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A few weeks ago, I mentioned how chefs in this city haven't ventured outside the frontiers of traditional Indian cookery, opting instead to stick to conventional, time-honored plates. Well, things have taken a turn for the better thanks to Shabber Chowdhury. The U.K.-trained chef (by way of Bengal) is raising the bar for Indian cuisine in Orlando, and it's about bloody time. His restaurant, Tabla, poses a more ambitious undertaking than any other Indian restaurant in town. Chowdhury's brand of "Indian fusion" transcends the humdrum, but food alone does not a good restaurant make. There are clear deficiencies in the service, and the kitchen isn't beyond reproach, but let's give credit to Chowdhury and proprietors Anshu Jain and Abhay Goel for bringing Indian fare to a level of refinement heretofore unseen in Central Florida.

The interior, though tastefully appointed, doesn't befit the sophistication of the fare. The focus is on the food, and most dishes on the lengthy menu are handled with aplomb. Chili pakoras ($4), for example, are a South Asian take on jalapeno poppers and exhibit a remarkable touch with hot oil. Anaheim peppers are stuffed with cheese, coated with panko and deep-fried to a greaseless crisp, as are the quartet of dense, bite-sized samosas ($5), generously stuffed and drizzled with tangy tamarind chutney.

Skewered chicken shashlik ($8) held much promise; that is, until I came across a few morsels of uncooked bird. Instead of taking the dish away, my server asked me to check the other pieces. I did and came across more uncooked chicken. The plate was finally taken away, but when the bill came, I was charged for the dish. On two separate visits, I got the same well-meaning yet woefully inexperienced server, who didn't seem to know anything about the menu items. A third visit proved better, but a knowledgeable wait staff would really elevate the experience.

Thoughtfully executed mains underscore Chowdhury's approach to East-West fusion and get matters back on track. Kesari murgh ($12) marries homemade pesto and saffron sauce in an aromatically colorful union that upstages the cheese-stuffed chicken breast. Lamb do piazza's ($15) heady curry is made all the more assertive with cinnamon sticks, shaved almonds and strings of fried onions. Doughy sesame-seed-flecked tabla naan ($3) makes an ideal utensil for sopping up the cultivated curries, as does rice jazzed with cashews, saffron and cardamom.

For meat-lovers, the mixed tandoori grill ($32) is a gorgeous presentation fit for the most ravenous of rajahs: tender marinated lamb chops served with mint-yogurt chutney; breadcrumb-coated, fenugreek-essenced chicken cubes; perfectly charred pieces of wonderfully seasoned shola lamb kebab; flawless chicken tikka; and a fiery red fillet of sour, tangy tandoori kingfish. Meatless wonders include paneer Akbari ($14), Indian cheese stuffed with cashews in a luscious tomato sauce, as well as flavor-before-fire paneer tikka masala ($14).

Even desserts, the bane of Indian restaurants, continue the razzle-dazzling. Toffee pudding cake ($6), sided with stracciatella gelato and garnished with a passionfruit-glazed betel leaf, is a particular highlight. Mango sorbet, coconut gelato and hits of ginger pack a refreshing punch in the "cold n spicy" ($6), while addictive malai kofta ($6) dumplings are given a sweet twist with a chocolate filling. Caramelized Kashmiri chai custard ($6), while intriguing, failed to inspire.

What does inspire me, though, is chef Chowdhury and his determination to march forward to the beat of his own tabla - the notes of familiarity and innovation set the standard for neo-India

A 22-seat restaurant modeled after a dinner party gives one of the more interesting dining experiences in the city. A sumptuous five-course meal with hors d’oeuvres and wine pairings await those willing to foot the all-inclusive $100 per person bill; some wine choices can be puzzling, but the food is deftly and deliciously executed.

The Bay Hill Shopping Plaza, on the northeast corner of Sand Lake and Turkey Lake roads, is quickly becoming a destination for foodies with global palates. India (Memories of India), Vietnam (Rice Paper), China (1-6-8) and now Syria are represented in all their strip mall glory.

Taboule Café is part market, part diner. Chrome baker’s racks stacked with an assortment of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern foodstuffs, from lemony sumac powder and sesame seeds to fragrant rosewater and Turkish coffee beans, occupy half the space. Refrigerators on the other wall stock frozen goods as well as salty halloumi cheese – delicious grilled with a bit of olive oil, paprika and lemon juice.

A few tables by the entrance are often filled with diners enjoying pies, kebabs and sandwiches like chicken and lamb shawarma, the succulent meats shaved off mini-rotisseries situated behind the front counter. The falafel ($5.99 for a sandwich), always a true gauge of a Middle Eastern restaurant’s worth, are perfectly crisp, some of the best you’ll find in town. Just as good is the hummus ($1.99) and the kofta plate, kebabs of nicely spiced ground beef ($8.99). Kibbeh, fried balls of bulgur wheat and ground beef ($8.99), weren’t the best I’ve had, and while the cheese pie ($1.99) didn’t compare to its Greek counterpart, it still made for a worthwhile snack.

Early risers can opt for traditional Syrian breakfast staples like foul mdamas (fava beans with tahini), teskia (a hot bread made with chickpeas, tahini
and garlic) or scrambled eggs served with nakanek, a seasoned beef sausage. Whatever you choose, a cup of Middle Eastern coffee is sure to supercharge your day.

(Taboule Café, 7645 Turkey Lake Road, 407-226-3111)


You won't find a neighborhood cantina with the sort of loyal patronage and longevity of Paco's in Winter Park, but Tacos El Rancho, as clean, bright and simply accoutered a taqueria as you'll find, has certainly laid a foundation for a healthy future (if not for its patrons, then certainly for itself). Locals in Conway seem to like their eatery's low-profile status ' I even ran into a couple of acquaintances at the counter, both of whom happened to live in the area, and listened to them reservedly extolling the virtues of the kitchen. After sampling the fare, it's easy to see why they'd want this little taqueria all to themselves.

Offering the established canon of Tex-Mex staples ' burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas and specialty tacos ' the restaurant appears focused on doing those items right, even if some items, like lengua tacos ($2.25) may turn off diners. But tongue isn't as repulsive as it may sound. The buttery cubes of beef lick the palate softly, with onions, cilantro, tomatoes, cheese and sour cream layered atop two soft flour tortillas providing the textured tang. All soft tacos are doubled up in a similar fashion (you'll go solo with hard-shells); if you're on a tight budget, a couple of soft tacos and a drink will fill you up without emptying your wallet.

For six bits more, you can splurge on the fish tacos ($3). The nicely seasoned mahi fillets weren't fishy-smelling in the least ' always a determining factor in the quality of a good stuffed-to-the-gills fish taco. Aromatic tacos al pastor ($2.25) are done Mexico City'style, with the pork capturing its essence from a pineapple marinade. Those who like their ground beef minced fine will enjoy every bite of the tacos molida ($2.25). Tacos asada ($3) weren't as tender as the tongue, but
the steak packed plenty of flavor nonetheless.

Ground beef burritos ($5.50), crammed with rice and a choice of black, pinto or refried beans, offer a more substantial meal, but aren't as substantial as the bulbous gold chimichanga ($6.99). The deep-fried burrito, simultaneously crisp and soft, is an effort to finish in one seating, but the spicy chicken, splashed with a smooth green sauce and a snappy red, is only improved by an ample ladling of tangy queso on top. That cheesy sauce was a hit with all parties at the table ' the chimi may have been too much to finish, but that sauce was lapped clean. I've always thought of guacamole as being essential to enjoying a Tex-Mex meal, and the tub ($1.60) offered here does just that. Accompanying tortilla chips ($0.75) are properly warm and subtly oily.

They were out of tres leches cake, but milky horchata ($1.60), a rice-based beverage flavored with cinnamon and vanilla, simulates the cake's flavors, though it was a little too sweet. I enjoyed the sizable slab of flan ($2), redolent with the essence of vanilla.

The mood is pleasantly festive here, with a steady stream of patrons chatting away beneath sombreros dangling on terracotta-colored walls. Just beware of any prodding sticks on your way out ' you're likely to be mistaken for a stuffed piñata.

An eclectic offering of Latin-Asian tacos and burritos sets this taqueria apart from the rest – that, and the really loud music. Empanadas are a must to start, then dive right into the sublime panko-crusted cod taco. Burritos are substantial, and sauces – especially habanero-jackfruit and sweet chili with smoked ghost pepper – are tantalizing.


Teaser: An eclectic offering of Latin-Asian tacos and burritos sets this taqueria apart from the rest ' that, and the really loud '80s soundtrack. Empanadas are a must to start, then dive right into the sublime panko-crusted cod taco. Burritos are substantial, and the sauces ' especially habanero-jackfruit and sweet chili with smoked ghost pepper ' are tantalizing.

We didn't review this location, but here's our take on their sister location: "Winter Park finally gets a straight-up Indian restaurant, and Tamarind's familiar, fiery and focused dishes are worthy of the hamlet's food-driven denizens. Samosas and sizzling tandoor-fired lamb chops are the way to start; sample the "Tamarind special chicken" and bold salmon tikka for mains; then end with exotic falooda kulfi, ice cream made of condensed milk, rose syrup and crushed pistachios. Beware potholes when negotiating the Kmart plaza parking lot."

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