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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.

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."

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.

Just when Thai cuisine in this town was on the verge of settling into a shiny bowl of complacency, along comes Tang’s to revitalize a scene that, in my opinion, was getting about as stale as a day-old spring roll. You won’t find an interior subjected to overzealous ornamentation, or one made to look like a set from The King and I. Here, the square dining space is graced with just enough feng shui savoir-faire to impress its upper-crust clientele, and a suffusion of warm orange furthers its aim of refined relaxation.

Chef Eddy Phooprasert, a product of the Orlando Culinary Academy’s Le Cordon Bleu program, certainly applies a bit of that Gallic flair in his first-rate take on Bangkok’s eaten path – everything from preparation to plating to price differentiates his dishes from those served at other Siamese sit-downs in the city. That’s not to say pretense supersedes palatability here; it doesn’t. The presentation of the short ribs massaman ($24), decorated with an edible orchid, almost made it too pretty to eat, but tearing into this beautifully packaged dish yielded perfectly braised beef sautéed in a sweet chili paste sweetened further by tamarind, bell peppers and coconut milk. A tableside rice service offers a choice between white jasmine rice and, depending on when you visit, either yellow curry rice or herbaceous green basil rice. The latter proved to be my favorite of the three.

Aesthetics also play a part in the delightful plaa lad prig (market price), which tonight was a plump filet of Chilean sea bass pan-seared in a garlic-chili sauce, baked to a delicate crisp and garnished with shaved parsnip. Textural contrast was provided by zucchini, carrots and bell peppers. Velvety chicken red curry ($16) was infused with the essence of sweet basil and came adequately spiced without my having to ask.

Chicken pad thai ($16), conversely, failed to excite. Two grilled shrimp impaled on crackers sat atop the mound of noodles, with sprouts, crushed peanuts and a lime wedge sharing space on the square plate. A shiitake-soy reduction gave the barbecued skirt steak ($14) a glossy sheen; each sesame seed-flecked strip proved irresistibly succulent. An accompanying puck of rice was served over a bed of carrots and cabbage; I just wished the dish came with more medium-grilled strips of beef. Curry puffs ($7) resembled miniature empanadas, and though the flavors of chicken, garlic and onions harmonized nicely inside, the pocket itself was a tad oversaturated with oil.

Bite-size morsels of pillowy, sticky doughnuts ($6) were as comforting unadorned as they were when coated in a sweet pastry sauce of vanilla-tinged condensed milk. Chocolate mousse cake ($9) masked its density well, and artful drizzles of raspberry coulis and crème anglais once again played up the importance of visuals.

I’ll admit I’ve been a little burned out on Thai cuisine, but after dining at Tang’s, my enthusiasm for the cuisine has been rekindled, and all it took was a chef with a delicate hand and a determination to defy the status quo.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t exactly salivating at the thought of dining at a restaurant catering to that oft-forgotten demographic of aging golfers and their silver-coiffed spouses. The Tap Room at Dubsdread, after all, is on the grounds of Orlando’s oldest public golf course; more than a few of its patrons are as well-worn as the ancient golf shoes encased in the display behind the hostess stand. The whole joint is made out of wood, including the ceiling, and the rustic touches and Shaker-style furnishings play up the historic angle. But the restaurant exudes a relaxed swagger – casual, yet unrelenting in its quest for perfection.

In comparison to 19th holes at other public golf courses in Central Florida, the Tap Room is on a whole different playing field. Offering a mix of bar-and-grill bites and gourmet fare, the kitchen unquestionably takes pride in its efforts, plating simple, impeccably prepared dishes. To wit: creamy chicken vegetable soup ($4.95), a chowder-like potage with corn and potatoes that made it a struggle to pass up a second bowl. The soup was a special of the night, but should they offer it on your visit, do yourself a favor and order two.

I was looking forward to sampling the jumbo lump crab cake, but they had evidently run out of crab, so I opted for the tenderloin steak flatbread ($11.95) instead. Cubes of medium-rare beef weighed down a long rectangular sleeve of crisp flatbread flavored with caramelized onions, wild mushrooms and a layer of mozzarella. Not a bad choice at all. I missed the berry compote more than I thought I would while enjoying baked brie ($12.95), though slices of pineapple, cantaloupe, melon and red apple, along with a small cluster of seedless red grapes, offered a properly fruity complement. The buttery-soft baguette was worth half the price of the dish alone.

I thoroughly enjoyed the simply grilled onaga ($24.95), a ruby-red snapper from Hawaii noted for its soft, slightly fatty flesh. The generous puck of liquefying lime-dill butter atop the ample fillet proved to be the sole fault of this special, but it’s a nitpicky charge. Fluffy yellow rice and perfectly grilled asparagus accompanied the dish. If you’re a meat-and-potatoes man, the pot roast ($15.75) won’t disappoint. The slow-roasted slab of beef is enveloped by a wonderfully thick moat of peppery gravy, with potatoes, carrots and celery added to the comforting mix.

Desserts are all made in-house and supply toothsome coups de grace. Shaved rinds add a touch of class to simply divine key lime pie ($4.95), while even the most ardent of chocoholics will be hard-pressed not to feel buzzed from the thick, rich chocolate cake ($5.95).

Service could use a bit of polishing: I can see how the bucolic view lends to a leisurely pace, but letting 10 minutes pass before taking a drink order is just plain shoddy. That, coupled with a front of house I found to be somewhat harried, can dampen the mood and may keep the Tap Room from being a destination for the city’s fooderati. Yeah, the short game may be a little off, but the kitchen, thankfully, has its act together. That’s more than enough to keep the Tap Room in the game.

When judging Mexican food, it helps to have some ex-Californians in your camp. So when I headed over to the Taquitos Jalisco near MetroWest, I called on the most suitable contender I know – my mother. This is a woman of the belief that you can't grow up in Los Angeles without knowing what real Mexican food tastes like. So she dragged us to a veritable shack on the corner of Melrose and Vine weekly, and it was there that my relationship with Mexican food began. Today, my Mexican connoisseurship flourishes except for one problem – there are so few true Mexican restaurants in Orlando. With Mom's approval, Taquitos Jalisco is now on my shortlist.

For those on the west side of town, the sizzling platters and the mariachi band at the flagship Taquitos Jalisco in Winter Garden (1041 S. Dillard St., 407-654-0363) are still wildly popular and worth the drive. But the new Hiawassee Road location opens up the restaurant's authenticity to a new audience.

One of the things I love about a Mexican restaurant is the instant-gratification factor: Sit down to a basket of chips and bowl of salsa and start eating. Unfortunately, chips and salsa, like the breadbasket, often fall under the obligation curse. Salsa should taste magical – the alchemy of plump ripe tomatoes, fresh green cilantro, spicy peppers, sweet onions and the hand of someone special – and Taquitos' does. I couldn't stop piling it onto their warm chips and popping it all into my mouth.

When I opened the menu, my eyes immediately fell on the enchiladas ($8.25), and there was no resisting the pull of childhood temptation. These three soft corn tortillas were stuffed with Mexican cheese – briny, stretchy and tangy all at once – and then set in a sea of delicately smoky enchilada sauce. My husband, also a former Californian, ordered three delicious tacos ($5.99): the carne asada (grilled beef), the pollo (chicken) and, my favorite, al pastor (marinated roast pork.) My mother went for the mole poblano ($8.99), and it was undoubtedly one of the best I've had in town. The deftly layered spices were balanced, the top note being chocolate; Taquitos Jalisco's mole coats the tongue like a soft piece of velvet.

We all remarked on the tastiness of the refried beans, another dish that many Mexican restaurants treat as an afterthought; this kitchen has it mastered. We finished our meal with a smooth and lush flan ($2.75).

Here's a definite sign of the true Mexican restaurant: Menudo is featured on their weekend menu. Only an authentic Mexican restaurant would venture into the strange and tumultuous land of dishes made out of a cow's stomach lining. A Mexican friend once told me that menudo is the best cure for a hangover – I vowed to come back on a hung-over Saturday.

Taquitos Jalisco knows that simplicity is the name of the game in good Mexican cooking. Fresh, quality ingredients are mashed and molded and smoldered into something transformative. They make you feel like whoever made them enjoyed an afternoon in some outdoor Mexican kitchen grinding spices, roasting peppers, hanging out with family, living the simple life. Mom totally agrees.

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