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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Although we tend to think of "Indian" as one cuisine, there are many cultures within that country, and diets differ dramatically. In general, the food of Southern India is fragrant with curry leaves, coconuts and tamarind. In the North, cream and yogurt are common ingredients and the predominant spice is garam masala, a mixture based on cardamom, clove, black pepper and cumin.

Serving Northern-style cuisine is just what Amit Kumar and partner Joy Kakkanad were after when they opened Aashirwad (meaning "blessing") last November on the south side of Orlando. And although that is not a part of town hungering for an Indian restaurant, the owners wanted to set themselves apart by keeping the cost affordable.

This is certainly the case at lunch, when Aashirwad serves a tasty, if depleted at times, buffet for only $6.95. Every day, the buffet is stocked with favorites such as chicken tikka masala, tandoori chicken, curry and rice. They also have salad and a rotating array of vegetarian items that make this buffet well worth the price of admission. But it's necessary to exercise patience when eating here – service is slow, and they don't always keep the buffet completely stocked. My second trip to the mother lode was fraught with empty chafing dishes (in one there were three florets of cauliflower) and puddles of spilled curry sauce. Eventually we were waited on, and eventually the buffet was restocked. Even though this wasn't a fast lunch, I would happily recommend it for the frugal and hungry.

The dinner experience at Aashirwad is more suggestive of the basic hospitality background studied by Kumar and Kakkanad in hotel/restaurant management school in India: They keep the lights low, the music medium and the service high. Still, the restaurant is in a strip mall on the corner of International Drive and Kirkman Road, and the dining room itself is nothing special, just a collection of booths and tables and Indian-inspired wall hangings.

We started our meal with aromatic vegetable samosas ($3.50), delicate and flaky pastry snugly enfolding a mixture of potatoes and peas. Most of the vegetables at Aashirwad seemed slightly abused, as if they were overcooked or kept around too long, and the starchy-tasting veggies in the samosas were no exception.

Both the tandoori chicken ($11.95) and the tandoori mixed grill ($15.95) were fabulously flavorful and rich with the characteristic charred smokiness of the signature clay oven. The lamb that comes as part of the mix was succulent and moist, but the morsels of chicken were on the dry side. A nice element of surprise was the addition of grilled paneer (Indian-style cottage cheese); the smooth creaminess of the cheese and the spiciness of the seasonings blended quite beautifully.

I was disappointed with Aashirwad's version of palak paneer ($9.45), creamy spinach with cubes of Indian cheese. The spinach lacked the usual creaminess and tasted flat; the cheese – though very tasty itself – kind of hung in suspension and seemed out of place.

Many things we tasted were good but were shy of being great. The cucumber and yogurt condiment, raita ($1.95), didn't burst with flavor; the chickpea crackers with cumin seeds, pappadam (complimentary), were slightly greasy; the lentils with tomatoes and onions, tadka dal ($8.95), had a watery quality. But the tandoor-baked bread, naan ($1.50) was spectacular: springy and soft in the center, yet crisp and smoky on the outside where it melded with the heat of the clay oven.

I have a feeling this restaurant hasn't quite hit its stride yet. Until then, I'll go back just for the naan.

With stints at Antonio’s La Fiamma in Maitland and Terramia Winebar in Longwood, Adriatico chef Marco Cudazzo has played a significant role in pleasing local palates with a penchant for pasta and rustic dishes from the old country. Now, along with his charming wife Rosetta, Cudazzo brings the flavors of his native Abruzzo, a coastal region shoring the Adriatic, to College Park’s savvy denizens, most of whom are no strangers to authentic Italian cuisine.

Not surprisingly, Adriatico’s menu slants toward the sea, not the Abruzzo’s mountainous interior, where lamb, mutton and diavolicchio peppers typify the Abruzzese style. No, it’s all about the seafood here, and the calamaretti alla Napoletana ($8.50), ringlets and tentacles of small, tender squid sautéed in a spicy tomato sauce, is an antipasto worth diving into. The meat is faultlessly firm and doesn’t suffer from the rubbery texture that results from overcooking, while the sauce is an ideal lure for the complimentary bread.

I took great pleasure in listening to my waiter’s thick, rolling lilt, though I’m sure he felt like driving his giant fist into my skull after I asked him to repeat the evening’s special three times. When I finally understood that the white striped bass ($27.50) was pan-fried with portobello mushrooms, and not pot-bellied monsoons, I couldn’t say no. The enormous platter contained a thick fillet garnished with baby romas, yellow tomatoes and two crunchy jumbo shrimp in addition to the ’shrooms, all slicked in a garlic white wine sauce. The flavors worked well, but I would’ve enjoyed the fish more had it not been served tepid.

Terrestrial items also get a chance to shine, and the indisputable freshness of the creamy tomato soup ($5.50) made it a bowl full of magical slurps, with heavy cream and basil adding texture and pungency to the ruddy orange bisque. Carciofini “mamma mia” ($8.50), baby artichokes sautéed in olive oil, garlic and mint, were tender for the most part though a few stringy stragglers found their way into the garlicky sauce. The astringency of the artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes, unfortunately, overpowered the essence of mint, making the dish a slight disappointment.

 

A comforting main like gnocchi della casa can be enjoyed with a choice of three sauces: marinara ($11.50), meaty Bolognese ($14.50) or gorgonzola cheese ($16.50). No matter the sauce, the potato dumplings were perfectly pillowy, and if you opt for the gorgonzola, the rich sauce is as aromatic as it is fulfilling. Italian-imported lemon sorbetto ($7) bests house-made tiramisu, partly for its refreshing tang and partly for its lemon-peel shell, though
either will ensure your meal ends on a sweet note.

Wine racks, exposed brick walls and the glow of candlelight on fresh linens create an oasis of calm, though the serene ambience also extends outside, where patrons can dine by the light of tiki torches along Edgewater Drive. Service is purposefully friendly and leisured, but can seem a little too leisurely when glasses are left unfilled and when lags create uneven pacing. Nevertheless, the trattoria’s genuine charm ultimately wins over the hearts of diners, and the competent execution of the seafood-leaning menu is sure to make Adriatico a fixture in the neighborhood.

When I was growing up in DeLand, there just weren't any kosher delis around. I didn't discover blintzes, latkes and matzo ball soup until going off to college in Atlanta. And while these days Orlando hardly brims with traditional Jewish food, the unassuming market and deli Amira's is worth a visit.

As a kosher deli, cleanliness, food and service at Amira's are supervised by the Orlando Rabbinic Council. But don't ask about the name; I felt like a real schlemiel when I asked our waitress for a translation, and she informed me that "Amira" is the owner's first name.

My companion and I visited for lunch, served between 11 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. For starters, we split the mini Israeli sampler ($4.95), a smaller version of the Israeli platter ($6.95). I could have made an entire meal out of the falafel (think chickpea hushpuppy) and the eggplant relish, which was similar to ratatouille. The tabouli also was tasty; heavier on parsley than bulghur wheat, it tasted more like a regular salad than other versions I've tried. And while I thought the hummus had too much tahini, my companion pronounced it delicious. Our sampler also came with a big plate of pita bread.

For my entree, I ordered half a "Virgin Rachel" and a cup of chicken noodle soup ($5.95 for the combo). Even without the customary Swiss cheese, this Rachel was superb. Served grilled on rye bread, it came with a huge, hot stack of pastrami, sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing. The soup stock was marvelous, although there was only one measly piece of chicken hiding in a cup full of noodles. My companion's overstuffed cold corned beef sandwich on rye ($6.95), served plain with condiments on the side, was similarly outstanding. His sandwich came with cole slaw and potato salad, fries or a potato knish. He chose the latter, a spicy mashed-potato mixture inside flaky pastry.

Other sandwiches include hot or cold beef brisket ($7.25), chopped liver ($5.25), half-pound turkey burgers ($6.25), and quarter-pound chili dogs ($4.45). And excepting Friday evenings, when Amira's is closed, the dinner menu includes stuffed cabbage ($9.95), prime rib ($12.95), half a rotisserie chicken ($9.95), and open-face roast beef or turkey sandwiches (both $7.95).

There are people who stare at a showroom floor of cars, yearning for the latest model, or drool over displays of fine watches. Then there are the folks who can't walk past a dessert case without being mesmerized by the mile-high cakes under the spotlights. For you, we have Annie Pie's (anniepiesbakery.com).

Annie's delights can be ordered from the Neiman-Marcus catalog or at Moonfish restaurants, and they've been featured on Food Network's "Best Of" show But now you can purchase those humongous, coma-inducing cakes for your own gluttonous glee by phone or web from Annie's.

Annie's delights can be ordered from the Neiman-Marcus catalog or at Moonfish restaurants, and they've been featured on Food Network's "Best Of" show But now you can purchase those humongous, coma-inducing cakes for your own gluttonous glee by phone or web from Annie's.

These are not only gourmet indulgences, but marvels of construction: The "peanut butter explosion" cake, layers of chewy fudge brownie, peanut butter mousse, chocolate cake, fudge and peanut-butter chips, weighs in at over three pounds!

Pizza without beer? Lasagna without wine? It's unthinkable according to Anthony Marku's standards, but then he's a native of Italy and the owner of Thornton Park's newest restaurant, Anthony's Pizza Cafe.

Marku feels so strongly about the pairings that he's prepared to start giving away beer and wine at his establishment – and he may have to do just that. Last week, the City Council, acting on the interests of a handful of residents concerned about adding another outlet for alcohol in their neighborhood, once again shot down his appeal for a permit to sell beer and wine.

Marku feels so strongly about the pairings that he's prepared to start giving away beer and wine at his establishment – and he may have to do just that. Last week, the City Council, acting on the interests of a handful of residents concerned about adding another outlet for alcohol in their neighborhood, once again shot down his appeal for a permit to sell beer and wine.

For the meantime, the Thornton Park dining district is confusing, with regard to spirits. Customers can belly up to the bar in droves at Dexter's, Chez Jose Mexican and Burton's Bar & Grill. But across the street at Anthony's, you have to bring your own bottle or visit the 7-Eleven.

For the meantime, the Thornton Park dining district is confusing, with regard to spirits. Customers can belly up to the bar in droves at Dexter's, Chez Jose Mexican and Burton's Bar & Grill. But across the street at Anthony's, you have to bring your own bottle or visit the 7-Eleven.

Even so, only one month after opening, Anthony's is shaping up as a popular dining spot. Located in a former car-repair shop that's been gutted and washed with bronze colors and a Tuscan atmosphere, the two dozen tables inside and on the courtyard are usually filled on Friday nights. This is casual, affordable Italian food at its best, prepared traditionally.

Even so, only one month after opening, Anthony's is shaping up as a popular dining spot. Located in a former car-repair shop that's been gutted and washed with bronze colors and a Tuscan atmosphere, the two dozen tables inside and on the courtyard are usually filled on Friday nights. This is casual, affordable Italian food at its best, prepared traditionally.

But don't come here if you're trying to save calories – there's nowhere to hide. The cheesy garlic bread appetizer is out of this world and a steal at $2.25. An Italian baguette is sliced down the middle, lusciously soaked with garlic butter and capped with whole-milk mozzarella cheese. Then it's lightly bronzed under the broiler.

But don't come here if you're trying to save calories – there's nowhere to hide. The cheesy garlic bread appetizer is out of this world and a steal at $2.25. An Italian baguette is sliced down the middle, lusciously soaked with garlic butter and capped with whole-milk mozzarella cheese. Then it's lightly bronzed under the broiler.

Lunch and dinner mainly consist of subs, pizzas and pasta entrees. Some of the portions are gargantuan. We asked for a small "special stromboli" ($6.95) and were presented with a virtual football, stuffed with mozzarella, pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, green peppers, onions and ham. The "VIP stuffed pizza" is daunting, too, with a double crust filled with all of the above, plus cappicolla and Genoa salami. Just one slice ($3.50) is the size of most restaurants' personal pizzas, and a large pie ($24) would serve a crowd.

Lunch and dinner mainly consist of subs, pizzas and pasta entrees. Some of the portions are gargantuan. We asked for a small "special stromboli" ($6.95) and were presented with a virtual football, stuffed with mozzarella, pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, green peppers, onions and ham. The "VIP stuffed pizza" is daunting, too, with a double crust filled with all of the above, plus cappicolla and Genoa salami. Just one slice ($3.50) is the size of most restaurants' personal pizzas, and a large pie ($24) would serve a crowd.

A lighter choice would be the spinach pizza, topped with white cheeses and spinach ($2.25 slice, $8.95 small pie).

A lighter choice would be the spinach pizza, topped with white cheeses and spinach ($2.25 slice, $8.95 small pie).

Pastas are just as good. We tried a heaping portion of delicious spaghetti ($6.25), topped with sweet, basil-infused marinara sauce and meatballs the size of golf balls.

Pastas are just as good. We tried a heaping portion of delicious spaghetti ($6.25), topped with sweet, basil-infused marinara sauce and meatballs the size of golf balls.

Even without beer and wine, Anthony's is positioned to become a fixture in the Thornton Park enclave.

Antonio's Café Downstairs has long been a favorite alternative to its fancier, upstairs sister, though it meant standing in line at the counter to place your order. Now the operation has been jazzed up, with full table service and new menus for both lunch and dinner.

Before ordering, be sure to check out the specials and look over the salads, meats and cheeses in the deli case. The focaccia topped with herbs, olive oil and tomato ($2.95) is heavenly; the lasagne di vegetali has chunks of fresh vegetables. ($6.25). Try any of the tasty pizzas or calzones, but there can be a wait for these made-to-order specialties.

Before ordering, be sure to check out the specials and look over the salads, meats and cheeses in the deli case. The focaccia topped with herbs, olive oil and tomato ($2.95) is heavenly; the lasagne di vegetali has chunks of fresh vegetables. ($6.25). Try any of the tasty pizzas or calzones, but there can be a wait for these made-to-order specialties.

Since Antonio's Café Downstairs also serves as a grocery and wine shop, don't be surprised if your dining space gets invaded by shoppers browsing the gourmet goodies.

Before you associate the Bumby Cafeteria with meatloaf and chocolate cream pie, we should clarify that Bumby Cafeteria is a full-service Latin restaurant, albeit a hole in the wall. About six months ago, it joined the ranks in downtown's closest claim to a Latin quarter – the stretch of Bumby Avenue between Colonial Drive and South Street. While the area doesn't qualify as Little Havana, it does have Medina's Restaurant (Cuban) and Rica Arepa Cafe (Venezuelan).

Bumby Cafeteria barely seats a dozen customers, and that includes the picnic table out front. The dress code is comfortable, and the food is served on mismatched china, usually with a friendly greeting.

Bumby Cafeteria barely seats a dozen customers, and that includes the picnic table out front. The dress code is comfortable, and the food is served on mismatched china, usually with a friendly greeting.

Co-owners Hector and Blanquita Mata hail from Venezuela and Colombia, respectively; manager Pablo Quinones originates from Puerto Rico. Thus the melange of influences, from Cuban sandwiches and black beans heaped with chopped onions, to Venezuelan arepas (cornmeal patties stuffed with ham and cheese), to Spanish pork dinners with rice. Nothing sets you back more than $5.99.

Co-owners Hector and Blanquita Mata hail from Venezuela and Colombia, respectively; manager Pablo Quinones originates from Puerto Rico. Thus the melange of influences, from Cuban sandwiches and black beans heaped with chopped onions, to Venezuelan arepas (cornmeal patties stuffed with ham and cheese), to Spanish pork dinners with rice. Nothing sets you back more than $5.99.

Although this is a mom-and-pop operation, service is speedy, making Bumby Cafeteria excellent for takeout. On one visit, pabellon ($5.99) was ready in just under four minutes, featuring shredded beef spiced with tomatoes, peppers and garlic, served with rice and a choice of red or black beans. The red beans, loaded with peppers and onions, were the winner. The Wednesday lunch special ($5.49) was a sturdy chicken breast served in a spicy sauce with a trace of tomatoes. It came with more rice and beans, and a basket of toasted Cuban bread.

Although this is a mom-and-pop operation, service is speedy, making Bumby Cafeteria excellent for takeout. On one visit, pabellon ($5.99) was ready in just under four minutes, featuring shredded beef spiced with tomatoes, peppers and garlic, served with rice and a choice of red or black beans. The red beans, loaded with peppers and onions, were the winner. The Wednesday lunch special ($5.49) was a sturdy chicken breast served in a spicy sauce with a trace of tomatoes. It came with more rice and beans, and a basket of toasted Cuban bread.

Tamales ($4.50) are cooked to order, so there's a 15-minute wait. But slice into the corn-husk jacket and you'll find a moist, sweet, filling meal. Better yet, add a jolt of house hot sauce, made with marinated chilis and peppers.

Tamales ($4.50) are cooked to order, so there's a 15-minute wait. But slice into the corn-husk jacket and you'll find a moist, sweet, filling meal. Better yet, add a jolt of house hot sauce, made with marinated chilis and peppers.

Don't miss the homestyle coconut ice cream ($2.50), served in a scooped-out coconut shell. And a creamy block of flan goes for just $1.

Don't miss the homestyle coconut ice cream ($2.50), served in a scooped-out coconut shell. And a creamy block of flan goes for just $1.

As a potential extra treat, the spokesman for Bumby Cafeteria told me that they're planning on expanding to a 24-hour schedule at some point. After midnight, dining options dwindle, and downtown in particular is ready for an alternative to Denny's, I-Hop, Krystal and the hot-dog grill at 7-Eleven. If and when that comes to pass, it will create some welcomed wee-hours competition.

I wasn't really expecting big things on my first visit to Athena Cafe. But then they started bringing out the wealth of Greek cuisine: humus, dolmans, moussaka, spanakopita. As I sampled my way from one dish to the next, I decided that in the next life, I'm going to ask to come back as a Greek. It really was that good.

Although my revelation at Athena was partly due to the vibrance and depth of Greek cuisine as a whole, it's mostly a tribute to the culinary skills of the Said (Sah-eed) family, who emigrated from the region to America 12 years ago, bringing along their favorite recipes.

Everything was delicious on the day I visited, but especially the dolmades ($3.50), which, translated from the Arabic, means "something stuffed." Marinated grape leaves were wrapped around fillings of rice, lean beef and onions. The deep green leaves were glassy and translucent, firm enough to bind yet giving easily to the bite. They were best when swished through the accompanying tzatziki sauce, a stiff mixture of sour cream, cucumber, garlic and parsley.

Hummus ($3.25) was almost enough for a meal. A warm, nutty spread of pureed chickpeas was smoothed across a small plate, moistened with olive oil and dusted with spices. On the side was a basket of pita bread, sliced into wedges. These you folded into halves, tucking them with dollops of hummus, diced tomatoes and onions.

Among the house specialties, moussaka ($3.75) was a full-flavored casserole that could almost be likened to lasagna. Layers of eggplant and sliced potatoes were baked with lean beef, feta cheese, onions and garlic. On top was creamy béchamel sauce, which had become firm from the baking.

Spanakopita ($3.75), more commonly known as spinach pie, was a hearty pastry, sliced into a generous rectangle and served warm. Dozens of layers of phyllo dough were stacked and baked in a batter of eggs, spinach, onions and feta cheese.

Warm, spicy and honey-sweet, the traditional baklava ($1.50) was worthy of a dining excursion in itself. Sheets of phyllo were stacked, soaked with butter and syrup, then layered with nuts and baked.

Athena Cafe isn't open for dinner, but its modest atmosphere is perfect for a casual breakfast or lunch. Popular for its breakfast gyros and Greek omelets in the $3 to $4 price range, this is a busy stop in the morning hours.

When looking for more than "a good loaf," you'll definitely find it at Au Bon Pain (pronounced ah-bahn-pahn). The high-end bakery-cafe chain with an outpost on every other corner in Manhattan has established its first local site in tourist territory in the Club Hotel at DoubleTree.

The polished, Art Deco-styled bakery is stocked with its fresh-baked loaves including the famous tomato-basil variety, as well as consistently delicious roast-beef and brie sandwiches, soups in bread bowls, croissants stuffed with chocolate and raspberries, and a killer Boston clam chowder. Vegetarian, low-fat and low-sodium versions are available, too.

The polished, Art Deco-styled bakery is stocked with its fresh-baked loaves including the famous tomato-basil variety, as well as consistently delicious roast-beef and brie sandwiches, soups in bread bowls, croissants stuffed with chocolate and raspberries, and a killer Boston clam chowder. Vegetarian, low-fat and low-sodium versions are available, too.

Prices are high – 99 cents for a focaccia bagel, for instance. But there are plush sofas, laptop ports, televisions and plenty of reading material. Other sites in central locations are a strong possibility.

A restaurant's service can be a make-or-break proposition. There are people who will let an unfilled water glass ruin the bliss brought on by multiple courses of gastronomic delight. Such fussy perfectionism is not how the vast majority of diners approach the restaurant experience. The food is the main attraction, and as long as it's delivered accurately and in a timely fashion, it's the quality of the dishes that determine whether or not a restaurant leaves a positive impression.

Sometimes, however, what appears to be decent if unexceptional service may prevent a diner from walking away from a meal with an accurate sense of what that particular establishment is capable of.

Such was the case with a sojourn to Ayothaya, a new "authentic" Thai place in the Dr. Phillips area. Given the level of competition among restaurants on that stretch of Sand Lake Road, I could be forgiven for expecting Ayothaya to be more than just another place to grab some mussaman curry. Though the teak-heavy décor was nice, the small dining room was cramped and possessed of none of the sumptuous and spacious elegance of Thai Thani, a nearby restaurant that hasn't let their strip-mall location prevent the proprietors from creating a relaxed oasis.

But, real estate being what it is, this is the sort of thing I'd be willing to forgive. Except that within this small space, the owners have made the bizarre decision to install two unavoidable televisions on the premises … tuned to Central Florida News 13, no less. Here's a headline: Some people like to go out to dinner and not be distracted by nine-minute news cycles. (For the record, this trend of multiple televisions in supposedly "upscale" restaurants is a sin against nature. You run an Applebee's or a barbecue joint? Fine. Anywhere else, it's inexcusable.)

Still, a too-cozy space, visually polluted by television, can be redeemed by a skillful kitchen. Perhaps one day I'll find out if Ayothaya has one. You see, our server forgot to tell us about the specials. Under some circumstances, such an omission would be a minor mistake – we'd miss the fish of the day or the chef's best effort to put an inventive spin on overstocked ingredients. And given the seemingly vast selection on Ayothaya's misspelling-riddled menu – a none-too-shabby 45 items – it didn't even occur to us to ask about the specials. A closer examination of the menu, however, revealed it to be filled with the standard dishes found in so many Thai restaurants, with a few surprises here and there. Somehow, it was both overwhelming and uninspiring, and our server didn't provide much assistance in navigating us through it.

Eventually, our party of four settled on a combination of "the usual" and the unexpected. A sampler plate ($12.95) of six of Ayothaya's appetizers – chicken satay, spring rolls, shrimp dumplings, Thai crab cake, fried wontons and fried shrimp rolls – was wholly average. (The dumplings came out cold, adding to the disappointment.) Tom kha gai soup ($5.95) was the opposite of cold, as it was invigoratingly spiced and amply filled with massive shrimp, rather than the hide-and-seek variety many Thai places use. The wonton soup ($4.95) wasn't nearly as nuclear but was equally substantial, with sizable chicken- and shrimp-filled dumplings.

Continuing with "the usual," we ordered a red curry with chicken ($12.95) and a shrimp and broccoli in oyster sauce ($12.95). Neither held any surprises, positive or negative. The red curry was flavorful and not overpoweringly spicy, while the oyster sauce had the right kind of salty zing. Moving out of familiar territory, it was on to a deliciously greasy, vegetable-heavy and appropriately named "spicy duck" ($14.95) and, the tour de force, a whole red snapper, fried and topped with a salsa-like concoction of red onions, basil, chilis, garlic and an excellent, spicy red sauce. Called pla chom suan, it wound up being a bit pricey ($28.95/market price), difficult to plate and too large for one person, but none of those things mattered in the slightest while we were greedily stuffing our gullets. The super-crispy exterior provided that perfectly pleasing contrast with the soft, flaky flesh, and the fresh spiciness of the topping made the dish that much more pleasingly complex.

The entire latter part of Ayothaya's menu is comprised of 10 such "creations," all but one of which are centered around fresh fish. These dishes are rather costly, but they are the closest the restaurant gets to breaking out of the standard fare found at so many other Thai restaurants. Or so we thought.

On our way out the door, I noticed a lengthy specials board that told me what might have been. This list of exciting-sounding seafood dishes (most notably a lobster curry) and other impressive concoctions were a drag to run across at the meal's end. Potentially, here was the exceptional food that would make the obnoxious televisions worth putting up with; here were the chef's personal signatures that would make what seemed like a run-of-the-mill restaurant the kind you tell friends about. And it was too late to try any of them.

So that, folks, is why good service is so important.

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