Mediterranean in Downtown

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    Ah, progress. It seems whenever something new appears (the downtown Mini dealership for example), something old and treasured gets shoved aside. Such was the case with Café Annie, a neighborhood breakfast and lunch staple that occupied the corner spot on Jefferson Street and North Orange Avenue -- spiffy new cars in, gyros for lunch out.

    So it was a great pleasure for downtown dwellers to see Café Annie return, displaced one door over. The spot, a cavernous storefront that was occupied by the Tin Can Alley restaurant for about five minutes, affords owner and chef Nazih Sebaali a large space for his Mediterranean and Middle Eastern recipes ("A bit of everything," he says) that have more to do with flavor than flair.

    The food has a feeling of health and simplicity. Baba ghanoush ($2.95), a smooth paste of roast eggplant and garlic, sits on the plate simply adorned with a drizzle of olive oil, imploring you to eat. When you order a roasted chicken ($4.99), that's what you get, a dark or white quarter, oven-brown and juicy, served with two side dishes.

    And what side dishes they are. Greek fasolia salad (butter beans stewed with tomato), snappy crisp green beans, or vinegary vegetarian stuffed grape leaves ($1.95 each) share a table with hummus ($2.95) and the best garlic mashed potatoes I've had in ages ($1.75, order extra).

    The chicken kebab ($5.95) is charred and slightly lemony, and is available pressed in a pita, as is the gyro, a broiled beef and lamb combination with tomato, lettuce and a yogurt dressing ($4.25).

    Specials change day to day; that afternoon it was richly seasoned lasagna and a salad for $5.50. How can you beat that? The point should be clear by now that if you don't like garlic, this might not be a good destination, but the thick roasted-garlic and tomato soup, loaded with savory chunks of tomato and rice, was worthy of nearby high-priced restaurants, and only $1.95 for the cup.

    Breakfast starts at 7 a.m.; eggs, bacon, sausage, croissant sandwiches are joined by "Annie's eggpita" ($4.25) a dense Mediterranean omelet in pita bread.

    Sebaali came to Orlando as an engineering student 25 years ago. When asked why he got into the restaurant business, he replied, "I don't really know how to answer that question." But despite his uncertainty, the previous home of Café Annie (named after his wife) stayed in business for 13 years. The revamped cafe opens for dinner starting this weekend, serving the same menu plus lamb kebabs, steak and seafood, with table service. I'll be going. How about you?

    It was a snack bar before it was Terrace on Lake Eola, 903 CitySide, Erik's on Eola or, as it's currently known, Relax Grill, but the one facet that's drawn patrons to the site on the northwest corner of Lake Eola is, well, the site itself. Towering oaks, dog-walkers, joggers and feathered quackers offer enough lakeside distractions and amusements to keep the courtyard seats filled, as does a modest selection of beer and wine. The food has never really wowed, no matter the café's name, but the view is unprecedented in the city, and for al fresco diners, that aspect, like the fare, carries a lot of weight.

    Take the Mediterranean veggie combo ($11), for instance. The two-platter appetizer came with healthy portions of hummus, tzatziki, red pepper'nut dip, tabouli, pita and a trio of bulbous falafel, not to mention slices of cucumber and tomatoes. All items lived up to expectations, but my fave was the garlicky red pepper dip. The falafel, though good, lacked the sort of moistness I've come to expect, and the absence of tahini was an unconscionable omission, particularly given the chef's Syrian roots (thus the restaurant's emphasis on Mediterranean fare). A deep pool of balsamic vinaigrette was the only sour note to an otherwise fresh and crisp Greek salad ($7), a complimentary offering with any of the entrees.

    But after gawking at a few pooches and watching a pair of fattened ducks waddle onto the path then fearlessly honk at startled couples out for a stroll (highly amusing), we turned our attention to the fattened chunks of the chicken kebabs ($11). The skewer of meat was simply seasoned, yet flavorful, and sat atop a bed of fluffy yellow rice with grilled seasoned peppers and onions. They're not the finest chicken kebabs in town ' that title belongs to Kabbab House in MetroWest ' but they made for an enjoyable nosh. A mediocre big burger ($9) proved that the kitchen was far more adept at the Mediterranean dishes than domestic ones. Furthermore, the limp crinkly fries on the side lacked any semblance of crisp.

    It was far easier to stomach the hot apple dumpling ($6) than it was the live jazz of smooth variety, though both were equally syrupy. The menu said a light, refreshing fruit parfait ($5) was to come with strawberries and blackberries, but the latter were entirely absent from the cream-filled glass.

    Relax Grill is a three-partner venture led by Sam Chatah, who managed Erik's on Eola before it ceased operations. The fact that the city of Orlando is charging Chatah a paltry $1,000 per month in rent should help his efforts in keeping the open-air café financially viable.

    Admittedly, after hearing complaints of slow service, I thought perhaps the 'Relaxâ?� in Relax Grill was being used as an excuse to justify a sluggish disposition, but in my experience, the service was leisured and friendly and the fare certainly respectable. For now, Relax Grill seems to have all its ducks in a row.



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