each others' company under russet-orange lights. This is what you call casual elegance.

    We started with an order of Samba ceviche ($8.95), which mixed market-fresh fish, shrimp, red onions and colorful peppers in a lime marinade. Pleasantly tangy, the dish swelled with flavor, balancing acidity and salinity. My mouth never puckered with displeasure. The roasted hominy on the side added satisfying texture to the delicious dish.

    The empanada sampler ($7.95) consisted of both sweet corn and pork varieties. Surprisingly, we liked the nontraditional sweet corn because it had fuller flavor and more filling. Both of the delicious sauces served with the empanadas were delicate fusions. Listed as "sofrito" (annatto-infused lard with vegetable garniture) and "aji amarillo" (a lemony capsicum from Latin America), they were modern streaks of emulsified flavor, distant cousins to the traditional varieties, running down an edge of the plate.

    For my main course, I tried Spanish paella ($25.50). Tiny red strands of saffron spattered the mound of rice laced with calamari, shrimp, white fish, chicken and some of the biggest mussels I've ever seen. The deep, earthy, subtle perfume of saffron followed the dish out of the open kitchen into the air. Half of a Maine lobster was the crown jewel of the dish.

    My partner got the pork barbacoa ($18.95), marinated and roasted in banana leaves. Unwrapping the leaves, he found a tender piece of pork nestled under a blanket of sweet, citrusy barbecue sauce.

    We were intrigued by the shiitake mushrooms al ajillo ($3.95) that spectacularly showcased traditional Asian mushrooms in Latin garlic sauce.

    I was about to burst when the espresso tres leches ($6) and guava cheesecake ($6) were delivered. I ate half of the excellent Kahlua-spiked tres leches before switching plates for a bite or two of the zesty cheesecake. The server brought café con leche ($4.50) to end our meal, and we sat looking over the still Florida water, slowly sipping the creamy, sweet coffee.

    "We should plan a trip to Cuba," I said, as we walked under industrial fluorescents across the vast suburban parking lot.

    We were told the wait would be 25 minutes, which wasn't surprising given it was Saturday night and that we hadn't made reservations at Shula's 347 Grill, a casual spinoff of the Don's chain of upscale steakhouses. A hightop table was offered, but we politely declined, took a seat on the curvilinear silver sofa and opted to wait it out. But someone in the front of the house must have decided to run the hurry-up offense, because not two minutes later, we were being seated at a table in the back of the restaurant, away from the din and clamor of the bar. We may not have been seated in those cozy plush leather booths (they were all occupied), but we had sufficient privacy, given the entire back row of tables was free of diners.

    The '347� is a reference to the number of wins Don Shula amassed over his 33-year coaching career. It's safe to say Shula has notched another win with this restaurant situated inside the Westin Lake Mary hotel, but it isn't resounding enough a win to compel us to come, ahem, running back. For one, the potential for a burgeoning hotel-bar pick-up scene isn't really one we particularly care for, nor is the incessant clatter ringing through the restaurant. Understandably, it's the restaurant's raison d'être and the milieu many of its patrons look for. Part sports bar, part trendy steakhouse, Shula's 347 undoubtedly benefits from the spillage from bars and restaurants situated across the street in the Colonial TownPark. 

    The space itself is attractive, with metallic steel-grey walls, chrome accents, polished hardwood floors and a centerpiece wine vault splitting the lounge from the dining area. It's a high-energy joint in which our sprightly waiter seemed perfectly comfortable. His suggestion that we start with the honey-sesame chicken ($9) was a good one; the seemingly prosaic starter was a delight ' fried orbs of chicken came in a bowl zested with ginger and stacked with plenty of cabbage and green and red onions for a healthy crunch. But beef is what we really came for, and we were a little saddened to see only four cuts available, three of which were of the 'Shula Cut� variety (premium Black Angus beef that exceeds seven of the eight standards qualifying steaks as USDA Prime). The 10-ounce flatiron steak ($26), while cooked perfectly, was somewhat marred by the spice rub and a pool of red wine demi-glace. A heap of crispy fried onions were a nice topping, but a little less adulteration would've benefited this steak. 

    For a few bucks more, the cowboy steak ($32) was simply outstanding. The wonderful marbling and flavor running through this 16-ounce bone-in ribeye made it a dish we'd seriously consider returning for, though next time we'd probably just eat it outside on the patio. We didn't care for the sides of corn-edamame succotash (the texture didn't mesh well with the juicy steak) or the dry citrus rice pilaf. 

    Seafood and sandwiches comprise a hefty chunk of the menu, and we were thoroughly gratified by the fish of the day, a hefty chunk of grouper ($26), simply grilled and served with asparagus drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette and creamy smashed potatoes. After waiting a while for our dessert order, we ultimately indulged in a divine wedge of warm chocolate cake ($8) and vanilla-bean crème brûlée, a now all-too familiar and common standby. In retrospect, the same claim can be made for Shula's 347.

    No longer burdened by his eponymous chophouse in Longwood, restaurateur Manny Tato can now focus energies on his chain of Spice Modern Steakhouses in Winter Park, Heathrow and the soon-to-open downtown locale that once housed the Lake Eola Yacht Club. And judging from the inherent swank his Park Avenue steakhouse exudes, its longevity should outlast the space’s predecessor, R Bistro, though I have to say the split-room layout is a little odd and lacks consistent sophistication.

    On one side sits the bar/lounge, where the inebriated wails of martini-soaked fashionistas drown out the vanilla-tinged melodies of live entertainment. What’s worse is that the hybrid cacophony filters its way through the divide and into the dining room, not enough to rattle the postmodern art off the walls but enough to warrant my waiter’s remark, “Didn’t know you were dining in a nightclub, did you?”

    Still, there’s a fair amount of culinary dash to go along with this supper club’s ornamental flash. The generous round of baked brie ($9) was flawlessly executed, right down to the flaky, golden-brown pastry, and a dip in the strawberry compote made it all the better. Guinness-marinated fried oysters ($12) were lightly battered and fried to a subtle crisp, but the accompanying hoisin-soy sauce resulted in a bittersweet clash of east and west.

    For a steakhouse, there weren’t many cuts from which to choose – only five, in fact, along with pork and lamb chops. But the two cuts of beef I did sample were top-notch; actually, they were “upper choice,” a USDA grade not quite as good as prime, but exceptional nonetheless. The 12-ounce center-cut filet ($36), a wonderfully tender chunk of beef, may put a dent in your wallet, but your palate will be forever indebted. I’ve always thought it offensive to adulterate a great piece of beef with béarnaise or hollandaise, but I’ll admit the chimichurri-ish cilantro-garlic sauce ($3) was a worthy dip for the filet.

    No need for dressings of any sort with the vibrantly flavorful 16-ounce ribeye ($25), its synthesis of meat and marbling making for a rapturous melt-in-your-mouth affair. Both steaks come with a heaping serving of mashed potatoes, green beans and a dollop of gravy, so no need to order any of the a la carte sides, but if you must, opt for something other than the baked macaroni and cheese ($6). The singed-dry penne suffered from too many licks of the flame, and could’ve used a more liberal topping of sharp cheddar. A few chicken and vegetarian dishes are also offered, as are seafood specialties like pan-seared blackened grouper ($24) served over parmesan orzo.

    With the exception of the chocolate chip cookies and milk ($6), the dozen or so desserts continue the extravagance, but the colossal slab of overly sweet tiramisu ($5) underwhelmed with its density. A wedge of moist “black-tie mousse cake” ($6), with its thick chocolate frosting and buttercream center, fared a little better.

    From bold reds to nectar-sweet endings, their extensive wine list comprises nearly 200 selections, though a flight of four 2-ounce pours ($16) offers a taste of four different world regions. For all you night owls, a menu of light fare is served from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m.

    Tato is raising the, ahem, stakes with his foray into the meat market, and no doubt his new-school chophouse spices things up by rejecting stodgy and traditional for trendy and urbane, with nary a reduction in food quality.

    Picture this: A smart-looking grill and tavern at Heathrow, part of an up-and-coming chain founded by a couple of Darden Restaurants refugees. We thought we knew the drill: big brews, plenty of animal protein and a menu that tastes like it was prepared by bookkeepers from corporate headquarters.

    But we really loved Stonewood Tavern and Grill, and so does the neighborhood, even though the place has been open less than a month. Stonewood has become an instant player in the Lake Mary/Heathrow area. Part of its allure is the rustic elegance: The tavern and dining area are pulled together by stacked stone walls, rich wood tables and high-backed booths so plush you could take a nap in them. (And the jeans-clad waiters are so friendly, they probably wouldn't mind.) Lighting design adds to the feng shui; recessed into high ceilings, the lights illuminate the walkways, with a subtle spotlight aimed at the center of each table. The focus is on the meat lover's menu, highlighted by the many offerings that are smoked over an oak-wood grill.

    But we really loved Stonewood Tavern and Grill, and so does the neighborhood, even though the place has been open less than a month. Stonewood has become an instant player in the Lake Mary/Heathrow area. Part of its allure is the rustic elegance: The tavern and dining area are pulled together by stacked stone walls, rich wood tables and high-backed booths so plush you could take a nap in them. (And the jeans-clad waiters are so friendly, they probably wouldn't mind.) Lighting design adds to the feng shui; recessed into high ceilings, the lights illuminate the walkways, with a subtle spotlight aimed at the center of each table. The focus is on the meat lover's menu, highlighted by the many offerings that are smoked over an oak-wood grill.

    From the start it was clear that our attempts to have a linear conversation would be useless: Every time a fresh wave of handiwork arrived from the kitchen, we forgot whatever it was we were talking about.

    From the start it was clear that our attempts to have a linear conversation would be useless: Every time a fresh wave of handiwork arrived from the kitchen, we forgot whatever it was we were talking about.

    The "oak-grilled shrimp" appetizer ($7.45) is well worth the splurge; the bright-pink crustaceans were succulently steeped in tempting woodsy aromas, and they were excellent when dipped in the avocado-basil sauce. Attention also must be paid to "walla walla" fried onions ($5.95), which were jumbo onion sticks dipped in buttermilk batter, fried to a greaseless crisp and served with red-pepper sauce.

    The "oak-grilled shrimp" appetizer ($7.45) is well worth the splurge; the bright-pink crustaceans were succulently steeped in tempting woodsy aromas, and they were excellent when dipped in the avocado-basil sauce. Attention also must be paid to "walla walla" fried onions ($5.95), which were jumbo onion sticks dipped in buttermilk batter, fried to a greaseless crisp and served with red-pepper sauce.

    For an entree, you could fork over a bundle for the lamb chops ($19.95) encrusted with herbs or the "Pacific cliffs salmon" ($16.95) coated with almonds and brandied blueberry compote. But the sandwiches are excellent, too, and they come with heaps of fries. Or try the pan-seared grouper with ginger-wasabi mayonnaise ($8.45).

    For an entree, you could fork over a bundle for the lamb chops ($19.95) encrusted with herbs or the "Pacific cliffs salmon" ($16.95) coated with almonds and brandied blueberry compote. But the sandwiches are excellent, too, and they come with heaps of fries. Or try the pan-seared grouper with ginger-wasabi mayonnaise ($8.45).

    The tender and juicy "pork Adirondack" ($15.95), a tenderloin sautéed in white-wine mushroom sauce, is about as good as pork gets. And although it doesn't quite qualify as truly great, the scorching New York strip steak ($20.95) was still a source of pleasure. The prime-grade cut of beef was dry aged and sizzled with a bit of butter.

    The tender and juicy "pork Adirondack" ($15.95), a tenderloin sautéed in white-wine mushroom sauce, is about as good as pork gets. And although it doesn't quite qualify as truly great, the scorching New York strip steak ($20.95) was still a source of pleasure. The prime-grade cut of beef was dry aged and sizzled with a bit of butter.

    Service was great and collaborative; the whole team knew what they were doing, with the exception of a baked potato that arrived with the works on top, not on the side as requested.

    Service was great and collaborative; the whole team knew what they were doing, with the exception of a baked potato that arrived with the works on top, not on the side as requested.

    For a new entry, Stonewood carries the smell of success.

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