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    When restaurants specializing in tapas, or small-plate appetizers, sprout across a city, it's an indicator of culinary maturation and refinement. Diners must be willing to accept smaller portions, while shifting their approach by exhibiting a readiness to share. And though Orlando is only slowly succumbing to the trend, there may be a time in the not-too-distant future when tapas bars will be as popular as sushi bars are today.

    Thankfully, we're at a stage where the tasting plates offered up here, and at places like Olé Olé and Costa del Sol, are of the sort enjoyed by bar-hoppers all over the Iberian Peninsula, and not the sort of bastardized, overly trendy, fusion frou-frou found in larger cities in this country.

    El Bodegon serves time-honored, and strongly flavored, tapas fare ' cured serrano ham, chorizo and honeycomb tripe, to name a few ' and garlic is expectedly ubiquitous in many of chef Francisco Figueiras' dishes. The gambas al ajillo ($9), plump curls of subtly sweet shrimp in a shallow bowl of bubbling sherry wine sauce, is absolutely sublime. Flecks of cilantro, chili pepper and diced bulbs of the stinking rose give the dish its aromatic and full-flavored essence, and if it weren't for fear of filling up too early, and seeming too greedy, I would've downed every single one of those succulent shellfish â?¦ so much for sharing.

    Empanadas de bacalao ($6), a pair of perfectly crisp pastries stuffed with seasoned cod, halved, then artfully plated along with an olive salad, was another can't-get-enough-of-this dish. By the time the tortilla Española ($6) ' arguably the most popular tapas item in Spain ' arrived, a couple of bites were all I could muster. The thick wedges of caramelized onion-and-potato omelet cried for a splash of hot sauce, which disappointingly came in the form of a miniature bottle of Tabasco. A basic salsa picante would've been a better accompaniment to the somewhat insipid omelet.

    A few swigs of sangria ($14.50 for a half-pitcher) provided the necessary respite before the main courses arrived. Yes, those in search of a more substantial meal can get their fill from a host of seafood, meat and poultry entrees. Traditional paella Valenciana ($21) made me feel like it was Sunday in Seville, not a Friday in Orlando. And though the green peas were a tad shriveled, the saffron-flavored rice (glistening with olive oil) gave the dish a superb moistness, and every paprika-spiked mouthful of succulent chicken, shellfish and red pepper was intensely exotic.

    Two tenderloin slabs sitting atop pineapple circles characterized the medallones de solomillo primavera ($28). The steaks were cooked medium-well instead of the requested medium, but the flavor medley of the dish ' the sweetness of pineapple, the rich and creamy cognac demiglace, fresh-roasted vegetables and Spanish rice ' more than compensated.

    The atmosphere is boisterous and festive, though when things quiet down toward closing time, you're better able to appreciate the trompe l'oeil on the arched columns, the brick walls and Spanish tile. Servers are amiable, eager to please and never hurried, so you won't feel pressured to race through your dishes, though when one asks about dessert, you may want to feign indecisiveness. A horribly salty flavor infused the peras al vino ($8), almond-specked pear halves cooked in Spanish wine and cinnamon. The crema catalana ($6) had a restrained citrus zest in the custard, but the top layer could've been caramelized a bit more. Your best bet is to head next door to Rocco's Italian Grille and order their tiramisu.

    But like its Latin neighbor, El Bodegon is destined to become a popular gathering ground for foodies, and an anchor on the Winter Park dining scene.

    The Valencian tomato-tossing festival known as La Tomatina is one of the best food-fight fêtes in the world, so one might expect an eatery celebrating that annual mayhem of messiness to be somewhat rowdy, raucous and a little saucy. Not so Mi Tomatina, a refined Hannibal Square tapas joint that fancies itself a paella bar. It's a small space, but the bold colors, 'Miró-inspiredâ?� décor and tables inlaid with mosaic tiles make it inviting. It's intimate enough to take your significant other for a special night out, but it's also a great place to meet up with friends for small plates and Spanish sherry, and the only vegetables likely to bonk you on the head are the falling acorns from the trees fronting the sidewalk tables.

    Friends of mine had arrived before me, and I was surprised to see one of my guests enjoying a complimentary flight of tasting-sized Spanish wines. Our waiter, in fact, was quite encouraging when it came to sampling whatever we wished, even some aged Faraon sherry ($10), which I thoroughly enjoyed alongside the scores of tapas items we ordered.

    Starting the meal off with marinated olives ($6) is never a bad idea, but the hongos rellenos ($9), portobello mushroom caps stuffed with serrano ham and crowned with shaved manchego, had my friends buzzing at the very first bite. The hongos were just one of a slew of standout items on a bill of fare comprising 24 hot and cold tapas dishes. Entremeses ($12), a platter of mixed meats, cheeses and two compotes, makes a great sharing plate. Of the meats ' chorizo, morcilla, Spanish salami, cured pork loin and serrano ham ' only the latter disappointed. It was dry and bland, which only served to accentuate the ham's saltiness. The cured pork loin, or lomo, was melt-in-your-mouth good, while mahon, manchego and tetilla cheeses were promptly devoured along with fig and raisin compotes. Papas bravas ($6) incorporates all the comfort of home fries, but with an herbaceous kick thanks to a liberal splashing of truffle oil and fresh parsley.

    Tortillas (not the Mexican variety) are arguably the most popular tapas item in Spain. The chorizo version ($6) served here may veer from the traditional in terms of look and feel, but the flavors were impressive nonetheless. Layers of egg, potato and onion form the bite-size cuboids, given a peppery jolt from a spread of pimentón aioli, while fat rounds of chorizo atop the savory cakes lend a smoky textural contrast. Baby lamb chops ($12) are dressed with fresh mint and served with a rioja wine reduction ' not outstanding, but certainly a worthy-enough option to sink your teeth into.

    Sampling paella at a paella bar is practically a must. Here you can opt for the five they offer, or create your own from a host of available ingredients. (They serve two or three people, something to keep in mind before going loco on the tapas.) They even have a version with hard-to-find Spanish squid ink ($36) ' it's prone to staining lips and teeth, so be wary if you're on a date. A paella de champiñones ($28) offers a vegetarian alternative to all the meat-heavy fare, but the plump assortment of wild mushrooms makes it, ironically, a meaty dish. One note: As much as I dug for the socarrat, the prized crispy, caramelized rice layer at the bottom of the pan, I didn't find as much as I'd hoped.

    Suggesting you leave room for dessert may sound absurd after such an indulgence, but do leave room for the San Marcos cake ($7), spongy chiffon soaked in rum, layered with Chantilly cream and embellished with a crème brûlée crusting. The flan ($7) suffered from the competing flavors of the strawberry sorbet topping and a pool of nose-flaring sherry.

    Aesthetics clearly play a large part in the eatery's approach to small plates, and while the tapas trend has led some purists to cop an 'If it's pretty, it's not real tapasâ?� mindset, Mi Tomatina is out to prove such purists otherwise.

    Some images naturally evoke romance – not the Harlequin variety, but a more decadent version made up of long, luscious nights of freedom and beauty, love and passion. For me, this fantasy is colored in a tropical patina that conjures Havana in the 1950s, something the Samba Room also effects. OK, so you're not exactly sitting oceanfront at a deco hotel sipping mojitos: You know you're in a suburban strip mall that sidles up to a sinkhole. But you don't really care because you're having fun, eating good food, and the atmosphere is convivial and very romantic.

    Samba Room's change of ownership back in 2003, from Carlson Restaurant Group (TGI Fridays) to E-Brands Restaurants, has done it justice. E-Brands has a careful hand in the kitchen and a wonderful way of creating ambience.

    "Would you like to sit inside," the smiley hostess asked, "or out by the lake?"

    Inside was festive and enticing with loud Latin music and brightly colored Diego Rivera-esque murals. Airy white curtains, so gossamer that every draft becomes a tropical breeze, bring life to the darkest corners. But it was a beautiful night, so we chose to dine outside by the lake. We sat, sipping cocktails beneath white rattan paddle fans, and peered inside at larger parties crowded around tables, talking loudly, laughing, engaged in each others' company under russet-orange lights. This is what you call casual elegance.

    We started with an order of Samba ceviche ($8.95), which mixed market-fresh fish, shrimp, red onions and colorful peppers in a lime marinade. Pleasantly tangy, the dish swelled with flavor, balancing acidity and salinity. My mouth never puckered with displeasure. The roasted hominy on the side added satisfying texture to the delicious dish.

    The empanada sampler ($7.95) consisted of both sweet corn and pork varieties. Surprisingly, we liked the nontraditional sweet corn because it had fuller flavor and more filling. Both of the delicious sauces served with the empanadas were delicate fusions. Listed as "sofrito" (annatto-infused lard with vegetable garniture) and "aji amarillo" (a lemony capsicum from Latin America), they were modern streaks of emulsified flavor, distant cousins to the traditional varieties, running down an edge of the plate.

    For my main course, I tried Spanish paella ($25.50). Tiny red strands of saffron spattered the mound of rice laced with calamari, shrimp, white fish, chicken and some of the biggest mussels I've ever seen. The deep, earthy, subtle perfume of saffron followed the dish out of the open kitchen into the air. Half of a Maine lobster was the crown jewel of the dish.

    My partner got the pork barbacoa ($18.95), marinated and roasted in banana leaves. Unwrapping the leaves, he found a tender piece of pork nestled under a blanket of sweet, citrusy barbecue sauce.

    We were intrigued by the shiitake mushrooms al ajillo ($3.95) that spectacularly showcased traditional Asian mushrooms in Latin garlic sauce.

    I was about to burst when the espresso tres leches ($6) and guava cheesecake ($6) were delivered. I ate half of the excellent Kahlua-spiked tres leches before switching plates for a bite or two of the zesty cheesecake. The server brought café con leche ($4.50) to end our meal, and we sat looking over the still Florida water, slowly sipping the creamy, sweet coffee.

    "We should plan a trip to Cuba," I said, as we walked under industrial fluorescents across the vast suburban parking lot.



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