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    After a slowdown from the sushi overload of last year, several new restaurants have opened lately in various parts of town. Gracing the dining hot spot of Sand Lake Road is a familiar name in new clothing: Amura.

    Owned by the same folks behind the cozy Church Street location, Amura on Sand Lake is upscale and reservedly glitzy. It's to their credit that, despite some stiff competition and the shaky state of Church Street, Amura has thrived enough to expand.

    Owned by the same folks behind the cozy Church Street location, Amura on Sand Lake is upscale and reservedly glitzy. It's to their credit that, despite some stiff competition and the shaky state of Church Street, Amura has thrived enough to expand.

    This venue includes teppan tables, secluded on one side of the restaurant from the main room; judging by the appreciative noises coming from that end they seem to go over well. The new Amura is a gorgeous space, with backlit glass walls, rich marble flooring and tiny halogen lights suspended invisibly overhead like stars. But oohs and aahs at the decor quickly turn to gasps at the pricing – $21.99 for boring salt-coated scallops? A "deluxe Isleworth boat" sushi assortment for $99.98?

    This venue includes teppan tables, secluded on one side of the restaurant from the main room; judging by the appreciative noises coming from that end they seem to go over well. The new Amura is a gorgeous space, with backlit glass walls, rich marble flooring and tiny halogen lights suspended invisibly overhead like stars. But oohs and aahs at the decor quickly turn to gasps at the pricing – $21.99 for boring salt-coated scallops? A "deluxe Isleworth boat" sushi assortment for $99.98?

    The quality of the sushi does remain high, and it's particularly nice to see varieties of fish that have a low environmental impact, like hamachi (yellowtail, a kind of amberjack) and saba (mackerel). The saba is particularly good, with a slightly pickled taste that complements the firm rice. I recommend any of their nigiri sushi or sashimi, which glistens like jewels under those lights, except for the sashimi appetizer ($8.99), which includes a piece of surimi (that horrible fake crab). Surimi also turned up in the sunomono salad ($7.99) – shame on them.

    The quality of the sushi does remain high, and it's particularly nice to see varieties of fish that have a low environmental impact, like hamachi (yellowtail, a kind of amberjack) and saba (mackerel). The saba is particularly good, with a slightly pickled taste that complements the firm rice. I recommend any of their nigiri sushi or sashimi, which glistens like jewels under those lights, except for the sashimi appetizer ($8.99), which includes a piece of surimi (that horrible fake crab). Surimi also turned up in the sunomono salad ($7.99) – shame on them.

    The rolls didn't fare as well as the sushi. The "bamboo wine roll" ($8.99) of white tuna wrapped in avocado was limp and tasteless, the avocado overwhelming other flavors. And the "Magic roll" ($7.99), with shrimp, crab and asparagus was so soggy with a sweet, watery sauce, that it was almost impossible to pick up.

    The rolls didn't fare as well as the sushi. The "bamboo wine roll" ($8.99) of white tuna wrapped in avocado was limp and tasteless, the avocado overwhelming other flavors. And the "Magic roll" ($7.99), with shrimp, crab and asparagus was so soggy with a sweet, watery sauce, that it was almost impossible to pick up.

    It's when we get to the kitchen that everything falls apart. Not everyone likes the same thing, but I'll bet very few people enjoy oily and lukewarm shrimp tempura, with batter-dipped vegetables that are either undercooked or in such large pieces, like the broccoli, that raw batter sits inside as an unpleasant surprise. All that for $16.95. "fiery garlic chicken" ($15.99), a small portion of chewy chicken bits, was more overseasoned than fiery. The "geisha shrimp" ($18.99) were battered, then covered in an odd white sauce, with a bitter, burnt garlic taste that lingered for hours.

    It's when we get to the kitchen that everything falls apart. Not everyone likes the same thing, but I'll bet very few people enjoy oily and lukewarm shrimp tempura, with batter-dipped vegetables that are either undercooked or in such large pieces, like the broccoli, that raw batter sits inside as an unpleasant surprise. All that for $16.95. "fiery garlic chicken" ($15.99), a small portion of chewy chicken bits, was more overseasoned than fiery. The "geisha shrimp" ($18.99) were battered, then covered in an odd white sauce, with a bitter, burnt garlic taste that lingered for hours.

    If you go, stay with what Amura knows best – sushi – and let the kitchen staff take a break.

    Seemingly everything is imported from Italy, from the glassware to the tile. Drink prices are the usual Sand Lake high, but low traffic to this second-floor restaurant means you'll have the bartender's undivided attention. The bar features a walk-in wine closet and flat-screen TVs, and there's live entertainment on weekends.

    What do you get when you cross Starbucks with Ron Jon's Surf Shop? A coffeehouse with a faux molten volcano, 3-D surf wave, saltwater aquarium and brews with an attitude, aka Bad Ass Coffee Company.

    The fantastical decor of this Hawaiian-rooted chain fits right into its I-Drive location, south of Sand Lake Boulevard – so much so that owners Tom and Linda Clark haven't heard so much as a boo about the Bad Ass name (even though there was a bit of a "brewhaha" over the Tampa store), since they opened their family business in February. The Ass reference pays homage to the donkeys used to transport the harvested beans out of the mountains. They're not just talking dirty.

    Being good parents, the friendly Clark couple invested in the store so that daughter Jennifer, a fresh Florida State University graduate with a master's degree in tax accounting, could follow her dream to open a coffeehouse, because she didn't really like numbers, after all. And it's the only Bad Ass in town.

    This is the place to purchase genuine Kona beans – the only coffee grown in the United States. If you're late to the Kona controversy, there's been much to-do about the sale of fake or blended varieties, even by heavyweights such as Starbucks. The hoopla comes from the fact that Kona beans only grow on a 20-square-mile area on the island of Hawaii. The constant cloud cover and rich soil generate the distinctive low-acid, full-bodied beans that claim top dollar around the world.

    Bad Ass carries a variety of 100 percent Kona roasts, from lightweight American to robust French. The ultimate delicacy in the store is the "Peaberry medium-dark roast" – $22.95 for a half-pound bag, which is a totally reasonable price. Most coffee beans have two halves, but the pea berry has a single core – a natural anomaly – and they are handpicked out of the processing line. A fresh crop won't be in until February, so there's little Kona (much less pea berry) to be found anywhere, except at Bad Ass, which stocked up for the holidays.

    The store carries a lighthearted line of Bad Ass-branded mugs, T-shirts, calendars, even thong underwear. There's a limited menu of "Donkey Feeds" that includes pastries, sandwiches and ice cream served seven days a week.

    The website (www.badasscoffeeorlando.com) is ready for mail orders and shipping is free until Dec. 15.

    'Business casualâ?�: It's a conundrum that most of us have had to wrap our brains around in the last five years or so. Where once there was a uniform for work (suit, tie; pantyhose, pumps) and one for hanging out (either looser or tighter than the daily monkey suit, depending on your proclivities), now we have to parse a version of our home selves that will fly at work. Food has gone through a similar makeover ' once it was split between expensive white-tablecloth restaurants and greasy spoons, but now the lines have blurred. We want to dress up our Gap-khaki turkey sandwiches with dry-clean-only caper pesto.

    Bella Café doesn't redefine the spiffed-up sandwich; it just prepares them very well. No surprises here; the upmarket salads and sandwiches aren't especially creative, but they are put together with care and quality. The board of menu choices can be overwhelming ' everything's been assigned an Italian title, and the descriptions are hard to read ' but there really are no wrong choices.

    Two in our trio went for panini: the 'Montianoâ?� (roast beef, provolone and caramelized onion daubed with super-sweet honey mustard; $7.50) and the 'Tuscanâ?� (juicy grilled chicken breast ' the real thing, not the icky cold-cut variety ' fresh mozzarella and roasted red peppers; $7.50). Both were satisfying, but the real mouth-watering winner was our third companion's choice, the 'Marlianaâ?� ($7.95). A soft baguette ' well, the menu calls it a baguette, but a Frenchman would sneer; I'd label it a crusty roll ' barely managed to contain moist, tender pot roast touched with horseradish and blanketed in cheddar. It was like a portable Sunday dinner. All that was missing was the roasted carrots and potatoes.

    Luckily for me, this companion has a dainty appetite, and I was easily able to talk him out of half of his sandwich. He fell back on his bowl of creamy lobster bisque ($2.99). It was thick as pudding and the color of Thousand Island dressing, lacking the delicate nature one might expect from a usually refined soup, but there were tangible shreds of crustacean.

    On our way out the door, we had to have a bit of gelato ('to settle the stomach,� as my ice-creamaholic father would say). Bella Café serves several flavors of gelato from downtown's Il Gelatone. After sampling tiny spoons of peanut butter and chocolate, we settled for a scoop ($3.25) of dulcet ripe banana and one of raspberry ' studded with tiny crunchy seeds and intensely sweet-tart. After a business-like lunch, we were ready to get back to the casual Orlando Weekly office.

    Despite Bella's distant (to me) location in a busy MetroWest strip mall, I might return soon â?¦ half of that pot-roast sandwich just wasn't enough.

    We didn't review this location but you can check out the review of the Ben & Jerry's in Oviedo.

    Walking up the stairs to the Portofino Bay Hotel's newest restaurant, Bice (pronounced "BEE-chay"), you feel like you've wandered onto a movie set. It's a familiar feeling to most Orlandoans, who often have no choice but to enter a theme park in order to enjoy an upscale restaurant. The hotel purports to be a re-creation of the Italian beach town of Portofino; the sprawling wings enclose a man-made lake upon which gondolas and water taxis float aimlessly. The cobblestone piazza seems genuine enough, but the vintage Vespas with engines removed, chained to lampposts, and the monotonous stucco walls betray the fact that it's a fake. The cruising golf carts don't help the illusion, either.

    Once you're inside, though, the illusion's over. Bice, offering very expensive, very refined comfort food, is just another generic upscale hotel restaurant. It's very nice – muted ivory-toned lighting, frescoed ceiling, enormous flower arrangement – but bland. The one note of personality is the sharp black-and-white lacquered armchairs in the bar; too bad, the bar was populated by cheering football watchers on this night.

    Once we attracted the attention of the waitress, we ordered a glass of 2000 Luigi Righetti ($16) while we waited for our table. The only amarone available by the glass, it was delicious but took no risks. Then the dance of the servicepeople commenced: A host told us our table was ready, a waiter led us there, a different waiter arrived to hand us menus and somewhere, the cocktail waitress was still holding our bar tab and credit card. Once that was sorted out, we made our selections from the huge menu – some of the choices oddly betraying a nouvelle cuisine twist – and settled back on the comfy banquette.

    Before our starters arrived, a busboy brought a basket of bread and bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and dinner was off to an inauspicious beginning. The salty rosemary focaccia and rustic wheat bread were obviously mass-produced, possessed of a uniform crumb instead of the chewy density characteristic of bread baked in small batches. The olive oil was pale and weak, and the vinegar was sour. A glum anticipation settled over the table.

    Beef carpaccio with black truffle dressing and an arugula and mushroom salad ($18) arrived looking like a rosy-petaled sunflower. Sadly, the beautiful pink beef, instead of being silky and earthy, was mushy and tasteless. The salad (arugula, raw cremini mushrooms, shaved Parmesan) was bright, clean, simple, but the taste of black truffle could scarcely be detected in the dressing. Across the table, the lentil soup "with black truffle fondue" was also simple yet expertly prepared, a delicate, peppery puree with, alas, nary a trace of the pungent black truffle in the swirl of olive oil on top.

    Then chef Massimo Esposito knocked one out of the park. Resembling something a very chic caveman would eat, a huge 16-ounce veal chop ($42) arrived, lapped in porcini sauce and snuggled atop a drift of soft polenta. Surrounded by lovely charred fat (hey, don't knock it until you've tried it), the chop was grilled to a perfect medium-rare, as ordered. The polenta, rich with Parmesan, was the kind of dish that inspires compulsive eating – creamy and utterly comforting. The rigatoni alla Siciliana ($17) was less spectacular, though enjoyable. The traditional Sicilian marriage of eggplant, pine nuts, capers and raisins somehow didn't quite work this time around.

    Though not a dessert fan, I splurged on the pistachio and caramel semifreddo ($8) and urged my companion to try the vanilla panna cotta (also $8). This was the best move we made all night. The semifreddo was a bustling playground of tastes and textures: soft, half-frozen cream crunchy with glassy shards of caramel and slivers of roasted almonds, in a pool of almond crème anglaise sprinkled with jade-green chopped pistachios. By contrast, the panna cotta was an elegant, austere dish: a vanilla custard gelatin dusted with black vanilla seeds and ringed with a compote of sweet dried apricots. It was pared down to the essentials, yet clearly created by a virtuoso. With two plates my resistance to dessert was ended.

    Like the staircase we had to climb, our experience at Bice may have started on a low note, but it ended with a fabulous high. My suggestion: Grab a table on the patio, have a glass (or bottle) of wine, sample the desserts and watch the faux gondolas navigate the faux lake. At least the food will be the real thing.

    Inviting neighborhood pub with a refreshing lack of pretense takes bar-fare standbys to higher gustatory levels. Delectable mac & cheese-rubbed chicken wings and the 10-ounce Bloodhoung burger will stick to one's ribs, no doubt, while excellent street tacos and friend chicken and biscuits on a stick also stand out. A decent beer selection is offset by indifferently executed dessert options. Live music every day.


    Teaser: Inviting neighborhood pub with a refreshing lack of pretense takes bar-fare standbys to higher gustatory levels. Delectable mac & cheese-rubbed chicken wings and the 10-ounce Bloodhoung burger will stick to one's ribs, no doubt, while excellent street tacos and friend chicken and biscuits on a stick also stand out. A decent beer selection is offset by indifferently executed dessert options. Live music every day.

    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.

    MetroWest taqueria is a real find, and once found, a treature trove of tacos (pibil, chorizo, and grilled chicken are our faves), tortas, gorditas, burritos, and caldos await. Consider starting with fresh-made guac and ending with homemade flan, no matter how stuffed you feel. Homemade salsad can be downright infernal, but Mexican Coca-Cola and various aguas frescas (get the watermelon) prove effective extinguishers. Open daily.


    Teaser: MetroWest taqueria is a real find, and once found, a treature trove of tacos (pibil, chorizo, and grilled chicken are our faves), tortas, gorditas, burritos, and caldos await. Consider starting with fresh-made gauc and ending with homemade flan, no matter how stuffed you feel. Homemade salsad can be downright infernal, but Mexican Coca-Cola and various aguas frescas (get the watermelon) prove effective extinguishers. Open daily.

    The monolith that is Bravo Cucina Italiana strikes an imposing, if architecturally gauche, posture atop its concrete perch on Sand Lake Road, the stark, garish exterior a Brutalist reminder of everything a trattoria isn't. There's no mistaking this concept chain for a mom-and-pop joint, but there appears to be a market for such larger-than-life dining establishments nonetheless, and what better customer base on which to unleash this prodigious restaurant than the fine folks of Dr. Phillips? Bravo anchors the still-under-construction Dellagio complex, a mixed-use compound that also includes Cantina Laredo (where they make a great tableside guacamole); Fleming's, Urban Flats and Dragonfly Sushi are all slated to open in the coming months. If you've dined at Brio Tuscan Grille, Bravo will seem all too familiar ' the restaurant's parent company, Bravo Development Inc., also runs and operates Brio. Inside, the décor fuses elements of kitsch (Corinthian columns in faux ruin) and comfort (soft lighting, carpeted floors, cozy booths), though al fresco dining enthusiasts will find the outdoor terrace an undeniable draw.

    And like the columns under which we dined, the asparagus, mushroom and tomato flatbread ($5.99) crumbled into ruins. My plate resembled the bottom of a parrot's birdcage after biting into the flatbread's cracker-like crust, but the grilled asparagus proved the better crunch. Beware the complimentary, properly doughy and wonderfully herbed focaccia ' I think it may be laced with some illicit addictive ingredient.

    Italian standards and wood-fired favorites make up a fair chunk of the menu, and like the fare at Brio or Carrabba's Italian Grill, the dishes I sampled didn't exactly wow me, but they gratified nonetheless. Mozzarella-stuffed ravioli ($9.99) were nicely crisped and plated with bowls of humdrum marinara and a creamy horseradish that added a little buck to the starter. Roasted red-pepper cream sauce highlighted the pasta bravo ($13.99), a signature dish of rigatoni tossed with wood-grilled chicken and mushrooms. The filling entree is ideal for those who like their pasta course rich. A sauce lightened with lemons and zested with capers made a winner of the chicken scallopini ($14.99). The flattened cutlets were dressed with portobello mushrooms and smothered with provolone; an accompanying herb linguine was cooked perfectly al dente.

    A dolce trio ($8.99) offers variety in portions that are manageable. Of the three desserts, the torta di cioccolata, topped with a vanilla-bean gelato, and the warm berry cake were finished off first. The overly sweet tiramisu was a distant third.

    Our well-meaning waiter was far too harried and distracted to seem genuinely concerned that we had a good experience. While I was in the middle of ordering appetizers, he started walking away, then had to return to the table when he realized I wasn't finished. Our glasses went unfilled for prolonged periods, and when I got the check, I had been inexplicably charged for a martini. Let's just say that Bravo has nothing on Carrabba's when it comes to service. Still, the colossal eatery is sure to be a draw for its welcoming digs, fair prices and familiar dishes ' just don't expect the flavors to match the restaurant's grandeur.

    Bubbalou's Bodacious Bar-B-Que seduces you before you even lay eyes on it, which is just what good barbecue ought to do. The siren smell of smoky, sweet meats is in the air outside this new location, just north of Universal Studios Florida. Even from the parking lot, Bubbalou's is alluring, with that bold, unblushing name lit up in neon, flanked by three hot-pink piglets tip-toeing over flames.

    Inside, the atmosphere is cheerful and bright. It's roomier than the original Winter Park eatery, but both dish up Big Barbecue. You name it and they smoke it: pork, chicken, beef, turkey, ham, sausage, lamb; and for the barbecue rebel, gizzards and livers. Country music hits are on the sound system, and a stuffed bear rises over the wood-paneled dining room.

    Inside, the atmosphere is cheerful and bright. It's roomier than the original Winter Park eatery, but both dish up Big Barbecue. You name it and they smoke it: pork, chicken, beef, turkey, ham, sausage, lamb; and for the barbecue rebel, gizzards and livers. Country music hits are on the sound system, and a stuffed bear rises over the wood-paneled dining room.

    My guest and I placed orders at the counter, choosing from an array of sandwiches, baskets and dinners, priced from $2.69 to $8.99. We found seats at a picnic table in back, the only spot that hadn't been claimed by a hungry, lunchtime crowd.

    My guest and I placed orders at the counter, choosing from an array of sandwiches, baskets and dinners, priced from $2.69 to $8.99. We found seats at a picnic table in back, the only spot that hadn't been claimed by a hungry, lunchtime crowd.

    The food soon arrived, and we dived in with abandon. I tried "Bubbalou's Special" ($8.99), a sampler platter with four side-orders, and quickly honed in on the spare ribs. They were divine in the most primal way: succulent on the inside and slightly charred outside. Of the shredded meats, the pork was moist and tender, but the beef was a bit dry by comparison.

    The food soon arrived, and we dived in with abandon. I tried "Bubbalou's Special" ($8.99), a sampler platter with four side-orders, and quickly honed in on the spare ribs. They were divine in the most primal way: succulent on the inside and slightly charred outside. Of the shredded meats, the pork was moist and tender, but the beef was a bit dry by comparison.

    My guest ordered the quarter chicken basket with two sides ($3.99). Her chicken, like mine, was glazed to a rich, brown hue. On the inside, it was well-done, yet juicy. While most of the smoked meats stood on their own, we laced them with the barbecue sauces anyway: "Mild" had a hint of sweetness with a gentle bite; "Hot" was warm with a tangy edge; "Killer" was fiery enough to make your mouth glow.

    My guest ordered the quarter chicken basket with two sides ($3.99). Her chicken, like mine, was glazed to a rich, brown hue. On the inside, it was well-done, yet juicy. While most of the smoked meats stood on their own, we laced them with the barbecue sauces anyway: "Mild" had a hint of sweetness with a gentle bite; "Hot" was warm with a tangy edge; "Killer" was fiery enough to make your mouth glow.

    On the side, baked beans were sweetly simmered with pork. The cole slaw was creamy yet light. Corn bread was moist and savory, which was nice given that the grilled bread was a bit limp and unexciting. Ripple-cut french fries were delicious. My only quibble is the size of some side-orders. At $8.99 for a dinner plate combo, I expected more than a cuplet of beans and a dollop of slaw.

    On the side, baked beans were sweetly simmered with pork. The cole slaw was creamy yet light. Corn bread was moist and savory, which was nice given that the grilled bread was a bit limp and unexciting. Ripple-cut french fries were delicious. My only quibble is the size of some side-orders. At $8.99 for a dinner plate combo, I expected more than a cuplet of beans and a dollop of slaw.

    Although Bubbalou's was approaching capacity when we arrived, we were on our way with boxed leftovers within 50 minutes. And we swore to do some bodacious workouts so we can go back soon.

    If you're not a beef lover or if you like a variety of menu options, you should probably skip this place. But "real beef" connoisseurs searching for a basic meat-and-potatoes dining experience need look no further than Butcher Shop Steakhouse on International Drive.

    The chain restaurant not only promises an array of "the biggest and best grain-fed beef direct from the Midwest," but invites patrons to grill their own steaks over a brick hickory pit. The handsomely appointed restaurant must have hosted a tired bunch of buckaroos during our midweek visit, as none of the diners took advantage of the opportunity to cook themselves a meal.

    The chain restaurant not only promises an array of "the biggest and best grain-fed beef direct from the Midwest," but invites patrons to grill their own steaks over a brick hickory pit. The handsomely appointed restaurant must have hosted a tired bunch of buckaroos during our midweek visit, as none of the diners took advantage of the opportunity to cook themselves a meal.

    Or perhaps, like us, none of them wanted to expend the effort and end up smelling like a backyard barbecue, a distinct possibility given the pungent charcoal smoke generated by the display grill, which made a mockery of the designated non-smoking room.

    Or perhaps, like us, none of them wanted to expend the effort and end up smelling like a backyard barbecue, a distinct possibility given the pungent charcoal smoke generated by the display grill, which made a mockery of the designated non-smoking room.

    Our reservation was honored within minutes of our arrival, our enthusiastic server greeted us promptly, and we began our menu perusal. No surprises: Though two fresh seafood catches and grilled marinated chicken breast are available, the specialty here is red meat. No appetizers, no gourmet soups or salads, just the basics. And it ain't cheap.

    Our reservation was honored within minutes of our arrival, our enthusiastic server greeted us promptly, and we began our menu perusal. No surprises: Though two fresh seafood catches and grilled marinated chicken breast are available, the specialty here is red meat. No appetizers, no gourmet soups or salads, just the basics. And it ain't cheap.

    Steaks range from an 8-ounce filet mignon ($17.95) to a 28-ounce T-bone ($23.95). There are also rib-eyes, top sirloins and Kansas City strips. Prime rib lovers may order a 16-ounce boneless cut ($17.95) or a 32-ounce king cut with bone ($23.95). Chicken and seafood entrees begin at $13.95. All dinners come with salad and bread. The only accompaniment offered is a half- or full-skillet order of sautéed mushrooms in light garlic and butter sauce ($3.95 and $5.95). Our dinner rolls were nondescript; our salads were fresh, with a nice assortment of trimmings but an overabundance of dressing.

    Steaks range from an 8-ounce filet mignon ($17.95) to a 28-ounce T-bone ($23.95). There are also rib-eyes, top sirloins and Kansas City strips. Prime rib lovers may order a 16-ounce boneless cut ($17.95) or a 32-ounce king cut with bone ($23.95). Chicken and seafood entrees begin at $13.95. All dinners come with salad and bread. The only accompaniment offered is a half- or full-skillet order of sautéed mushrooms in light garlic and butter sauce ($3.95 and $5.95). Our dinner rolls were nondescript; our salads were fresh, with a nice assortment of trimmings but an overabundance of dressing.

    My husband's weekly steak craving was satisfied by his 14-ounce rib-eye ($16.95), which was nicely marbled and cooked to order. The tableside gourmet steak sauce – featuring such bizarre ingredients as pineapple, raisins, anchovies and bourbon – didn't suit us. His half-order of sautéed mushrooms, presented in an iron skillet, was enough to share. While they were nicely cooked, the garlic seasoning was not discernable.

    My husband's weekly steak craving was satisfied by his 14-ounce rib-eye ($16.95), which was nicely marbled and cooked to order. The tableside gourmet steak sauce – featuring such bizarre ingredients as pineapple, raisins, anchovies and bourbon – didn't suit us. His half-order of sautéed mushrooms, presented in an iron skillet, was enough to share. While they were nicely cooked, the garlic seasoning was not discernable.

    I sent my first plate of 12-ounce yellowfin tuna back, as it was overcooked. Our server accommodated the request with a smile and an apology, returning five minutes later with a tender and juicy fillet. Our foil-wrapped baked potatoes were plump and enjoyable.

    I sent my first plate of 12-ounce yellowfin tuna back, as it was overcooked. Our server accommodated the request with a smile and an apology, returning five minutes later with a tender and juicy fillet. Our foil-wrapped baked potatoes were plump and enjoyable.

    Our "Katie's delight" house dessert ($3.50) was a deliciously chewy and crunchy creation that featured cream cheese, whipped cream and chocolate pudding on a bed of crushed pecans, topped with chocolate chips and more pecans.

    I somehow managed to talk my husband, the Impatient Gourmet, into heading to Mount Dora for lunch on a lazy Sunday afternoon. We slowly made our way north on Orange Blossom Trail until we reached the quaint roads that drag one into the heart of this historical town in Lake County.

    Our destination was Café Attuare, an Italian café off Donnelly Street in the heart of downtown Mount Dora. The restaurant is located on the second story of a small tower of stores that looked to have been developed in the mid-'80s. It sits back off the road and stands out against a backdrop of early 20th-century storefronts. We climbed the short flight of stairs and walked in. The view out the windows in the airy room was of treetops, making a lovely hideaway. The décor, while fitting, was a cheap version of tasteful, and the smiley Italian hostess running around in leopard-print leggings and a halter top only added to the charm. We were seated next to a burgundy-draped window, beneath the requisite photograph of some destination in Italy.

    I opened the menu and immediately made the assessment that this would not be what I call Italian-Italian fare. It seemed more like upstate New York Italian or something from Jersey that you might find on an episode of The Sopranos. In other words, it's the food I used to eat at my maternal grandparents' house back in the '70s. This was the generation when immigrant Italian food had been perfected as its own cuisine, no longer resembling true Italian cooking but possessing a hint of Sicilian sensibility mixed with a lot of modern American appeal.

    We started with a sampler of garlic rolls ($2.50), since the menu proclaimed them "a must." They were, in fact, delicious: garlic-laced oil smothering yeasty knots of freshly cooked dough. The bread here is nothing like true Italian bread, which tends to be rustic, with lots of holes, and chewy. Café Attuare's version is nonetheless unique and tasty – slightly sweet, dense and yeasty. The crust had hardened and darkened with cooking, and it tasted more like Amish friendship bread than something from Little Italy.

    I also started with a cup of house-made minestrone ($2.50) that had an abundance of fresh vegetables, including huge chunks of fresh garlic that had been stewed to a caramel-like texture.

    Both entrees came with salads and an impressive array of homemade dressings. The Impatient Gourmet ordered a Caesar, and the real anchovy mixed into the creamy dressing impressed him greatly. I chose a fresh-looking house salad with a better-than-average Italian dressing spiked with fresh herbs.

    The Impatient Gourmet couldn't resist a stromboli ($7.95) from the pizza portion of the menu. Pepperoni, sausage and fresh veggies were rolled up with provolone and baked in the same bread as the garlic knots.

    For my entree, I tried shrimp scampi ($14.95) and this dish of linguine topped with sautéed shrimp was a mixed bag. The shrimp were lightly tender, walking a fine line between raw and tough. The wine, however, must have been poured in a downfall, because the shrimp were overly pungent, accenting the fishy smell. The whole thing was poured over the pasta in a watery mess and the flavor didn't cling well to the starch. I added some cheese and took a few bites before returning to nibbling at the stromboli bread. Impressively, Paulette, the owner in the leopard pants who I had noticed running around with a coral-lipstick-outlined smile, promptly noticed my reaction to the scampi and offered another dish.

    I decided to save room for dessert instead. I'm glad, because the homemade selections looked outstanding. Tiramisu ($4.50) with white Russian espresso was tempting, but we chose chocolate decadence cake ($4.50), which was a creamy layer of chocolate enhanced with a little amaretto and Bailey's and poured into a buttery crumb crust.

    We were so pleased with our meal that we ordered a piece of homemade lasagna ($9.25) to eat later that night while watching the season premiere of Rome, and it was fabulous.

    A starving artist could ill afford to dine at Cafe Tu Tu Tango and leave with a full tummy. A recent dinner for two at the recently opened avant-garde establishment cost close to $50.

    Entree portions at this cafe are intentionally downsized, and diners are encouraged to swap fare around the table. Nothing costs more than $8; the trouble is, you have to order at least four dishes to satisfy two normal appetites.

    Entree portions at this cafe are intentionally downsized, and diners are encouraged to swap fare around the table. Nothing costs more than $8; the trouble is, you have to order at least four dishes to satisfy two normal appetites.

    Ambience here is a curious yet entertaining blend of Mediterranean and artist's studio influences. There are actually artists at work while you eat in this minigallery, where art in various media decorates faux stucco walls and hangs from exposed overhead beams. A stilt walker and a female impersonator were sideshows during our meal. As one might expect, the mood is festive, even outrageous; the noise level loud.

    Ambience here is a curious yet entertaining blend of Mediterranean and artist's studio influences. There are actually artists at work while you eat in this minigallery, where art in various media decorates faux stucco walls and hangs from exposed overhead beams. A stilt walker and a female impersonator were sideshows during our meal. As one might expect, the mood is festive, even outrageous; the noise level loud.

    The multiethnic menu features chips, dips, breads and spreads, as well as soups, salads, fried delicacies, turnovers and Oriental rolls. There are brochettes and kabobs, pizzas, and an eclectic array of chicken wings, paella, barbecue ribs, seafood or quesadillas.

    The multiethnic menu features chips, dips, breads and spreads, as well as soups, salads, fried delicacies, turnovers and Oriental rolls. There are brochettes and kabobs, pizzas, and an eclectic array of chicken wings, paella, barbecue ribs, seafood or quesadillas.

    We began with a complimentary basket of triangular, pizzalike crusts dusted with garlic butter and herbs. Though the accompanying roasted red pepper butter was delicious, the bread would have been better warm. My corn and crabmeat chowder ($3,25) had a nice, rich flavor, though it contained more corn and potato than crab.

    We began with a complimentary basket of triangular, pizzalike crusts dusted with garlic butter and herbs. Though the accompanying roasted red pepper butter was delicious, the bread would have been better warm. My corn and crabmeat chowder ($3,25) had a nice, rich flavor, though it contained more corn and potato than crab.

    My husband's Oriental marinated steak skewer ($6) consisted of four generous and tender helpings of teriyaki seasoned skirt beef. It was paired with a delightful ginger-soy aïoli (garlic mayonnaise).

    My husband's Oriental marinated steak skewer ($6) consisted of four generous and tender helpings of teriyaki seasoned skirt beef. It was paired with a delightful ginger-soy aïoli (garlic mayonnaise).

    The Barcelona stir-fry ($8) was a colorful blend of shrimp, calamari, chicken, andouille sausage, mushrooms, bell peppers and garlic. Accompanied by a side-order of rice ($1.25), it was slightly larger than appetizer size. (The rice also made the dish more filling.) Despite the presence of sausage, we were unable to discern any smoky flavor.

    The Barcelona stir-fry ($8) was a colorful blend of shrimp, calamari, chicken, andouille sausage, mushrooms, bell peppers and garlic. Accompanied by a side-order of rice ($1.25), it was slightly larger than appetizer size. (The rice also made the dish more filling.) Despite the presence of sausage, we were unable to discern any smoky flavor.

    My chicken and poblano pizza ($6), baked in a brick oven, arrived last. There was plenty of melted cheese to complement a zesty marinara sauce, a healthy dose of peppers and a just-right thin crust. The chicken, however, was scant.

    My chicken and poblano pizza ($6), baked in a brick oven, arrived last. There was plenty of melted cheese to complement a zesty marinara sauce, a healthy dose of peppers and a just-right thin crust. The chicken, however, was scant.

    Dessert, likewise, was inconsistent. There were more silvered almonds and whipped cream than custard in my petite-sized almond and amaretto flan ($2.75), but the distinctive almond liqueur flavor was lovely.

    Dessert, likewise, was inconsistent. There were more silvered almonds and whipped cream than custard in my petite-sized almond and amaretto flan ($2.75), but the distinctive almond liqueur flavor was lovely.

    My husband's ice cream pie ($3.25) was gigantic by Tu Tu standards. Similar to a mud pie, the chocolate hazelnut and praline ice cream layers rested on a moist, chocolate spongecake crust. Topped with a cloud of whipped cream and thin, drizzled chocolate sauce, it was much better.

    My husband's ice cream pie ($3.25) was gigantic by Tu Tu standards. Similar to a mud pie, the chocolate hazelnut and praline ice cream layers rested on a moist, chocolate spongecake crust. Topped with a cloud of whipped cream and thin, drizzled chocolate sauce, it was much better.

    Service here was impressive; our server was efficient, accommodating and well-versed on food preparation. We especially liked the ice water carafe left on the table for self-serve refills.

    Until recently, Apopka was a town with an erratic dining scene, not exactly a place where you would go in search of an epicurean adventure, Italian or otherwise. Now two years old, Caffe Positano reflects the changing face of Apopka, with its fine food prepared with passion, appreciation and flair.

    Situated in an ordinary shopping plaza on Semoran Boulevard, Caffe Positano hums at lunchtime with sounds from the clamorous kitchen and echoes from customers filling up tables. Businessmen whip out cell phones while waiting for their orders, co-workers split pizzas, and suspended over it all is the aroma of spices, marinaras and thick, fresh-baked Italian loaves.

    Situated in an ordinary shopping plaza on Semoran Boulevard, Caffe Positano hums at lunchtime with sounds from the clamorous kitchen and echoes from customers filling up tables. Businessmen whip out cell phones while waiting for their orders, co-workers split pizzas, and suspended over it all is the aroma of spices, marinaras and thick, fresh-baked Italian loaves.

    The menu items were consistently excellent on our visit. The pasta e fagioli soup ($4) had a silky quality, spiked with cannellini beans and bits of pasta. We loved the aggressive, meaty flavor in the thick broth.

    The menu items were consistently excellent on our visit. The pasta e fagioli soup ($4) had a silky quality, spiked with cannellini beans and bits of pasta. We loved the aggressive, meaty flavor in the thick broth.

    An array of "pizzettes" may be one of Apopka's best-kept secrets. The "white pizzetta" ($6.25) was a standout with a touch of fresh garlic, and a fluffy bed of melted mozzarella and ricotta cheeses. We asked for spinach and broccoli as extras, and they added earthy textures and tastes without weighing it down. The crust was perfection, glazed with the sheen of olive oil and fired in the oven for a delicious crunch.

    An array of "pizzettes" may be one of Apopka's best-kept secrets. The "white pizzetta" ($6.25) was a standout with a touch of fresh garlic, and a fluffy bed of melted mozzarella and ricotta cheeses. We asked for spinach and broccoli as extras, and they added earthy textures and tastes without weighing it down. The crust was perfection, glazed with the sheen of olive oil and fired in the oven for a delicious crunch.

    All of the entrees come with a choice of soup or salad, and I recommend one of the light, buoyant salads, topped with shaved petals of carrots and tossed with a delicate, almost floral, Italian dressing. Among the entrees, "veal zingarella" ($12) wins applause for its lemony undertones. It's sautéed in butter and white wine, so naturally it's rich and juicy. The tangy quality is carried a step further with capers and plump, tender artichokes. We couldn't get enough.

    All of the entrees come with a choice of soup or salad, and I recommend one of the light, buoyant salads, topped with shaved petals of carrots and tossed with a delicate, almost floral, Italian dressing. Among the entrees, "veal zingarella" ($12) wins applause for its lemony undertones. It's sautéed in butter and white wine, so naturally it's rich and juicy. The tangy quality is carried a step further with capers and plump, tender artichokes. We couldn't get enough.

    "Chicken mama mia" ($8.50) holds its own against a sautéed sauce of balsamic vinegar and a bare hint of cream. Shiitake mushrooms are sliced evenly and tossed on top for a rich finish.

    "Chicken mama mia" ($8.50) holds its own against a sautéed sauce of balsamic vinegar and a bare hint of cream. Shiitake mushrooms are sliced evenly and tossed on top for a rich finish.

    For dessert, you can have the usual tiramisu or cannoli, but better yet try a tartuffo ($4.75), a baseball-sized scoop of chocolate and mocha ice cream, rolled in a crumbly blanket of chocolate cookies. It's served on its own dinner platter, surrounded by a zigzag necklace of chocolate syrup.

    For dessert, you can have the usual tiramisu or cannoli, but better yet try a tartuffo ($4.75), a baseball-sized scoop of chocolate and mocha ice cream, rolled in a crumbly blanket of chocolate cookies. It's served on its own dinner platter, surrounded by a zigzag necklace of chocolate syrup.

    Apopka isn't exactly the crossroads of Orlando, but Caffe Positano's menu is so appealing that it rates a special trip, if necessary.

    When dining out, do you like to be greeted three times, by name, before you are seated? Do you like to have someone refold your napkin every time you get up to use the bathroom? Speaking of the bathroom, do you like to have someone lead you there? Do you like to have the waiter give your leftovers to the valet, who delicately places them in the backseat of your car so you don't have to be burdened with carrying them yourself?

    If you answered yes to any of these questions, your table is waiting at The Capital Grille. Enjoy your meal. If, on the other hand, you think that $200 is an outrageous sum of money for two people to spend on dinner at any restaurant ' quality of service and food be damned ' then you're better off at almost any of the innumerable other steakhouses in this town, because you'll leave The Capital Grille impressed with the service and annoyed with the prices. Just like I did.

    So let's get this out of the way: No steak served a la carte is worth $36. An excellent steak that came with two or more generous sides could fairly command that kind of money. But a slab of beef sitting there all lonely on a white plate? Not unless you are a lobbyist trying to buy Katherine Harris' largesse.

    Oh yeah, the food. In a word, it's good. Notice I didn't use 'exquisite,â?� 'otherworldly,â?� 'masterfulâ?� or any other adjective that would convey the sense that dinner was worth two C-notes plus.

    We started with a lightly battered, pan-fried calamari appetizer ($12) in which the salty crunch of the squid was nicely balanced by the heat of sliced cherry peppers. Topped with a squirt of fresh lemon, it was the best dish of the night; ahem.

    A cup of French onion soup ($5) was unremarkable, as was the spinach salad with warm bacon dressing. The latter didn't quite cut it because I was expecting a wilted salad just like mom used to make, and what I was served was an unwilted salad with room-temperature dressing. Mom, by the way, never charged $7 for her salad.

    All of which is a prelude to the aforementioned lonely slab o' beef. Our waiter, Christopher (I know his name because he gave me his card), almost lulled me to sleep with a long tale of beef dry-aged in-house. There were so many options, cuts, sauces and crusts that I could not follow along. So I ordered the 'Kona-crusted sirloin steak with caramelized shallot butterâ?� ($36). My companion went with a porcini-rubbed filet mignon ($34).

    Yes, these were fine steaks. No, they were not the best steaks I've ever had. The crust on the sirloin was a spicy mixture of coffee, pepper and sugar that tasted much better than it sounds. But for all Christopher's talk of dry aging, the beef lacked the intense flavor and almost fall-apart tenderness of really top-shelf steak. Similarly, the filet was tender, juicy and more than satisfactory, but nothing different than cuts available at a dozen other places.

    Add a skimpy side of creamy mashed potatoes ($4.50 for a half-order), a plate of roasted mushrooms ($9), two drinks and a bottle of wine ($54) and the total came to $190 and change. With a tip you are in a rarified realm of dining that had better be extraordinary. While the fastidious service and posh atmosphere were worthy of those prices, I can't say the same for the cuisine.

    Other than, what a waste of time and money, about the only other thing I could think about on the drive home from an overpriced dinner at the Capriccio Grill Italian Steakhouse was how many starving people could have been fed with the money just spent. The experience was that much of a downer. When more than 100 bucks is dropped on a dinner for two, not counting drinks or wine, then it had better be a hedonistic experience, worthy of the indulgence. And there was only one thing that was special about Capriccio's new menu: The steak, from Ruprecht's, one of the oldest operating beef processors in Chicago and a purveyor of quality meats to high-end steakhouses around the country. Though expensive – $37 for the restaurant's "signature" 24-ounce rib-eye – the meat was worthy. The experience as a whole was not.

    Reservations are recommended at Capriccio, and it's a good thing we had them. The hostesses were routinely turning away party after party that showed up without them, making it seem too big a deal when we sailed into the shotgun-style dining room, ushered past grumbling guests. Capriccio is on the first floor of The Peabody Orlando, easy to park at and enter, across the street from the Orange County Convention Center. It's the hotel's supposedly midpriced restaurant; there's also the more formal and expensive Dux and the cheaper and more fun Beeline Diner. The decor is an outdated style of subdued urban chic, with contemporary lighting and fresh exotic flowers contrasting dark wood tables and checkered marble floors.

    Reservations are recommended at Capriccio, and it's a good thing we had them. The hostesses were routinely turning away party after party that showed up without them, making it seem too big a deal when we sailed into the shotgun-style dining room, ushered past grumbling guests. Capriccio is on the first floor of The Peabody Orlando, easy to park at and enter, across the street from the Orange County Convention Center. It's the hotel's supposedly midpriced restaurant; there's also the more formal and expensive Dux and the cheaper and more fun Beeline Diner. The decor is an outdated style of subdued urban chic, with contemporary lighting and fresh exotic flowers contrasting dark wood tables and checkered marble floors.

    In the back, the main dining area is built around the kitchen, where sweating cooks and steaming pans are in full view. We were seated at a small round café table squeezed into a sort of makeshift spot between the pathway and the bussing station, in front of the kitchen. Many passing eyes observed our table that night, and we managed to avoid any injury when water spilled and dishes broke at the server station. I was surprised into politeness when a server ducked under the table to pick up some broken glass – "Excuse me, madam," he said, kneeling down beside me with a towel ready to dry me off – or maybe wrap my wounds – if necessary.

    In the back, the main dining area is built around the kitchen, where sweating cooks and steaming pans are in full view. We were seated at a small round café table squeezed into a sort of makeshift spot between the pathway and the bussing station, in front of the kitchen. Many passing eyes observed our table that night, and we managed to avoid any injury when water spilled and dishes broke at the server station. I was surprised into politeness when a server ducked under the table to pick up some broken glass – "Excuse me, madam," he said, kneeling down beside me with a towel ready to dry me off – or maybe wrap my wounds – if necessary.

    Our cocktails were unimpressive – the dried olive and brown-spotted lime wedge stuck on the toothpick in the Bloody Mary ($6.25) looked like leftovers. The Grey Goose martini ($8.50) ordered "dirty" was served clean, and also was cheapened by aged olives. The flatbread in the complimentary basket was stale, but there were some fresh rolls in there, too.

    Our cocktails were unimpressive – the dried olive and brown-spotted lime wedge stuck on the toothpick in the Bloody Mary ($6.25) looked like leftovers. The Grey Goose martini ($8.50) ordered "dirty" was served clean, and also was cheapened by aged olives. The flatbread in the complimentary basket was stale, but there were some fresh rolls in there, too.

    Ordering entrees, we acknowledged Capriccio's Italian past. We selected one of the favorite pasta dishes still on the menu, as recommended by our friendly server, the "penne e pollo" ($16.95), with pieces of chicken, grapes and walnuts covered in a Gorgonzola sauce. And we ordered the 12-ounce filet mignon ($34), topped by an "Oscar" sauce that was a special on this evening. Later, the bill reflected the $12.95 addition of the teaspoon or so of rich crabmeat and two stalks of asparagus topped by hollandaise sauce.

    Ordering entrees, we acknowledged Capriccio's Italian past. We selected one of the favorite pasta dishes still on the menu, as recommended by our friendly server, the "penne e pollo" ($16.95), with pieces of chicken, grapes and walnuts covered in a Gorgonzola sauce. And we ordered the 12-ounce filet mignon ($34), topped by an "Oscar" sauce that was a special on this evening. Later, the bill reflected the $12.95 addition of the teaspoon or so of rich crabmeat and two stalks of asparagus topped by hollandaise sauce.

    When it arrived, the beef carpaccio appetizer ($9.50) offered the perfect opportunity to taste Ruprecht's product in its rarest form – thin shavings of raw meat, seasoned and dressed with tangy capers, tart lemon and a sprinkling of Parmesan. Sanguine and delicate, the carpaccio paired well with the spinach salad ($7.95), which was fine if nothing fancy.

    When it arrived, the beef carpaccio appetizer ($9.50) offered the perfect opportunity to taste Ruprecht's product in its rarest form – thin shavings of raw meat, seasoned and dressed with tangy capers, tart lemon and a sprinkling of Parmesan. Sanguine and delicate, the carpaccio paired well with the spinach salad ($7.95), which was fine if nothing fancy.

    Then came the $17 pasta insult. To relive the experience as quickly as possible: Cool al dente penne was dumped on top of a puddle of steaming sauce, so I had to mix up the dish myself. (My fingers got a bit burned – no big deal.) The rich and biting Gorgonzola sauce desperately needed the sweet grapes and the texture of the nuts to cut the thickness. But the spare bits and pieces of grape and nut and chicken were hunted and downed within a handful of bites. Across the table, the properly "flash-seared" fillet was full of flavor, enhanced by the Oscar treatment. The recommended glass of Merlot was a smart choice for taste but was a $12 slam.

    Then came the $17 pasta insult. To relive the experience as quickly as possible: Cool al dente penne was dumped on top of a puddle of steaming sauce, so I had to mix up the dish myself. (My fingers got a bit burned – no big deal.) The rich and biting Gorgonzola sauce desperately needed the sweet grapes and the texture of the nuts to cut the thickness. But the spare bits and pieces of grape and nut and chicken were hunted and downed within a handful of bites. Across the table, the properly "flash-seared" fillet was full of flavor, enhanced by the Oscar treatment. The recommended glass of Merlot was a smart choice for taste but was a $12 slam.

    The coffee was good and a bargain (no charge), and there was no oversweetening of the mixed berries in the cobbler ($7.75), though the crust tasted stale, like it had been out in the humid air too long.

    The coffee was good and a bargain (no charge), and there was no oversweetening of the mixed berries in the cobbler ($7.75), though the crust tasted stale, like it had been out in the humid air too long.

    If you're here for a convention and want steak, jump on I-4 and head downtown to Kres Chophouse for a much more special night out. If you're stuck in the hotel, head for the Beeline Diner for meatloaf.

    Foodwise, our corner of the state is a lot more diverse than meets the eye. You could dine at Applebee's every night for a fortnight and never eat at the same restaurant twice, true, but if you venture off the beaten track even a little in Central Florida you are bound to come across some surprises.

    Caribbean Queen Cuisine, a no-frills, family-run restaurant on the west side, is such a place. If you are hungry for a taste of the islands, but one of those all-inclusive package pig-outs to Jamaica isn't in the budget right now, stop by. It will be the cheapest culinary tour you've ever taken.

    Caribbean Queen Cuisine, a no-frills, family-run restaurant on the west side, is such a place. If you are hungry for a taste of the islands, but one of those all-inclusive package pig-outs to Jamaica isn't in the budget right now, stop by. It will be the cheapest culinary tour you've ever taken.

    Tucked way in the corner of the Park Promenade mall, the place is easy to miss. (The location gets bonus points with this writer for being next door to a Goodwill store, where I nabbed two bitchin' dress shirts for $7. Score!) In fact, my wife predicts the location will doom the place.

    Tucked way in the corner of the Park Promenade mall, the place is easy to miss. (The location gets bonus points with this writer for being next door to a Goodwill store, where I nabbed two bitchin' dress shirts for $7. Score!) In fact, my wife predicts the location will doom the place. Which would be too bad, really, because for the price ($5) I can't remember a better plate of curried goat. I'm a big fan of goat. For the uninitiated, goat meat tastes just like a goat smells. You'll love it or you'll hate it, but if you're going to eat Jamaican (or Indian) food, you'd better at least be prepared to try it. Which would be too bad, really, because for the price ($5) I can't remember a better plate of curried goat. I'm a big fan of goat. For the uninitiated, goat meat tastes just like a goat smells. You'll love it or you'll hate it, but if you're going to eat Jamaican (or Indian) food, you'd better at least be prepared to try it.

    Goat can be tough, but this serving was tender, and smothered in a rich sauce that could have used more curry. Goat can also be bony, and this serving was indeed bony. You've got to be patient to eat a goat.

    Goat can be tough, but this serving was tender, and smothered in a rich sauce that could have used more curry. Goat can also be bony, and this serving was indeed bony. You've got to be patient to eat a goat.

    We also tried the oxtail ($5), which is exactly what you think it is: the tail of an ox. No, they don't just plop the whole thing, sausage-like, on your plate. They cut it into sections at the joints, so what you're left with are bone discs containing small cavities of dark, succulent meat. (You also have to be patient to eat an ox's tail.) It came in a rich, red sauce that only hinted of the fiery peppers found in jerk dishes.

    We also tried the oxtail ($5), which is exactly what you think it is: the tail of an ox. No, they don't just plop the whole thing, sausage-like, on your plate. They cut it into sections at the joints, so what you're left with are bone discs containing small cavities of dark, succulent meat. (You also have to be patient to eat an ox's tail.) It came in a rich, red sauce that only hinted of the fiery peppers found in jerk dishes.

    Both dinners came with sides of rice and peas, a cabbage salad and a fried knot of sweet dough they called a dumpling. It was a huge amount of food for the price.

    Both dinners came with sides of rice and peas, a cabbage salad and a fried knot of sweet dough they called a dumpling. It was a huge amount of food for the price.

    We also tried the Jamaican beef and jerk chicken patties, which are kept in a warming oven on the counter. If you like meat pies, you'll like these soft pillows of dough stuffed with beef, jerk chicken or vegetables. They're incredibly filling, and incredibly cheap at only $1 each.

    We also tried the Jamaican beef and jerk chicken patties, which are kept in a warming oven on the counter. If you like meat pies, you'll like these soft pillows of dough stuffed with beef, jerk chicken or vegetables. They're incredibly filling, and incredibly cheap at only $1 each.

    As for décor, well, there just isn't much to write about. There's green carpet on the floors, wood paneling on the walls and lots of tables, most of which were empty the night we visited. The place is clean and unassuming. And did I mention cheap?

    As for décor, well, there just isn't much to write about. There's green carpet on the floors, wood paneling on the walls and lots of tables, most of which were empty the night we visited. The place is clean and unassuming. And did I mention cheap?

    So here's the drill: Stop in, grab a Ting (Jamaican grapefruit soda) from the cooler and a beef patty from the counter, then order a plate of something you've never tried before. Dinner will be ready about the time you've polished off that patty. You'll get a lot of food, change for a ten and a trip to the islands, for your stomach anyway.

    Carrino's has a reputation as a go-to spot for Bay Hill -- and Windermere-based celebrities, sports figures and the odd boy band. (It's the answer to a trivia question on a Backstreet Boys fan site: "What is the name of the restaurant where the Boys had to sing for their dinner?") Hopefully the Boys didn't give over more than a note or two, because the food at Carrino's doesn't warrant much beyond a chorus.

    There isn't any corollary between food and value here, and not much that stands out on the menu. A standard item such as chicken parmigiana ($14.95) is overbreaded, cooked to a soft, unexciting consistency and drowned in bland marinara. The eggplant rollatini, one of my favorites ($13.95), was even softer, the combination of ricotta and mozzarella cheeses overpowering what little flavor the eggplant once had. I tried the "irresistible" pasta trio of ziti and stuffed shells (another lesson in marinara swimming) and a bowl of fettuccini Alfredo without much taste ($13.95).

    There isn't any corollary between food and value here, and not much that stands out on the menu. A standard item such as chicken parmigiana ($14.95) is overbreaded, cooked to a soft, unexciting consistency and drowned in bland marinara. The eggplant rollatini, one of my favorites ($13.95), was even softer, the combination of ricotta and mozzarella cheeses overpowering what little flavor the eggplant once had. I tried the "irresistible" pasta trio of ziti and stuffed shells (another lesson in marinara swimming) and a bowl of fettuccini Alfredo without much taste ($13.95).

    On a plus side, the grilled "Milano panini" sandwich ($6.95), of eggplant, spinach, mushrooms and provolone, had a pleasant combination of flavors and textures. And their pizza falls somewhere between superb and terrible; good crust, mediocre sauce. Meat sauce on the lasagna ($13.50) was richer tasting -- but 13 bucks for lasagna?

    On a plus side, the grilled "Milano panini" sandwich ($6.95), of eggplant, spinach, mushrooms and provolone, had a pleasant combination of flavors and textures. And their pizza falls somewhere between superb and terrible; good crust, mediocre sauce. Meat sauce on the lasagna ($13.50) was richer tasting -- but 13 bucks for lasagna?

    They could call this restaurant "Café Scusa," because apologies were flying the relatively quiet night we were there. A 15-minute wait at the table without server or menu was explained with, "Sorry, I wasn't told you were here." A delay with the wine was met by "Sorry, the bartender is backed up." (Insert your own joke here.)

    They could call this restaurant "Café Scusa," because apologies were flying the relatively quiet night we were there. A 15-minute wait at the table without server or menu was explained with, "Sorry, I wasn't told you were here." A delay with the wine was met by "Sorry, the bartender is backed up." (Insert your own joke here.)

    Considering that restaurant staffs are practically falling over themselves to accommodate guests these days, I was surprised by the answer to my request to substitute gnocchi for ziti: "Sorry, they won't do it."

    Considering that restaurant staffs are practically falling over themselves to accommodate guests these days, I was surprised by the answer to my request to substitute gnocchi for ziti: "Sorry, they won't do it."

    When the person who served my fettuccini accidentally poured a plateful of oil into it while clearing the table, we both stared at the ruined dish -- I guess he was hoping I hadn't noticed -- and then he took the plate away. "Sorry," came after.

    When the person who served my fettuccini accidentally poured a plateful of oil into it while clearing the table, we both stared at the ruined dish -- I guess he was hoping I hadn't noticed -- and then he took the plate away. "Sorry," came after.

    It's a shame. Carrino's is pleasant inside, overlooking Little Sand Lake, and with owner Anthony Carrino's long family history in restaurants (Carrino's was at its former Bay Hill location for 16 years), the food and service should have been casually impeccable. Instead it was no better than what any neighborhood pizzeria could cobble together, and at a higher price.

    It's a shame. Carrino's is pleasant inside, overlooking Little Sand Lake, and with owner Anthony Carrino's long family history in restaurants (Carrino's was at its former Bay Hill location for 16 years), the food and service should have been casually impeccable. Instead it was no better than what any neighborhood pizzeria could cobble together, and at a higher price.

    If you're looking for great Italian food, I never wanna hear you say, "I want it that way."

    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.

    I'm an appetizer fanatic. Gimme a big assortment of little dishes and I am happy. That's why Korean, Indian and Chinese food pleases me so much. Now, with the opening of Cedar's Restaurant, I can add Lebanese to that list.

    In a break from the Corporate Fooding of the Sand Lake Road corridor through the Dr. Phillips area, Cedar's is privately owned, and it's hard to beat the hands-on care. With a background in restaurants in New York, the owners say they wanted to "present healthy, well-made food" to Central Florida, and they've succeeded.

    In a break from the Corporate Fooding of the Sand Lake Road corridor through the Dr. Phillips area, Cedar's is privately owned, and it's hard to beat the hands-on care. With a background in restaurants in New York, the owners say they wanted to "present healthy, well-made food" to Central Florida, and they've succeeded.

    My other obsession is food that is authentically traditional, and Cedar's, in a pistachio nutshell, does it right. Their spin on traditional Lebanese seems to be a lightness of texture and flavor that is both refreshing and inviting. If you're familiar, with Middle Eastern food you won't be disappointed. But if your only experience has been leaden falafel and overwhelming spices, you are in for a treat.

    My other obsession is food that is authentically traditional, and Cedar's, in a pistachio nutshell, does it right. Their spin on traditional Lebanese seems to be a lightness of texture and flavor that is both refreshing and inviting. If you're familiar, with Middle Eastern food you won't be disappointed. But if your only experience has been leaden falafel and overwhelming spices, you are in for a treat.

    There are far too many appetizers to describe. Even the small pitas are splendid, puffy and hot from the clay oven. Use them to scoop up baba ghannouj, a smooth roasted eggplant and garlic puree with a wonderfully smokey taste ($3.75), as well as shanklish, crumbled cheese blended with thyme, onions and tomato that's so creamy it literally does melt in your mouth ($4.75). Falafel (fried chick peas and bean patties; $3.75) is far lighter than I've ever come across, and a tasty pleasure. The very traditional kebbeh ($4.25) is a flavorful cracked wheat ball stuffed with ground meat and onions.

    There are far too many appetizers to describe. Even the small pitas are splendid, puffy and hot from the clay oven. Use them to scoop up baba ghannouj, a smooth roasted eggplant and garlic puree with a wonderfully smokey taste ($3.75), as well as shanklish, crumbled cheese blended with thyme, onions and tomato that's so creamy it literally does melt in your mouth ($4.75). Falafel (fried chick peas and bean patties; $3.75) is far lighter than I've ever come across, and a tasty pleasure. The very traditional kebbeh ($4.25) is a flavorful cracked wheat ball stuffed with ground meat and onions.

    If you want to start with something familiar, here's a restaurant that knows its shish kabobs ($14.75) – cubes of marinated lamb, slow roasted and tender. When you feel adventurous, move on to mouloukhieh ($10.75), chicken with malow leaves, cilantro and garlic.

    If you want to start with something familiar, here's a restaurant that knows its shish kabobs ($14.75) – cubes of marinated lamb, slow roasted and tender. When you feel adventurous, move on to mouloukhieh ($10.75), chicken with malow leaves, cilantro and garlic.

    "Sultan Ibrahim" ($16) is a plateful of small red mullet (I had five), an ancient coastal fish that has a deep, freshwater flavor and is seldom served in the U.S. The fish are served whole and it takes work to get around the bones. But it's delicious, accompanied by tender fried-eggplant rounds and sesame tahini sauce, and worth the effort.

    "Sultan Ibrahim" ($16) is a plateful of small red mullet (I had five), an ancient coastal fish that has a deep, freshwater flavor and is seldom served in the U.S. The fish are served whole and it takes work to get around the bones. But it's delicious, accompanied by tender fried-eggplant rounds and sesame tahini sauce, and worth the effort.

    The place itself is light and window-filled, with Ottoman arches, columns and a pleasant dining terrace. Be sure to eat just the right amount so you're sleepy enough to offset the jolt of pure caffeine disguised as Turkish coffee. It's a delicate balance that may take two or three visits to get right. Fortunately, you'll enjoy every attempt.

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