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    Classic French cuisine, of the sort revered gastronome Georges Auguste Escoffier codified in his landmark 1903 publication Le Guide Culinaire, has never really turned my gastric crank. I'm referring to those elaborate dishes where the role of the saucier supersedes that of the chef, resulting in caloric juggernauts heavy on béchamel and light on, well, nothing. Having been raised on a diet bordering on the infernal, I've often found myself veering away from haute and gravitating toward hot.

    But Café de France, a low-key boîte ensconced on high-profile Park Avenue, shuns the weighty and complicated for traditional nouvelle cuisine ' simple, light and with an emphasis on preserving natural flavors, not saucing them into submission. They've been doing so for nearly a quarter-century; chef Benjamin Schrank has defied gastro trends and maintained a focus on the straightforward, while adding a touch of finesse to his Gallic presentations.

    Escargots à l'ail ($9), for example, was a fine plating of succulent shelled snails bathed in herbed garlic butter and served with a small phyllo pastry shell. A couple of gritty gastropods were cause for concern, but I'd likely order it again. Same goes for the Bloody Mary bisque ($7), the soup du jour that should be available toujours. An airy puree of tomatoes and horseradish blazed a trail down the esophagus, but finely diced celery provided a cool crunch while a dollop of avocado mousse assuaged the palate. French onion soup ($6) was a textbook study of the classic starter, with a gossamer broth, subtly sweet onions and a generous layer of nutty Gruyère.

    Competent mains vary from rack of lamb ($29) to veal osso buco ($30), but the grilled ostrich ($30), a special for the evening, proved too tempting to pass up. Medium-rare slices of the lean, slightly gamy bird were served on a rectangular plate along with a splash of rosemary beurre-rouge, potatoes confit and stalks of broccolini. The dish's simplicity epitomizes Schrank's style, and the European-sized portion was also a welcome sight.

    The pan-seared filet ($30) was, in a word, outstanding. The side, a mix of corn, shallots and diced Peruvian potatoes in a roasted red pepper coulis, brought out the flavor of the beef, while an accompanying glass of Chateau Le Conseiller Bordeaux ($9) made an ideal pairing.

    Surrender yourself to the 'soft heart� chocolate soufflé ($8), a ramekin-shaped bonne bouche with a molten center of Belgian dark chocolate sided with fresh raspberries. I also found myself succumbing to the indulgence of the profiteroles ($8) ' the puff pastries filled with ice cream and drizzled with chocolate were neither overly sweet nor excessive.

    Surrender yourself to the 'soft heart� chocolate soufflé ($8), a ramekin-shaped bonne bouche with a molten center of Belgian dark chocolate sided with fresh raspberries. I also found myself succumbing to the indulgence of the profiteroles ($8) ' the puff pastries filled with ice cream and drizzled with chocolate were neither overly sweet nor excessive.

    The interior is reminiscent of a French country manor and exudes an air of austerity, as does the service, which, for the most part, is efficient and professional. I did get a chuckle when a pair of Rollins College students, one wearing a 'Save Darfurâ?� hoodie, walked in asking if they could get takeout. They were met with a polite non, but I felt bad they couldn't take a $30 filet or $32 roasted mallard duck in a paper bag back to the dorm.

    Then again, the restaurant's proximity to Rollins will, at times, see famished college students walk through its French doors in search of a classy nosh. And it's just as well considering that over the past 25 years, Café de France has been in the business of schooling its competition.

    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.

    Every once in a while, a restaurant comes along that is so special, it causes a seismic shift on the restaurant scene. The whole staff performed such a dazzling job at our dinner at Citricos that it earned my highest recommendation even though dinner for two easily runs more than $100, and from some areas of town, a visit could involve a 45-minute drive. But Citricos is worth the travel and expense.

    Part of Citricos' intrigue is the setting – on the second floor of Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, a Victorian luxury hotel that evokes Old Florida. While the restaurant's menu upon opening late last year called for a Mediterranean-Florida fusion, the current fare is more southern French, with international influences. The atmosphere has modern sensibilities, with earthy tiles and rich decor. The kitchen is "onstage," so you can watch chefs whip up gourmet creations.

    Our waiter guided us through the menu, offering suggestions and tempting descriptions of meats sizzled over oak-mesquite log fires and dishes cooked in the hand-made, iron Chandler oven, acclaimed for bread-baking and slow-roasting excellence. The bread basket got our dinner off to a sensational start. It would be hard to exaggerate how moist and exquisite these breads were. The best were flecked with seaweed and pecans.

    Among the entrees, roasted loin of lamb ($36) is arranged around an incredible Maine lobster ratatouille, with quarters of buerre blanc and spicy cabernet sauce. Another winner is the pork tenderloin ($25), roasted on a rotisserie, served with basil pesto, a spiral cut log of scalloped potatoes, and mixed Mediterranean vegetables.

    Desserts include Key lime cheesecake and citrus crè'me brûlée, but we favored the bittersweet chocolate ravioli – a crescent of sheer escapism, cradled around a divine scoop of licorice ice cream.

    Citricos is worthy of the most special of occasions, or if you're just in the mood for an epicurean indulgence.

    It's interesting watching the whole "back-to-downtown" movement, not just here but all across the country. I'm not sure if it's dissatisfaction with suburban sprawl or a far-reaching desire for community, but people all over the country are heading back into the hearts of cities large and small.

    We see it here, and the amount of renovation work going on in Sanford means we're not alone. Where downtowns flourish, restaurants can't be far behind. Case in point, Da Vinci.

    We see it here, and the amount of renovation work going on in Sanford means we're not alone. Where downtowns flourish, restaurants can't be far behind. Case in point, Da Vinci.

    Da Vinci's chef and co-owner Kenny Stingone has a long and impressive career of feeding folks in the area. He has chef'd (is that a word?) at Bistro Capuccino, had a stint at Park Plaza Gardens in the mid-'80s and held the chef's spot at Café de France a couple of times. Upon that firm pedigree rests this first place of his own, nestled in the slowly revamping Magnolia Square section of downtown.

    Da Vinci's chef and co-owner Kenny Stingone has a long and impressive career of feeding folks in the area. He has chef'd (is that a word?) at Bistro Capuccino, had a stint at Park Plaza Gardens in the mid-'80s and held the chef's spot at Café de France a couple of times. Upon that firm pedigree rests this first place of his own, nestled in the slowly revamping Magnolia Square section of downtown.

    Co-owner Holliday Stingone, who led me to a table under one of several massive crystal chandeliers, asked how I found the place, and I had to answer truthfully – with difficulty. Because of one-ways and construction, you can't really get to Magnolia Square without making a good number of right-and left-turn combinations. I'd suggest Da Vinci for lunch first, just to see how to get there. The space itself is an old colonial-revival building with very high tin ceilings and aged walls. It's fitting to house what Chef Stingone calls his "Mediterranean-inspired" cuisine.

    Co-owner Holliday Stingone, who led me to a table under one of several massive crystal chandeliers, asked how I found the place, and I had to answer truthfully – with difficulty. Because of one-ways and construction, you can't really get to Magnolia Square without making a good number of right-and left-turn combinations. I'd suggest Da Vinci for lunch first, just to see how to get there. The space itself is an old colonial-revival building with very high tin ceilings and aged walls. It's fitting to house what Chef Stingone calls his "Mediterranean-inspired" cuisine.

    The "inspired" part means that some dishes, like the hearty and generous zuppa di pesce ($17.95), with fish, calamari and shellfish basted in spicy tomato, are quite authentic. Other items take creative liberties. I was pleased to see a non-veal alternative to saltinbocca made with chicken ($15.95), which featured a tender fillet with mozzarella and heaps of spinach. Pleased, that is, until I tried to chew through the thick slab of prosciutto gracing the top. "Shrimp Adriatic" ($15.95) was a better choice, huge shrimp combined with spinach and spicy sauce, then topped with crumbled feta cheese that gave it a tang. A couple of the shrimp had seen better days, but it was a good dish. The "escargot fricassee" appetizer ($5.95), rich snails in crustini with lemon butter and cheese, reminded me of dark woods and was very satisfying.

    The "inspired" part means that some dishes, like the hearty and generous zuppa di pesce ($17.95), with fish, calamari and shellfish basted in spicy tomato, are quite authentic. Other items take creative liberties. I was pleased to see a non-veal alternative to saltinbocca made with chicken ($15.95), which featured a tender fillet with mozzarella and heaps of spinach. Pleased, that is, until I tried to chew through the thick slab of prosciutto gracing the top. "Shrimp Adriatic" ($15.95) was a better choice, huge shrimp combined with spinach and spicy sauce, then topped with crumbled feta cheese that gave it a tang. A couple of the shrimp had seen better days, but it was a good dish. The "escargot fricassee" appetizer ($5.95), rich snails in crustini with lemon butter and cheese, reminded me of dark woods and was very satisfying.

    Da Vinci's is almost exactly 20 miles from downtown Orlando, a trip that probably takes less time than the aggravating trek to Disney. If you have a gas-guzzling SUV, that's about $6 for fuel plus around $60 for dinner for two in a slightly funky, potentially wonderful, as yet undiscovered restaurant. Seems like a bargain to me.

    Amid a bustle of pre- and post-pubescent mallrats, a Greek man is boldly bringing a French delicacy to the masses. Some say they're wussy pancakes; some say ça c'est bon, but either way you flip it, crepes are a street-food staple and Konstantinos Chilias, aka chef Dino, is griddling at the chance to find converts in the Sunshine State. Sure, a food court isn't the most likely place to find a creperie, but when you think about it, it makes sense. Indoor street fare is essentially what food courts serve up, and Dino's brand of delicate made-to-order flappe-jacques are worthy of a traipse into the Orlando Fashion Square Mall fray.

    Leafing through the menu, I was struck at the number of sweet and savory crepes ' nearly 70 are offered. Even by Parisian standards, that's an impressive amount, but what really impresses is that quality doesn't suffer as a result. 'Mall foodâ?� and 'qualityâ?� are often thought of as being mutually exclusive, but the friendly Grecian is doing his part to alter that perception one gourmet crepe at a time.

    Ushering in this new era in food-court dining has taken chef Dino halfway 'round the globe, from humble beginnings hawking crepes on the thoroughfares of Paris in the early 1980s to owning and operating cafés on the Greek isle of Rhodes, in Long Beach, Calif., and, most recently, in Ybor City. Odd he would choose a mall in Orlando as his next conquest, though he admits his ultimate plan is to open a storefront café downtown or in Winter Park.

    Yearning for a light meal on my initial visit, I opted for 'La Creperie Special� ($8.25), a creamy mélange of mushrooms, spinach, tomatoes, green peppers and caramelized onions enveloped by a slightly crisp whole-wheat crepe. Every fromage-filled bite satisfied, accompanied with Dino's fresh-squeezed, though lip-pursingly sour, lemonade ($3.75), and I couldn't help but feel sorry for the folks lining up at Sbarro and JJ's Cajun.

    Vegetarians can have a field day here, no doubt, but I have to say I enjoyed the chicken-filled 'La Parisâ?� ($8.25) even more; it balanced perfectly the flavors of feta, spinach and roasted red peppers. On another visit, I sampled the 'turkey a la brieâ?� ($7.50), which proved to be my favorite. Layered with square slivers of turkey, diced tomato and gooey brie, the dish is made magnifique by Dino's secret cream sauce.

    It took me awhile to decide on a sweet crepe, but I eventually settled on the 'Marie Antoinetteâ?� ($7.25) with Nutella, banana, strawberries and Baileys liqueur. The batter, made with fine baker's flour, is properly brushed around a hotplate, resulting in a light, ultra-thin pancake. Watching the cook prepare my indulgence, I noticed the bananas he used were overripe, the peel nearly black. Then walnuts were sprinkled into my crepe, after which I realized they weren't making a Marie Antoinette at all. What I got instead was a decent enough sweet crepe, but the miscue brought to light some of the service deficiencies apparent when Dino isn't present (usually on weekends). The staff, sans Dino, can get a bit out of sorts when serving two or more customers at a time; on this occasion they mixed up my order, forgot the 'Berry Appealingâ?� smoothie ($4) I ordered and forgot to charge me for dessert.

    On another visit, Dino himself prepared the classic crepes suzette (known here as 'Madame Suzette,� $7.75), and though a flambé failed to materialize, the crepe was everything I hoped it would be: a buttered and sugared crepe drizzled with Grand Marnier, splashed with fresh lemon and orange juice, folded into a triangle and drizzled with more Grand Marnier.

    Since the demise of Maison des Crepes in Winter Park, crepeheads haven't had a venue in which to satisfy their cravings. But chef Dino is as determined as King Leonidas to change that, and I wouldn't be surprised to see one of his stand-alone creperies open in town sooner than later.

    But for now, we dine in (mall) hell.

    When I go to a fancy French restaurant, I expect to pay a lot of money. It's part of the whole experience: Exquisite food, first-rate service, hushed atmosphere, and a bill that makes me flinch.

    So, I was taken aback when my guest and I received a relatively modest tab at Le Coq au Vin. Our dinner, including two appetizers and two entrees, plus dessert -- came down to just $52.74, including taxes. And we could have gotten off cheaper if we had ordered half-portions of entrees, which are half-priced, plus $2.

    In spite of the manageable bill, it still was an incredible dinner. We started off with a traditional onion soup, gratinee au cide ($5). It was, hands down, the most exceptional onion soup we've ever experienced. Sweetened with apple cider, cream and gruyere cheese, it had a bit of a nutty flavor.

    We also sampled a gorgeous vegetable pastry, feuilette de legumes ($5.75), a phyllo-dough affair, embedded with toasted sesame seeds, and baked with a filling of finely hopped vegetables, cheddar cheese, tarragon and basil. The whole effect was light, crispy and delicious.

    Our dinners also were enticing, particularly le grouper bronze aux dix epices ($16). This was a beautiful fillet encrusted with toasted pecans and spices, then bronzed in a cast-iron skillet and bathed in citrus beurre blanc. My guest had a black angus steak ($18) that surpassed all expectations; it was a primal experience. Center-cut for tenderness and cooked to medium perfection, there was a touch of blush to the meat, served with a potent dollop of creamy peppercorn sauce. On the side, buttery caviar potatoes were the perfect complement to both of our dinners, crowned with puffs of sour cream and dots of caviar.

    Afterward, we immersed ourselves in Grand Marnier soufflé ($5). It was the picture of grace, rising high over the dish and glazed golden brown. Drenched with liqueur it was pure heaven, enhanced by lemony undertones.

    Service was professional, but not quite as polished as we had come to expect based on previous visits. Yet our waitress seemed sincere in her desire to be thorough.

    Le Coq au Vin is a bit of an enigma. It's oddly located on a stretch of Orange Avenue that includes convenience stores and used car lots. But its saving grace is that it consistently serves some of the best country French cuisine in Orlando, if not all of Florida.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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