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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can tell that size matters to Bobby Moore. The local restaurateur seems to believe that good things come in big, sometimes gargantuan, packages. Step inside the Big Fin Seafood Kitchen ' his 11,000-square-foot behemoth of a seafood emporium ' and you'll see that philosophy in action: It's an imposing space with a centerpiece globe dangling from the high ceiling and large murals reading 'Best Tails in Townâ?� and 'We've Got the Crabs.â?� Classy. Then again, Big Fin is a perfect fit amid the grandiose environs of the Dellagio Town Center. Ample square footage appears to be a requisite for tenancy here ' a requirement Moore was more than happy to satisfy after the economy and the tax man harpooned his previous venture, Beluga, in Winter
Park Village.

Still, finding refuge in this enormous and clamorous fish tank is possible ' just ask for a table in the carpeted Atlantic Room and conversations can be had with your dining comrades. 

You'll certainly hear cries of disappointment if they run out of crab legs (as was the case on the Saturday evening we visited), murmurs of dissatisfaction after slurping the 'ya ya gumboâ?� ($5.95) and exclamations of joy at the shrimp cocktail ($9.95) and can't-eat-just-one flash-fried potato chips ($7.95), served with a roasted garlic-horseradish gorgonzola fondue. Yellowtail nigiri ($4.95) had us nodding our heads, yes, yes; room-temperature tuna sashimi ($4.95), not so much. The steakhouse roll ($6.95), with shaved prime rib, asparagus, horseradish mayonnaise and arugula, was different, but not different enough. 'It was almost innovative,â?� one of my dining partners remarked.

When the mains arrived, we were hopeful for a better effort from the kitchen. Blue crab crusted grouper ($29.95), served with a light beurre blanc, lived up to all expectations. Both the fish and the crab pancake were perfect. Garlic mashed potatoes, sadly, were dry to the point of being crumbly. Queen snapper en papillote ($24.95) was a letdown not because of its flavor, but because it was unevenly cooked. The same lapse plagued the pan-seared mahi mahi piccata ($22.95), an otherwise flavorful fillet topped with lemon, capers and again with the beurre blanc.

The pound-and-a-half broiled Maine lobster ($26.95) fulfilled the restaurant's assertion of serving the best tails in town. Unfortunately, the rest of the crustacean's flesh was zapped of its succulence due to overbroiling. Indeed, parts appeared blackened ' not browned ' and no measure of melted butter could've salvaged this
charred invertebrate.

But dessert provided sweet redemption. A homemade New Orleans-style bread pudding ($5.95) was given a delightfully airy rendering, with caramelized banana slices, vanilla ice cream and amaretto sauce. The big finale came in the form of the 'Big Fin dessert� ($14.95), a rich, decadent milk chocolate brownie cup drizzled with caramel sauce and speckled with pecans. It was big enough to finish off a table of four and helped erase the slightly bitter memory of the mains. 

The fresh catch, the service and even the soaring space put Big Fin in an enviable position. If it shores up the kitchen, it should do swimmingly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Peruvians haven't played in a World Cup since the '80s, but El Sanguchon's ultra-authentic Peruvian home cooking scores major points. Everything is made from scratch, including the pillowy bread with crackly crust that accompanies the tamale con pan y salsa criolla ($5.99), a good example of a major tenet of Peruvian cooking: starch on starch. The carbs were sided with the classic condiment of thinly sliced raw red onion (made milder by washing the slices under cold water) marinated in lemon and cilantro. 

Likewise, french fries and rice are served with thin, tender steak and eggs in the bistec a lo pobre ($13.99). If you fancy fish, the pescado a lo macho is a cornmeal-crusted catfish wonder, smothered in golden cream sauce teeming with scallops, shrimp and fresh calamari. 

Chile has the edge on wine in South America, but El Sanguchon serves a delicious Peruvian Chincha Valley semisweet vintage, Borgoña, ($4.50, glass; $24, bottle) that pairs well with leche asada ($2.50), broiled custard with sweet caramel syrup glaze. 

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