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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A good old-fashioned country diner may seem a wee bit out of place on the modern suburban thoroughfare of Lake Mary Boulevard, but that hasn't stopped families from tolerating Appleton's fruity decor (a decor that gets ridiculously kitschy once Halloween and Christmas roll around) and gorging on heaping plates of hearty, greasy goodness. Maybe it's because the Old South vibe here isn't uncomfortably Old South ' it's relaxed, friendly, even a little dowdy, but it's got a distinct charm, and it offers a pre-noon alternative to the Heathrow housewife scene at the Peach Valley Café a couple of miles down the road.

    The waitresses at Appleton's are delightfully old-school and defiantly pleasant in the face of sluggish and disinterested diners. And they can certainly perk up the senses with comments like 'I wouldn't recommend the fruit today,â?� which, while somewhat off-putting, had me in stitches nonetheless.

    So, forgoing the cup of fruit ($2.95), we dove headfirst into one of their 'hearty breakfasts,â?� namely the country-fried steak and eggs ($7.95), which lived up to all expectations. The crunch of the pounded steak was perfect, and the thick sausage gravy that smothered it added a nice kick. Interspersing each bite with eggs over easy sopped up with a homemade country biscuit just made the meaty morning meal all the better.

    'Grits,â?� my dining partner remarked, 'are a serious personal choice.â?� The ones served here are on the thicker side, in need of quite a bit of butter and salt to give them the desired consistency and flavor. On the potato front, I preferred the home fries over the hash browns, though, really, both were good. From the griddle, both the thick French toast ($5.95; short stack, $4.25) and the pillowy pancakes ($5.95; short stack, $4.25) were flawlessly cooked. In keeping with the café's theme, warm apples and cinnamon can be added to your hotcakes for a couple more bucks. My only complaint, and it's an oft-cited one with me when it comes to breakfast joints, is that pure maple syrup isn't offered, even as an upgrade.

    All omelets are prodigious three-egg envelopes with enough sides (your choice of home fries, hash browns or grits and your choice of toast, homemade biscuit or English muffin with plain or cinnamon-raisin bagel) to keep you going until dinner. The Greek omelet ($7.95), however, was just too dry to fully enjoy. The cook was likely distracted from all the other dishes he was cooking and left it in the pan a few minutes too long, a shame considering I was looking forward to downing this eggy number with gyro meat, pepperoncini, black olives and crumbled feta.

    Coffee snobs need to leave their java judgments at the door ' the cup of joe served here is dark, strong and not for the faint of heart. A lunch menu is also offered (the place is open until 3 p.m.) with a variety of comfort food and greasy-spoon fare.

    'The Next Best Thing to Mom's Cookingâ?� is emblazoned on their menu, and while that may be true, their furnishings, particularly in the screened-in back porch, are the next best thing to a Motel 6. Then again, I wouldn't have expected anything less from a place that celebrates its Old Florida character. Biscuits to bacon, Appleton's is down-home to the core.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    From the shores of Brooklyn comes Bayridge Sushi, one of the newest entries in metro Orlando's crowded Japanese-restaurant market.

    Not that Brooklyn isn't also teeming with sushi and sashimi. Bay Ridge is a tiny neighborhood right on the New York Bay, and to succeed there, you have to be darn good.

    Not that Brooklyn isn't also teeming with sushi and sashimi. Bay Ridge is a tiny neighborhood right on the New York Bay, and to succeed there, you have to be darn good.

    Owner and sushi chef Ben Lu was trained by a venerable Manhattan sushi master for many years, and says he moved his restaurant here for the "business opportunities."

    Owner and sushi chef Ben Lu was trained by a venerable Manhattan sushi master for many years, and says he moved his restaurant here for the "business opportunities."

    Bayridge Sushi is in an odd, slightly cowboy-looking building on the outside, but inside it's thoroughly Far East, with paper screens and blond wood surrounding intimate tables, and the sushi bar up front. There is even a tatami room for those nimble of knee.

    Bayridge Sushi is in an odd, slightly cowboy-looking building on the outside, but inside it's thoroughly Far East, with paper screens and blond wood surrounding intimate tables, and the sushi bar up front. There is even a tatami room for those nimble of knee.

    Unlike a lot of local Japanese eateries, the menu isn't numbingly extensive, but it narrows the hot dishes down to teriyaki, noodles and tempura, focusing instead on sushi and rolls.

    Unlike a lot of local Japanese eateries, the menu isn't numbingly extensive, but it narrows the hot dishes down to teriyaki, noodles and tempura, focusing instead on sushi and rolls.

    I liked the slightly expensive but convenient a la carte sushi menu, from which you can order single pieces that show off Lu's talents.

    I liked the slightly expensive but convenient a la carte sushi menu, from which you can order single pieces that show off Lu's talents.

    The white tuna (shiro, $4.25) is an absolute order; hold the morsel in your mouth and let the buttery fish slowly cook on your tongue.

    The white tuna (shiro, $4.25) is an absolute order; hold the morsel in your mouth and let the buttery fish slowly cook on your tongue.

    Eel (unagi, $4.25) is my weakness, prepared here with less of the obligatory sweet sauce to let the flavor shine through.

    Eel (unagi, $4.25) is my weakness, prepared here with less of the obligatory sweet sauce to let the flavor shine through.

    The tuna is bright pink to dark red, depending on the cut ($3.95 to $4.45), and it tastes of clear water.

    The tuna is bright pink to dark red, depending on the cut ($3.95 to $4.45), and it tastes of clear water.

    My only complaint was the "crab stick" ($3.25) which, like the crab-dumpling appetizer ($4.50) was not real crab, but surimi – you know, that formed whitefish stuff.

    My only complaint was the "crab stick" ($3.25) which, like the crab-dumpling appetizer ($4.50) was not real crab, but surimi – you know, that formed whitefish stuff.

    A better choice is the slightly pickled mackerel with its bracing vinegar bite (saba, $3.25).

    A better choice is the slightly pickled mackerel with its bracing vinegar bite (saba, $3.25).

    The appetizer that was particularly pleasing was the nasu ($3.25), a small jewel of a Japanese eggplant, split and broiled with a topping of miso and ponzu sauce for a sweet contrast to the deep eggplant flavor.

    The appetizer that was particularly pleasing was the nasu ($3.25), a small jewel of a Japanese eggplant, split and broiled with a topping of miso and ponzu sauce for a sweet contrast to the deep eggplant flavor.

    I'm actually not a fan of rolls, but there's a wide selection of not-too-bizarre combinations. The "rainbow," "California" and "dragon" rolls are all here (and not much different from other local concoctions), but I did like the taste and texture variations in the "Bayridge roll" of tuna, salmon and avocado ($8.95).

    I'm actually not a fan of rolls, but there's a wide selection of not-too-bizarre combinations. The "rainbow," "California" and "dragon" rolls are all here (and not much different from other local concoctions), but I did like the taste and texture variations in the "Bayridge roll" of tuna, salmon and avocado ($8.95).

    Bayridge Sushi is a long way from the Brooklyn shores, but in its new Florida digs is a smart choice for tasty, well-prepared sushi.

    Three dozen flavors and only one of me. That was my dilemma when I stopped by Ben & Jerry's ice cream cafe at the new Oviedo Marketplace shopping mall.

    The choices were lined up in neat rows behind polished glass, including old friends Chunky Monkey banana ice cream – so fresh it smelled like a field of bananas – and Cherry Garcia (life should always be like a bowl of this stuff). But there were new arrivals too, such as Dilbert's Totally Nuts – butter-almond with roasted hazelnuts and praline pecans.

    The choices were lined up in neat rows behind polished glass, including old friends Chunky Monkey banana ice cream – so fresh it smelled like a field of bananas – and Cherry Garcia (life should always be like a bowl of this stuff). But there were new arrivals too, such as Dilbert's Totally Nuts – butter-almond with roasted hazelnuts and praline pecans.

    I finally committed to a dreamy scoop of low-fat Coconut Cream Pie, laced with chewy coconut flakes and sweet pie crust pieces. Stored at a precise 5 degrees Fahrenheit, it was the perfect, creamy texture, and the price was right: $2.06 for a scoop, $3.99 for a hand-packed pint.

    OK, I'm going to come right out and admit it. When I first heard of a 24-hour Mexican takeout restaurant, I shuddered. Having been out of college for many years, the idea of fast-food-grade tacos before sunrise made me just a little bit queasy.

    And then we went to Beto's, near the congested crossroads of State Road 436 and U.S. Highway 17-92, and I now humbly apologize. There's an old joke about Mexican food being nothing but meat, rice and cheese with different names, and I can tell you that the joke doesn't hold true here. Beto's does not churn out your typical drive-through meals.

    And then we went to Beto's, near the congested crossroads of State Road 436 and U.S. Highway 17-92, and I now humbly apologize. There's an old joke about Mexican food being nothing but meat, rice and cheese with different names, and I can tell you that the joke doesn't hold true here. Beto's does not churn out your typical drive-through meals.

    Look at the "Beto's special carne asada fries" ($5.50), thick-cut french fries smothered in guacamole, sour cream and chopped steak -- not ground meat but real pieces of steak. Or "carnitas" tacos, soft corn tortillas stuffed with roasted pork ($2.25).

    Look at the "Beto's special carne asada fries" ($5.50), thick-cut french fries smothered in guacamole, sour cream and chopped steak -- not ground meat but real pieces of steak. Or "carnitas" tacos, soft corn tortillas stuffed with roasted pork ($2.25).

    I don't usually associate Mexican cooking with potatoes, and, in fact, the "Mexican potato" is actually jicama, a crunchy, sweet tuber much like a water chestnut. (The sweet, syrupy Pina drink that's served is made from jicama; also try Horchata, a traditional rice, almond and cinnamon drink.) So I wasn't expecting the Southwestern influences of the "Texano" burrito ($2.95), filled with rich dark-meat chicken, sour cream, cheese and potatoes, a filling and satisfying combination. I guarantee you will not eat it all at one sitting; likewise the "California" burrito ($3.05), grilled steak, pico de gallo and potato, an old-fashioned meat-and-potato meal in your hand.

    I don't usually associate Mexican cooking with potatoes, and, in fact, the "Mexican potato" is actually jicama, a crunchy, sweet tuber much like a water chestnut. (The sweet, syrupy Pina drink that's served is made from jicama; also try Horchata, a traditional rice, almond and cinnamon drink.) So I wasn't expecting the Southwestern influences of the "Texano" burrito ($2.95), filled with rich dark-meat chicken, sour cream, cheese and potatoes, a filling and satisfying combination. I guarantee you will not eat it all at one sitting; likewise the "California" burrito ($3.05), grilled steak, pico de gallo and potato, an old-fashioned meat-and-potato meal in your hand.

    Still on the burrito kick, the fried-fish-and-tarter-sauce one was exceptional, with crispy fried fish and sharp pico de gallo (spiked with lime) for a West Coast-flavored delight ($2.95). The combination platters ($4.25 to $5.95) are enormous servings of extremely well-executed traditional dishes, using shredded beef (machaca) in enchiladas and chorizo with tortillas. I wish there were more seafood offerings than just fish, but perhaps that will come.

    Still on the burrito kick, the fried-fish-and-tarter-sauce one was exceptional, with crispy fried fish and sharp pico de gallo (spiked with lime) for a West Coast-flavored delight ($2.95). The combination platters ($4.25 to $5.95) are enormous servings of extremely well-executed traditional dishes, using shredded beef (machaca) in enchiladas and chorizo with tortillas. I wish there were more seafood offerings than just fish, but perhaps that will come.

    And then there's breakfast. Never contemplated a stuffed taco in the morning? Beto's serves breakfast burritos unlike any other: giant two-fisted tortillas wrapped around ham and eggs, shredded beef and vegetables, or a steak and egg burrito stuffed with grilled meat, fried eggs, cheese and potatoes. Go very early, because you won't be hungry again for quite a while after finishing one of these.

    And then there's breakfast. Never contemplated a stuffed taco in the morning? Beto's serves breakfast burritos unlike any other: giant two-fisted tortillas wrapped around ham and eggs, shredded beef and vegetables, or a steak and egg burrito stuffed with grilled meat, fried eggs, cheese and potatoes. Go very early, because you won't be hungry again for quite a while after finishing one of these.

    Beto's won't be winning any prizes for its decor, but the interior of the nondescript building (which at various times was a roast-chicken stand, a bagel place and a Chinese takeout) is immaculately clean and comfortable enough for a not-so-quick eat-in, any time of the day or night. Be prepared to bring half home.

    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.

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

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

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

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

    Health-food market that includes a bakery and cafe with a hot lunch bar that is vegetarian heaven. Also try their fresh juices, smoothies and sandwiches.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    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.

    Some of my greatest meal memories are from the original Dexter's in Winter Park. It was there that I discovered my love of sitting around a table for hours with friends, eating, drinking and conversing. The original Dexter's on Fairbanks Avenue was magnificent for this discovery, an absolutely pleasurable spot where you could linger and listen to music, sip wine and enjoy enlivening food.

    Then came Dexter's in Thornton Park, which became my morning-after remedy from long nights at the Go Lounge. I loved getting up and riding my bike over to Washington Street to have brunch. There was no better way to nurse a hangover than with a basket of sweet potato chips and a Dexter's "special" – a honey-cured mesquite-smoked turkey sandwich. When the original Dexter's moved to another location, in west Winter Park, I went a couple of times, mostly on dates before the movies or to grab a quick sandwich and tasty salad.

    I guess you could say that Dexter's and I have grown up together. Dexter's kind of supplied the comfort food of my early adult life, introducing me to such favorites as buccatini, jerk spice and smoked cheese. So when I heard Dexter's was growing again and moving north to the suburbs, I wasn't sure what to think. I mean, I'm not ready for the suburbs yet. And would it have the same cool warehouse-space feel? Would the food be just as simple and pleasing?

    The new Dexter's in Lake Mary suffers a little from what I like to call Multiple Growth Restaurant Syndrome, the pesky disorder that occurs when a restaurant has been getting it right for so long that they become formulaic. Don't worry, though. Dexter's is up and running and handling this minor affliction quite well. The first sign of MGRS is in the restaurant's sterile location in a spanking-new shopping plaza. To get to the restaurant, I had to navigate I-4 up to the Lake Mary exit, then pass by the marquee of a shopping mall and drive past endless rows of parking spaces. There's not much of a chance that I'll wake up on a breezy morning and hop on my bike for a ride over here. Each of the other Dexter's locations is unique in the way the business molds itself to the surroundings. The new entry offers a more manufactured ambience, but my friends and I still found the experience enjoyable in every way. This Dexter's was still the Dexter's I knew and loved.

    A beautiful glass wine-storage closet nestled in nicely by the bar, creating the fun, sophisticated flair Dexter's is so well known for. All of the comfort foods I crave were on the new menu, so I had to start with the basket of delicious "cha-cha" chips mixed with sweet chips ($1.95), which always kicks up my appetite.

    From the café menu, my friends ordered my beloved garlic buccatini with fresh pesto ($6.95), a delectable mix of Alfredo sauce, basil, pine nuts and thick, hollow egg noodles. We also tried the "low country crab cakes" ($11.95) and our resident Marylander gave them the thumbs-up – flaky and tender, packed with sweet crab flavor and piqued by plenty of fresh red pepper and onion.

    We tried some items from the chef's special menu and found them delicious, as well. The chef here has the familiar Dexter's flair for giving comfort-food ingredients an exciting twist. The "chipotle marinated pork tenderloin" ($17.95) was bursting with heady spices such as cumin and cilantro, complementing the smoky aroma of the chipotle pepper. The "grilled filet with Stilton-bacon-demi glace" ($22.95) was steak and potatoes at its best. The fillet, juicy and served medium rare, was compatibly married to the opulent flavors of bacon and blue cheese. All of the dishes were enhanced by the accompaniment of a reasonably priced bottle of Acacia pinot noir. To finish our dinner off, we virtually scarfed the very satisfying and solid crème brûlée ($4.50) and the decadently chocolate "two mousse brownie" ($4.50).

    When I got up from my meal I realized that I had, once again, passed a lively two hours with friends at Dexter's. So even if Dexter's has become a bit formulaic, hey, the formula works.

    Here's something you don't see every day: a pizzeria in Orlando. OK, so maybe there are quite a few pizza joints. Doesn't mean a person can't keep hoping for perfection.

    Dom's Pizza (5075 Edgewater Drive, 407-298-8998; www.domspizza.com) isn't quite perfection. Biting into a slice of their classic thin crust, I thought the sauce was a little too salty, the crust had an almost pretzel-like consistency, and the cheese was spread on way too thick. And I liked it. A lot. Somehow the combination works, and I'll eagerly return for more.

    Dom's Pizza (5075 Edgewater Drive, 407-298-8998; www.domspizza.com) isn't quite perfection. Biting into a slice of their classic thin crust, I thought the sauce was a little too salty, the crust had an almost pretzel-like consistency, and the cheese was spread on way too thick. And I liked it. A lot. Somehow the combination works, and I'll eagerly return for more.

    You'll also find specialty pizzas like the Drew Show, named after a certain radio personality, that's really a Philly cheesesteak-and-onions pie, a combination that seems so logical I'm surprised everyone doesn't do it. Hot and cold subs, calzones and oven-baked pasta round out the offerings. Now someone explain the Sound of Music cast photo on the wall.

    Neither old nor new, Eastern Pearl has been open for a couple of years, but its unremarkable environs -- in the plaza across from Altamonte Mall -- close it in. It's a remarkable find, wondrous even, in the case of the "mango shrimp."

    Mundane life is left at the door, upon entering the contemporary room filled with bold dark-wood furniture. The modestly sized area takes on an expanded dimension, given some clever design choices. On the back wall, soft-sounding showers cascade over a relief of the Chinese character for "double happiness." To the side, a window into the humming kitchen offers rare exposure. A partitioned-off hostess/ bar station further defines the orderly, eye-pleasing configuration, and there's a nicely set-off room for private parties. Most of the tables are round affairs, fashioned with a family-style rotating server in the center. The sight of the artful entrees we ordered spinning around was a showcase of invention.

    Mundane life is left at the door, upon entering the contemporary room filled with bold dark-wood furniture. The modestly sized area takes on an expanded dimension, given some clever design choices. On the back wall, soft-sounding showers cascade over a relief of the Chinese character for "double happiness." To the side, a window into the humming kitchen offers rare exposure. A partitioned-off hostess/ bar station further defines the orderly, eye-pleasing configuration, and there's a nicely set-off room for private parties. Most of the tables are round affairs, fashioned with a family-style rotating server in the center. The sight of the artful entrees we ordered spinning around was a showcase of invention.

    Fresh roses and starched linens make for on-the-town surroundings as the options for meal starters -- appetizers, soups and dim sum -- can be studied. Homage is paid on the menu to sister cuisines, with the inclusion of Vietnamese summer rolls ($2.99), as well as Thai-style sweet-and-sour shrimp soup ($3.95). The noodles, nonspiced shrimp and basil leaf came together in a clean-tasting crunch in the roll; the "straight man," if you will, to the lively, rich peanut sauce. The broth in the soup was a sweet and tangy version, infused with spice that warmed all the way down. Fried spring rolls ($2.95) were light and flaky; the scallion pancake ($3.25) had a firm bite, crispy outside, fluffy inside.

    Fresh roses and starched linens make for on-the-town surroundings as the options for meal starters -- appetizers, soups and dim sum -- can be studied. Homage is paid on the menu to sister cuisines, with the inclusion of Vietnamese summer rolls ($2.99), as well as Thai-style sweet-and-sour shrimp soup ($3.95). The noodles, nonspiced shrimp and basil leaf came together in a clean-tasting crunch in the roll; the "straight man," if you will, to the lively, rich peanut sauce. The broth in the soup was a sweet and tangy version, infused with spice that warmed all the way down. Fried spring rolls ($2.95) were light and flaky; the scallion pancake ($3.25) had a firm bite, crispy outside, fluffy inside.

    As mentioned, the "mango shrimp" ($14.95) was a visual and palatable delight. Served in scooped-out mango shells, the generous serving of succulently moist shrimp was in a subtle sauce of cooked juice and red peppers. The al-dente texture of the cooked fruit is such that it holds its chunky shape until it dissolves in the mouth, exploding heavenly taste. The stellar execution was matched in the "shrimp in silken creme sauce" ($15.95), unusual with its mayonnaise-and-fruit-juice dressing topped with caramelized walnuts. In the Gen. Tso's family, the "crispy beef" ($13.95) was presented in shoestring form. The orange chicken ($10.95) was without artificial enhancements.

    As mentioned, the "mango shrimp" ($14.95) was a visual and palatable delight. Served in scooped-out mango shells, the generous serving of succulently moist shrimp was in a subtle sauce of cooked juice and red peppers. The al-dente texture of the cooked fruit is such that it holds its chunky shape until it dissolves in the mouth, exploding heavenly taste. The stellar execution was matched in the "shrimp in silken creme sauce" ($15.95), unusual with its mayonnaise-and-fruit-juice dressing topped with caramelized walnuts. In the Gen. Tso's family, the "crispy beef" ($13.95) was presented in shoestring form. The orange chicken ($10.95) was without artificial enhancements.

    Given the high caliber, prices are a bargain. The only gripe: For $7.50, the glass of Sterling Char-donnay could have been fuller. Hot tea was poured without request all evening, in keeping with the genteel serving skills -- practiced, politely distanced and informed -- that carried this meal to its distinctive conclusion.

    It was about 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday, and Enzo's on the Lake was in its glory. Most of the tables were filled. Waiters glided through the dining areas bearing trays of Italian delicacies that perfumed the room. As the sunlight faded over Fairy Lake outside, soft candles in the restaurant threw a golden blush on the pale walls, which were filled with Picasso-style portraits. The sounds of Sade struck a note of serenity that seemed, on the surface of things, to define the mood.

    But all was not as it seemed. The couple at the table next to us were debating whether to get up and leave. Having been seated 20 minutes prior, they still hadn't received a bread basket or a menu. I've heard reports of long waits at Enzo's, but we received plenty of attention from our charming waiter during most of the dinner. It was later when we found ourselves waiting about 20 minutes too long for the check, something that's not easy to overlook when you're paying upward of $100 at a restaurant that maintains its reputation as one of the area's best.

    Such are the apparent contradictions of Enzo's on the Lake, a stunningly beautiful and sophisticated restaurant, oddly situated on a section of Highway 17-92 in Longwood that's clogged with convenience stores, gas stations and supermarkets. The restaurant's culinary reputation is impeccable, and we tasted the proof. But it's also the lakefront setting, lush with old Florida foliage, that draws people from metro Orlando and beyond.

    Our waiter had a crisp Italian accent, and it only whets the appetite to hear lilting, lyrical descriptions of zuppa del giorno (soup of the day) and to hear shrimp referred to as gamberoni.

    We started off with a huge platter filled with cozze (mussels), peeking out of glossy, black shells ($9.80). There was a classic broth of white wine, tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and a touch of red pepper. The simple treatment enhanced the tender flavors of the mussel flesh. Next we tried the traditional wedding soup (pastina in brodo, $4.75), a clear consomme in which floated delicate veal meatballs, pasta and chopped carrots and celery.

    Gamberoni alla verdure is an excellent choice for shrimp lovers ($25). Four jumbo shrimp are accented by a sauce of Pernod French liqueur, served alongside a dome of moist spinach risotto. And the ravioli al sugo entree is notable mainly for the wide, flat pasta pillows that are lightly stuffed with spinach, chicken and ricotta ($17.50). The accompanying Neapolitan veal sauce is a specialty of owner Enzo Perlini.

    Dessert would have been nice, but we grew tired of waiting for the check and settled for a cappuccino instead.

    Although you may experience some delays in service while navigating the menu, Enzo's offers dinners to remember – visually, as well as tastefully.

    Offbeat a.m.. fare ranges from a California vegetarian frittata to the meanest sausage-and-potatoes platter outside of Bavaria. Cheery, with generous portions and a limited lunch menu.

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