Locations in Orlando with Smoking Prohibited

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    As Einstein said, time is relative. It can be measured in dog years, Internet years and restaurant-in-Central-Florida years. Using that gauge, being around for almost two years makes 310 Park South an area veteran.

    The restaurant, glass doors open wide on to the hustle of Park Avenue, can be called what few others in the area can: cozy. The long room, with tables out on the sidewalk and a piano to the back, felt quite comfortable to me, and judging by the unrestrained conversation in the room, to everyone else as well. You have to applaud any restaurant that can generate real atmosphere.

    Chef Angel Pereira grew up in the family food business in Spain and trained in Italy, and the influences show in dishes like "grilled grouper with linguine in a black-olive pesto sauce and artichoke hearts" ($11.95). Some choices are quite ordinary: the chicken piccata ($10.95) is prepared very traditionally in a white wine and garlic butter; while others like "horseradish encrusted salmon" ($17.95), a thick pillow of flaky fish under a horseradish and whole-grain mustard shell, are eclectic in design. All are a pleasure to eat.

    However. not every dish hits the mark. The exercise afforded by chewing the fairly rubbery fried calamari appetizer ($8.95) is certainly cheaper than a facelift but not much more enjoyable. I will give an enthusiastic thumbs up to the "gator tail," sautéed 3-inch medallions under mustard sauce that will give you a new appreciation for lizard – and no, it doesn't taste like chicken.

    If the place is crowded, as it was the night we were there, resign yourself to the fact that you'll be in line. Our 15-minute wait turned into 30 before we were seated, and our server was very long in coming for our orders and even longer to serve.

    My companion had one of the evening's specials, a venison steak ($20.95). The good news is that the meat, which can be very easy to cook badly, was superbly done; fork-tender, moist and flavorful, a true credit to the capabilities of the chef. The bad news is that she didn't ask for the venison. After a 45-minute wait for the main course, the prime rib that was ordered had transformed into Bambi. Good Bambi, yes, but our server's reaction ("Gee, it would take a very long time to redo it.") put an unfortunate taste in both our mouths. Good service is a big part of enjoying a meal, and the quality of service at 310 Park South is a real failing.

    Take note that 310 Park South participates in the overlooked and very welcome Winter Park Valet parking on the next corner (New England Avenue), and is a darned sight better than cruising for parking. Save that time for waiting for a table.

    We didn't review this location but you can check out the review of the Brio in Winter Park Village.

    The Celt bids you "céad míle fáilte," and it's the closest downtown Orlando gets to a genuine Irish pub experience. Pound a plate of Irish nachos, slide over a few pints of Guinness, and you won't want to be anywhere else for the rest of the evening – probably because your legs will stop working at some point. This traditional Celtic haven feels like home from the moment you walk through the door till you part ways and stumble on home.

    I'm sure Emeril Lagasse is a nice guy, a boy from small-town Fall River, Mass., who made it good in the food trade. People certainly seem to like him. But from the looks of his second restaurant at Universal Orlando, I get the feeling he has marble fountains and paintings on black velvet in his house.

    The gourmet production is called Tchoup Chop (pronounced "chop chop" and named after Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans, home to Emeril's flagship), serving an oddly Polynesian/Thai/Hawaiian fare in the Royal Pacific Resort, which has an Indonesian theme. Giant glass-flower-blossom chandeliers and a central lily pond dominate the wicker and stone room, and each element is impressive by itself but jarring all together.

    The gourmet production is called Tchoup Chop (pronounced "chop chop" and named after Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans, home to Emeril's flagship), serving an oddly Polynesian/Thai/Hawaiian fare in the Royal Pacific Resort, which has an Indonesian theme. Giant glass-flower-blossom chandeliers and a central lily pond dominate the wicker and stone room, and each element is impressive by itself but jarring all together.

    Much is made of the cocktail menu, which takes up more room than the entrees, but a Bloody Mary with wasabi, soy sauce and sake somehow didn't appeal to me. The dumpling box ($7) was a better choice, steamed dim sum filled with a heavy pork-and-ginger mixture. They were similar to the "pot stickers" ($8), pan-fried shrimp dumplings with dipping sauce. Both were good, but not much different from the acres of dumplings elsewhere.

    Much is made of the cocktail menu, which takes up more room than the entrees, but a Bloody Mary with wasabi, soy sauce and sake somehow didn't appeal to me. The dumpling box ($7) was a better choice, steamed dim sum filled with a heavy pork-and-ginger mixture. They were similar to the "pot stickers" ($8), pan-fried shrimp dumplings with dipping sauce. Both were good, but not much different from the acres of dumplings elsewhere.

    The "creative clay pot of the day" ($18), offering firm fish (salmon on this night) with vegetables in a deep fish broth and overcooked rice, was an interesting dish but not particularly creative. A shame, since the kitchen is capable of glory. It's wonderful to discover new flavors, and the Kona-glazed duck ($22) was an outrageous combination of rich duck breast coated in caramelized coffee.

    The "creative clay pot of the day" ($18), offering firm fish (salmon on this night) with vegetables in a deep fish broth and overcooked rice, was an interesting dish but not particularly creative. A shame, since the kitchen is capable of glory. It's wonderful to discover new flavors, and the Kona-glazed duck ($22) was an outrageous combination of rich duck breast coated in caramelized coffee.

    The tuna salad ($9) consisted of ribbons of seared tuna served with sprouts and crisp cucumber in a vinegar/mustard sauce (good with the vegetables but overpowering the excellent fish) and garnished with a pansy blossom Ð and an aphid. I mention this bug incident not to demean the staff (it was a fresh flower and a tiny bug, these things happen), but to emphasize that the service, from manager down, has a long way to go. No apology was tendered, no visit by the wandering "suit"; the price of the salad was deducted from the bill almost as an afterthought.

    The tuna salad ($9) consisted of ribbons of seared tuna served with sprouts and crisp cucumber in a vinegar/mustard sauce (good with the vegetables but overpowering the excellent fish) and garnished with a pansy blossom Ð and an aphid. I mention this bug incident not to demean the staff (it was a fresh flower and a tiny bug, these things happen), but to emphasize that the service, from manager down, has a long way to go. No apology was tendered, no visit by the wandering "suit"; the price of the salad was deducted from the bill almost as an afterthought.

    There's an air of forced urgency in the constant swarming of waiters, water pourers and plate clearers, so conversation has to be done in bursts, as someone unnervingly appears at your elbow every few minutes to ask, "How is your entree? More water? Anything else?," even to the point of reading the menu to you. There are all the trappings of good service without the finesse. The Emeril folks aren't new to the restaurant trade, they should have learned something about service by now.

    There's an air of forced urgency in the constant swarming of waiters, water pourers and plate clearers, so conversation has to be done in bursts, as someone unnervingly appears at your elbow every few minutes to ask, "How is your entree? More water? Anything else?," even to the point of reading the menu to you. There are all the trappings of good service without the finesse. The Emeril folks aren't new to the restaurant trade, they should have learned something about service by now.

    Tchoup Chop puts on a good show, but it'll be a long journey until they're impressive.

    It’s no secret that Americans are a meat-eating bunch, and that the only time vegetables make it on the plate is when they’re in the form of french fries or iceberg lettuce. Recent studies have shown Americans forgoing vegetables in increasing numbers, with just a small percentage meeting the recommended daily value, but why? One plausible reason could be the manner in which vegetables are commonly prepared at home and at many restaurants – mushy, soggy, overcooked and bland. If more meat-eaters were exposed to properly prepared carrots, broccoli, peas and spinach, perhaps they wouldn’t react so negatively at the prospect of dining at a vegetarian or (gasp!) a vegan restaurant.

    Ethos Vegan Kitchen takes a valiant stab at showing condescending carnivores what herbivores already know – that meatless fare can be creative, satisfying and not just a side item to steak. That said, for those of you going vegan for the first time, more often it’s not the meat you’ll miss, but rather the items you’ve grown accustomed to at other restaurants: butter on bread, milk in coffee, cheese on pasta and whipped cream on dessert. However, even for a non-vegan and self-professed fromage-head like myself, the plate of macaroni & cheese ($4.95) proved gratifyingly gooey despite the use of cheese made from rice milk and soy cream mixed with, presumably, eggless pasta. Vegetable soup ($3.95), a hearty blend of potato chunks, carrots, broccoli, yellow squash and celery, met the minimum flavor requirement, but the broth could’ve been invigorated some with the addition of Scotch bonnet peppers, fire-roasted vegetables or a liberal sifting of paprika or cayenne.

    Similarly, sheep’s pie ($9.95) could’ve used a seasoned kick, but any pub in the U.K. would be hard-pressed to outmatch the casserole’s generous heaping of fluffy mashed potatoes. Even the pungent vegetable brown sauce enveloping a sauté of peas, onions, carrots and broccoli had beefy notes to it. I would’ve preferred the two ample slices of pecan-crusted eggplant ($12.95) to be cooked just a little more, but the slight caramelization of the pecans really gave the dish a pleasant bittersweetness. A thick mound of mashed potatoes and gravy was simply outstanding, while sautéed broccoli never tasted better. Though accompanying slices of bread were lovely, this was one place where I missed butter. A suggestion: Garlicky, herbaceous dipping oil would make a worthy substitute.

     

    Desserts whisked away any thoughts of butter and eggs, and the lack of such essential baking ingredients wasn’t to the detriment of the comforting warm apple galette ($2.25) with a wonderfully flaky crust and cinnamon-spiced sweet apples. The dense slab of chocolate cake ($1.50) wasn’t as moist as I’d hoped, but it wasn’t dry either. Double chocolate chip cookies ($1.25) were a pinch better than regular chocolate chip cookies, though, admittedly, I dunked them at home in a glass of milk (I know, I’m bad).

    The restaurant is situated on some prime property at the foot of Antique Row and truly exudes a chillax vibe, not surprising considering the same space once housed the Lava Lounge. Sleepy-eyed vegetarians opt for the candlelit tables in the cozy outdoor courtyard, with its Big Easy feel and bucolic view of giant oaks

    I wasn't thrilled with the prospect of eating an entire meal at a pub. Past experiences with pub grub – here and abroad – led me to believe that "authentic" doesn't necessarily mean "great." But the proprietors of Fiddler's Green prove that a focus on flavor, presentation and service can spell "gourmet" for traditional Irish cuisine.

    The restaurant retains the cozy atmosphere of its predecessors, Mulvaney's and Prince of Wales. It's got the same ornate woodwork, dart boards, Irish-themed knickknacks and entertainment stage. Now, there's a separate dining room that's upscale and intimate in a country-inn sort of way.

    Fiddler's Green offers a full selection of draft ales, lagers and stouts, which you can order by the pint or half-pint. While my guest and I waited, our server brought us a basket of thick, crumbly scones, which nicely offset the beer.

    We split an order of lightly browned potato pancakes with grated cheddar and scallions ($6.50; $5.95) topped with smoked salmon or sour cream and chives. Other appetizers include steamed mussels ($7.50) and smoked fish spread ($5.50). Dieters will be glad to know that the menu also includes your basic salad assortment.

    Along with a variety of sandwiches and burgers ($5.25-$8.95), Fiddler's entrees include standbys like corned beef and cabbage ($9.95); fish and chips, and "bangers and mash" (both $8.95). Among the more gourmet fare: grilled salmon with champagne sauce ($14.95) and roast duck ($15.95).

    I ordered the "Hen in a Pot" ($7.95), a scrumptious variation on chicken pot pie. Instead of pie crust, the "pot" was topped, hat-like, with a flaky pastry. The stew below was piping hot with big chunks of tender chicken and vegetables, seasoned just right.

    My companion stuck with another basic-but-hearty dish, Irish stew ($9.95). Once again, the seasonings – thyme, in this case – made this dish a standout. Presentation of both entrees was excellent, with extras like huge plates, fresh herbs and doilies. Desserts include bread and butter pudding, and blackberry/apple crumble ($3.95-$4.50). We were way too full to sample them.

    Great service and excellent food mean Fiddler's Green is not like most Irish pubs; it's better.

    Fish on Fire
    If you’re into fishing and boating around the Conway chain of lakes, you’re sure to make friends here – a lot of the patrons are Belle Isle and Conway residents who appreciate this place for its completely unpretentious, laid-back Florida fish camp kind of feel.

    Having indulged in my fair share of cottage pies at Jimmy Mulvaney’s charming, unpretentious Irish boozer Claddagh Cottage, I was more than a little intrigued when word came that the pub owner (along with wife Kathy and food-service veterans Lisa and Rick Boyd) had taken over Scruffy Murphy’s once-future home to open an upscale gastropub fronted by a cordon bleu chef. Given Mulvaney’s deft skills as a bar proprietor, I was less concerned about the “pub” than I was the “gastro,” but as it turned out, the kitchen ultimately held up its end of the deal.

    The “gastro,” it should be noted, is segregated from the “pub” next door and showcases Mulvaney’s skills as master artisan. Not only did he lay down the hardwood floors and take care of the wiring, Mulvaney junky-to-funkied the wooden desks left behind by the previous tenants and transformed them into beautifully crafted (if slightly upright) seating booths done in a rustic 1900s-era style. The quaint interior, with its low ceiling and exposed piping, is reminiscent of Claddagh Cottage, only decidedly classier and, at least on this Saturday evening, significantly quieter. If it weren’t for the catchy riff of “Day Tripper” and other Beatles classics being piped over the sound system, I’d likely be able to make out conversations in the kitchen. As a result, an unrivaled level of personalized service prevailed which, at times, bordered on intrusive, but it was understandable given the dearth of patrons.

    And given chef Cody Patterson’s blue ribbon status, the menu, understandably, leans heavily on French cuisine. I was hoping for Irish soda bread inside the complimentary carb basket, but no such luck. Instead, it was beef and barley soup ($4) that offered a small taste of the Emerald Isle with its generous mélange of carrots, corn, green beans, peas and potatoes. Too bad the beef was lacking, and the few miniature morsels I did manage to sift out were ground, not cubed.

    “Stop light prawns” ($9), so named because the trio of accompanying sauces resemble a stoplight, fared a little better. The fried plump curls were a smidgen greasy, but a dip into the olfactory-retarding wasabi mayo sauce proved to be the ultimate redeemer, while sweet mango chutney and zesty cocktail sauce were just as exceptional.

    The Harp house salad ($4) left me wanting more – more brie, to be exact. The one negligible piece of warm soft cheese is a cruel addition to the mix of tomatoes, field greens, red onions and croutons. After all, no fromage-lover could eat just one small bite of brie; I’d rather they serve a significant slab of cheese with a berry compote, and let the greens be an adjunct to the dish, even if it meant an increase in price.

    The two entrees I sampled were, conversely, flawless. Lamb persillade ($22) featured two racks of two chops each rubbed with honey mustard and rosemary, grilled, then roasted for a crisp finish. Creamy saffron risotto and grilled zucchini were ideal sides, but gnawing the utterly luscious flesh off the bone was what made this dish a truly enjoyable feast. The 10-ounce Angus beef filet ($33) was a tad overdone, but a superbly flavorful and prodigious cut nonetheless.

    Desserts aren’t prepared in-house as yet, but don’t let that prevent you from indulging in the fabulous chocolate bombe ($6). The dome-shaped confection envelops airy dark and white chocolate mousse and rich chocolate ganache. Call me picky, but I didn’t care much for the raspberry drizzle, nor did I care much for the key lime pie ($4) which

    My friend and I got to Harvey's Heathrow around 5 p.m., just as they were opening for the evening. We sidled into a bar booth and eagerly embraced our bronze paper menus. As my eyes rested on a delightful-sounding onion and ale soup with Gouda ($5), my friend said, "Oh, look. The beautiful people are arriving."

    Startled out of my menu-reading trance, I looked up to watch a gaggle of golf shirts strutting in accompanied by fake boobs. Welcome to the Lake Mary dining scene, where replicas of great restaurants are set amidst the sprawl of construction.

    The original Harvey's, a downtown Orlando establishment for more than 10 years, has decidedly kept up with the dining times, even if it's a little dated in appearance. The new Heathrow site has an updated appearance, while still maintaining the delicious set of standards upheld by the original.

    The Harvey's in Heathrow differs from the original in one respect: The room is lighter and brighter and more airy than the dark-wood, bottom-floor-of-a-bank original. A shotgun dining room juts out from a spacious bar and is bathed in mint green and russet. Adorning every nook and cranny are design elements made of geometrical shapes – like the giant orb lamps suspended near small, angular square paintings.

    We ordered a first course of lobster bisque ($5) and artichoke and cashew salad ($7) as we perused the menu for more. The lobster bisque was perfect: Sweet lobster meat mixed with rich, heavy cream that hit the tongue first. Then a subtle heat followed, tinged with pungent garlic and fragrant tarragon. Finally, a note of acidic sherry burst through, while the taste of cream still lingered. I was so absorbed that I barely had a chance to taste my friend's salad, but she insisted. Raspberry vinaigrette draped over greens and whole cashews made for a bright, clean flavor that paired well with artichoke hearts. We also tried Harvey's version of Caprese salad ($7), a mixture of underripe red and perfectly ripened yellow tomatoes stacked with fresh mozzarella cheese. This is a dish in which most restaurants miss the point. Let's face it: This is a seasonal salad, at its best when the ingredients are so fresh that the tomatoes are picked an hour before they're served (why even bother with a tasteless, green tomato?) and the cheese has been hand-pulled by the owner's grandmother in the basement. Unfortunately, Harvey's didn't quite meet that expectation, but the fresh basil and a crude pesto gave it some spunk.

    The entrees are a mix of surf and turf with a few pasta dishes thrown in. My friend ordered the grilled petite tenderloin ($24), a succulent center cut of beef, well seasoned and cooked exactly to her desired doneness. A mélange of jardinière snow peas, carrots and onions, cooked tender with a refreshing snap of crispness, were dynamite. I eschewed my usual pot roast ($17) to try herb-crusted sea scallops on angel hair ($18). Drenched in a silky sauce of wine, garlic and clams, the pasta was irresistible. A few dollops of sautéed spinach made a bed for the herb-encrusted scallops, which tasted superb with nice salinity and a wonderful crust of herbed batter. But the four scallops themselves were a tad overcooked and on the rubbery side. There are many other choices, but if you like duck, don't miss the roasted half duck with triple sec and pistachio glaze ($19), a tribute to the undervalued bird.

    For a nibble at the bar, I recommend ordering a bowl of truffle fries ($6), dusted with Parmesan and tossed with lightly fried shiitake mushrooms. They had a deft hand with truffle oil in the kitchen, and this dish was magic, instead of a mouthful of perfume.

    We were full by dessert, but we couldn't resist at least sharing a slice of Key lime pie ($5), a pleasing balance of tartness and sweetness.

    Harvey's is another successful addition to the expanding dining scene of the Lake Mary/ Heathrow area. Even if this part of town represents a maze of highways, malls, construction and suburban sprawl that I don't appreciate, at least they know how to eat up here.

    Never say what a restaurant is not. Writing that one restaurant would be better if it were more like another is unfair and pointless. So I won't say that the Market Street Café in Celebration is not Dexter's or Tu Tu Tango or even the College Park Diner because -- of course -- it is none of those things.

    I can say that the Market Street Café is not Max's Café. That's because Max's is gone and Market Street has taken its place. The new cafe is being run by Restaurant Partners Inc., which operates four Pebbles restaurants around Orlando. They've done a good job of assimilating the old-days' Celebration atmosphere. If halogen lights and computers had been around in the '50s, Market Street would have fit right in with its retro-modern diner design. Big booths, wide windows and earth tones prevail, making the place something of an upscale, new-urban greasy spoon.

    I can say that the Market Street Café is not Max's Café. That's because Max's is gone and Market Street has taken its place. The new cafe is being run by Restaurant Partners Inc., which operates four Pebbles restaurants around Orlando. They've done a good job of assimilating the old-days' Celebration atmosphere. If halogen lights and computers had been around in the '50s, Market Street would have fit right in with its retro-modern diner design. Big booths, wide windows and earth tones prevail, making the place something of an upscale, new-urban greasy spoon.

    The eatery is the antithesis of existentialism. One doesn't wear black, drink bitter espresso and read Kierkegaard at Market Street. You order a shake and a burger -- and are happy if you get the special round booth by the front door so you can watch resident Celebrants buzz by on rented electric scooters. I heard one of the waitresses, who was about half my age, say "groovy." Another server must have done well in Celebration Diner school, as she made a point of calling me "hon."

    The eatery is the antithesis of existentialism. One doesn't wear black, drink bitter espresso and read Kierkegaard at Market Street. You order a shake and a burger -- and are happy if you get the special round booth by the front door so you can watch resident Celebrants buzz by on rented electric scooters. I heard one of the waitresses, who was about half my age, say "groovy." Another server must have done well in Celebration Diner school, as she made a point of calling me "hon."

    I'm not complaining, mind you. The Market Street Café is pleasant, just not very exciting. Regardless of whatever preconceptions you may have walking in, the food is prepared well and nothing seems processed. Market Street serves turkey with cornbread stuffing and meatloaf with mashed potatoes. They're so traditional that you'll be tempted to see if mom is in the kitchen.

    I'm not complaining, mind you. The Market Street Café is pleasant, just not very exciting. Regardless of whatever preconceptions you may have walking in, the food is prepared well and nothing seems processed. Market Street serves turkey with cornbread stuffing and meatloaf with mashed potatoes. They're so traditional that you'll be tempted to see if mom is in the kitchen.

    Salads and "starters" are enormous. "Portobello" salad ($5.95 small, $9.95 large) is a dinner plate piled high with romaine, diced tomato, slivers of Gouda, corn and big slices of mushroom with a sun-dried tomato vinaigrette. Order the small. A cheese quesadilla ($5.95) is as big as your head, and if you order fried-chicken tenders (simple white meat rolled in cornflake breading, $6.95) as an appetizer, don't bother with an entrée.

    Salads and "starters" are enormous. "Portobello" salad ($5.95 small, $9.95 large) is a dinner plate piled high with romaine, diced tomato, slivers of Gouda, corn and big slices of mushroom with a sun-dried tomato vinaigrette. Order the small. A cheese quesadilla ($5.95) is as big as your head, and if you order fried-chicken tenders (simple white meat rolled in cornflake breading, $6.95) as an appetizer, don't bother with an entrée.

    I had the smoked chicken pasta ($11.95). The definition of "pasta" is spaghetti, but it was firm to the tooth and dressed in a pleasant wine and garlic sauce -- lots of garlic. The meatloaf ($10.95) was covered in brown mushroom gravy almost as dark as cocoa, with excellent homemade potatoes.

    I had the smoked chicken pasta ($11.95). The definition of "pasta" is spaghetti, but it was firm to the tooth and dressed in a pleasant wine and garlic sauce -- lots of garlic. The meatloaf ($10.95) was covered in brown mushroom gravy almost as dark as cocoa, with excellent homemade potatoes.

    If you're looking for an undemanding meal in a "smallville," you might consider the drive.

    On a trip to Medina's Restaurant I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Arthur Hoppe, longtime columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle: "Never let the facts get in the way of a good story." The corollary to that is: "Never let the restaurant get in the way of a good dinner."

    I enjoyed Medina's, and so do many others who frequent this local landmark. Medina's specializes in hearty Cuban and Puerto Rican home-cooking, and that alone brings 'em back for more -- from businessmen on cell phones to college couples in jeans and flip-flops.

    I enjoyed Medina's, and so do many others who frequent this local landmark. Medina's specializes in hearty Cuban and Puerto Rican home-cooking, and that alone brings 'em back for more -- from businessmen on cell phones to college couples in jeans and flip-flops.

    But Medina's counters its word-of-mouth popularity with spotty service. The pace was glacial on a recent evening, but nobody appeared to mind, maybe because it's such a humble setting. The dining area is festooned with homey touches, almost like it's set up for a birthday party. Murals of Latin beaches are framed by twinkling Christmas lights. Crêpe streamers are twirled across the ceiling. A board lists "especialidades de dia."

    But Medina's counters its word-of-mouth popularity with spotty service. The pace was glacial on a recent evening, but nobody appeared to mind, maybe because it's such a humble setting. The dining area is festooned with homey touches, almost like it's set up for a birthday party. Murals of Latin beaches are framed by twinkling Christmas lights. Crêpe streamers are twirled across the ceiling. A board lists "especialidades de dia."

    An array of side-orders make good appetizers, like the empanada (99 cents), a succulent meat turnover, the pastry neatly crimped and fried until crispy and dry. Tamal preparado ($2.39) was a variation on the traditional tamale, with soft, sweet corn dough topped with thin-sliced roast pork and melted white cheese. Even better was the croquetta ($2.39), a tubular roll of minced, seasoned ham, breaded and deep fried.

    An array of side-orders make good appetizers, like the empanada (99 cents), a succulent meat turnover, the pastry neatly crimped and fried until crispy and dry. Tamal preparado ($2.39) was a variation on the traditional tamale, with soft, sweet corn dough topped with thin-sliced roast pork and melted white cheese. Even better was the croquetta ($2.39), a tubular roll of minced, seasoned ham, breaded and deep fried.

    While waiting -- and waiting -- for our entrees, we dallied over bottles of Polar Beer ($2.39), a South American import that tastes a lot like Old Milwaukee. Finally the waitress returned with a delicious plate of bistec de palomilla, steak Cuban-style ($4.89), a simple cut of beef pounded thin, lightly seasoned and slightly charred. Arroz blanco was proof that white rice never need be bland. The grains were pearly and plump, glistening with a bit of oil. Black beans were stewed until tender in a thick, natural gravy. My friend's lechon adado, or roast pork ($5.89), was a lean cut of meat, yet juicy. He had more of the beans and rice, and sweet, firm platanos maduros, or ripened plantains (99 cents).

    While waiting -- and waiting -- for our entrees, we dallied over bottles of Polar Beer ($2.39), a South American import that tastes a lot like Old Milwaukee. Finally the waitress returned with a delicious plate of bistec de palomilla, steak Cuban-style ($4.89), a simple cut of beef pounded thin, lightly seasoned and slightly charred. Arroz blanco was proof that white rice never need be bland. The grains were pearly and plump, glistening with a bit of oil. Black beans were stewed until tender in a thick, natural gravy. My friend's lechon adado, or roast pork ($5.89), was a lean cut of meat, yet juicy. He had more of the beans and rice, and sweet, firm platanos maduros, or ripened plantains (99 cents).

    We were there about 45 minutes longer than necessary, but it was a pleasant stay. We might have been there even longer, except my friend ventured past the door that warned "Waitress Only" to ask for dessert and the check. But I did enjoy the flan con coco ($1.39), a rich custard with sweet coconut meat.

    Mimis Cafe is new construction trying to wear an old-world face. Sitting on Millenia Boulevard, on the fringe of our most popular consumer mecca, there wasn't anything authentic or quaint about it.

    Actually, Mimis is exactly the kind of restaurant I hate. Don't get me wrong, the food is fine. Not great, but good enough. What I hate about this kind of restaurant is the jumbled, unfocused menu of more than 100 items. Mimis features everything from comfort food to New Orleans jambalaya to diner fare to brunch to pseudo-Asian to middle-of-the-road Italian – all of it trying too hard to unexceptionally please the masses. Also distasteful are the bright, prefabricated rooms filled with assembled paraphernalia – a fake 2-foot wrought-iron porch hosting a phony candlelit table hovered over our table. When dining at an establishment like Mimis, one can't help but think of the market surveys and trend magazines that must have inspired it.

    The ruling theme at Mimis is New Orleans, although one can't help but wonder why. I searched and searched for an answer. Was the founder/CEO Tom Simms from New Orleans? No. Did he spend a lot of time there? No. Was his muse Mimi Cajun? No.

    "We used to be more French countryside," the PR representative told me. "But we found that the New Orleans theme had BROADER APPEAL." Say no more.

    So Mimis has nothing to do with New Orleans, despite the décor, and even the proprietors do not consider it a New Orleans-style restaurant. Mimis, in fact, started in 1978 in Orange County, Calif., as a place that served hearty portions of freshly prepared food at reasonable prices. And that mission is what Mimis continues to do moderately well. The only problem is that when you see a New Orleans theme you mouth-wateringly expect Cajun or Creole dishes, which are sparse on their bloated menu. We tried the pasta jambalaya ($12.29), an oversized dish of penne with chicken, shrimp, sausage and pork tossed in a lightly spicy sauce. It was good enough to finish, but lacked depth. The other Cajun-style offerings on the menu included popcorn shrimp ($8.99), a Cajun chicken sandwich ($8.79) and a rather large portion of bread pudding with whiskey sauce ($4.79). Clearly, none of these dishes were made by that breed of New Orleans chef who has the flavor of the "holy trinity" (green peppers, onions and celery) running through his or her veins.

    As for comfort food, I tried the barbecue meat loaf ($9.99), which is made fresh daily. The meat was tender and flavorful, while the sauce was a sticky, sweet concoction that seemed a cross between pan gravy and Texas-style barbecue sauce.

    We tried the soup special, corn chowder ($3.99), which was a little on the thick side but was spiked with fresh red peppers and sweet kernels of corn.

    As of last July, the Bob Evans restaurant company has owned Mimis Cafe, and they are expanding (like every other chain outfit). By next spring they'll have gone from zero to six restaurants in Florida alone. A new store already opened in Altamonte Springs on Feb. 15 and I have to wonder: Will Orlando's local market take to it as well as tourists have?

    Fill your belly at Mimis, yes. But if you really want to eat – in the sense of engaging in a transcendent journey of culinary sensations – head somewhere that is run by passion rather than market surveys.

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