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    Neighborhood jewel offers an eclectic pan-Mediterranean menu, with Indian, Latin and Asian influences on the horizon. Curry-crusted fish is deftly executed, as is chef Bret Ashman's intriguing take on gnocchi alla Sorrentina. A delightful smoked onion mince offers a contempo take on traditional Caprese salad. The wine list is ample and studied. Sunday brunch offered from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. 


    Teaser: Neighborhood jewel offers an eclectic pan-Mediterranean menu, with Indian, Latin and Asian influences on the horizon. Curry-crusted fish is deftly executed, as is chef Bret Ashman's intriguing take on gnocchi alla Sorrentina. A delightful smoked onion mince offers a contempo take on traditional Caprese salad. The wine list is ample and studied. Sunday brunch offered from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

    Last week it was the Ravenous Pig; this week it’s the Drunken Monkey. In coming weeks, expect reviews on the Lecherous Hedgehog and the Fetid Squirrel. Seriously, attention-grabbing appellations can give a newly opened restaurant some much-needed buzz but, thanks to their very own coffee-bean roaster, Drunken Monkey does a pretty good job generating its own.

    And the inspiration for naming the café after a poggled primate? BAM! None other than Emeril Lagasse or, rather, Emeril Lagasse’s “Drunken Monkey” ice cream – a blend of white chocolate, bananas and rum. Co-owner Maureen Hawthorne says the name stuck during her stint at the portly superchef’s restaurant at Universal’s CityWalk. Plus, seeing that the other co-owner, Larry Hardin, is a proponent of Chinese martial arts (of which the Drunken Monkey form of kung fu is a part), endorsing the coffee house’s bibulous designation proved a cinch.

    Inside, a miscellany of découpaged tables, office chairs and vintage sofas make for a stylistic clash, and the same could be said about the menu. You’ll find everything from quiche and paella to soups and burritos, but unlike the building’s previous tenant (Conway’s BBQ), meat takes a backseat to a healthy offering of vegan and vegetarian fare. A wedge of jalapeño-streaked Southwest quiche ($5.95 with a cup of soup) was a perfectly portioned starter, only it was served partially warm and needed to be sent back, after which it was re-served too hot. French onion soup was superbly satisfying; no real surprise considering it was made by John Batcho, whose Soupçon Soups were a main draw at the College Park and Downtown Farmers Markets. His liquid gold is now sold exclusively at Drunken Monkey.

    The irony in the café’s proximity to Beefy King isn’t lost, though meat does make its appearance in some offerings. Shrimp, chicken and sausage are optional ingredients in paella ($6.95), but I made a conscious effort to eschew the wrath of these urban herbivores by ordering the meat-free version. Granted, it wasn’t served in a pan, and the aromatic splendor of saffron was absent, but the hodgepodge of veggies – onions, celery, peas, artichokes, olives, green beans and chickpeas – offered an interesting twist on this classic Spanish dish.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the Baja Dann ($4.50), a burrito stuffed with huevos, tomatoes, queso, caramelized onions and peppers and a black-bean spread, but a dunk in the pureed salsa really kicked it up a notch (pardon the Emeril-ism). A soy patty wedged between ciabatta bread comprised the veggie burger ($5.99), but I found the sandwich bland and unsatisfying, like other meatless burgers I’ve sampled.

    Desserts are small in stature, but large in flavor. Dense banana bread with chocolate chips ($2) partnered well with specialty coffee drinks like the Mojo Jojo ($3), a Vietnamese-style beverage with sweetened condensed milk, cinnamon and vanilla flavoring. Triple-chocolate organic cookies ($1 for three) begged for a dip in the cappuccino ($3.10), and don’t overlook their fresh-squeezed juices, particularly the pleasurably tart limeade ($2).

    What I like about this coffeehouse is its inclusive, across-the-board vibe. As laid-back as it is eco-conscious, Drunken Monkey caters to Dandelion’s drum-circle set without alienating java junkies and meat-lovers. Service needs a little tweaking, but in a place like this, you get the sense that these folks won’t mind monkeying with the monkey.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    You've seen the little chocolate medallions adorning absolutely irresistible pastries, pies and cakes around town (at Ba Le, for example), the ones imprinted with the name "Bruno's Gourmet Kitchen." They've always been a sign to me that, if nothing else, dessert was going to be a something special.

    Fortunately for all of us sugar addicts -- ones with taste, of course – Bruno Ponsot has opened his doors in Sanford to the salivating public. Ponsot has trained with legendary chefs Paul Bocuse, Alain Ducasse and Gaston Lenotre, and has served as head chef locally at Le Coq au Vin and Le Provence.

    Fortunately for all of us sugar addicts -- ones with taste, of course – Bruno Ponsot has opened his doors in Sanford to the salivating public. Ponsot has trained with legendary chefs Paul Bocuse, Alain Ducasse and Gaston Lenotre, and has served as head chef locally at Le Coq au Vin and Le Provence.

    The man knows pastry. From his Bavarian Charlotte cake, filled with Bavarian cream, fresh berries and Chambord liqueur, to miniature éclairs and fruit tarts, this is a world-class patisserie that's worth the trip from anywhere.

    With an attractive wait staff, eclectic art and 30-plus wines and champagnes, Dexter's makes you feel cool even if you're not. The unique selection of international beers is popular at this wine bar and café; the concrete floor means it can get noisy as hell.

    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

    Psst – I'm about to let you in on a secret. What's the cheapest theater ticket in town? Answer: Gino's Pizza & Brew III on Orange Avenue, just north of Church Street. No matter what the hour, the guys behind the counter launch into a kinetic, gritty version of Hell's Kitchen performance art every time the front door opens and a fresh horde of hungry seekers pin themselves against the counter.

    At night, the neon sign glows garishly over Orange Avenue, as the late-night crowd mixes with horn-rimmed yuppies. All this atmosphere for the cost of a slice of pizza ($2-$3.50)? Now, that's entertainment.

    At night, the neon sign glows garishly over Orange Avenue, as the late-night crowd mixes with horn-rimmed yuppies. All this atmosphere for the cost of a slice of pizza ($2-$3.50)? Now, that's entertainment.

    There's also an eagerness to please. If you don't see the entree you want on the menu, their "experienced N.Y.C. chefs" (who include at least one scrappy Scotsman) have been known to go out for the ingredients and whip up a customer's request.

    There's also an eagerness to please. If you don't see the entree you want on the menu, their "experienced N.Y.C. chefs" (who include at least one scrappy Scotsman) have been known to go out for the ingredients and whip up a customer's request.

    The restaurant itself is the mirror image of a thousand pizzerias: A narrow entrance, with just enough room to order at the counter. Seating is minimal at the formica tables upstairs (forget finding a seat between noon and 2 p.m. weekdays), where a smudged window overlooking the street further sets the mood. No wonder requests for slices to go are as common as the red-and-white-checkered vinyl tablecloths.

    The restaurant itself is the mirror image of a thousand pizzerias: A narrow entrance, with just enough room to order at the counter. Seating is minimal at the formica tables upstairs (forget finding a seat between noon and 2 p.m. weekdays), where a smudged window overlooking the street further sets the mood. No wonder requests for slices to go are as common as the red-and-white-checkered vinyl tablecloths.

    At any given time, nearly a dozen choices are on display. The veggie slice looks approachable in comparison to the staggering stuffed meat-lover's pizza, which spills over with pepperoni, bacon, salami and meatballs. The slices we sampled were faultless even though they were reheated, as is the standard. The bianco version, in particular, was a luscious blend of Romano, ricotta and Parmesan cheeses ($2.50).

    At any given time, nearly a dozen choices are on display. The veggie slice looks approachable in comparison to the staggering stuffed meat-lover's pizza, which spills over with pepperoni, bacon, salami and meatballs. The slices we sampled were faultless even though they were reheated, as is the standard. The bianco version, in particular, was a luscious blend of Romano, ricotta and Parmesan cheeses ($2.50).

    There are also strombolis, calzones, wings, salads and pasta dishes. But something went wrong with the ziti ($5.50) we tried: The pesto sauce had plenty of gusto, but the pasta was limp and overcooked. Lasagna, on the other hand, was unforgettable and dangerously messy – just as we'd hoped – with rich layers of ricotta and fresh marinara. Don't miss the garlic rolls, twisted into knots and broiled with butter.

    On this Friday night, the mood upstairs got boozy as some of the customers waited (and waited) for dinner – beer flowed, brows were mopped as the A/C blew hot, cold and hot again. Finally an argument erupted between one couple, and a woman slammed her fist on the table. Taking no chances, we gathered our leftovers and made a swift exit.

    On this Friday night, the mood upstairs got boozy as some of the customers waited (and waited) for dinner – beer flowed, brows were mopped as the A/C blew hot, cold and hot again. Finally an argument erupted between one couple, and a woman slammed her fist on the table. Taking no chances, we gathered our leftovers and made a swift exit.

    On our way out, the guys behind the counter called out "goodbye," even as they were hefting vats of pizza dough big enough to feed a battalion.

    After a slowdown from the sushi overload of last year, several new restaurants have opened lately in various parts of town. Gracing the dining hot spot of Sand Lake Road is a familiar name in new clothing: Amura.

    Owned by the same folks behind the cozy Church Street location, Amura on Sand Lake is upscale and reservedly glitzy. It's to their credit that, despite some stiff competition and the shaky state of Church Street, Amura has thrived enough to expand.

    Owned by the same folks behind the cozy Church Street location, Amura on Sand Lake is upscale and reservedly glitzy. It's to their credit that, despite some stiff competition and the shaky state of Church Street, Amura has thrived enough to expand.

    This venue includes teppan tables, secluded on one side of the restaurant from the main room; judging by the appreciative noises coming from that end they seem to go over well. The new Amura is a gorgeous space, with backlit glass walls, rich marble flooring and tiny halogen lights suspended invisibly overhead like stars. But oohs and aahs at the decor quickly turn to gasps at the pricing – $21.99 for boring salt-coated scallops? A "deluxe Isleworth boat" sushi assortment for $99.98?

    This venue includes teppan tables, secluded on one side of the restaurant from the main room; judging by the appreciative noises coming from that end they seem to go over well. The new Amura is a gorgeous space, with backlit glass walls, rich marble flooring and tiny halogen lights suspended invisibly overhead like stars. But oohs and aahs at the decor quickly turn to gasps at the pricing – $21.99 for boring salt-coated scallops? A "deluxe Isleworth boat" sushi assortment for $99.98?

    The quality of the sushi does remain high, and it's particularly nice to see varieties of fish that have a low environmental impact, like hamachi (yellowtail, a kind of amberjack) and saba (mackerel). The saba is particularly good, with a slightly pickled taste that complements the firm rice. I recommend any of their nigiri sushi or sashimi, which glistens like jewels under those lights, except for the sashimi appetizer ($8.99), which includes a piece of surimi (that horrible fake crab). Surimi also turned up in the sunomono salad ($7.99) – shame on them.

    The quality of the sushi does remain high, and it's particularly nice to see varieties of fish that have a low environmental impact, like hamachi (yellowtail, a kind of amberjack) and saba (mackerel). The saba is particularly good, with a slightly pickled taste that complements the firm rice. I recommend any of their nigiri sushi or sashimi, which glistens like jewels under those lights, except for the sashimi appetizer ($8.99), which includes a piece of surimi (that horrible fake crab). Surimi also turned up in the sunomono salad ($7.99) – shame on them.

    The rolls didn't fare as well as the sushi. The "bamboo wine roll" ($8.99) of white tuna wrapped in avocado was limp and tasteless, the avocado overwhelming other flavors. And the "Magic roll" ($7.99), with shrimp, crab and asparagus was so soggy with a sweet, watery sauce, that it was almost impossible to pick up.

    The rolls didn't fare as well as the sushi. The "bamboo wine roll" ($8.99) of white tuna wrapped in avocado was limp and tasteless, the avocado overwhelming other flavors. And the "Magic roll" ($7.99), with shrimp, crab and asparagus was so soggy with a sweet, watery sauce, that it was almost impossible to pick up.

    It's when we get to the kitchen that everything falls apart. Not everyone likes the same thing, but I'll bet very few people enjoy oily and lukewarm shrimp tempura, with batter-dipped vegetables that are either undercooked or in such large pieces, like the broccoli, that raw batter sits inside as an unpleasant surprise. All that for $16.95. "fiery garlic chicken" ($15.99), a small portion of chewy chicken bits, was more overseasoned than fiery. The "geisha shrimp" ($18.99) were battered, then covered in an odd white sauce, with a bitter, burnt garlic taste that lingered for hours.

    It's when we get to the kitchen that everything falls apart. Not everyone likes the same thing, but I'll bet very few people enjoy oily and lukewarm shrimp tempura, with batter-dipped vegetables that are either undercooked or in such large pieces, like the broccoli, that raw batter sits inside as an unpleasant surprise. All that for $16.95. "fiery garlic chicken" ($15.99), a small portion of chewy chicken bits, was more overseasoned than fiery. The "geisha shrimp" ($18.99) were battered, then covered in an odd white sauce, with a bitter, burnt garlic taste that lingered for hours.

    If you go, stay with what Amura knows best – sushi – and let the kitchen staff take a break.

    While on the way to Toscana at Avalon Park, make sure you have a cell phone handy. Because, aside from enjoying a pleasant conversation with the nice folks in the restaurant, it is unbelievably easy to get lost in the wilds of east Orlando. And if you're like me, you'll probably pick the wrong entrance into the burgeoning development and end up driving through eerily half-constructed neighborhoods.

    The part of "town" that Toscana inhabits is a more welcoming place -- once you find it. In a residential/business center along the lines of downtown Celebration, the restaurant lives under the clock tower, and the relatively small but comfortable space has an upscale air of earth tones and gold d?cor. I fully expected the menu's prices to reflect the atmosphere and was pleasantly surprised.

    The part of "town" that Toscana inhabits is a more welcoming place -- once you find it. In a residential/business center along the lines of downtown Celebration, the restaurant lives under the clock tower, and the relatively small but comfortable space has an upscale air of earth tones and gold d?cor. I fully expected the menu's prices to reflect the atmosphere and was pleasantly surprised.

    Staff is attentive and involved, as in the case of several dishes prepared tableside, such as the Caesar salad ($6.50 per person) with real anchovies, crisp greens and a definite flair for wrist-tossing. Steak tartare ($9.95) is uncooked ground beef folded meticulously with egg, onions and lovely little capers. My choice among the appetizers, the Prince Edward Island mussels ($6.75), was a bit unusual, sautéed in red-pepper-seasoned butter, so the bowl is empty of the accustomed broth. At first offering, the mussels were unappetizingly undercooked. A second try revealed firm shellfish with a rich and somewhat salty taste.

    Staff is attentive and involved, as in the case of several dishes prepared tableside, such as the Caesar salad ($6.50 per person) with real anchovies, crisp greens and a definite flair for wrist-tossing. Steak tartare ($9.95) is uncooked ground beef folded meticulously with egg, onions and lovely little capers. My choice among the appetizers, the Prince Edward Island mussels ($6.75), was a bit unusual, sautéed in red-pepper-seasoned butter, so the bowl is empty of the accustomed broth. At first offering, the mussels were unappetizingly undercooked. A second try revealed firm shellfish with a rich and somewhat salty taste.

    My companion asked me to try her lobster bisque ($5.75), and a sample revealed, under the sweet lobster bits and crab base, a taste that we could only describe as "cream of mushroom soup." While I'm sure nary a can of Campbell's would be found in the kitchen, they've managed to duplicate the flavor.

    My companion asked me to try her lobster bisque ($5.75), and a sample revealed, under the sweet lobster bits and crab base, a taste that we could only describe as "cream of mushroom soup." While I'm sure nary a can of Campbell's would be found in the kitchen, they've managed to duplicate the flavor.

    Entrees fared better; splendidly, in fact. A red snapper almondine ($22.95) brought wonderfully Asian flavors to the flaky white fish, coated in pan-roasted nuts and served with a delightfully un-sweet, chunky mango chutney -- dark and light flavors complementing each other.

    Entrees fared better; splendidly, in fact. A red snapper almondine ($22.95) brought wonderfully Asian flavors to the flaky white fish, coated in pan-roasted nuts and served with a delightfully un-sweet, chunky mango chutney -- dark and light flavors complementing each other.

    Most enjoyable was a relatively simple pasta dish of farfalle, saut&eacurte;ed shrimp and two superlative lobster bits, the butterfly pasta wonderfully al dente and coated in creamy white wine sauce, a delight at every fork ($25.95).

    Most enjoyable was a relatively simple pasta dish of farfalle, saut&eacurte;ed shrimp and two superlative lobster bits, the butterfly pasta wonderfully al dente and coated in creamy white wine sauce, a delight at every fork ($25.95).

    The cordial manager kept us busy before and after dinner with an amuse-bouche of teeny clams in coconut curry, and a smooth and fruity blueberry mousselet. It was these off-menu items that impressed me as much as anything served; if they were experiments, I'd suggest Toscana starts serving them right away. They match the surroundings.

    We all know what image the word "buffet" conjures up, and it's not a complimentary one if you're looking for a fine meal. Add "crazy" to that, all sorts of pictures spring to mind that would make the late eccentric filmmaker Ed Wood blush.

    So my problem is in finding an alternative phrase for a place called "Crazy Buffet" to describe how impressive it is. Part of a small chain, this location (open since October 2001) has a giant pink facade with a pagoda on top and "gee whiz" decor inside: The black-marble entry, bubbling streams and many dining rooms will make your mouth fall open.

    So my problem is in finding an alternative phrase for a place called "Crazy Buffet" to describe how impressive it is. Part of a small chain, this location (open since October 2001) has a giant pink facade with a pagoda on top and "gee whiz" decor inside: The black-marble entry, bubbling streams and many dining rooms will make your mouth fall open.

    Called an "upscale Japanese" restaurant, many of the offerings are Chinese, including a not-too-sweet honey chicken, tofu-laden hot-and-sour soup, and crunchy, shell-on salt-and-pepper shrimp. Lo mein fans won't be disappointed; neither will seekers of peppery Szechuan beef.

    Called an "upscale Japanese" restaurant, many of the offerings are Chinese, including a not-too-sweet honey chicken, tofu-laden hot-and-sour soup, and crunchy, shell-on salt-and-pepper shrimp. Lo mein fans won't be disappointed; neither will seekers of peppery Szechuan beef.

    It's when you find bowls of Japanese udon noodles and crabmeat waiting for a ladle of rich broth, or sweet black-hijiki-seaweed salad, or rich and comforting miso soup, that things become interesting.

    It's when you find bowls of Japanese udon noodles and crabmeat waiting for a ladle of rich broth, or sweet black-hijiki-seaweed salad, or rich and comforting miso soup, that things become interesting.

    I have had sushi made with higher grade fish locally, but I've also had a lot worse and paid a lot more. The best part for sushi lovers is that you can choose your favorite and eat all you want. Toasted salmon-skin rolls, California rolls, the interestingly different "house" roll that's fried on the outside with moist fish within, broiled unagi (eel), a refreshing, spicy chopped octopus, sweet red tuna -- the assortment changes with supply, but it's all worth a try.

    I have had sushi made with higher grade fish locally, but I've also had a lot worse and paid a lot more. The best part for sushi lovers is that you can choose your favorite and eat all you want. Toasted salmon-skin rolls, California rolls, the interestingly different "house" roll that's fried on the outside with moist fish within, broiled unagi (eel), a refreshing, spicy chopped octopus, sweet red tuna -- the assortment changes with supply, but it's all worth a try.

    Desserts, particularly the green-tea cake, are a step above the ordinary, and the bread -- always my first indicator of how much a restaurant cares about its food -- is superb.

    Desserts, particularly the green-tea cake, are a step above the ordinary, and the bread -- always my first indicator of how much a restaurant cares about its food -- is superb.

    Service (yes, there are servers who bring drinks and clear used plates) is attentive and polite. Lunch ($9.95, or $15.95 for weekend brunch) is a great deal for sushi fanatics, and dinner ($18.95 to $21.95, depending on the day) features a one-shot hibachi counter: Pick some vegetables, your meat of choice (chicken, beef, pork or seafood) and a sauce, and it will appear at your table.

    Service (yes, there are servers who bring drinks and clear used plates) is attentive and polite. Lunch ($9.95, or $15.95 for weekend brunch) is a great deal for sushi fanatics, and dinner ($18.95 to $21.95, depending on the day) features a one-shot hibachi counter: Pick some vegetables, your meat of choice (chicken, beef, pork or seafood) and a sauce, and it will appear at your table.

    Think of it more as Asian communal eating rather than a buffet. And since there are Japanese creatures akin to foxes running wild in their native country, I'll coin a new phrase and say, "Crazy Buffet is crazy like a kitsune."

    Combination lunch-and-dinner restaurant with weekend entertainment shows, stand-up comedy, bands and other live arts performances.

    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

    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.

    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.

    I had a hard time pinning down what kind of food it is namesake chef Justin Plank turns out of the kitchen of this renamed venture in a tenured Park Avenue location, so I went to the restaurant's website and came up with this gem: "New Euro Florida cuisine with a retro flair led by Mediterranean flavors with a slight Pan-Asian influence." In other words, they're not really sure what they're cooking either. had a hard time pinning down what kind of food it is namesake chef Justin Plank turns out of the kitchen of this renamed venture in a tenured Park Avenue location, so I went to the restaurant's website and came up with this gem: "New Euro Florida cuisine with a retro flair led by Mediterranean flavors with a slight Pan-Asian influence." In other words, they're not really sure what they're cooking either.

    The line sounds like description by committee, or a new stab at reviving the "fusion" label, and it does a disservice to what Park Plaza is about: reliably good, innovative dishes served with style and flair in an atmosphere that does justice to the Park Avenue address. The place has casual-yet-refined feel to it; you can hang out on the sidewalk café and watch the poseurs pass by, you can take a seat at the renovated bar, or you can sit down for a full meal and enjoy the outdoors-indoors feel of the patio/restaurant. That's not trendy, it's just cool.

    The line sounds like description by committee, or a new stab at reviving the "fusion" label, and it does a disservice to what Park Plaza is about: reliably good, innovative dishes served with style and flair in an atmosphere that does justice to the Park Avenue address. The place has casual-yet-refined feel to it; you can hang out on the sidewalk café and watch the poseurs pass by, you can take a seat at the renovated bar, or you can sit down for a full meal and enjoy the outdoors-indoors feel of the patio/restaurant. That's not trendy, it's just cool.

    We went for the full-meal treatment, kicking it off with "Chef Justin's risotto" ($9), an appetizer easily big enough for two that featured cubes of roast duck and mango. While the duck was cut too small to add much to the dish, the mango imparted a sweetness that proved an excellent complement to the texture of the risotto. Another appetizer, "The Plaza wedge" ($7), was just as ambitious, if less successful. It turned out to be a hunk of iceberg lettuce topped with Gouda cheese, a slice of prosciutto and cherry tomatoes in herbed balsamic vinaigrette. Iceberg lettuce is always a problem at this price point, and the vinaigrette was too sweet. On the other hand, I'll sing the praises of "Chef Justin's five onion soup" ($6) to the rafters; it may well be the best bowl of onion soup on the planet. This hearty, intoxicating mixture of red, green and yellow onions, shallots and chives, topped with provolone, is the antidote for anyone who thinks onion soup has to be a thin, salty broth with slivers of white onions and bread cubes floating around in it.

    We went for the full-meal treatment, kicking it off with "Chef Justin's risotto" ($9), an appetizer easily big enough for two that featured cubes of roast duck and mango. While the duck was cut too small to add much to the dish, the mango imparted a sweetness that proved an excellent complement to the texture of the risotto. Another appetizer, "The Plaza wedge" ($7), was just as ambitious, if less successful. It turned out to be a hunk of iceberg lettuce topped with Gouda cheese, a slice of prosciutto and cherry tomatoes in herbed balsamic vinaigrette. Iceberg lettuce is always a problem at this price point, and the vinaigrette was too sweet. On the other hand, I'll sing the praises of "Chef Justin's five onion soup" ($6) to the rafters; it may well be the best bowl of onion soup on the planet. This hearty, intoxicating mixture of red, green and yellow onions, shallots and chives, topped with provolone, is the antidote for anyone who thinks onion soup has to be a thin, salty broth with slivers of white onions and bread cubes floating around in it.

    When the entrées came, I was a bit reluctant to dig in to mine – an herb-crusted roast pork tenderloin on a bed of root vegetables ($26) – because it looked so darn pretty arranged just so and topped with a hibiscus bud. It proved as good as it looked; the pork was as tender as quality beef with an infused smoky sweetness. The sauce also picked up sweetness and texture from the cranberries and cashews, and overall the dish was polished and satisfying.

    When the entrées came, I was a bit reluctant to dig in to mine – an herb-crusted roast pork tenderloin on a bed of root vegetables ($26) – because it looked so darn pretty arranged just so and topped with a hibiscus bud. It proved as good as it looked; the pork was as tender as quality beef with an infused smoky sweetness. The sauce also picked up sweetness and texture from the cranberries and cashews, and overall the dish was polished and satisfying.

    A seafood bouillabaisse ($36) came to the table looking every bit as gorgeous, filled as it was with mussels, giant prawns, clams, fish and half a Maine lobster tail. I had high expectations, given the price, and was a bit disappointed. The lobster and prawns were grilled before being added and were a touch dry, while the clams and mussels did get a chance to stew in the juices and benefited from it. The stock was hearty and fishy, with a subtle curry flavor Chef Justin himself attributes to his use of star anise and Pernod. The trouble was that the spicing just didn't seem to make its way into the larger chunks of seafood.

    A seafood bouillabaisse ($36) came to the table looking every bit as gorgeous, filled as it was with mussels, giant prawns, clams, fish and half a Maine lobster tail. I had high expectations, given the price, and was a bit disappointed. The lobster and prawns were grilled before being added and were a touch dry, while the clams and mussels did get a chance to stew in the juices and benefited from it. The stock was hearty and fishy, with a subtle curry flavor Chef Justin himself attributes to his use of star anise and Pernod. The trouble was that the spicing just didn't seem to make its way into the larger chunks of seafood.

    Service was courteous to a fault, attentive without being annoying, in keeping with the Continental atmosphere of the restaurant. But overall the experience felt pricey. When entrees get into the $30 range, they'd better be something to burst into song about. Chef Justin's Park Plaza Gardens had me humming a tune, but not quite ready to dance on the tables.

    If you've ever lived south of the East-West Expressway, in the vicinity of Lake Davis, you probably remember El Rincon, a beer-in-a-bag kind of market at the corner of Mills Avenue and Gore Street. If your timing was good and you caught the place when it was open, which was frustratingly rare, you might find a loaf of white bread and a copy of the paper to go with your tallboy. But only the foolhardy would actually order a sandwich from the place.

    How things have changed since Jim Ellis and Nick Massoni took over in September. El Rincon is now the 903 Mills Market, and it is the heart of a quickly gentrifying neighborhood. The once-dark grocery with bars on the windows is now brightly lit and inviting. You can have lunch or a beer at one of the outside tables and watch the traffic on Mills whiz by. Or sit inside and chat with neighbors as they come and go.

    How things have changed since Jim Ellis and Nick Massoni took over in September. El Rincon is now the 903 Mills Market, and it is the heart of a quickly gentrifying neighborhood. The once-dark grocery with bars on the windows is now brightly lit and inviting. You can have lunch or a beer at one of the outside tables and watch the traffic on Mills whiz by. Or sit inside and chat with neighbors as they come and go.

    903 Mills serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the food is worth a stop. I have yet to eat breakfast there, but the sandwiches are creative, tasty and huge (the "Grateful Bread," a combination of turkey, blue cheese, stuffing, onions and cranberry mayo on sourdough is a personal favorite); the dinner blue plates don't disappoint, and there's always a kettle of soup on.

    903 Mills serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the food is worth a stop. I have yet to eat breakfast there, but the sandwiches are creative, tasty and huge (the "Grateful Bread," a combination of turkey, blue cheese, stuffing, onions and cranberry mayo on sourdough is a personal favorite); the dinner blue plates don't disappoint, and there's always a kettle of soup on.

    Tipplers will appreciate what has to be one of the best beer selections in town. I've never seen He'Brew, Dogfish Head, Flying Dog and White Hawk together in one place before, let alone in a single cooler in a tiny neighborhood store. Wine heads (as distinguished from winos) will dig the monthly tastings.

    Tipplers will appreciate what has to be one of the best beer selections in town. I've never seen He'Brew, Dogfish Head, Flying Dog and White Hawk together in one place before, let alone in a single cooler in a tiny neighborhood store. Wine heads (as distinguished from winos) will dig the monthly tastings.

    In the age of the 7-Eleven, community grocery stores are a rare and wonderful thing, and this one is a gem.

    Village Tavern features a wide-ranging menu of inventive American food. Only the finest ingredients are incorporated into each dish, including fresh produce, made-from-scratch pizza dough and Certified Angus beef that is cut and aged to exclusive specifications.

    Other than, what a waste of time and money, about the only other thing I could think about on the drive home from an overpriced dinner at the Capriccio Grill Italian Steakhouse was how many starving people could have been fed with the money just spent. The experience was that much of a downer. When more than 100 bucks is dropped on a dinner for two, not counting drinks or wine, then it had better be a hedonistic experience, worthy of the indulgence. And there was only one thing that was special about Capriccio's new menu: The steak, from Ruprecht's, one of the oldest operating beef processors in Chicago and a purveyor of quality meats to high-end steakhouses around the country. Though expensive – $37 for the restaurant's "signature" 24-ounce rib-eye – the meat was worthy. The experience as a whole was not.

    Reservations are recommended at Capriccio, and it's a good thing we had them. The hostesses were routinely turning away party after party that showed up without them, making it seem too big a deal when we sailed into the shotgun-style dining room, ushered past grumbling guests. Capriccio is on the first floor of The Peabody Orlando, easy to park at and enter, across the street from the Orange County Convention Center. It's the hotel's supposedly midpriced restaurant; there's also the more formal and expensive Dux and the cheaper and more fun Beeline Diner. The decor is an outdated style of subdued urban chic, with contemporary lighting and fresh exotic flowers contrasting dark wood tables and checkered marble floors.

    Reservations are recommended at Capriccio, and it's a good thing we had them. The hostesses were routinely turning away party after party that showed up without them, making it seem too big a deal when we sailed into the shotgun-style dining room, ushered past grumbling guests. Capriccio is on the first floor of The Peabody Orlando, easy to park at and enter, across the street from the Orange County Convention Center. It's the hotel's supposedly midpriced restaurant; there's also the more formal and expensive Dux and the cheaper and more fun Beeline Diner. The decor is an outdated style of subdued urban chic, with contemporary lighting and fresh exotic flowers contrasting dark wood tables and checkered marble floors.

    In the back, the main dining area is built around the kitchen, where sweating cooks and steaming pans are in full view. We were seated at a small round café table squeezed into a sort of makeshift spot between the pathway and the bussing station, in front of the kitchen. Many passing eyes observed our table that night, and we managed to avoid any injury when water spilled and dishes broke at the server station. I was surprised into politeness when a server ducked under the table to pick up some broken glass – "Excuse me, madam," he said, kneeling down beside me with a towel ready to dry me off – or maybe wrap my wounds – if necessary.

    In the back, the main dining area is built around the kitchen, where sweating cooks and steaming pans are in full view. We were seated at a small round café table squeezed into a sort of makeshift spot between the pathway and the bussing station, in front of the kitchen. Many passing eyes observed our table that night, and we managed to avoid any injury when water spilled and dishes broke at the server station. I was surprised into politeness when a server ducked under the table to pick up some broken glass – "Excuse me, madam," he said, kneeling down beside me with a towel ready to dry me off – or maybe wrap my wounds – if necessary.

    Our cocktails were unimpressive – the dried olive and brown-spotted lime wedge stuck on the toothpick in the Bloody Mary ($6.25) looked like leftovers. The Grey Goose martini ($8.50) ordered "dirty" was served clean, and also was cheapened by aged olives. The flatbread in the complimentary basket was stale, but there were some fresh rolls in there, too.

    Our cocktails were unimpressive – the dried olive and brown-spotted lime wedge stuck on the toothpick in the Bloody Mary ($6.25) looked like leftovers. The Grey Goose martini ($8.50) ordered "dirty" was served clean, and also was cheapened by aged olives. The flatbread in the complimentary basket was stale, but there were some fresh rolls in there, too.

    Ordering entrees, we acknowledged Capriccio's Italian past. We selected one of the favorite pasta dishes still on the menu, as recommended by our friendly server, the "penne e pollo" ($16.95), with pieces of chicken, grapes and walnuts covered in a Gorgonzola sauce. And we ordered the 12-ounce filet mignon ($34), topped by an "Oscar" sauce that was a special on this evening. Later, the bill reflected the $12.95 addition of the teaspoon or so of rich crabmeat and two stalks of asparagus topped by hollandaise sauce.

    Ordering entrees, we acknowledged Capriccio's Italian past. We selected one of the favorite pasta dishes still on the menu, as recommended by our friendly server, the "penne e pollo" ($16.95), with pieces of chicken, grapes and walnuts covered in a Gorgonzola sauce. And we ordered the 12-ounce filet mignon ($34), topped by an "Oscar" sauce that was a special on this evening. Later, the bill reflected the $12.95 addition of the teaspoon or so of rich crabmeat and two stalks of asparagus topped by hollandaise sauce.

    When it arrived, the beef carpaccio appetizer ($9.50) offered the perfect opportunity to taste Ruprecht's product in its rarest form – thin shavings of raw meat, seasoned and dressed with tangy capers, tart lemon and a sprinkling of Parmesan. Sanguine and delicate, the carpaccio paired well with the spinach salad ($7.95), which was fine if nothing fancy.

    When it arrived, the beef carpaccio appetizer ($9.50) offered the perfect opportunity to taste Ruprecht's product in its rarest form – thin shavings of raw meat, seasoned and dressed with tangy capers, tart lemon and a sprinkling of Parmesan. Sanguine and delicate, the carpaccio paired well with the spinach salad ($7.95), which was fine if nothing fancy.

    Then came the $17 pasta insult. To relive the experience as quickly as possible: Cool al dente penne was dumped on top of a puddle of steaming sauce, so I had to mix up the dish myself. (My fingers got a bit burned – no big deal.) The rich and biting Gorgonzola sauce desperately needed the sweet grapes and the texture of the nuts to cut the thickness. But the spare bits and pieces of grape and nut and chicken were hunted and downed within a handful of bites. Across the table, the properly "flash-seared" fillet was full of flavor, enhanced by the Oscar treatment. The recommended glass of Merlot was a smart choice for taste but was a $12 slam.

    Then came the $17 pasta insult. To relive the experience as quickly as possible: Cool al dente penne was dumped on top of a puddle of steaming sauce, so I had to mix up the dish myself. (My fingers got a bit burned – no big deal.) The rich and biting Gorgonzola sauce desperately needed the sweet grapes and the texture of the nuts to cut the thickness. But the spare bits and pieces of grape and nut and chicken were hunted and downed within a handful of bites. Across the table, the properly "flash-seared" fillet was full of flavor, enhanced by the Oscar treatment. The recommended glass of Merlot was a smart choice for taste but was a $12 slam.

    The coffee was good and a bargain (no charge), and there was no oversweetening of the mixed berries in the cobbler ($7.75), though the crust tasted stale, like it had been out in the humid air too long.

    The coffee was good and a bargain (no charge), and there was no oversweetening of the mixed berries in the cobbler ($7.75), though the crust tasted stale, like it had been out in the humid air too long.

    If you're here for a convention and want steak, jump on I-4 and head downtown to Kres Chophouse for a much more special night out. If you're stuck in the hotel, head for the Beeline Diner for meatloaf.

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