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Although we tend to think of "Indian" as one cuisine, there are many cultures within that country, and diets differ dramatically. In general, the food of Southern India is fragrant with curry leaves, coconuts and tamarind. In the North, cream and yogurt are common ingredients and the predominant spice is garam masala, a mixture based on cardamom, clove, black pepper and cumin.

Serving Northern-style cuisine is just what Amit Kumar and partner Joy Kakkanad were after when they opened Aashirwad (meaning "blessing") last November on the south side of Orlando. And although that is not a part of town hungering for an Indian restaurant, the owners wanted to set themselves apart by keeping the cost affordable.

This is certainly the case at lunch, when Aashirwad serves a tasty, if depleted at times, buffet for only $6.95. Every day, the buffet is stocked with favorites such as chicken tikka masala, tandoori chicken, curry and rice. They also have salad and a rotating array of vegetarian items that make this buffet well worth the price of admission. But it's necessary to exercise patience when eating here – service is slow, and they don't always keep the buffet completely stocked. My second trip to the mother lode was fraught with empty chafing dishes (in one there were three florets of cauliflower) and puddles of spilled curry sauce. Eventually we were waited on, and eventually the buffet was restocked. Even though this wasn't a fast lunch, I would happily recommend it for the frugal and hungry.

The dinner experience at Aashirwad is more suggestive of the basic hospitality background studied by Kumar and Kakkanad in hotel/restaurant management school in India: They keep the lights low, the music medium and the service high. Still, the restaurant is in a strip mall on the corner of International Drive and Kirkman Road, and the dining room itself is nothing special, just a collection of booths and tables and Indian-inspired wall hangings.

We started our meal with aromatic vegetable samosas ($3.50), delicate and flaky pastry snugly enfolding a mixture of potatoes and peas. Most of the vegetables at Aashirwad seemed slightly abused, as if they were overcooked or kept around too long, and the starchy-tasting veggies in the samosas were no exception.

Both the tandoori chicken ($11.95) and the tandoori mixed grill ($15.95) were fabulously flavorful and rich with the characteristic charred smokiness of the signature clay oven. The lamb that comes as part of the mix was succulent and moist, but the morsels of chicken were on the dry side. A nice element of surprise was the addition of grilled paneer (Indian-style cottage cheese); the smooth creaminess of the cheese and the spiciness of the seasonings blended quite beautifully.

I was disappointed with Aashirwad's version of palak paneer ($9.45), creamy spinach with cubes of Indian cheese. The spinach lacked the usual creaminess and tasted flat; the cheese – though very tasty itself – kind of hung in suspension and seemed out of place.

Many things we tasted were good but were shy of being great. The cucumber and yogurt condiment, raita ($1.95), didn't burst with flavor; the chickpea crackers with cumin seeds, pappadam (complimentary), were slightly greasy; the lentils with tomatoes and onions, tadka dal ($8.95), had a watery quality. But the tandoor-baked bread, naan ($1.50) was spectacular: springy and soft in the center, yet crisp and smoky on the outside where it melded with the heat of the clay oven.

I have a feeling this restaurant hasn't quite hit its stride yet. Until then, I'll go back just for the naan.

In the midst of celebrity-branded restaurants and kiosks slinging theme-park kitsch, the Cowfish at Universal CityWalk, occupying a sprawling three-story space with more than 500 seats, fills the need for a kind of inventive, delightfully weird cuisine. There’s a menu section for burgers, one for sushi, and a selection of bizarre combinations requiring a suspension of disbelief, like the Buffaloooo-shi burgushi roll: chipotle bison, fried green tomato and feta rolled in crispy tempura flakes. It works.

When the pair of cordial thick-necked bruisers requested I remove my hat before entering this brassy two-story behemoth of a restaurant, I'll admit I was a little nonplussed. Would they rather I dine in their establishment with a severe case of hat-head? I mean, this is Pointe Orlando, not Park Avenue, and the restaurant, with all its kitschy details, seems like it could've been Epcot's lost Cuban pavilion. Not to mention the fact that in all my culinary travels in Cuba, not once was I ever asked to remove any headwear. So I found it somewhat ironic and a little pretentious that a restaurant named 'Cuba Libreâ?� would bar me from entering their establishment for not removing my hat. Free Cuba? Whatever.

I made sure my cabeza was free of any gorras on my second visit, and irony of ironies, they sat me outside. Yes, the ghost of Fulgencio Batista was undoubtedly chuckling from beyond the grave, yet after sampling an overly diluted mojito ($8.50) and cuba libre ($9.50), I got a few laughs in myself (unfortunately they were of the snickering variety). But after being seated by my blasé hostess, things got remarkably better thanks in large part to former James Beard award-winner Guillermo Pernot ' the chain's concept chef and a maestro of Nuevo Latino cuisine. I knew restitution was at hand after sampling the subtly crunchy papas rellenas ($9.50). The deceptively light potato croquettes came filled with luscious beef picadillo laced with a smoky guajillo pepper sauce, and each subsequent dish maintained the same level of quality. Heavenly cuts of pulled braised duck inside the cool, crisp and refreshing pato roll ($11) made double-dipping into peanut and ponzu sauces a delight. The spring roll was equally herbaceous and sweet, thanks to watercress, cilantro, candied papaya and mango.

An inordinate amount of time passed before our entrees arrived ' despite a phalanx of waiters and ear-pieced managers patrolling the 20,000 square-foot space, efficiency seemed to be compromised. No matter, I was giddy at the sight of the sea bass a la plancha ($25) when it finally arrived, and not one flaky bit of that chile/citrus/sesame-brushed fish failed to rouse. A nod to Havana's bustling Chinatown came in the form of a side of glistening 'Chino-Cubanoâ?� rice, colored with red peppers, okra, baby cauliflower, peas and carrots. Moros y Cristianos (literally 'Moors and Christiansâ?�), a blend of white rice and black beans, was the centerpiece in the plato cuba libre ($29.50), a platter of standard ropa vieja, succulent churrasco and an outstanding chicken infused with guajillo peppers. The trio of signature dishes in the platter changes nightly, but you're sure to get a representative sampling of traditional Cuban fare no matter what the night.

You'd expect desserts to have tropical leanings and, sure enough, all comprise a fruity component. Tres leches de banana ($8) was wonderfully milky ' being soaked in three banana-flavored milks will do that, though I didn't know three banana-flavored milks even existed. Roasted pineapple accompanies the warm soufflé torte ($8), a pleasing capper layered with dulce de leche and served with dulce de leche gelato.

Like the neighboring Capital Grille and Oceanaire Seafood Room, prices here aren't exactly recession-friendly. Passing the cost of running a grand establishment to the consumer isn't a novel tactic, but at least diners at Cuba Libre are treated to dishes of worth.

And for that, I offer a tip of my forbidden cap.

Rigorous sustainability and local sourcing are integral to chef Cory York's  stellar seafood dishes, though you'll have to navigate the depths of Disney property to sample them The astoounding crab cake is an absolute must, though the eight fresh fish options are the real draw. Don't overlook prime cuts of beef - the 22-ounce T-bone is a budget-buster, but well worth the price. Desserts please, but won't necessarily wow. Validated parking offered.


Teaser: Rigorous sustainability and local sourcing are integral to chef Cory York's stellar seafood dishes, though you'll have to navigate the depths of Disney property to sample them. The astounding crab cake is an absolute must, though the eight fresh fish options are the real draw. Don't overlook prime cuts of beef ' the 22-ounce T-bone is a budget-buster, but well worth the price. Desserts please, but won't necessarily wow. Validated parking offered.

Franco Petrarca always had grander visions for his humble pizzeria, visions that would gradually be realized through a series of menu tweaks, interior design facelifts and personnel changes. But the coup de grâce came earlier this year when he convinced Rosario Limonio, former head chef of Winter Park’s critically acclaimed Limoncello and Allegria restaurants, to run the relatively small kitchen at Famas and transport some culinary legitimacy to the I-Drive corridor. No question Limonio is a maestro of Italian cuisine – multiple requests for him to appear on Food Network’s Iron Chef are a testament to his kitchen mettle. While he bides his time gathering the right team for that boob-tube pressure cooker, he’s honing his skills inside this modest trattoria.

Famas has a split personality, with a brightly lit dine-and-dash left wing and a hushed, moderately romantic dining area to the right, but there’s no disorder when it comes to the character of the dishes. Limonio is on top of his game, brandishing a menu covering all regions of the Boot and, in the case of the insalata di mele ($8.95), a bit of the Pacific Northwest as well. The simple salad of Braeburn apple slices circling baby greens capped with gorgonzola crumbles and walnuts made for a vitalizing start, while artichoke oil and fresh basil added a bold dimension to the sun-dried tomato vinaigrette.

The chunky sauce in the cozze all’ arrabiata ($9.95) upstaged the generous heaping of mussels, the spicy bath of ripe, plump tomatoes offering plenty of zest to go along with the smack of garlic. If I had had additional wedges of garlic bread, that bowl would’ve been sopped clean.

Two mains – filetto al funghi porcini and agnello al rosmarino – were offered together as a special for $25.95, an absolute steal and a fine example of the chef’s talents. The filet’s silken coating of cognac and porcini mushroom sauce was just heavenly, as was the herbaceous rosemary-rubbed rack of lamb. The accompanying vegetable was a creative “burger” comprised of breaded eggplant, roasted red pepper, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and artichokes. The side of rice was infused with wild mushrooms, walnuts and the robust smokiness of guanciale (wild boar jowls – a flavor many chefs replicate with the more readily available pancetta).

I could hear the chicken for the pollo marsala ($15.95) being pounded in the kitchen, and the result was a wonderfully moist slab crowned with button and porcini mushrooms. On past visits, I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying a decadent four-cheese gnocchi ($14.95), scrumptious gourmet pizza ($14.95) and risotto campagnola ($15.95), a sort of vegetarian take on the filetto al funghi porcini.

Petrarca’s commitment to pleasing his rising star results in huge benefits for diners, as you’ll be hard-pressed to find a dish unworthy of praise. Same goes for the dolci, also prepared by Limonio. Tiramisu ($5.95), simultaneously spongy and boozy, is a post-meal pick-me-up; cannoli ($4.50), with velvety ricotta, strikes the perfect crisp/fluffy balance; and if the lemon cake ($5.95) is available, don’t think twice – just order it.

The evening’s only downside was the service. Our harried waiter seemed unfamiliar with the menu, neglected to ensure silverware was on the table and was slow to clear away dishes. But given the superiority of the fare such miscues seem trivial; the real draw here is Limonio. He may not b

Chef Penelope Brown is into the game, and mains like lean ostrich filet and the bison burger underscore the fact. The Monkey's decor, like the menu, is a hybrid of Eastern touches and big-city panache; there's nothing particularly funky in sight. The ample wine list should please the most cultured of oneophiles.


Teaser:

Chef Penelope Brown is into the game, and mains like the lean ostrich filet and the bison burger underscore the fact. The Monkey's decor, like the menu, is a hybrid of Eastern touches and big-city panache; there's nothing particularly funky in sight. The ample wine list should please the most cultured of oenophiles.

Japanese cuisine is all about harmony. Everything – from the food to the presentation to the restaurant's decor – is suppose to work together to create a flawlessly integrated and refreshing experience. But since my kind of sushi joint is the sort that blares music and uses Godzilla as a mascot, this concept of harmony remained foreign to me until I dined at Hanamizuki.

Situated in a bland I-Drive strip mall, Hanamizuki has zero vibe from the outside. But inside is a spacious room with sage-green walls, elegantly minimalist decor, and a menu of refreshing depth and intrigue. An absolute lack of all things kitschy gives the place an unfussy, authentic air. The focus is on flavorful, expertly prepared food and enjoying it in the proper environment.

Situated in a bland I-Drive strip mall, Hanamizuki has zero vibe from the outside. But inside is a spacious room with sage-green walls, elegantly minimalist decor, and a menu of refreshing depth and intrigue. An absolute lack of all things kitschy gives the place an unfussy, authentic air. The focus is on flavorful, expertly prepared food and enjoying it in the proper environment.

My dining partner and I opted for courtside seats at the sushi bar. Hanamizuki's expansive menu is an invitation to experiment, so we kicked off with two appetizers, tako su ($6) and ika nuta ($5). The former was a small salad of sliced octopus that was well-complemented by a soy-sauce dressing with a distinct bacon flavor. The latter was a small bowl of squid and scallions blended with a sauce of white soybean paste, vinegar and a hot mustard with a delightful kick.

My dining partner and I opted for courtside seats at the sushi bar. Hanamizuki's expansive menu is an invitation to experiment, so we kicked off with two appetizers, tako su ($6) and ika nuta ($5). The former was a small salad of sliced octopus that was well-complemented by a soy-sauce dressing with a distinct bacon flavor. The latter was a small bowl of squid and scallions blended with a sauce of white soybean paste, vinegar and a hot mustard with a delightful kick.

Pleased thus far, we moved onto the more traditional sashimi and maki-style sushi (rolled with rice). Moriawase ($20 and up) is the chef's selection of the day's best raw fish. Presented with little fanfare on a medium-size white plate, the dish focuses totally on the superb sliced fish. Fresh and firm with barely a scent from the sea, this was top-notch sashimi (at nearly $2 a bite.) The tightly wrapped maki-style rolls were neatly presented, with the very spicy cod being our favorite.

Pleased thus far, we moved onto the more traditional sashimi and maki-style sushi (rolled with rice). Moriawase ($20 and up) is the chef's selection of the day's best raw fish. Presented with little fanfare on a medium-size white plate, the dish focuses totally on the superb sliced fish. Fresh and firm with barely a scent from the sea, this was top-notch sashimi (at nearly $2 a bite.) The tightly wrapped maki-style rolls were neatly presented, with the very spicy cod being our favorite.

From the menu's grilled and fried sections, we liked the "beef nagima yaki" ($15), a substantial plate of small rolls of thinly sliced, if a bit dry, grilled beef surrounding enticingly crunchy braised scallions flavored by soy sauce. And the "kashige combination" ($15) boasts 10 skewers, each with one crisp piece of seafood, meat or vegetable (the onion was our favorite). All were deep fried in a very light batter that recalled coconut shavings.

From the menu's grilled and fried sections, we liked the "beef nagima yaki" ($15), a substantial plate of small rolls of thinly sliced, if a bit dry, grilled beef surrounding enticingly crunchy braised scallions flavored by soy sauce. And the "kashige combination" ($15) boasts 10 skewers, each with one crisp piece of seafood, meat or vegetable (the onion was our favorite). All were deep fried in a very light batter that recalled coconut shavings.

Our sole misadventure was mozuku tororo ($7), a ghastly blend of grated yam and mozuku seaweed in a viscous broth, topped with a raw quail egg. We attempted to eat it with chopsticks, which brought chuckles from the chef and waitress.

Our sole misadventure was mozuku tororo ($7), a ghastly blend of grated yam and mozuku seaweed in a viscous broth, topped with a raw quail egg. We attempted to eat it with chopsticks, which brought chuckles from the chef and waitress.

Our otherwise exquisite meal was topped off by Japanese ice cream enhanced with red-bean toppings – a graceful way to end this feast. Hanamizuki isn't cheap, but it is a most gracious and delicious way to enjoy the foods of Japan.

With its array of large pillars, HRC stands majestically like a Roman Coliseum of rock, boasting more pieces of rock and roll memorabilia than any other Hard Rock. Not only is there a vast, multi-level cafe, but throw in Hard Rock Live Orlando, a 3,000-person concert venue, and you've got a winner.


Teaser: With large, statuesque pillars, HRC stands majestically like a Roman Coliseum of rock, boasting more pieces of rock & roll memorabilia than any other Hard Rock. Not only is there a vast, multi-level cafe, but throw in Hard Rock Live Orlando, a 3,000-person concert venue, and you've got a winner.
The Ritz-Carlton’s farm-to-table resto caters to the city’s food-conscious millennials with Southern-inspired dishes employing local, farm-fresh ingredients. While some flavor and texture combinations need to be worked on (blackened grouper with an incompatible hominy ragout, for example), you’ll mostly find competently executed plates of comfort food issuing from Mark Jeffers’ kitchen. You won’t go wrong with a starter of duck and andouille gumbo, followed by an outstanding skirt steak, capped with sticky toffee pudding for dessert. Don’t miss ham-hock-infused boiled peanuts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When you want to soak up the flavor of Key West -- the last link in the archipelago that reaches from south Miami to the open seas -- but don't want to travel, a visit to Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville might satisfy at least the drink-and-be-merry craving. Some tricky navigation is necessary, though, to find the way through the maze of parking garages and electronic people-movers at Universal Studios Escape. Just when you're ready to give up, you arrive in the heart of glitzy CityWalk, where the Jimmy Buffet-inspired party house fits right in.

For another paradigm shift, step inside the re-created Margaritaville, which is steeped in the icons of Key West. If you could accuse this restaurant of any one thing, it would be the cartoonish, commercialization of the romanticized hideaway Buffet paid homage to in his '70s song. Witness the margarita volcano that erupts over the bar periodically and the well-stocked gift shop. The sherbet shades of gingerbread houses are perfectly refabricated here, minus the morning-after stench of Duval Street and the stray pop-tops underfoot. Safe, clean and wholesome, it's certainly not the real Key West, but then we went there for the food.

For another paradigm shift, step inside the re-created Margaritaville, which is steeped in the icons of Key West. If you could accuse this restaurant of any one thing, it would be the cartoonish, commercialization of the romanticized hideaway Buffet paid homage to in his '70s song. Witness the margarita volcano that erupts over the bar periodically and the well-stocked gift shop. The sherbet shades of gingerbread houses are perfectly refabricated here, minus the morning-after stench of Duval Street and the stray pop-tops underfoot. Safe, clean and wholesome, it's certainly not the real Key West, but then we went there for the food.

On a previous visit, the conch fritters ($6.45) were in top form: sizzling, sweet, meaty and blissfully free of chewy, unidentified objects. This time, they were a disappointment -- overly battered and weak on the conch. Fortunately, the "pink crustaceans" crab cakes ($16.95) were loaded with blue crabmeat, pan-sautéed with spices, fresh mixed vegetables and potatoes to perfection.

On a previous visit, the conch fritters ($6.45) were in top form: sizzling, sweet, meaty and blissfully free of chewy, unidentified objects. This time, they were a disappointment -- overly battered and weak on the conch. Fortunately, the "pink crustaceans" crab cakes ($16.95) were loaded with blue crabmeat, pan-sautéed with spices, fresh mixed vegetables and potatoes to perfection.

While my guest loved "Jimmy's jammin' jambalaya" ($12.95), I thought the spices were far too tame. Still, there were generous amounts of shrimp, chicken, andouille sausage and Cajun rice.

While my guest loved "Jimmy's jammin' jambalaya" ($12.95), I thought the spices were far too tame. Still, there were generous amounts of shrimp, chicken, andouille sausage and Cajun rice.

When dessert arrived, my guest was skeptical. True Key lime pie ($4.95) should never be weighed down with a cream-based preparation, she said, as was the case here -- it makes it too heavy and oily. This version was prepared with a 100-year-old lime-juice recipe from the famed Joe & Nellie's factory in Key West, and it was properly tart and tangy without too much of the pucker factor. It sported a fluffy meringue and crisp graham-cracker crust, but I had to admit it didn't pass the ultimate dessert test, which is to say, I probably would not order it next time.

When dessert arrived, my guest was skeptical. True Key lime pie ($4.95) should never be weighed down with a cream-based preparation, she said, as was the case here -- it makes it too heavy and oily. This version was prepared with a 100-year-old lime-juice recipe from the famed Joe & Nellie's factory in Key West, and it was properly tart and tangy without too much of the pucker factor. It sported a fluffy meringue and crisp graham-cracker crust, but I had to admit it didn't pass the ultimate dessert test, which is to say, I probably would not order it next time.

Our waiter was knowledgeable about the menu, and he had a casual, friendly efficiency without interfering. In the end, our trip to the theme-park Margaritaville was all flash with just a little substance. It was noisy. It was crowded. The food was OK. But there was an ocean of margarita varieties. What more could a Parrothead want?

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