Café/Bistro in North

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    It's interesting watching the whole "back-to-downtown" movement, not just here but all across the country. I'm not sure if it's dissatisfaction with suburban sprawl or a far-reaching desire for community, but people all over the country are heading back into the hearts of cities large and small.

    We see it here, and the amount of renovation work going on in Sanford means we're not alone. Where downtowns flourish, restaurants can't be far behind. Case in point, Da Vinci.

    We see it here, and the amount of renovation work going on in Sanford means we're not alone. Where downtowns flourish, restaurants can't be far behind. Case in point, Da Vinci.

    Da Vinci's chef and co-owner Kenny Stingone has a long and impressive career of feeding folks in the area. He has chef'd (is that a word?) at Bistro Capuccino, had a stint at Park Plaza Gardens in the mid-'80s and held the chef's spot at Café de France a couple of times. Upon that firm pedigree rests this first place of his own, nestled in the slowly revamping Magnolia Square section of downtown.

    Da Vinci's chef and co-owner Kenny Stingone has a long and impressive career of feeding folks in the area. He has chef'd (is that a word?) at Bistro Capuccino, had a stint at Park Plaza Gardens in the mid-'80s and held the chef's spot at Café de France a couple of times. Upon that firm pedigree rests this first place of his own, nestled in the slowly revamping Magnolia Square section of downtown.

    Co-owner Holliday Stingone, who led me to a table under one of several massive crystal chandeliers, asked how I found the place, and I had to answer truthfully – with difficulty. Because of one-ways and construction, you can't really get to Magnolia Square without making a good number of right-and left-turn combinations. I'd suggest Da Vinci for lunch first, just to see how to get there. The space itself is an old colonial-revival building with very high tin ceilings and aged walls. It's fitting to house what Chef Stingone calls his "Mediterranean-inspired" cuisine.

    Co-owner Holliday Stingone, who led me to a table under one of several massive crystal chandeliers, asked how I found the place, and I had to answer truthfully – with difficulty. Because of one-ways and construction, you can't really get to Magnolia Square without making a good number of right-and left-turn combinations. I'd suggest Da Vinci for lunch first, just to see how to get there. The space itself is an old colonial-revival building with very high tin ceilings and aged walls. It's fitting to house what Chef Stingone calls his "Mediterranean-inspired" cuisine.

    The "inspired" part means that some dishes, like the hearty and generous zuppa di pesce ($17.95), with fish, calamari and shellfish basted in spicy tomato, are quite authentic. Other items take creative liberties. I was pleased to see a non-veal alternative to saltinbocca made with chicken ($15.95), which featured a tender fillet with mozzarella and heaps of spinach. Pleased, that is, until I tried to chew through the thick slab of prosciutto gracing the top. "Shrimp Adriatic" ($15.95) was a better choice, huge shrimp combined with spinach and spicy sauce, then topped with crumbled feta cheese that gave it a tang. A couple of the shrimp had seen better days, but it was a good dish. The "escargot fricassee" appetizer ($5.95), rich snails in crustini with lemon butter and cheese, reminded me of dark woods and was very satisfying.

    The "inspired" part means that some dishes, like the hearty and generous zuppa di pesce ($17.95), with fish, calamari and shellfish basted in spicy tomato, are quite authentic. Other items take creative liberties. I was pleased to see a non-veal alternative to saltinbocca made with chicken ($15.95), which featured a tender fillet with mozzarella and heaps of spinach. Pleased, that is, until I tried to chew through the thick slab of prosciutto gracing the top. "Shrimp Adriatic" ($15.95) was a better choice, huge shrimp combined with spinach and spicy sauce, then topped with crumbled feta cheese that gave it a tang. A couple of the shrimp had seen better days, but it was a good dish. The "escargot fricassee" appetizer ($5.95), rich snails in crustini with lemon butter and cheese, reminded me of dark woods and was very satisfying.

    Da Vinci's is almost exactly 20 miles from downtown Orlando, a trip that probably takes less time than the aggravating trek to Disney. If you have a gas-guzzling SUV, that's about $6 for fuel plus around $60 for dinner for two in a slightly funky, potentially wonderful, as yet undiscovered restaurant. Seems like a bargain to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    People, like cheese, wine or steak, tend to mellow with age, and Barrie Freeman is no different. The woman responsible for shaping downtown Orlando's nascent dining and nightlife scene in the early '90s with such venerable (and still fondly recalled) haunts as the Yab Yum Coffeehouse (later Harold & Maude's Espresso Bar), Go Lounge, Kit Kat Club (ahh, the impromptu nakedness!) and the Globe has since withdrawn to the sedate pastures of Volusia County. But after about a decade of focusing on raising her children, Freeman is back at it, this time shaping the nascent dining and nightlife scene in ... downtown DeBary. Along with co-owners Carla MacKenzie and Laura Beardall McLeod, she's opened Genuine Bistro, a restaurant diametrically, philosophically and gastronomically at odds with the town in which it's situated. Tattooed servers shuffle between the bistro's retro-cool interior (the lighted wood ceiling is gorgeous) and the spacious, undeniably laid-back, outdoor patio positioned at the front of the restaurant. You'll find Freeman, pretty well-inked herself, serving plates and hobnobbing with diners ' her genuinely amiable and effervescent personality being just one of the reasons diners pack the place night in and night out. Live music, exceptional customer service and well-executed dishes are three more.

    We were enjoying some KFC, or "killer-fried calamari" ($8.95), on the patio when Freeman came over to chat. She spoke of the building and its former life as a bank, then left to get "before" photos of the space to show us. In the meantime, head chef Tommy Vitek popped by, snatched up our bowl of KFC and swapped it with a fresh order. Evidently, Freeman noticed the crumbly breading on the batch at our table, so had Vitek replace it. We were astounded, and that gracious act set the tone for the rest of the evening. Another starter, a superb steak and tomato flatbread, ($8.95) featured doughy bread holding thick strips of juicy sirloin punched up with fresh basil. The only blemish: a liberal drizzling of olive oil that collected at the bottom of the plate and soaked the garlicky bread.

    Before we knew it, and after we looked at the "before" photos, our entrees were laid before us (not after). A pleasant sweetness in the creamy sauce of the chicken frangelica ($15.90) gave rise to nodding heads and grunts of approval. The sauteed dish layered with capicola ham, baby spinach, peanuts and havarti-topped mushrooms was a hearty one, made all the more filling thanks to a side of crisp veggies and simultaneously creamy and chunky mashed baby reds. Perfectly broiled Chilean sea bass ($21.95) was given a marginal tang by a lemon-butter sauce, but the eco-conscious should take heed; Chilean sea bass is on Seafood Watch's "avoid" list. Desserts like creamy tiramisu ($4.95), vodka-laced black Russian cake ($6.95) and house-made Key lime pie ($3.95) aren't particularly mind-blowing, but all make decent enough endings.

    DeBary isn't the first place that comes to mind when considering a destination dining locale, but Genuine Bistro is well worth consideration. And if you don't know your way around this rural hamlet, fear not. The giant "G" ensconced on the wall inside the restaurant is big enough to serve as a beacon for those in search of a good meal. 

    For many foodies, Lake Mary's Colonial TownPark offers a culinary dead end, a place where homogeneity meets the uninspired, but a place that suburbanites flock to nonetheless. That's not to say the food inside the entertainment complex is bad, but there's an cookie-cutter approach to many restaurants here, and the Vineyard Wine Company falls into that category. The appellation of the wine bar'bistro'bottle shop doesn't exactly scream originality, and the fact that it sits across from 'The Coffee Caféâ?� underscores the argument. A place for intrepid or adventurous diners it's not ' though if you're the type to judge quality by the way dishes are plated, VWC more than holds its own.

    The cutesy star-shaped dish flaunting warm 'drunken bruschettaâ?� crostinis ($7.95) was outdone only by the puzzle-piece plates that held orbs of 'jumboâ?� lump crab cakes ($13.95). And like their serving contrivance, the toastettes were stellar tapas items that held up under the weight of vine-ripe tomatoes, goat cheese and a liberal balsamic drizzle. The crab cakes weren't jumbo in the least, but the meaty pan-seared rounds were given a Southern kick with the addition of roasted corn, bell peppers, caramelized onions and a Cajun remoulade.

    Mains comprising a selection of beef, poultry and seafood courses are available, but the wide-ranging tapas menu proves most popular with regulars, most of whom pair those items with a selection from the extensive wine list. An option for 3-ounce pours allows for great variety with your meal without the inconvenience of utter inebriation. There's no doubt that wine is taken seriously here, and sommelier Fidel Palenzuela may just stop by your table to lend his expertise. I enjoyed a glass of the Rutz Sonoma Cuvee Pinot Noir ($4.49) with some toasted beef-filled ravioli ($7.95) ' that is, until I dipped the crisp bite-sized pasta bits into a pomodoro sauce of cloying sweetness. I can understand adding a little sugar to offset the tomatoes' astringency, but this sauce was ridiculously sweet and practically inedible. The hummus trio ($5.50) was as insipid as the pomodoro was sweet ' the kalamata pesto was a timid mush; the roasted garlic lacked any zest; and the sundried tomato, humdrum at best. None of the three, unfortunately, were worthy of the pillowy-soft pita bread. Greek chicken kebabs ($6.95), featuring a quartet of corpulent, lemony chunks with an accompanying dish of tzatziki sauce, were satisfying, but nothing to Opa! about, even when enjoyed with a glass of delicate Dr. Loosen Riesling ($4.49).

    Just as tame were the two desserts we sampled. Romanoff strawberry butter crepes ($5.95) were sauced nicely, but the hotcakes were overcooked; the praline-chocolate mousse cake and lemon-blueberry roulade in the 'night and dayâ?� ($6.95) made for unremarkable endings.

    Vineyard's inviting space is an attractive assemblage of Floribbean stylings with touches from Ethan Allen, and it possesses the primary characteristics of an ideal first-date locale: It's eye-catching, predictable and safe.

    It's eye-catching, predictable and safe.

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