Seafood in North

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    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.

    A Brit opening a curry stand is nothing new, but a restaurant steeped in Indian cuisine using a time-honored British dish as a launching pad for seafood fusion? Well, that calls for a closer look. 

    The small, cozy interior of this strip-mall restaurant is more family dining room than seaside shack, but the flashy part is the menu. New England, Floridian and Caribbean seafood styles dominate, often with a curry or southeast Asian twist. But they do traditional just fine: The whiting fish and chips ($7.45, served with cole slaw) is a huge slab of tenderly fresh fish, with a satisfying (but not gratuitous) layer of golden-browned batter. Beyond the basket are entrees like curry shrimp ($12.95, with two sides) pan-seared and slathered in delicious red curry with the spice turned up, surprisingly accurately, to your liking. The side of hush puppies, crispy on moist, is a must-try.

    fish and chips ($7.45, served with cole slaw) is a huge slab of tenderly fresh fish, with a satisfying (but not gratuitous) layer of golden-browned batter. Beyond the basket are entrees like curry shrimp ($12.95, with two sides) pan-seared and slathered in delicious red curry with the spice turned up, surprisingly accurately, to your liking. The side of hush puppies, crispy on moist, is a must-try.

    Could the urban eco-friendly seafood shack be the new dining trend in this city? The Winter Park Fish Co. has become an undeniable draw for area residents, and now the denizens of Lake Mary have quietly submerged themselves into the soothing maritime surroundings of Fresh on the Fly and its menu advertising 'wild-caught fishâ?� and 'chemical-freeâ?� entrees. I'm not sure how accurate the latter claim could be, given the mercury levels in today's fish (however minute), but I think I get the idea. Sustainability is clearly an important facet of their business, and integral to attracting the diner with a conscience. Their chicken and beef selections are of the hormone-free and grass-fed variety, and the green mindset parlays to plates and utensils as well. Even their servers are as efficient as compact fluorescent light bulbs.

    But the limited menu is an exercise in self-restraint ' just a handful of 'surf-inspired� dishes appear, along with a couple of meat dishes, salads and soups. The signature, a Floridian fish chowder ($3), was a properly chunky tomato-based stew of flounder, potatoes, celery and onions, though a heavy-handed use of black pepper diminished the comfort factor. Blackened mahi-mahi went into the duo of fish tacos ($5). Though the portion was more fitting for lunch than dinner, the tacos were wonderfully fresh, dressed with shredded lettuce, pineapple salsa and a jerk mango sour cream. 

    The same fish made an appearance in the intriguing 'mahi-mahi cheese steakâ?� ($7.50), a wrap that would gratify the proudest of Philadelphians, even if it would've worked better in a traditional hoagie roll. While the cheese grits ($2) were a tad bland, other sides, like grilled corn on the cob and black-eyed pea salad, made excellent accompaniments.

    The finest, and most problematic, dish we sampled was the special: pan-seared North Atlantic salmon ($13) served over sautéed baby spinach and finished with a strawberry-mango beurre blanc. Indeed, the light sauce accentuated the flavors of the succulent fish and the spinach offered a nice finishing kick, but it was my post-meal research that proved troubling. Wild-caught Atlantic salmon, I learned, is on Seafood Watch's 'Avoid� list primarily because of overfishing. From what I gathered, the majority of Atlantic salmon is designated 'farmed,� which is also on the 'Avoid� list. When I called to inquire about the matter, I was reassuringly told that the salmon was 'wild-caught� (not what I wanted to hear) and that, possibly, it was 'Canadian.� Now, if it was Pacific salmon, there wouldn't be a problem, but the menu specifically noted 'N. Atlantic.� A typo? Who knows, but for reference, the Winter Park Fish Co. only serves Canadian (Pacific) and Alaskan salmon. 

    For seafood haters, the chicken sandwich ($7) is a worthy option, with its fluffy bun and moist white meat. Thin-cut fries weren't as crispy as I would've hoped, but decent nonetheless. Desserts like Key lime pie ($3), served with homemade whipped cream, and the coconut cream bar ($3) were competently prepared cappers.

    After a string of unremarkable Italian trattorias and pizzerias, the space in the busy, upscale strip mall is finally poised for success. Like the Winter Park Fish Co., Fresh on the Fly is a welcome anomaly in an age of upmarket seafood houses like Oceanaire Seafood Room, Ocean Prime, Moonfish and Bonefish Grill. The open kitchen reveals a fairly young kitchen corps, but what they lack in age, the lads certainly make up for in execution.

    My friend and I got to Harvey's Heathrow around 5 p.m., just as they were opening for the evening. We sidled into a bar booth and eagerly embraced our bronze paper menus. As my eyes rested on a delightful-sounding onion and ale soup with Gouda ($5), my friend said, "Oh, look. The beautiful people are arriving."

    Startled out of my menu-reading trance, I looked up to watch a gaggle of golf shirts strutting in accompanied by fake boobs. Welcome to the Lake Mary dining scene, where replicas of great restaurants are set amidst the sprawl of construction.

    The original Harvey's, a downtown Orlando establishment for more than 10 years, has decidedly kept up with the dining times, even if it's a little dated in appearance. The new Heathrow site has an updated appearance, while still maintaining the delicious set of standards upheld by the original.

    The Harvey's in Heathrow differs from the original in one respect: The room is lighter and brighter and more airy than the dark-wood, bottom-floor-of-a-bank original. A shotgun dining room juts out from a spacious bar and is bathed in mint green and russet. Adorning every nook and cranny are design elements made of geometrical shapes – like the giant orb lamps suspended near small, angular square paintings.

    We ordered a first course of lobster bisque ($5) and artichoke and cashew salad ($7) as we perused the menu for more. The lobster bisque was perfect: Sweet lobster meat mixed with rich, heavy cream that hit the tongue first. Then a subtle heat followed, tinged with pungent garlic and fragrant tarragon. Finally, a note of acidic sherry burst through, while the taste of cream still lingered. I was so absorbed that I barely had a chance to taste my friend's salad, but she insisted. Raspberry vinaigrette draped over greens and whole cashews made for a bright, clean flavor that paired well with artichoke hearts. We also tried Harvey's version of Caprese salad ($7), a mixture of underripe red and perfectly ripened yellow tomatoes stacked with fresh mozzarella cheese. This is a dish in which most restaurants miss the point. Let's face it: This is a seasonal salad, at its best when the ingredients are so fresh that the tomatoes are picked an hour before they're served (why even bother with a tasteless, green tomato?) and the cheese has been hand-pulled by the owner's grandmother in the basement. Unfortunately, Harvey's didn't quite meet that expectation, but the fresh basil and a crude pesto gave it some spunk.

    The entrees are a mix of surf and turf with a few pasta dishes thrown in. My friend ordered the grilled petite tenderloin ($24), a succulent center cut of beef, well seasoned and cooked exactly to her desired doneness. A mélange of jardinière snow peas, carrots and onions, cooked tender with a refreshing snap of crispness, were dynamite. I eschewed my usual pot roast ($17) to try herb-crusted sea scallops on angel hair ($18). Drenched in a silky sauce of wine, garlic and clams, the pasta was irresistible. A few dollops of sautéed spinach made a bed for the herb-encrusted scallops, which tasted superb with nice salinity and a wonderful crust of herbed batter. But the four scallops themselves were a tad overcooked and on the rubbery side. There are many other choices, but if you like duck, don't miss the roasted half duck with triple sec and pistachio glaze ($19), a tribute to the undervalued bird.

    For a nibble at the bar, I recommend ordering a bowl of truffle fries ($6), dusted with Parmesan and tossed with lightly fried shiitake mushrooms. They had a deft hand with truffle oil in the kitchen, and this dish was magic, instead of a mouthful of perfume.

    We were full by dessert, but we couldn't resist at least sharing a slice of Key lime pie ($5), a pleasing balance of tartness and sweetness.

    Harvey's is another successful addition to the expanding dining scene of the Lake Mary/ Heathrow area. Even if this part of town represents a maze of highways, malls, construction and suburban sprawl that I don't appreciate, at least they know how to eat up here.

    I don't know why, but I was expecting a dive. Maybe it was the fact that R.J. Gator's seemed to be named after somebody's uncle. Maybe because it was called a "Florida sea grill." Maybe just because it was founded 20 years ago. But R.J. Gator's was far from being a dive. It was more like an efficient urban development in dive disguise. Think of it as a warehouse-sized, Everglades-themed Cheesecake Factory attached to a mall.

    We first came upon the restaurant's outdoor bar, which wraps around the building's facade. Among the few tables, the music was blaring, giving one the fleeting feeling of drinking in an outpost in the thick of a swamp. Pulling on the gator-head door handles, my friends and I stepped inside.

    The hostess started to show us to a booth near the front window when we noticed a gimmick that we had to partake of: rocking booths. "Can we sit at one of those?" I demanded, pointing to the middle of the room. She mechanically turned and led us to our very own swinging banquet, where we delighted in play as we rocked the booth with our feet, testing to see if our drinks would spill on the swaying but steady table.

    As we waited for our food, a wall of hot sauces kept us entertained. We grabbed a handful and tested them with saltine crackers, then kept our favorites and smothered our meals in them when they arrived. The menu was enormous, and we only scratched the surface of what they offered, sticking mostly to the Florida specialties and bar/grill food.

    We rocked and rocked until a dozen oysters were placed in front of us, half raw and half steamed. A few minutes later, the refuse of Hurricane Oyster left a trail of cocktail sauce, drawn butter, crackers and shells across the table. R.J. Gator's is no Lee & Rick's Oyster Bar (on Old Winter Garden Road), but the huge, delicate mollusks nestled in their shells were still completely satisfying. Next came alligator tail ($5.49), tender chunks of golden fried meat served with cocktail sauce and another thyme-laden Caribbean-style one. We also got a plate of "strings" ($6.99), a mile-high pile of thin, fried onions that had been rolled in a spicy batter before being plunged into hot fat – definitely bar food at its best. Actually, any pub fare you could dream up, R.J. Gator's touches on – nachos, quesadillas, spinach dip, wings, fingers, pizza, burgers. And they always feature a fresh Florida catch, so don't hesitate to consider a grouper sandwich, too ($8.99).

    Actually, we tried an assortment of recommendable seafood dishes. The selection of fried seafood is astounding, including platters of scallops, clams, shrimp and myriad types of fish. We munched down an order of pleasingly crunchy coconut shrimp ($13.99) that had an alluringly tropical flavor. The Florida-style crab cakes ($12.99) live up to their name: fluffy cakes seasoned with Caribbean flair and with a texture that could live up to any Maryland taste test.

    R.J. Gator's serves several dishes "Havana banana"-style, which is a grilled piece of jerk-seasoned meat (I tried mahi-mahi for $11.99) covered in orange sauce and served with black beans, rice and fried plantains.

    Skip their desserts, which tended to be gooey, over-the-top messes, except perhaps the Key lime pie. Their version was a creamy tart custard nuzzled into a graham cracker crust and finished with an unnaturally bright green lime concoction that tasted like a Now and Later candy – the kind of sauce that a true dive would dish up.

    dining@orlandoweekly.com

    If there's one thing you don't want to smell when you're in a seafood restaurant, it's fish. Straub's Seafood in Altamonte Springs passed the sniff test on a recent visit. The longtime popular favorite also impressed us with outstanding service despite some glitches behind the scenes. The broiler was on the fritz on this particular Saturday night. Since many entrees are normally available broiled, this could have been a major problem. But our waitress handled the situation with aplomb and improvised by steering us toward menu items that could be baked, fried or mesquite-grilled instead.

    The bread basket is so good that it competes with the appetizers. We were far less interested in the escargot ($6.95) than we were in sopping up the garlic-butter broth with our hot, oily, herb-crusted rolls. And the shrimp Rockefeller ($6.95) were topped with a heavy mixture of spinach and Monterey Jack cheese -- a little too heavy, but then that might have been due to being baked rather than broiled.

    The bread basket is so good that it competes with the appetizers. We were far less interested in the escargot ($6.95) than we were in sopping up the garlic-butter broth with our hot, oily, herb-crusted rolls. And the shrimp Rockefeller ($6.95) were topped with a heavy mixture of spinach and Monterey Jack cheese -- a little too heavy, but then that might have been due to being baked rather than broiled.

    When it came to choosing dinner, the menu was almost as helpful as our waitress. It details the flavors and textures of 28 kinds of fresh fish, from Boston scrod to Carolina rainbow trout. We chose Florida black grouper ($15.95), a premium variety which is not to be confused with blackened grouper. It was quickly seared on a mesquite grill, which sealed in the sweet flavors and maintained the firm texture. And although the "captain's platter" is a bit pricey ($21.95), it's a good way to sample two highlights: Steamed Florida lobster tail and mesquite grilled shrimp on a skewer. Both were superb. The platter normally comes with broiled scallops, so we substituted some crunchy, fried Ipswich clam strips. As far as we were concerned, you could skip all of the side items except one: The cole slaw was very creamy yet amazingly light, seasoned with a hint of celery salt.

    When it came to choosing dinner, the menu was almost as helpful as our waitress. It details the flavors and textures of 28 kinds of fresh fish, from Boston scrod to Carolina rainbow trout. We chose Florida black grouper ($15.95), a premium variety which is not to be confused with blackened grouper. It was quickly seared on a mesquite grill, which sealed in the sweet flavors and maintained the firm texture. And although the "captain's platter" is a bit pricey ($21.95), it's a good way to sample two highlights: Steamed Florida lobster tail and mesquite grilled shrimp on a skewer. Both were superb. The platter normally comes with broiled scallops, so we substituted some crunchy, fried Ipswich clam strips. As far as we were concerned, you could skip all of the side items except one: The cole slaw was very creamy yet amazingly light, seasoned with a hint of celery salt.

    If you order dessert, let it be coconut-banana cream pie ($3.95), which might as well be called "mile high pie" because it's a daunting portion of banana filling topped with thick, whipped cream and toasted coconut.

    If you order dessert, let it be coconut-banana cream pie ($3.95), which might as well be called "mile high pie" because it's a daunting portion of banana filling topped with thick, whipped cream and toasted coconut.

    If you want a trendy, flashy atmosphere to accompany your seafood, you'll have to head to Bahama Breeze. In the absence of a slick, corporate decorating budget, Straub's Seafood is refreshingly devoid of themes or concepts -- just a few tropical prints and a couple of seashell lampshades. It's the kind of setting you don't notice, especially after the seafood arrives.

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