Seafood in Orlando with Kid Friendly

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    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.

    In a previous life, I spent a lot of time traveling for business, which brought me to a lot of hotel restaurants, usually alone (sniff). Being perched at a noisy, dimly lit table trying to read a book and eat affords ample time to experience the food, and let me tell you, it was usually a bad experience.

    So my hopes for Bistro 1501, the slightly upscale restaurant at the Orlando Marriott Lake Mary, weren't high, although I always go into an establishment hoping for a fabulous meal. This time, my hopes were answered.

    So my hopes for Bistro 1501, the slightly upscale restaurant at the Orlando Marriott Lake Mary, weren't high, although I always go into an establishment hoping for a fabulous meal. This time, my hopes were answered.

    The room isn't overwhelmingly large, and sitting at the high, cushy banquettes is like having your own private little dining area. I liked the décor -- wood walls and gorgeous glass accents -- and the casual attentiveness of the staff. The food was damn good, too.

    The room isn't overwhelmingly large, and sitting at the high, cushy banquettes is like having your own private little dining area. I liked the décor -- wood walls and gorgeous glass accents -- and the casual attentiveness of the staff. The food was damn good, too.

    Scott Dickenson, former executive chef for the Church Street Station complex, is behind the stove at Bistro, turning out his own recipes of what management calls "American food," which means that the influences are from everywhere.

    Scott Dickenson, former executive chef for the Church Street Station complex, is behind the stove at Bistro, turning out his own recipes of what management calls "American food," which means that the influences are from everywhere.

    Half the menu features seafood. The fish arrives whole in the kitchen and is filleted there.

    Half the menu features seafood. The fish arrives whole in the kitchen and is filleted there.

    My fried-oyster and spinach salad ($7.95) was a huge bowl of tender leaves dressed in a lemony vinaigrette and accompanied by crisp, flattened, fried oysters, sort of shellfish fritters. If you only order this dish, you'll be happy.

    My fried-oyster and spinach salad ($7.95) was a huge bowl of tender leaves dressed in a lemony vinaigrette and accompanied by crisp, flattened, fried oysters, sort of shellfish fritters. If you only order this dish, you'll be happy.

    A simple bowl of seafood chowder is far from simple here, a $3.95 feast of grouper chunks, shrimp (a little overcooked, but delectable) and crabmeat in a thick tomato and corn base with perhaps a bit too much salt.

    A simple bowl of seafood chowder is far from simple here, a $3.95 feast of grouper chunks, shrimp (a little overcooked, but delectable) and crabmeat in a thick tomato and corn base with perhaps a bit too much salt.

    The cream of asparagus "carpe diem" soup du jour ($3.50) didn't suffer from a salt problem and came out rich and marvelously green tasting.

    The cream of asparagus "carpe diem" soup du jour ($3.50) didn't suffer from a salt problem and came out rich and marvelously green tasting.

    The "Captain's grouper" ($19.95) is a guilty pleasure. Topped with lump crabmeat, the perfectly sautéed fish is coated in what tastes like a richly caramelized breading, but is actually a crust of pulverized Captain Crunch cereal. Yes, it sounds disgusting but, heaven help me, it's delicious. And you won't have to eat breakfast the next morning.

    The "Captain's grouper" ($19.95) is a guilty pleasure. Topped with lump crabmeat, the perfectly sautéed fish is coated in what tastes like a richly caramelized breading, but is actually a crust of pulverized Captain Crunch cereal. Yes, it sounds disgusting but, heaven help me, it's delicious. And you won't have to eat breakfast the next morning.

    Over on the carnivorous side of the menu, the 12-ounce New York strip ($20.95) comes to the table glistening from the grill and basted in a red wine reduction. The steak was a bit fatty and not tough, but resistant ... but that's a NY strip after all. The taste was worth it.

    Over on the carnivorous side of the menu, the 12-ounce New York strip ($20.95) comes to the table glistening from the grill and basted in a red wine reduction. The steak was a bit fatty and not tough, but resistant ... but that's a NY strip after all. The taste was worth it.

    Dessert choices are varied and unique, including a must-have apple caramel custard pie, and a very strange-sounding "cheesecake burrito" that I just couldn't get myself to order.

    Dessert choices are varied and unique, including a must-have apple caramel custard pie, and a very strange-sounding "cheesecake burrito" that I just couldn't get myself to order.

    All in all, the surroundings, service and bill of fare makes Bistro 1501 well worth the drive up I-4.

    Some restaurants try to sell a "dining experience," which usually means "expensive chairs." At Black Hammock Fish Camp in Oviedo the experience you get is "Florida."

    Travel down snaking Oviedo roads to Lake Jessup, walk past the camp's live gator cage and you'll see the impressive stats on the ones that've been caught here (14 feet, 1/16 inch is the record). We didn't eat gator, but we were plenty satisfied with the Buffalo shrimp, which had a perfect wing-type spice that goes right to your toes.

    Travel down snaking Oviedo roads to Lake Jessup, walk past the camp's live gator cage and you'll see the impressive stats on the ones that've been caught here (14 feet, 1/16 inch is the record). We didn't eat gator, but we were plenty satisfied with the Buffalo shrimp, which had a perfect wing-type spice that goes right to your toes.

    You can't go to a fish camp and try to be healthful. God never meant for an ugly thing like catfish to be cooked in a daintified way – fried, it's wonderful. Go to Black Hammock while the sun is up so you can get a good look at this rare preserve of Florida.

    Restaurants are organic things. Like the tide, they ebb and flow. Owners and names of places change at a dizzying rate. And, in a town where good chefs are a bankable commodity, it can be challenging to keep track of who is cooking what where.

    Who's in the kitchen? It could be a chef from Disney, a woman trained in France or a guy who was managing an Arby's last week. A change can come because someone wonderful becomes available; sometimes it's because someone just left.

    Sometimes it's both. When The Boheme opened in the Westin Grand Bohemian Hotel downtown, Chef Todd Baggett had the enviable job of matching a menu to the expansive art collection and opulent-looking setting that surrounds diners. And mostly he succeeded. When he moved on to Wolfgang Puck's, the vacuum was filled by Robert Mason, former chef at the famous Vic Stewart's steak house in San Francisco and the California Café at Florida Mall. Mason promises he will take the restaurant "to a new level."

    There aren't any changes in the room itself. Same dark woods, massive columns and burgundy accents, same eclectic and sometimes puzzling art.

    As for the kitchen, the highs and lows suggest that Mason's reign also is organic. Our waiter, a bubbly chap, promised that the new fall menu was "more flavorful." I didn't see massive differences between the pre-Mason era and now. The menu still has seafood, and hefty chunks of Angus beef in several incarnations. The "au Poivre" with garlic-pepper crust ($26) is very "flavorful," though not quite as tender as I had expected. Breast of Muscovy duck ($25) and lobster still find their way to the table, and it was good to see the large a la carte vegetables available (order the "exotic mushrooms" -- in fact, order two and you may not need an entree).

    The new dishes fit in with the scheme. A pan-roasted chicken breast, stuffed with vegetables and served atop spaghetti squash ($19), is tender and good; the herb sauce made from the drippings is extraordinary. Combine that with a deceptively simple "Boheme salad" ($6) and its irresistible Gorgonzola vinaigrette dressing, and you'll leave the table happy. But "Shrimp 2 Ways" was four shrimp that tasted almost the same "way," and didn't seem worth 12 bucks.

    A new jazz brunch on Sunday allows you to eat roast turkey, omelets and waffles while hanging out around the $250,000 Imperial Grand Bösen-dorfer piano. Take an extra napkin.

    With Fish Bones down the road and the delayed-but-inevitable opening of Moonfish Grille across the street, it might get hard to tell your fish from your bones now that Bonefish Grill has moved into the neighborhood, a modestly upscale fish house with room to improve.

    It's an interesting chain of events that led to this new eatery. Bonefish Grill opened in late January 2000 in Tampa, started by two former Hops vice-presidents with an eye toward expansion. Their neighbor in Tampa, the Outback chain (owner of Outback, Carraba's and Roy's), was experimenting with high-end Cajun cooking in the form of Zazarac's, building a massive restaurant on Orlando's food-saturated Sand Lake Road. But Zazarac's disappeared after only a month; within weeks Bonefish became an Outback partner, and now we have a new tenant in Zazarac's old space.

    It's an interesting chain of events that led to this new eatery. Bonefish Grill opened in late January 2000 in Tampa, started by two former Hops vice-presidents with an eye toward expansion. Their neighbor in Tampa, the Outback chain (owner of Outback, Carraba's and Roy's), was experimenting with high-end Cajun cooking in the form of Zazarac's, building a massive restaurant on Orlando's food-saturated Sand Lake Road. But Zazarac's disappeared after only a month; within weeks Bonefish became an Outback partner, and now we have a new tenant in Zazarac's old space.

    The stone and brick walls and dramatic stained-glass partitions are gone, replaced by pale, textured walls and brighter lighting. No longer can the frenetic kitchen be seen; now we have a quieter, more family-friendly restaurant that seems to attract business folk to its bar and dining room (which explains the martini listings on the menu). The Outback management does know a thing or two about training servers. They were good at Zazarac, and they're good here, too.

    The stone and brick walls and dramatic stained-glass partitions are gone, replaced by pale, textured walls and brighter lighting. No longer can the frenetic kitchen be seen; now we have a quieter, more family-friendly restaurant that seems to attract business folk to its bar and dining room (which explains the martini listings on the menu). The Outback management does know a thing or two about training servers. They were good at Zazarac, and they're good here, too.

    My Appetizer Theory still stands: good starter, disappointing entree. I was awestruck by the "saucy rock shrimp" dish ($8.50), perfect shellfish lumps in a bright lime and tomato sauce, marvelously contrasted with creamy feta cheese and dark olives. The lemon and garlic broth surrounding "mussels Josephine" ($9) was similar in taste, combined with sautéed tomatoes, basil, and firm, briny mussels – and I'm not complaining. The serving was big enough for two, or dinner by itself.

    My Appetizer Theory still stands: good starter, disappointing entree. I was awestruck by the "saucy rock shrimp" dish ($8.50), perfect shellfish lumps in a bright lime and tomato sauce, marvelously contrasted with creamy feta cheese and dark olives. The lemon and garlic broth surrounding "mussels Josephine" ($9) was similar in taste, combined with sautéed tomatoes, basil, and firm, briny mussels – and I'm not complaining. The serving was big enough for two, or dinner by itself.

    Grilled fish with a choice of sauces is the specialty, so I got ahi tuna ($16.50), with the un-advertised but available Oscar sauce (a mix of crab, cream and asparagus). The tuna was OK but not extraordinary, and there was so little sauce it wasn't worth ordering. Garlic mashed potatoes were over-whipped and only slightly garlicky. As for the rainbow trout, breaded in a pistachio-Parmesan crust ($17), the breading was better than the mushy fish.

    Grilled fish with a choice of sauces is the specialty, so I got ahi tuna ($16.50), with the un-advertised but available Oscar sauce (a mix of crab, cream and asparagus). The tuna was OK but not extraordinary, and there was so little sauce it wasn't worth ordering. Garlic mashed potatoes were over-whipped and only slightly garlicky. As for the rainbow trout, breaded in a pistachio-Parmesan crust ($17), the breading was better than the mushy fish.

    Oddly enough, Anne Kearney, the force behind Zazarac's kitchen, won this year's James Beard award for the "Best Chef in the Southeast" for her Peristyle restaurant in New Orleans. Maybe she should have stuck around.

    While waiting for our lunch at Boston's Fish House, we watched a line of customers snake into the folksy dining room. When we'd arrived, a few minutes earlier, there had been no such wait. Beginners' luck, our server informed us.

    On most Sundays, the line stretches out to the front door, she said. But this was Super Bowl Sunday, and apparently many of the restaurant's regulars were quaffing a cold one elsewhere while watching pregame hype. Nevertheless, there were still more patrons than tables throughout our dining adventure here.

    On most Sundays, the line stretches out to the front door, she said. But this was Super Bowl Sunday, and apparently many of the restaurant's regulars were quaffing a cold one elsewhere while watching pregame hype. Nevertheless, there were still more patrons than tables throughout our dining adventure here.

    There's a system at Boston's. A sign directs you to the cashier's station (ordering counter), which is out of view when you first walk inside. Once orders were placed, drinks procured and payment settled, customers return to the dining room and are directed to a vacant table – if there is one. Unless otherwise requested, all the seafood at Boston's is fried. Ipswich calms are a house specialty.

    There's a system at Boston's. A sign directs you to the cashier's station (ordering counter), which is out of view when you first walk inside. Once orders were placed, drinks procured and payment settled, customers return to the dining room and are directed to a vacant table – if there is one. Unless otherwise requested, all the seafood at Boston's is fried. Ipswich calms are a house specialty.

    Fortunately for us, our timing was impeccable and we landed a nice corner booth. Though nothing fancy, the themed surroundings were much nicer than those in cookie-cutter seafood outlets. The single, paneled dining room – decorated in nautical blue – features captain's chairs, Cape Cod curtains, an oar and harpoon, and framed prints of such New England institutions as Boston Harbor and Larry Bird. I especially noted the absence of fishy odor and grease so often found in small fish-fry operations.

    Fortunately for us, our timing was impeccable and we landed a nice corner booth. Though nothing fancy, the themed surroundings were much nicer than those in cookie-cutter seafood outlets. The single, paneled dining room – decorated in nautical blue – features captain's chairs, Cape Cod curtains, an oar and harpoon, and framed prints of such New England institutions as Boston Harbor and Larry Bird. I especially noted the absence of fishy odor and grease so often found in small fish-fry operations.

    Our meals – served on paper plates with plastic utensils – were soon presented by a cheerful service attendant who also bussed vacated tables. My New England clam chowder ($1.95) was delicious. Piping hot, with a wonderful hearty smoked flavor and more clams than potato, it was even better with a dash of salt. And my husband's sherried lobster bisque ($2.10) was even more outstanding. With an abundance of delicate lobster bits, the thick, velvety-rich soup was expertly laced with the distinctive wine.

    Our meals – served on paper plates with plastic utensils – were soon presented by a cheerful service attendant who also bussed vacated tables. My New England clam chowder ($1.95) was delicious. Piping hot, with a wonderful hearty smoked flavor and more clams than potato, it was even better with a dash of salt. And my husband's sherried lobster bisque ($2.10) was even more outstanding. With an abundance of delicate lobster bits, the thick, velvety-rich soup was expertly laced with the distinctive wine.

    Our main courses were inconsistent, although all of the seafood we were served was extraordinarily fresh. My Boston haddock dinner ($7.50) – another of the house specialties – was baked rather than fried. Crowned with a layer of bread crumbs, the fillet was bland but a dollop or two of the tasty homemade tartar sauce made it palatable. My side of rice pilaf was better than most.

    Our main courses were inconsistent, although all of the seafood we were served was extraordinarily fresh. My Boston haddock dinner ($7.50) – another of the house specialties – was baked rather than fried. Crowned with a layer of bread crumbs, the fillet was bland but a dollop or two of the tasty homemade tartar sauce made it palatable. My side of rice pilaf was better than most.

    My husband's seafood dinner ($10.50) was basically a fried combo platter. The batter was relatively light on the cod, shrimp, scallops, oysters (substituted for clams, which were unavailable that day) and onion rings. The scallops and oysters were especially good. We missed out by not ordering the side-orders of onion rings that we saw at other tables – they were piled a foot high.

    There aren't a lot of inland restaurants where you can savor fine Florida game such as gator tail and frog legs, done to a fine crunch in true Southern-fried-seafood style. But if you don't want to travel to remote fish camps on the St. Johns River or Lake Monroe, they'll hook you up at The Catfish Place in Apopka. You'd still better gas up the car before heading out, though. From central or south Orlando, it could take 45 minutes to an hour to get there, depending on traffic.

    As you head west on State Road 436 deep into Apopka territory, The Catfish Place finally appears on a completely unnoticeable corner of Forest Avenue across from City Hall. It's a rustic, inviting beacon. Inside, the dining area is as snug as an old quilt, and the friendly wait staff invite you to huddle down over healthy helpings of comfort food.

    As you head west on State Road 436 deep into Apopka territory, The Catfish Place finally appears on a completely unnoticeable corner of Forest Avenue across from City Hall. It's a rustic, inviting beacon. Inside, the dining area is as snug as an old quilt, and the friendly wait staff invite you to huddle down over healthy helpings of comfort food.

    Let the menu lure you into swamp territory: Frog legs are featured as an appetizer ($5.95), as well as served as a part of various entrees. After being deep-fried, they resemble quail and are so delicate and juicy they tempt you to suck on the bones. Gator-tail nuggets are fried as well, but not overly so. Truly, the meat resembles chicken, although it's not as tender.

    Let the menu lure you into swamp territory: Frog legs are featured as an appetizer ($5.95), as well as served as a part of various entrees. After being deep-fried, they resemble quail and are so delicate and juicy they tempt you to suck on the bones. Gator-tail nuggets are fried as well, but not overly so. Truly, the meat resembles chicken, although it's not as tender.

    But the star of the menu is catfish -- and rightly so. Chances are you've never had it prepared as expertly as it is here. Get the boneless catfish tenders, either as an all-you-can-eat special ($9.95) or included in different dishes. Clean and fresh, they are rolled in a cornmeal breading and deep-fried to a crisp, greaseless finish in soybean oil.

    But the star of the menu is catfish -- and rightly so. Chances are you've never had it prepared as expertly as it is here. Get the boneless catfish tenders, either as an all-you-can-eat special ($9.95) or included in different dishes. Clean and fresh, they are rolled in a cornmeal breading and deep-fried to a crisp, greaseless finish in soybean oil.

    Some more standard varieties of seafood are presented in inventive ways: Lobster is quartered into nuggets and deep-fried as an appetizer ($7.95). They're delicate and crunchy, dipped into a pot of melted butter and chased down with a frosty beer. Among the entrees, there's the country-boy-named "shrimp a la Bob" ($14.95), sautéed in a fragrant sauce of butter, lemon, Cajun spices and garlic. For variety and abundance, there's the house special ($15.95), loaded with boneless catfish tenders, crackling fried shrimp and frog legs, and fried scallops that collapse at the slightest nudge. There also are long, chewy clam strips and gator-tail nuggets.

    Some more standard varieties of seafood are presented in inventive ways: Lobster is quartered into nuggets and deep-fried as an appetizer ($7.95). They're delicate and crunchy, dipped into a pot of melted butter and chased down with a frosty beer. Among the entrees, there's the country-boy-named "shrimp a la Bob" ($14.95), sautéed in a fragrant sauce of butter, lemon, Cajun spices and garlic. For variety and abundance, there's the house special ($15.95), loaded with boneless catfish tenders, crackling fried shrimp and frog legs, and fried scallops that collapse at the slightest nudge. There also are long, chewy clam strips and gator-tail nuggets.

    Dinners come with a choice of side items, the best of which are the creamy, tart cole slaw, tangy-buttery collard greens, and chunky hash browns melted with cheese and onions. The too-soggy hushpuppies flopped miserably, though.

    Dinners come with a choice of side items, the best of which are the creamy, tart cole slaw, tangy-buttery collard greens, and chunky hash browns melted with cheese and onions. The too-soggy hushpuppies flopped miserably, though.

    Our waitress was friendly and efficient. If you go to The Catfish Place, expect to be on your way in a short time -- it will help to make up for the long drive back home.

    Judging from their blissful, soporific smiles and stacks of leftovers, we passed a satisfied family on our way into Dixie Crossroads in Titusville. "We came all the way from Deltona, and it was worth it," someone said. We drove from Orlando to dine at this established beacon of fish-house cuisine, and we knew it would be worth the trip, too.

    Confident that "if you cook it, they will come," management has skipped the Martha Stewart niceties of atmosphere and decorum. They don't waste time mixing tartar sauces; instead they serve the Ken's Steak House brand in disposable cups. Forks and knives are wrapped in wax paper and clunked on top of paper placemats. Hostesses communicate with each other on radio headsets while searching for the next empty table.

    Confident that "if you cook it, they will come," management has skipped the Martha Stewart niceties of atmosphere and decorum. They don't waste time mixing tartar sauces; instead they serve the Ken's Steak House brand in disposable cups. Forks and knives are wrapped in wax paper and clunked on top of paper placemats. Hostesses communicate with each other on radio headsets while searching for the next empty table.

    Lines are so long outside on weekends that Dixie carved a pond, built a pavilion and hired a band. Most patrons don't seem to mind waiting an hour or more to get seated.

    Lines are so long outside on weekends that Dixie carved a pond, built a pavilion and hired a band. Most patrons don't seem to mind waiting an hour or more to get seated.

    When it was our time, we were led to the Manatee Room, decorated with murals of sea cows and bubbles. We selected entrees and soups. There was hardly time to blink before the waitress returned with a tray of vegetable soup (OK), shrimp chowder (much better), creamy coleslaw (getting warmer) and gloriously golden, crispy corn fritters (hubba! hubba!). Without exaggeration these are the best fritters I have ever had – or probably ever will have. Crescents of sweet dough are blended with corn kernels and fried to a light, crisp finish.

    When it was our time, we were led to the Manatee Room, decorated with murals of sea cows and bubbles. We selected entrees and soups. There was hardly time to blink before the waitress returned with a tray of vegetable soup (OK), shrimp chowder (much better), creamy coleslaw (getting warmer) and gloriously golden, crispy corn fritters (hubba! hubba!). Without exaggeration these are the best fritters I have ever had – or probably ever will have. Crescents of sweet dough are blended with corn kernels and fried to a light, crisp finish.

    The seafood arrived shortly afterward, all a jumble on oversized platters. We chose to have it fried, rather than steamed or broiled. My shellfish combo ($10.95) came with shrimp, scallops and stuffed crab. The traditional shrimp and smaller rock shrimp were fried a dark brown. Both were sweet, fresh and delicious. Scallops were a little mushy and disappointing that day. Stuffed crab was actually breaded crab meat, molded into pucks and fried to crunchy hard shells. Very good. My guest's Indian River combo ($10.95) came with most of this and mullet as well. The fish fillet was fresh and firm, with a thick, flaky batter. Our baked potatoes were not on a par with the rest of the dinner – too steamy and heavy.

    The seafood arrived shortly afterward, all a jumble on oversized platters. We chose to have it fried, rather than steamed or broiled. My shellfish combo ($10.95) came with shrimp, scallops and stuffed crab. The traditional shrimp and smaller rock shrimp were fried a dark brown. Both were sweet, fresh and delicious. Scallops were a little mushy and disappointing that day. Stuffed crab was actually breaded crab meat, molded into pucks and fried to crunchy hard shells. Very good. My guest's Indian River combo ($10.95) came with most of this and mullet as well. The fish fillet was fresh and firm, with a thick, flaky batter. Our baked potatoes were not on a par with the rest of the dinner – too steamy and heavy.

    The lemon cake ($1.50) was a surprisingly good homespun yellow cake topped with a slab of citrus icing, though an unexpected touch came with the check: a cup of vanilla frozen yogurt, to clear the palate.

    Rumor had it that in recent years, Dragonfly – Gainesville's much-lauded modern izakaya – had lost some of its luster in its effort to maintain "it spot" status among the college town's cognoscenti. So, like those naysayers' attitudes, the posh Japanese resto headed south to the Dr. Phillips area of Orlando, intent on wowing a less judgmental audience. At first blush, the place does indeed impress – the glossy wraparound sushi bar and angled bento-box ceiling are pure eye candy inside this trendster's haven. Tranquil it's not, but with a name like Dragonfly," one would expect the joint to be abuzz in music, chatter and hubbub, and it is. The restaurant's website, however, offers an alternative description of the vibe:

    Dragonfly strives to reach an emotional enlightenment through the balancing of the Sensual, Spiritual and Savory philosophy. Dragonfly is a modern day female yakuza boss.

    The first sentence reads like a bad Babelfish translation; the second – well, that's just bloody amusing, if not a little threatening. Really, apart from the heavily bandaged pinkies on all the servers and cooks, there's nothing remotely menacing here. Daunting, yes – for instance, the menu, which comprises a swarm of small plates of the sushi, sashimi and robata (grilled simply over charcoal) variety. The indulgent passion platter ($24) is a testament to the slicing skills of the sashimi chefs – nine pieces of ruby-red tuna, plush salmon and buttery izume dai (farm-raised tilapia) are artfully presented, while yellowtail sashimi ($6) is spectacularly melt-in-your-mouth. Signature dragonfly rolls ($14), while meaty, are somewhat cumbersome, with tuna and albacore wrapped with thick strips of grouper, then topped with scallions and eel sauce. The fact that the rolls are baked lends to their corpulence, but it's all just a bit too much for its own good. A mistake in our order resulted in a complimentary plate of yellowtail collar (regularly $14), a truly outstanding piece of fish and, like all their robata items, grilled over imported, smoke-free bincho-tan charcoal. 

    Other robata favorites we joyfully gorged on were shishito peppers ($4), skewered chicken breast ($5) and sublime bone-in short ribs ($9) served with kimchi. The latter, a nod to Korean galbi, is further sparked with a dip into the spicy mayo and orange yuzu sauces. Both beef tataki ($10), made of rare, lightly seared ribeye mixed with daikon and ponzu, and sesame-bolstered wakame salad ($5) show that the kitchen can also do the simple things right. No izakaya experience would be complete without a swig of sake ' we liked the crisp, clean and mellow taste of the Hatsumago junmaishu ($24).

    Desserts aren't listed on a menu but, rather, recited by rote. We nodded when "green tea tiramisu" ($7) was uttered, which turned out to be more gimmick than concept. The red-bean ice cream ($3) was as modest and toothsome as a meal-ender can get; the bowl came with dollops of flavorless green-tea ice cream and surprisingly snappy ginger ice cream, but we would've preferred three scoops of that blushy confection.

    There's no question that Dragonfly is dressed to impress, and with Amura and Nagoya just yards away, the sushi scene on the corner of Sand Lake Road and Dr. Phillips Boulevard has certainly gotten a lot more competitive. For Dragonfly's sake, here's hoping it doesn't make like its namesake and live an intense, albeit fleeting, existence.

    There's no question that Dragonfly is dressed to impress, and with Amura and Nagoya just yards away, the sushi scene on the corner of Sand Lake Road and Dr. Phillips Boulevard has certainly gotten a lot more competitive. For Dragonfly's sake, here's hoping it doesn't make like its namesake and live an intense, albeit fleeting, existence.

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

    My friend had a theory: The walls were bugged at the Flying Fish Cafe. We couldn't figure out how else the waiters seemed to read our minds when we had dinner at the restaurant at Disney's Boardwalk. As the wait staff roamed through the dining area, stopping by this or that table to bring food or answer questions, they always seemed to wind up at our table at the precise moment when we were thinking of asking for more (and more) of the moist, rich and chewy sourdough bread or wondering, "What's in this sauce?"

    It's rare to find a restaurant staff that anticipates your needs without becoming a distraction or invading your space. But Flying Fish Cafe has this one down. And the menu – new American cuisine with a seafood spin – is creatively and attentively prepared, though most of the entrees are in the $20 range. This is luxury dining that becomes affordable by virtue of the quality and value. Cooking guru Julia Child had visited two days before we were there, and she proclaimed it the best restaurant in Florida, our waiter told us.

    Located along the waterfront collection of clubs, shops and restaurants, Flying Fish has a whimsical atmosphere inspired by the golden age of rollercoasters, the 1920s. There is a faux ferris wheel and a collection of fish sculptures parachuting from the ceiling. The colors throughout the dining area are watery blues and oceanic greens.

    The menu changes daily to reflect what's indigenous and in season in the United States, which amounts to a constant logistics challenge for head chef John State. He consistently and successfully pulls off his synchronized fresh selections.

    For appetizers, we chose the "Flying Fish sampler" ($11) and had "snapper escabeche," which was cured in a spicy vinaigrette of olives and capers. There also was a chilled "rock shrimp roll" of sushi rolled up with wasabi, scallions and mayonnaise. But our favorite was the "peeky toe crab cake." It was so packed with premium crab meat, and just enough peppers, onions and parsley to bind it, that we wished we'd ordered this one as a full appetizer ($10-$20). Meanwhile, we stayed busy with a delicious bread basket that was so alluring we couldn't stop dipping in.

    The evening's entrees included pan-roasted golden tilefish ($23), a Florida fish that takes its sweetness from swimming deep and living on shrimp and lobster. Teamed with a subtle chervil créme fraèche, which had anise undertones, it was a real treat. Another entree, the red snapper ($24), is so popular that it has become one of several standard items on the menu. It was gorgeous in its presentation: The moist, flaky fillet was delicately wrapped in a crisp potato casing and served with leek fondue and cabernet sauvignon reduction.

    Desserts were equally impressive. We took the waiter's advice and had "banana Napoleon" ($7), a concoction of cinnamon crème brûlee, caramel sauce and whipped cream. Also delicious was a warm crepe filled with hazelnut praline and Granny apples, topped with vanilla-bean ice cream ($7).

    A tall crystal mug of Spanish coffee warmed our bones, thanks to a shot of Tia Maria. It was a perfect end to a perfect dinner.

    Casting into the pool of local seafood restaurants has always yielded an uncertain catch – water, water everywhere but not a decent broiled flounder to eat. That's what made a recent trip to Fulton's Crab House – the former Empress Lily gone Huck Finn – seem all the more like a fish tale. Were it possible, our dinner should have been stuffed and mounted, a trophy from a high-priced adventure.

    A Saturday morning call secured a table for 8 o' clock that night. Fashionably late, we were whisked through two checkpoints to an upper-deck booth with a sunset view.

    A Saturday morning call secured a table for 8 o' clock that night. Fashionably late, we were whisked through two checkpoints to an upper-deck booth with a sunset view.

    With excellent service and insights provided by our waiter, we browsed the exhaustive menu over spicy Bloody Marys ($4.95) and the house crab dip and crispy lahvosh. The horseradish thickness in the drinks prompted an order of the oyster sampler platter (half-dozen $8.95, dozen $16.95) harvested from the Pacific Northwest. Other than names – Spencer Cove, Kumomoto, Malpeque, Penn Cove, Snow Creek and Quilcene – the twist on this succulent sampling was an awakening jalapeño Tabasco ice. We took our waiter up on the suggestion of Manila clams ($8.95), a deep bowl of tender clams steamed in a soy sauce and scallion broth, enhanced by a round of fragrant thyme-onion rolls.

    With excellent service and insights provided by our waiter, we browsed the exhaustive menu over spicy Bloody Marys ($4.95) and the house crab dip and crispy lahvosh. The horseradish thickness in the drinks prompted an order of the oyster sampler platter (half-dozen $8.95, dozen $16.95) harvested from the Pacific Northwest. Other than names – Spencer Cove, Kumomoto, Malpeque, Penn Cove, Snow Creek and Quilcene – the twist on this succulent sampling was an awakening jalapeño Tabasco ice. We took our waiter up on the suggestion of Manila clams ($8.95), a deep bowl of tender clams steamed in a soy sauce and scallion broth, enhanced by a round of fragrant thyme-onion rolls.

    Alaskan red king crab claws ($34.95) was the winning selection from the crab and lobster offerings. The Cousteau-worthy specimens neatly yielded meaty portions for dipping in drawn butter. Though the boiled red-skin potatoes were perfect, I found myself thinking of spicier versions on the menu, like roasted garlic and pepper whipped potatoes.

    Alaskan red king crab claws ($34.95) was the winning selection from the crab and lobster offerings. The Cousteau-worthy specimens neatly yielded meaty portions for dipping in drawn butter. Though the boiled red-skin potatoes were perfect, I found myself thinking of spicier versions on the menu, like roasted garlic and pepper whipped potatoes.

    From the fresh fish and seasonal specials came Alaska's Copper River king salmon – charcoal-grilled, served with field greens, roasted jalepeño tomato vinaigrette, corn salsa and rice ($22.95). This work of art and nature was best enjoyed like a sophisticated salad, scooping together petals of salmon with delicate greens and the chunky piquant salsa.

    From the fresh fish and seasonal specials came Alaska's Copper River king salmon – charcoal-grilled, served with field greens, roasted jalepeño tomato vinaigrette, corn salsa and rice ($22.95). This work of art and nature was best enjoyed like a sophisticated salad, scooping together petals of salmon with delicate greens and the chunky piquant salsa.

    The sun was down by the time we sipped cappuccinos ($2.95), savoring the divine sour cherry pie ($4.95) and milk chocolate crème brûlée ($3.95). But there's nothing like the sight of tourists throwing money around to help you loosen up and enjoy such a costly yet memorable indulgence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Novelist Ernest Hemingway never owned a restaurant. While he did originate the line, "Paris is a moveable feast," I don't think he was talking about food. Still, he was known to frequent some of the finest restaurants in Italy, France and, of course, Cuba.

    I think he'd be just as likely to be found in the Hurricanes Bar at the sprawling Grand Cypress Resort as he would in the hotel's restaurant that carries his name. (He did say, after all, "I have drunk since I was fifteen and few things have given me more pleasure.")

    I think he'd be just as likely to be found in the Hurricanes Bar at the sprawling Grand Cypress Resort as he would in the hotel's restaurant that carries his name. (He did say, after all, "I have drunk since I was fifteen and few things have given me more pleasure.")

    Yes, Papa might have liked this Hemingways, a Key West-styled eatery overlooking a half-acre pool and surrounded by lush gardens and the enormous, 750-room hotel. (There's a golf course and an equestrian center, too.) One of six restaurants on the grounds, the multilevel and multiroom setup means that almost all of the 140 seats have a glass-walled view of the scenery. It's a comfortable space, with whitewashed walls and high ceilings, although I could have done without the nonstop Jimmy Buffet music. The hotel itself is full of impressive Buddhist and modern art, and it is worth a tour.

    Yes, Papa might have liked this Hemingways, a Key West-styled eatery overlooking a half-acre pool and surrounded by lush gardens and the enormous, 750-room hotel. (There's a golf course and an equestrian center, too.) One of six restaurants on the grounds, the multilevel and multiroom setup means that almost all of the 140 seats have a glass-walled view of the scenery. It's a comfortable space, with whitewashed walls and high ceilings, although I could have done without the nonstop Jimmy Buffet music. The hotel itself is full of impressive Buddhist and modern art, and it is worth a tour.

    Executive chef Kenneth Juran has worked in California, New York and France, and the widely influenced dishes are impressive, if expensive.

    Executive chef Kenneth Juran has worked in California, New York and France, and the widely influenced dishes are impressive, if expensive.

    But this is tourist territory, where prices don't seem to be an issue. A featured appetizer of lobster tail and angel-hair pasta had a subtle combination of flavors; but at $18.50, I was expecting the lobster to be more tender and the pasta less so.

    But this is tourist territory, where prices don't seem to be an issue. A featured appetizer of lobster tail and angel-hair pasta had a subtle combination of flavors; but at $18.50, I was expecting the lobster to be more tender and the pasta less so.

    My first reaction to the lobster and pumpkin bisque ($8) was to shut my eyes and enjoy. Meaty pieces of crustacean were immersed in pureed pumpkin and topped with roasted seeds, the deep tastes switching from sweet to smoky.

    My first reaction to the lobster and pumpkin bisque ($8) was to shut my eyes and enjoy. Meaty pieces of crustacean were immersed in pureed pumpkin and topped with roasted seeds, the deep tastes switching from sweet to smoky.

    Fish (served without any old men) is a specialty, available grilled, broiled or sauced. The red snapper ($26) was the big-gest piece I'd ever seen, yet still tender and flaky. I didn't quite know what to expect of shrimp and sweet-corn ravioli ($29), which turned out to be a wheel of shellfish chunks, corn and red peppers interspersed with less impressive pasta stuffed with a bland shrimp paste.

    Fish (served without any old men) is a specialty, available grilled, broiled or sauced. The red snapper ($26) was the big-gest piece I'd ever seen, yet still tender and flaky. I didn't quite know what to expect of shrimp and sweet-corn ravioli ($29), which turned out to be a wheel of shellfish chunks, corn and red peppers interspersed with less impressive pasta stuffed with a bland shrimp paste.

    A commendation must go to the sous chef who prepared the vegetables. The "smashed" potatoes (tender buds of buttery splendor), crisp broiled asparagus and shredded carrots (with a sweetness that filled the mouth) show an admirable attention to quality of preparation.

    A commendation must go to the sous chef who prepared the vegetables. The "smashed" potatoes (tender buds of buttery splendor), crisp broiled asparagus and shredded carrots (with a sweetness that filled the mouth) show an admirable attention to quality of preparation.

    As Hemingway would say, Let's get to the point. After the evening at Hemingways is over, you'll leave knowing you've had an enjoyable meal.

    There are some restaurants in Orlando that should have a revolving door installed. Or an erasable sign, at least. Take this one place in Casselberry, for example. In the past 16 years it has been Melon's, Crickets, Spirits, Heckle 'n Jeckle's, and now, Holly & Dolly's, which leads us to the one continuous factor that has tied them all together.

    Actually, there are several continuous factors – mostly being beer, bar food and televisions – but the main one is spelled out over the front, nonrevolving door, and that is Dolly and her twin sister, Holly.

    Actually, there are several continuous factors – mostly being beer, bar food and televisions – but the main one is spelled out over the front, nonrevolving door, and that is Dolly and her twin sister, Holly.

    You'll see one or the other running around behind the bar or checking on a table (you might see both of them, but it's hard to tell), athletic women with masses of dark hair and a great deal of energy. They started their joint working careers that included four years as mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs, spending wrinkly hours underwater for your tourist pleasure. Apparently tiring of cavorting with the clams, they discovered, Ariel-like, the existence of their legs, and spent 10 years dancing le cancan at Rosie O'Grady's, obviously in rebellion of their fish ancestry.

    You'll see one or the other running around behind the bar or checking on a table (you might see both of them, but it's hard to tell), athletic women with masses of dark hair and a great deal of energy. They started their joint working careers that included four years as mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs, spending wrinkly hours underwater for your tourist pleasure. Apparently tiring of cavorting with the clams, they discovered, Ariel-like, the existence of their legs, and spent 10 years dancing le cancan at Rosie O'Grady's, obviously in rebellion of their fish ancestry.

    It was a short spin-and-kick to Melon's, and the dual barmaid gig seemed to be the right one for Dolly Heltsley and Holly Hall. When the place and its liquor license went up for sale, H and D took the bait (no pun intended) and Holly & Dolly's was born. Is it a dream come true? "No," Dolly says honestly, "but it's a steady business and we have a built-in clientele."

    It was a short spin-and-kick to Melon's, and the dual barmaid gig seemed to be the right one for Dolly Heltsley and Holly Hall. When the place and its liquor license went up for sale, H and D took the bait (no pun intended) and Holly & Dolly's was born. Is it a dream come true? "No," Dolly says honestly, "but it's a steady business and we have a built-in clientele."

    The sports bar/restaurant/neighborhood hangout looks typical, the bar being the focal point of the room, stools occupied by truckers and old farmers and students alike. Most of them are nursing beers and staring at the NTN trivia screens, punching half-hearted guesses about Shakespeare and sports into little keyboards. There are tables and booths on both sides, and the atmosphere is definitely more family place than meat market.

    The sports bar/restaurant/neighborhood hangout looks typical, the bar being the focal point of the room, stools occupied by truckers and old farmers and students alike. Most of them are nursing beers and staring at the NTN trivia screens, punching half-hearted guesses about Shakespeare and sports into little keyboards. There are tables and booths on both sides, and the atmosphere is definitely more family place than meat market.

    I would have expected more seafood on the menu, but the offerings do go beyond bar fare. Grilled grouper or fried tempura shrimp ($8.95 each) come with veggies and rice pilaf, and the kitchen does tuna steak as rare as you want it ($12.95). They also have pasta, sandwiches and a surprisingly long list of steaks available – try to get that at the corner saloon. Of course, bar food is available, but with little twists, like nibbles of gator or chunks of chicken breast served in wings sauce.

    I would have expected more seafood on the menu, but the offerings do go beyond bar fare. Grilled grouper or fried tempura shrimp ($8.95 each) come with veggies and rice pilaf, and the kitchen does tuna steak as rare as you want it ($12.95). They also have pasta, sandwiches and a surprisingly long list of steaks available – try to get that at the corner saloon. Of course, bar food is available, but with little twists, like nibbles of gator or chunks of chicken breast served in wings sauce.

    DJs on Saturday nights and live bands on Fridays crank up the volume and the crowd, but all in all it's a little "Cheers"-like, with food. "Hi Ed, how are you?" Dolly yells out from the bar, proving my point.

    There are times when a quiet meal in quiet surroundings is all you want. No chatting from people nearby, no loud noise -- you get enough of that at work -- just sitting down in front of a plate of food and tucking in. Doesn't even matter what kind of food, really ... just peace.

    On those days, don't go to Il Pescatore. But if you crave a good dinner in an atmosphere that will remind you more of Sunday afternoon at Aunt Marie's than Ristorante di Silenzio, head as quickly as possible to east Orlando and grab a table.

    Marie, by the way, is usually at the front counter. She greets diners as if they're old friends, and the amazing thing is, most are. Before this place was Il Pescatore ("the fisherman"), it was Jocelyne's, a French and Italian place, and before that, just plain Italian as Sorrento's. Back then, Stefano Lacommare was the chef, and he and his wife Marie left in '95 to open Stefano's Trattoria on Aloma Avenue. But the little place got too little, and while Stefano's is still there under different ownership, Lacommare has returned to Primrose Drive.

    With wood-paneled walls and uncovered wood tables, Il Pescatore is more relaxed than your typical restaurant. There's a never-ending flow of people walking in the front door, out the side door and heading to tables. There's talking, continuously -- chatter behind you, a discussion across the room, an explosion of laughter from the back. In other words, this is an Italian restaurant, the kind I'd all but given up on seeing again outside of New York's Arthur Avenue.

    And the food lives up to that image. Nothing comes out of a jar. The cozze marinara appetizer ($6.95) consists of lovely mussels simply served on half-shell with a rich tomato sauce full of garlic and a slightly dark basil taste. There's an extensive list of pasta dishes, including sautéed tortellini with cream sauce and a touch of prosciutto ($6.95), and more than a dozen sauces that you can mix with your choice of pasta.

    There are almost too many dinner choices, from traditional house specialties like "trippa del Pescatore" (tripe in tomato sauce; $12.95) to linguini with clams, conch or squid ($10.95). The cannelloni ($10.95) is splendid: pasta envelopes stuffed with ground chicken, ricotta cheese and mushrooms that tasted like they were marinated in garlic, then topped with mozzarella. The chicken special on one visit was a sheet of chicken breast wrapped around a four-cheese risotto. The softball-sized dish is baked, then served in a marsala wine sauce.

    Go welcome Stefano back to the neighborhood. Tell 'em Joe sent ya.

    It's a great temptation to spend too-much time describing the fun of J.B.'s Fish Camp or the pleasure of eating fresh seafood along the Indian River with boats docking and pelicans flying overhead. This is not exactly the type of place to reel in hordes of yuppies. This is a real fish camp, where you can buy bait and tackle. Look elsewhere for architectural monuments or fancy atmosphere.

    The restaurant itself is simply a medium-sized wood shack with a tin roof. You park your car on a dirt road that may have a few hungry dogs hanging around. When you get inside J.B.'s, it gets a little spiffier; Tiffany-ish lamps hang from the ceiling -- but they're actually beer ads.

    The restaurant itself is simply a medium-sized wood shack with a tin roof. You park your car on a dirt road that may have a few hungry dogs hanging around. When you get inside J.B.'s, it gets a little spiffier; Tiffany-ish lamps hang from the ceiling -- but they're actually beer ads.

    Apparently the place is not too friendly to kids. A sign warns that "unattended children will be used as crab bait." Not likely, because you don't generally see a lot of children around J.B.'s. What you do see is a lot of locals and bikers and others who are fishing for fresh seafood, well-prepared and well-served.

    Apparently the place is not too friendly to kids. A sign warns that "unattended children will be used as crab bait." Not likely, because you don't generally see a lot of children around J.B.'s. What you do see is a lot of locals and bikers and others who are fishing for fresh seafood, well-prepared and well-served.

    On several visits, the lightly breaded crabcake sandwich ($5.25) has never disappointed me. The apparently home-made tartar sauce in large bottles is subtle enough not to overwhelm the tender crabmeat.

    On several visits, the lightly breaded crabcake sandwich ($5.25) has never disappointed me. The apparently home-made tartar sauce in large bottles is subtle enough not to overwhelm the tender crabmeat.

    One evening for dinner, I tried the pompano fillet ($14.95) which was a fine piece of perfectly grilled fish. Corn on the cob was not available, but sweet corn served as a side dish was fine, if not very unusual. The rice came with red peppers that gave it just the right sort of peppery taste. And the crunchy, slightly sweet hush puppies were among the best I've ever had.

    One evening for dinner, I tried the pompano fillet ($14.95) which was a fine piece of perfectly grilled fish. Corn on the cob was not available, but sweet corn served as a side dish was fine, if not very unusual. The rice came with red peppers that gave it just the right sort of peppery taste. And the crunchy, slightly sweet hush puppies were among the best I've ever had.

    One time, to test the waters you might say, I decided to try one of J.B.'s two steak offerings. The 8-ounce sirloin ($8.95) was a perfectly good piece of lean, juicy meat, well-cooked as ordered.

    One time, to test the waters you might say, I decided to try one of J.B.'s two steak offerings. The 8-ounce sirloin ($8.95) was a perfectly good piece of lean, juicy meat, well-cooked as ordered.

    The only criticism I had that night was that the "Cajun onion strings" ($2.50 as a side-order) were limp, flabby and unappetizing.

    The only criticism I had that night was that the "Cajun onion strings" ($2.50 as a side-order) were limp, flabby and unappetizing.

    The only dessert offered is Key lime pie ($3). This home-made pie was a pale yellow, had a great crust and wasn't sickeningly sweet.

    The only dessert offered is Key lime pie ($3). This home-made pie was a pale yellow, had a great crust and wasn't sickeningly sweet.

    Service here has always been brisk and efficient. Good Canadian Molson beer is on draft ($1.60 a glass or $6.50 a pitcher).

    Service here has always been brisk and efficient. Good Canadian Molson beer is on draft ($1.60 a glass or $6.50 a pitcher).

    Cold beer and simply prepared fish, briskly served in a fun atmosphere -- some may prefer something fancier and it's admittedly not to everyone's taste, but it's enough for me to take the bait anytime.

    One of my favorite manhattan restaurants is Sardi's where celebrity caricatures on the walls are fun to study, and the food is good, too. On a recent visit to Jack's Place in the Clarion Plaza Hotel on International Drive, I discovered an establishment with a remarkably similar ambience.

    Soft light from wrought-iron chandeliers enhance dark woods, marble room dividers and shadowy archways. Tables are draped with linen and feature brass oil lamps.

    Soft light from wrought-iron chandeliers enhance dark woods, marble room dividers and shadowy archways. Tables are draped with linen and feature brass oil lamps.

    Upon our arrival for dinner, we were promptly seated in a cozy corner surrounded by sketches of world-class luminaries, many of whom autographed the works. The art was created by Jack Rosen during his 30-year tenure with the Waldorf Astoria and is believed to be the largest collection of its kind. (Jack's son, Harris, owns the Clarion.)

    Upon our arrival for dinner, we were promptly seated in a cozy corner surrounded by sketches of world-class luminaries, many of whom autographed the works. The art was created by Jack Rosen during his 30-year tenure with the Waldorf Astoria and is believed to be the largest collection of its kind. (Jack's son, Harris, owns the Clarion.)

    Entrees range from steak and seafood to pasta and chicken. All come with baked potato, vegetable and a basket of garlic French bread, with whipped butter and "Texas caviar" -- a novel accoutrement of cold (and undercooked) black-eyed peas, cilantro, onion and bell peppers in a mild vinaigrette. Although the mixture was refreshing, we found it impossible to keep the concoction on the bread.

    Entrees range from steak and seafood to pasta and chicken. All come with baked potato, vegetable and a basket of garlic French bread, with whipped butter and "Texas caviar" -- a novel accoutrement of cold (and undercooked) black-eyed peas, cilantro, onion and bell peppers in a mild vinaigrette. Although the mixture was refreshing, we found it impossible to keep the concoction on the bread.

    The escargot ($6.95) ordered by my guest was served with angel-hair pasta and a delicious roasted-red pepper sauce.

    The escargot ($6.95) ordered by my guest was served with angel-hair pasta and a delicious roasted-red pepper sauce.

    I found the house salad ($2.95) of mixed greens to be nice and fresh; the lovely presentation included diced tomatoes and cucumbers, plus a nest of bean sprouts. The creamy peppercorn house dressing, however, was pretty bland.

    I found the house salad ($2.95) of mixed greens to be nice and fresh; the lovely presentation included diced tomatoes and cucumbers, plus a nest of bean sprouts. The creamy peppercorn house dressing, however, was pretty bland.

    The 10-ounce filet mignon ($18.95) that my guest chose was an excellent cut, perfectly prepared. It was delicately topped with a pat of seasoned butter (we suspected rosemary).

    The 10-ounce filet mignon ($18.95) that my guest chose was an excellent cut, perfectly prepared. It was delicately topped with a pat of seasoned butter (we suspected rosemary).

    My grilled yellowfin tuna ($14.95) was fresh, though disappointingly overcooked. The generous portion was crowned with an adequate béarnaise sauce, which helped mask the fillet's dryness.

    My grilled yellowfin tuna ($14.95) was fresh, though disappointingly overcooked. The generous portion was crowned with an adequate béarnaise sauce, which helped mask the fillet's dryness.

    Large baked potatoes came wrapped in gold foil, along with a lazy Susan bearing scallions, fresh bacon bits and shredded cheddar cheese. Sour cream and butter were included. Generous squares of corn soufflé were flavorful, light and airy.

    Large baked potatoes came wrapped in gold foil, along with a lazy Susan bearing scallions, fresh bacon bits and shredded cheddar cheese. Sour cream and butter were included. Generous squares of corn soufflé were flavorful, light and airy.

    The server promoted Jack's fried ice cream ($4.25) for dessert. A fried pastry jacket hid a relatively small scoop of ice cream that was just enough to share. Sprinkled with confectioner's sugar and cinnamon, the dish was complemented by sliced strawberries and plenty of whipped cream.

    The server promoted Jack's fried ice cream ($4.25) for dessert. A fried pastry jacket hid a relatively small scoop of ice cream that was just enough to share. Sprinkled with confectioner's sugar and cinnamon, the dish was complemented by sliced strawberries and plenty of whipped cream.

    Be forewarned that an 18 percent gratuity is included in the bill rather than allowing diners the right to tip in direct correlation to the service rendered. But, all in all, it was a pleasant evening that was worth the expense.

    To use the word "tacky" to describe the looks of Joe's Crab Shack is underkill. My friend summed it up as soon as we walked through the door of this wildly popular restaurant. "It looks like they have a toy store hanging from the ceiling in here," she said.

    It was true. It looked like a decorating team with multiple-personality disorders had swept through. Every square inch was plastered with dangling skateboards, dolls, Frisbees, in-line skates, teddy bears, model airplanes, Barbies and toy trains. A life-size replica of Jaws was suspended over the middle of the restaurant. The theme carried through to loud top-40 music and an army of waiters who were trained to drop everything and do the Hustle every so often -- many of them wearing T-shirts bearing the mantra "Peace, Love and Crabs."

    It was true. It looked like a decorating team with multiple-personality disorders had swept through. Every square inch was plastered with dangling skateboards, dolls, Frisbees, in-line skates, teddy bears, model airplanes, Barbies and toy trains. A life-size replica of Jaws was suspended over the middle of the restaurant. The theme carried through to loud top-40 music and an army of waiters who were trained to drop everything and do the Hustle every so often -- many of them wearing T-shirts bearing the mantra "Peace, Love and Crabs."

    "Come on, folks, have a good time!" seemed to be the message they were screaming. And the capacity crowd -- packed into booths and lined up out the door and into the parking lot -- was eating it up.

    "Come on, folks, have a good time!" seemed to be the message they were screaming. And the capacity crowd -- packed into booths and lined up out the door and into the parking lot -- was eating it up.

    Despite the decorative disarray, the kitchen is focused when it comes to delivering moderately priced chow fests on the double. There are more hits than misses on the menu -- presented in such a rambling fashion that it's like reading the classifieds -- and Joe's Crab Shack is probably the best choice for seafood if you're in the South Semoran Boulevard area, considering they stock many sea species.

    Despite the decorative disarray, the kitchen is focused when it comes to delivering moderately priced chow fests on the double. There are more hits than misses on the menu -- presented in such a rambling fashion that it's like reading the classifieds -- and Joe's Crab Shack is probably the best choice for seafood if you're in the South Semoran Boulevard area, considering they stock many sea species.

    There's shrimp (popcorn, rock, jumbo) and yellowfin tuna, lobster tail, north Atlantic salmon, mahi mahi, grouper, calamari and clams. And, as the menu reads, theres "crabs, crabs and more crabs" in the form of "crab balls," crab fingers, crab cakes and soft-shell crabs. Then you got your crab legs: snow, Alaskan king, Dungeness. Despite the sheer volume, dining adventurers won't find much to explore. Everything is safely fried, steamed, grilled and broiled, with little in the way of funky sauces or presentations to mess things up.

    There's shrimp (popcorn, rock, jumbo) and yellowfin tuna, lobster tail, north Atlantic salmon, mahi mahi, grouper, calamari and clams. And, as the menu reads, theres "crabs, crabs and more crabs" in the form of "crab balls," crab fingers, crab cakes and soft-shell crabs. Then you got your crab legs: snow, Alaskan king, Dungeness. Despite the sheer volume, dining adventurers won't find much to explore. Everything is safely fried, steamed, grilled and broiled, with little in the way of funky sauces or presentations to mess things up.

    "Crab balls" fritters ($4.99) have potential, but the ones we were served were too heavily breaded. A much better appetizer is the jumbo crab cake ($6.99), packed with lump meat and a hint of spices.

    "Crab balls" fritters ($4.99) have potential, but the ones we were served were too heavily breaded. A much better appetizer is the jumbo crab cake ($6.99), packed with lump meat and a hint of spices.

    Seafood mixed grill ($13.99) offers an adequate skewer of grilled shrimp, but you can get perfectly adequate shrimp at a hundred other restaurants. The garlic-steamed snow crab legs were more alluring, packed with tender white meat and plenty of clean flavor. But the main thing this plate has going for it is a moist, delicate salmon fillet -- ask for it to be prepared with the lemon-pepper seasoning.

    Seafood mixed grill ($13.99) offers an adequate skewer of grilled shrimp, but you can get perfectly adequate shrimp at a hundred other restaurants. The garlic-steamed snow crab legs were more alluring, packed with tender white meat and plenty of clean flavor. But the main thing this plate has going for it is a moist, delicate salmon fillet -- ask for it to be prepared with the lemon-pepper seasoning.

    The shrimp platter ($12.99) offers a big, messy tumble of the staple, the best of which are jumbo sized, fried in a shredded-coconut batter and served with barely sweet plum sauce. The medium-size fried Gulf shrimp and popcorn shrimp are fine, but they pale in comparison. Skip the snoozy shrimp cocktail in favor of the coconut-shrimp dinner ($9.99), which is cheaper.

    The shrimp platter ($12.99) offers a big, messy tumble of the staple, the best of which are jumbo sized, fried in a shredded-coconut batter and served with barely sweet plum sauce. The medium-size fried Gulf shrimp and popcorn shrimp are fine, but they pale in comparison. Skip the snoozy shrimp cocktail in favor of the coconut-shrimp dinner ($9.99), which is cheaper.

    Service was friendly, but it was so sporadic that we finally resorted to flagging down a staff member who wasn't our waiter in order to ask for the check.

    Service was friendly, but it was so sporadic that we finally resorted to flagging down a staff member who wasn't our waiter in order to ask for the check.

    As we exited into the night, we knew our table wouldn't stay empty for long. Joe's Crab Shack may come up short in a couple of areas, but a lack of customers is definitely not one of them.

    Lee & Rick's is an experience; it's an event, not to mention a tradition. You go with lots of people. You dress so it doesn't matter if you drop a Tabasco-laden raw oyster down your shirt. You eat way more than you expect to, and it's all good -- even when you do things that you normally would not, like gesture wildly with a shrimp tail or eat great stacks of saltine crackers covered in horseradish and cocktail sauce.

    A restaurant doesn't stay in business for 50 years by accident, especially not one shaped like a dry-docked old boat and about as unfancy as they come on the inside, particularly not one on the far end of Old Winter Garden Road. I am told on very good authority that the place hasn't changed an iota since the early '60s, so we can probably say with some safety that it has never changed at all.

    And why should it? Not when you can order a dozen oysters (raw or steamed, $6.95), and a large plateful of the ocean's jewels are laid before you, the raw mollusks straight from Apalachicola Bay and so fresh that they're sweet. When steamed, they are cooked just enough to satisfy the squeamish, but they're every bit as good.

    The best deal is a bucket - three dozen for $14.95 - but you have to sit at the room-length oyster bar to get it. Settle in with a group at the bend of the bar, on the right side, so you can talk and watch some world-class shucking at the same time.

    A pound of shrimp (hot or cold) is $12.95, and a big helping of fresh shellfish it is - firm enough to give your teeth some resistance, steamed spicy but not overbearing.

    Fish dinner platters, like stuffed flounder ($9.95), come with a heap of fries. There's a lovingly uncomplicated piece of flounder, filled with a crabmeat (real and faux) and cracker stuffing. My companion described the fish as tasting "like my dad just took it out of the water," and I can't think of higher praise.

    Those same plump shrimp can be ordered fried ($11.95 platter) with just enough breading to satisfy your craving for carbohydrates without masking the shrimp.

    The servers don't lack from experience; this is a fast-paced atmosphere, and you've got to know your stuff to work here. So it's a pleasure to get food delivered quickly, to never have to worry about running out of beer and to be called "honey," all at the same time.

    Lee & Rick's Oyster Bar just kicked off its 50th year in the business this month. They're going to be shucking like crazy, so take along a few friends and an old shirt, and have yourself a time.

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