Locations in Winter Park Area

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    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.

    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.

    I'll never forget when a fun, pretty girl from out of town joined my high school halfway through junior year. It caused quite a stir with the popular crowd, and the trendiest girls were all in a tizzy, threatened by their sudden change in status. They eventually began to imitate her language and style. The same may happen with newcomer Luma on Park. I imagine other restaurants of her caliber ducking for cover, reorganizing, emulating.

    Terrazzo spreads over a cozy bar and a vivacious dining room, partitioned by a glass-encased stairwell that leads to an impressive wine cellar. Beyond a backdrop of stylish wood, leather, metal and marble sits an open kitchen. Luma is scattered with nooks that allow patrons to be comfortably alone, while still part of the lively room. Polka-dotted rugs and circles of chairs in the bar create miniature, but exceedingly stylish, private spaces. Likewise with long pub tables, spacious booths and rooms created for bigger parties.

    My meals have been flawless. The ambience – gorgeous. But I want to address two issues: One, their hosting system needs help. I arrived with reservations and still waited for over an hour on one visit. My second issue has to do with the bathrooms. When did design trump function in restaurant bathrooms? It's hard to find your way in, and then all the locks on the stalls are broken. Not pleasant.

    But on to the food, which is the reason to visit Luma. Executive chef Todd Immel has put together an inspiring selection of dishes that are creative, comforting and trendy. His passion for food exudes through the ingredients he selects, the way he marries them together, and the way he presents them.

    More than half of the menu is dedicated to quick bites, all enticing, which makes it difficult to choose. Keep in mind that the menu changes seasonally and according to availability, but here's a sampling: On one occasion we had clams "al forno" ($12), littlenecks floating in silky Mediterranean broth with wine, rosemary and pancetta. Chickpeas lent an earthy flavor that contrasted well with the oceany cockles.

    Ravioli ($10) was an austere dish of six pillows stuffed with goat cheese, orange zest and fennel pollen. Eating them was like riding on the top of autumn while looking back to the summer.

    Delicately gamey rabbit terrine ($12) was served cold with the traditional accompaniment of cornichons. In place of prepared mustard was a clever mustard ice cream that dispersed the piquant flavor wider on the palate.

    Luma's fennel salad ($9) puts the pale green fennel bulb to delicious use. Licorice overtones were enhanced by tangy pomegranate and orange slices. The flavor could have stopped there, but to this colorful salad, they added aged pecorino cheese for a hint of nuttiness.

    Could it get any better than this? We weren't sure until the entrees arrived. They were beautifully presented with a gentle touch. Food that manages to be pretty without looking too fussed over is most pleasing, and Luma is gifted in the art of presentation.

    Diver scallops ($21) were plump and had a caramelized crust poised gracefully on tender, pristine flesh. Like a floral centerpiece, purple and red radish salad rested colorfully in the middle of the plate, graced by citrusy sauce. Rich olive tapenade, which at first seemed out of place, proved to enhance the flavor.

    I had chicken "sous vide" ($17), made by vacuum sealing. I am fascinated with this high-tech-preservation-method-cum-gourmet-preparation that every top chef – from Keller to Ducasse – is taking for a spin. The flavorful chicken was tender and well-seasoned but nothing special. The accompaniment of creamy polenta and braised collard greens added much depth.

    The duck ($20) took my breath away. With tender breast meat fanned out, this dish displayed a flavorful crust and pink flesh that yielded to a tender center. Accompanying this was a ring of butternut squash with a mystifyingly airy texture. A hint of lemon lingered on my tongue, leaving me wanting more.

    The sirloin ($24), too, was deftly prepared. This slab of Niman Ranch's best was well-teamed with spicy watercress and creamy Gorgonzola, topped by dollop of port reduction.

    The dessert were awe-inspiring, with a style all their own. The sweet corn pudding ($6) couldn't be more alluring. With macerated blackberries and a touch of fried polenta, the flavors lingered like a remembrance of something innovative yet familiar. Just like Luma itself.

    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

    Stumbling out into the blinding Winter Park Village midday sun after a matinee movie, I was stunned to see an edifice that looked like a bank, where the old Dillard's used to be. The sign said The Cheesecake Factory, and I'd never heard of it. Why would a place that makes cheesecake need such an enormous building? Not one to turn down a good slice of dessert, I went to investigate.

    Turns out, there are 42 other CF restaurants, which started in the late '70s in Los Angeles, everywhere from Boston to California. I'm told the architecture is fairly similar in all of them. The decor is slightly Egyptian revival -- towering high ceilings, thick weathered columns painted in hieroglyphics, dark wood and upholstered booths. There are striking accents of glass all, like textured leaf shapes on columns and red swirled lamps, and open spaces alongside cozy partitioned areas.

    Turns out, there are 42 other CF restaurants, which started in the late '70s in Los Angeles, everywhere from Boston to California. I'm told the architecture is fairly similar in all of them. The decor is slightly Egyptian revival -- towering high ceilings, thick weathered columns painted in hieroglyphics, dark wood and upholstered booths. There are striking accents of glass all, like textured leaf shapes on columns and red swirled lamps, and open spaces alongside cozy partitioned areas.

    The menu is almost as large as the building -- a dozen pages of appetizers, pizza, burgers and steaks, not counting the full page of cheesecakes. So doing the addition (huge place, tons of menu items, slightly gimmicky name) I was somewhat skeptical. But from beginning to end, everything was wonderful.

    Our waiter advised us that "the appetizers are kinda large," which was like saying that I-4 gets a little crowded. I started with "Tex Mex eggrolls" ($7.95), crisp packages of corn, black beans, salsa, cheese and a rather spicy chicken with mellow avocado dipping cream. The massive serving was very tasty, with a nice melding of flavors.

    Our waiter advised us that "the appetizers are kinda large," which was like saying that I-4 gets a little crowded. I started with "Tex Mex eggrolls" ($7.95), crisp packages of corn, black beans, salsa, cheese and a rather spicy chicken with mellow avocado dipping cream. The massive serving was very tasty, with a nice melding of flavors.

    Onion rings come in a two-foot-high pile. The fillet of salmon ($15.95), a thick slice crusted with sesame and served with soy-ginger sauce, looks close to an entire fish. My "Navaho" sandwich had large strips of avocado and tender grilled chicken stuffed into real fry-bread (in Orlando?), a tasty bargain at $8.95. And the Thai lettuce wraps ($8.95) were a knockout, with curry noodles, satay chicken, sprouts and more to roll into hand-sized leaves.

    Ah, yes -- the cheesecake. More than 30 kinds, from regular to white-chocolate raspberry truffle to Kahlua-almond fudge. I had the "dulce de leche" caramel. There's a good reason for the takeout counter at the front; you'll want another piece by the time you hit the door.

    This must be a new strategy: Make portions so gigantic that two people can't even finish the appetizers and supply shopping bags emblazoned with "The Cheesecake Factory." Then send diners out into the world as stuffed and slightly sugar-rushed ambassadors. Signs above the restaurant offer loft apartments for lease. Think of it -- just call down from bed for all the cheesecake you can hold.

    Despite the trendy, well-heeled crowds lined up at the door, and despite the lightweight name that sounds like it was pulled from a starlet's bio, there is some substance to Brio, the new, upscale Tuscan grill at Winter Park Village.

    We arrived without reservations on a busy weekend evening, and it was immediately clear we were in for a long wait. Throngs of people milled around. The hostess gave us a palm pager so we could window shop in the immediate area to kill time. It was either that or jockey for a place at the bar, where the members of the salon set were squeezed in so tight that we would have been lucky to find something to lean on, much less sit down.

    We arrived without reservations on a busy weekend evening, and it was immediately clear we were in for a long wait. Throngs of people milled around. The hostess gave us a palm pager so we could window shop in the immediate area to kill time. It was either that or jockey for a place at the bar, where the members of the salon set were squeezed in so tight that we would have been lucky to find something to lean on, much less sit down.

    The inside of the restaurant is spacious and bustling, with a curved layout that wraps around the show kitchen. The dining area is reinforced by pillars and softened by faux antique treatments, and the acoustics are comfortably noisy.

    The inside of the restaurant is spacious and bustling, with a curved layout that wraps around the show kitchen. The dining area is reinforced by pillars and softened by faux antique treatments, and the acoustics are comfortably noisy.

    There were some lapses in service, but our waitress seemed to be doing her best to keep up with the fast pace. Although we waited far too long for appetizers and a bread basket, they were in peak form when they showed up. The crusty Italian rolls had been whisked to our table straight from the oven, still steaming. And the "antipasto sampler" ($12.95) was delicious across the board. We loved the "calamari fritto misto," lightly fried and accented with "pepperoncini," as well as the "Brio bruschetta" topped with marinated tomatoes, seared peppers and mozzarella. The mushroom "ravioli al forno" had an exquisite, creamy sauce.

    There were some lapses in service, but our waitress seemed to be doing her best to keep up with the fast pace. Although we waited far too long for appetizers and a bread basket, they were in peak form when they showed up. The crusty Italian rolls had been whisked to our table straight from the oven, still steaming. And the "antipasto sampler" ($12.95) was delicious across the board. We loved the "calamari fritto misto," lightly fried and accented with "pepperoncini," as well as the "Brio bruschetta" topped with marinated tomatoes, seared peppers and mozzarella. The mushroom "ravioli al forno" had an exquisite, creamy sauce.

    Don't overlook the flatbread pizzas. Toasted in a wood-fired oven, they have crisp, thin crusts that are balanced by light toppings. The wild-mushroom version ($9.95) was slightly moistened with truffle oil and topped with mild, nutty fontina cheese and a few caramelized onions.

    Don't overlook the flatbread pizzas. Toasted in a wood-fired oven, they have crisp, thin crusts that are balanced by light toppings. The wild-mushroom version ($9.95) was slightly moistened with truffle oil and topped with mild, nutty fontina cheese and a few caramelized onions.

    Brio does an able job with pastas such as lasagna with Bolognese meat sauce, but it would be a shame to miss out on wood-grilled steaks, chops and seafood, which are what the kitchen does best. A 14-ounce strip steak ($21.95) was particularly juicy and buttery, and topped with melted gorgonzola. But on the side, the wispy "onion straws" didn't work – they were eclipsed by their overly oily fried batter.

    Brio does an able job with pastas such as lasagna with Bolognese meat sauce, but it would be a shame to miss out on wood-grilled steaks, chops and seafood, which are what the kitchen does best. A 14-ounce strip steak ($21.95) was particularly juicy and buttery, and topped with melted gorgonzola. But on the side, the wispy "onion straws" didn't work – they were eclipsed by their overly oily fried batter.

    Wood-grilled salmon ($21.95) was an exercise in restraint: The firm, pink, succulent flesh of the fish was jazzed with a delicate citrus pesto and accompanied by tomatoes encrusted with Romano cheese.

    Wood-grilled salmon ($21.95) was an exercise in restraint: The firm, pink, succulent flesh of the fish was jazzed with a delicate citrus pesto and accompanied by tomatoes encrusted with Romano cheese.

    The restaurant's next-door Tuscan Bakery is worth a visit on the way out, if only to glimpse the gorgeous profusion of breads and pastries. Brio's stylish atmosphere and well-executed menu make it a successful choice whether for lunch, dinner or the popular "Bellini brunch" on Saturdays and Sundays.

    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.

    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.

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

    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.

    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.

    The stylish mural outside Chez Vincent looks worthy of a cover of Vanity Fair from the 1930s. A lady and gentleman, in profile, sip from the same glass of wine and hint at what awaits within: seductive French cuisine in a casual, cosmopolitan atmosphere. Just weeks old, Chez Vincent is a shining new arrival on the spiffed-up streetscape in a happening enclave two blocks west of Park Avenue in Winter Park, and it promises to become a contender among the finest local restaurants.

    The smart interior – done in olives, taupes and creams – was conceived and executed by chef/co-owner Vincent Gagliano, formerly of Cafe de France. With just 15 tables, Chez Vincent is a restful oasis for a midday meal of hors d'oeuvres, soups and salads, or an elegant dinner with entrees that include Gulf shrimp sautéed in cream dill sauce ($18.50) and venison with sun-dried cherries in port wine sauce ($22.95). There's also an ample wine list, with 13 varieties served by the glass.

    The smart interior – done in olives, taupes and creams – was conceived and executed by chef/co-owner Vincent Gagliano, formerly of Cafe de France. With just 15 tables, Chez Vincent is a restful oasis for a midday meal of hors d'oeuvres, soups and salads, or an elegant dinner with entrees that include Gulf shrimp sautéed in cream dill sauce ($18.50) and venison with sun-dried cherries in port wine sauce ($22.95). There's also an ample wine list, with 13 varieties served by the glass.

    We were impressed with feuillettè d´escargots au porto, ($7.50), a crisp triangular puff pastry stuffed with dark, fleshy, sautéed snails and fortified by a sweet port wine sauce. The soupe du jour, vegetable ($3.95), was remarkable mainly for its excellent broth that had been simmering for several days, we were told, to enhance flavors of veal, leeks, thyme and carrots. Entrees are preceded by house salads, but I recommend upgrading to the unforgettable goat cheese salad, served warm with roasted pumpkin seeds over mixed baby greens ($2.65).

    We were impressed with feuillettè d´escargots au porto, ($7.50), a crisp triangular puff pastry stuffed with dark, fleshy, sautéed snails and fortified by a sweet port wine sauce. The soupe du jour, vegetable ($3.95), was remarkable mainly for its excellent broth that had been simmering for several days, we were told, to enhance flavors of veal, leeks, thyme and carrots. Entrees are preceded by house salads, but I recommend upgrading to the unforgettable goat cheese salad, served warm with roasted pumpkin seeds over mixed baby greens ($2.65).

    Among everything we ordered, the most outstanding was rack of lamb with blue cheese sauce ($21.50). Superbly tender, juicy portions of the rib were carved into chops and criss-crossed along the plate. A still life of sweet baby carrots and snow peas were arranged around the border, with a single rosette fashioned out of roasted apple skins. My guest enjoyed paupiette de poulet à la moutarde ($16.95), a boneless chicken breast pounded flat and rolled around an aromatic mixture of shiitake mushrooms, bell peppers and Swiss cheese, with a country Dijon sauce.

    Among everything we ordered, the most outstanding was rack of lamb with blue cheese sauce ($21.50). Superbly tender, juicy portions of the rib were carved into chops and criss-crossed along the plate. A still life of sweet baby carrots and snow peas were arranged around the border, with a single rosette fashioned out of roasted apple skins. My guest enjoyed paupiette de poulet à la moutarde ($16.95), a boneless chicken breast pounded flat and rolled around an aromatic mixture of shiitake mushrooms, bell peppers and Swiss cheese, with a country Dijon sauce.

    For dessert, chilled Grand Marnier soufflé ($5.25) stood tall on a small plate, creamy with undertones of citrus. I appreciated the flavors more fully after waiting a bit for it to warm up. Bavarios de chocolate ($4.95) consisted of chocolate and raspberry mousse layers, surrounded by a pool of mango coulis.

    The new Dexter's in Winter Park no longer sells wine for retail, a practice left behind when the hot spot relocated to west Winter Park. Still, the reinvented landmark offers a more elevated wine experience than before, with a sommelier on staff to advance the "captain's list" of rare vintages, stored in a smart, white-washed Chicago-brick vault.

    With the oversized French doors open to the streetscape, the dining area is far more roomy. The butcher-block tables and stools have been replaced by low, cherry-wood tables with Art Deco chairs. And there's no shortage of parking (a problem that plagues Dexter's in Thornton Park). The dinner menu remains constant, and the "cafe menu" adds variety with seasonal items, such as the current hickory-smoked tuna tartare ($9.95). And from the buffed cement bar you can try 30 wines by the glass.

    Haute-Texican cuisine with Portuguese flourishes gives cause to visit this industrial-chic Park Avenue-area resto. From shrimp piri-piri to pollo pibil to duck confit tacos, chef Chico employs traditional and contemporary methods to skillfully render his dishes. If ordering Mexican doughnuts, it's possible you may get lemony Portuguese malassadas instead, sans cinnamon.

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