Seafood in I-DriveUniversal

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    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.

    Most foodies view chains as vessels of formulaic food assemblage serving only to propagate the conventional while inhibiting any semblance of culinary creativity. An elitist posture, to be sure, though not entirely without merit, particularly in our chain-riddled hamlet. But this gussied-up seafood room not only dismisses the notion, it shatters it, and, further, makes you thankful that Orlando is one of 14 cities to have the Minnesota-based chain sail into town.

    The primary reason is the undeniable quality and freshness of the product. Their printed menu listed 25 varieties of sea creature, of which 18 had check marks next to them – an indication of the day’s catch. They claim that what sits on your plate today may have been swimming the day before. For a seafood joint, that makes all the difference in the world.

    Oceanaire replicates a spacious ocean liner supper club steeped in 1930s nostalgia and replete with art deco flourishes: polished cherrywood paneling inlaid with chrome, sleek sweeping curves, recessed lighting, hardwood floors. You may even find yourself shimmying to the boogie-woogie swing as you pass the well-chilled bivalve bar on the way to your padded high-backed booth. Only rustic touches like the piscine taxidermy spoil the mood. At times, overly attentive waiters can do the same, but for the most part service is accommodating and first-class all the way.

    Not wanting to indulge in a full order of Alaskan king crab legs ($56.95), I was allowed to order a half portion ($28.95), which amounted to one enormously spindly extremity encasing beautifully sweet flesh. A dip in melted butter, kept warm over a candle flame, served to enhance the succulence. A better-than-average ceviche pescado ($12.95) comprised diced Ecuadorian mahi mahi and Costa Rican wahoo ono “cooked” in a pineapple-orange-lime juice marinade. Bursts of fresh cilantro mingled with the mild tang of the fish, but the starter lacked the zing of rocoto, or any zippy pepper for that matter.

    Any of the available fish can be ordered “simply grilled” or “broiled,” though an option to “dirty” any of day’s catch with Cajun spices is also offered. Opting for a purist approach, we chose to simply grill the 16-ounce Alaskan halibut T-bone ($35.95) in olive oil, lemon and rock salt and ordered it “medium” as per our waiter’s suggestion. The thick, meaty slab was near-perfect in its austerity, the center bone adding a lovely mild and subtly sweet flavor, though my dining partner felt the flesh veered towards the dry side.

    I hate de-boning fish, but my waiter was happy to perform a tableside skeletal removal of the whole Mediterranean branzino ($34.95), a European sea bass steamed to liberate its delicate flavors. The brilliantly buttery, shimmering-skinned fish in a zesty lemon-beurre sauce with capers and kalamata olives was melt-in-your-mouth marvelous.

    Sides are offered family-style, and in our quest for substance and comfort we opted for the baked blue cheese and macaroni ($7.95), a fine but incongruous dish. Needless to say, portions are huge here, so filling up on home-baked sourdough bread and the relish tray of pickled herring and crudités will encroach on your desire for dessert. Aside from a Dixie cup of ice cream (95¢), desserts are, expectedly, enormous, but none so enormous as the caramel brownie deluxe ($13.95). A gargantuan brownie wedge, flanked by two scoops of ice cream and capped with a dollop of cream, is laid on the table before a waiter slathers it with homemade caramel and fudge poured from two stainless steel sauce boats. Crème brûlée ($7.95), served in a shell-shaped dish, had the proper crackle and rich consistency.

    Nowhere beyond the sea are its inhabitants more freshly served than here – nary an old fish sullies this kitchen. The budget-busting prices and I-Drive locale may alienate some diners, but in a town sorely lacking in fine seafood establishments, it’s a pleasure to see a restaurant raise the bar, even if it is a chain.

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