Steakhouse in Orlando

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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.

    Restaurants are organic things. Like the tide, they ebb and flow. Owners and names of places change at a dizzying rate. And, in a town where good chefs are a bankable commodity, it can be challenging to keep track of who is cooking what where.

    Who's in the kitchen? It could be a chef from Disney, a woman trained in France or a guy who was managing an Arby's last week. A change can come because someone wonderful becomes available; sometimes it's because someone just left.

    Sometimes it's both. When The Boheme opened in the Westin Grand Bohemian Hotel downtown, Chef Todd Baggett had the enviable job of matching a menu to the expansive art collection and opulent-looking setting that surrounds diners. And mostly he succeeded. When he moved on to Wolfgang Puck's, the vacuum was filled by Robert Mason, former chef at the famous Vic Stewart's steak house in San Francisco and the California Café at Florida Mall. Mason promises he will take the restaurant "to a new level."

    There aren't any changes in the room itself. Same dark woods, massive columns and burgundy accents, same eclectic and sometimes puzzling art.

    As for the kitchen, the highs and lows suggest that Mason's reign also is organic. Our waiter, a bubbly chap, promised that the new fall menu was "more flavorful." I didn't see massive differences between the pre-Mason era and now. The menu still has seafood, and hefty chunks of Angus beef in several incarnations. The "au Poivre" with garlic-pepper crust ($26) is very "flavorful," though not quite as tender as I had expected. Breast of Muscovy duck ($25) and lobster still find their way to the table, and it was good to see the large a la carte vegetables available (order the "exotic mushrooms" -- in fact, order two and you may not need an entree).

    The new dishes fit in with the scheme. A pan-roasted chicken breast, stuffed with vegetables and served atop spaghetti squash ($19), is tender and good; the herb sauce made from the drippings is extraordinary. Combine that with a deceptively simple "Boheme salad" ($6) and its irresistible Gorgonzola vinaigrette dressing, and you'll leave the table happy. But "Shrimp 2 Ways" was four shrimp that tasted almost the same "way," and didn't seem worth 12 bucks.

    A new jazz brunch on Sunday allows you to eat roast turkey, omelets and waffles while hanging out around the $250,000 Imperial Grand Bösen-dorfer piano. Take an extra napkin.

    We didn't review this location but you can check out the review of the Brio in Winter Park Village.

    Despite the trendy, well-heeled crowds lined up at the door, and despite the lightweight name that sounds like it was pulled from a starlet's bio, there is some substance to Brio, the new, upscale Tuscan grill at Winter Park Village.

    We arrived without reservations on a busy weekend evening, and it was immediately clear we were in for a long wait. Throngs of people milled around. The hostess gave us a palm pager so we could window shop in the immediate area to kill time. It was either that or jockey for a place at the bar, where the members of the salon set were squeezed in so tight that we would have been lucky to find something to lean on, much less sit down.

    We arrived without reservations on a busy weekend evening, and it was immediately clear we were in for a long wait. Throngs of people milled around. The hostess gave us a palm pager so we could window shop in the immediate area to kill time. It was either that or jockey for a place at the bar, where the members of the salon set were squeezed in so tight that we would have been lucky to find something to lean on, much less sit down.

    The inside of the restaurant is spacious and bustling, with a curved layout that wraps around the show kitchen. The dining area is reinforced by pillars and softened by faux antique treatments, and the acoustics are comfortably noisy.

    The inside of the restaurant is spacious and bustling, with a curved layout that wraps around the show kitchen. The dining area is reinforced by pillars and softened by faux antique treatments, and the acoustics are comfortably noisy.

    There were some lapses in service, but our waitress seemed to be doing her best to keep up with the fast pace. Although we waited far too long for appetizers and a bread basket, they were in peak form when they showed up. The crusty Italian rolls had been whisked to our table straight from the oven, still steaming. And the "antipasto sampler" ($12.95) was delicious across the board. We loved the "calamari fritto misto," lightly fried and accented with "pepperoncini," as well as the "Brio bruschetta" topped with marinated tomatoes, seared peppers and mozzarella. The mushroom "ravioli al forno" had an exquisite, creamy sauce.

    There were some lapses in service, but our waitress seemed to be doing her best to keep up with the fast pace. Although we waited far too long for appetizers and a bread basket, they were in peak form when they showed up. The crusty Italian rolls had been whisked to our table straight from the oven, still steaming. And the "antipasto sampler" ($12.95) was delicious across the board. We loved the "calamari fritto misto," lightly fried and accented with "pepperoncini," as well as the "Brio bruschetta" topped with marinated tomatoes, seared peppers and mozzarella. The mushroom "ravioli al forno" had an exquisite, creamy sauce.

    Don't overlook the flatbread pizzas. Toasted in a wood-fired oven, they have crisp, thin crusts that are balanced by light toppings. The wild-mushroom version ($9.95) was slightly moistened with truffle oil and topped with mild, nutty fontina cheese and a few caramelized onions.

    Don't overlook the flatbread pizzas. Toasted in a wood-fired oven, they have crisp, thin crusts that are balanced by light toppings. The wild-mushroom version ($9.95) was slightly moistened with truffle oil and topped with mild, nutty fontina cheese and a few caramelized onions.

    Brio does an able job with pastas such as lasagna with Bolognese meat sauce, but it would be a shame to miss out on wood-grilled steaks, chops and seafood, which are what the kitchen does best. A 14-ounce strip steak ($21.95) was particularly juicy and buttery, and topped with melted gorgonzola. But on the side, the wispy "onion straws" didn't work – they were eclipsed by their overly oily fried batter.

    Brio does an able job with pastas such as lasagna with Bolognese meat sauce, but it would be a shame to miss out on wood-grilled steaks, chops and seafood, which are what the kitchen does best. A 14-ounce strip steak ($21.95) was particularly juicy and buttery, and topped with melted gorgonzola. But on the side, the wispy "onion straws" didn't work – they were eclipsed by their overly oily fried batter.

    Wood-grilled salmon ($21.95) was an exercise in restraint: The firm, pink, succulent flesh of the fish was jazzed with a delicate citrus pesto and accompanied by tomatoes encrusted with Romano cheese.

    Wood-grilled salmon ($21.95) was an exercise in restraint: The firm, pink, succulent flesh of the fish was jazzed with a delicate citrus pesto and accompanied by tomatoes encrusted with Romano cheese.

    The restaurant's next-door Tuscan Bakery is worth a visit on the way out, if only to glimpse the gorgeous profusion of breads and pastries. Brio's stylish atmosphere and well-executed menu make it a successful choice whether for lunch, dinner or the popular "Bellini brunch" on Saturdays and Sundays.

    If you're not a beef lover or if you like a variety of menu options, you should probably skip this place. But "real beef" connoisseurs searching for a basic meat-and-potatoes dining experience need look no further than Butcher Shop Steakhouse on International Drive.

    The chain restaurant not only promises an array of "the biggest and best grain-fed beef direct from the Midwest," but invites patrons to grill their own steaks over a brick hickory pit. The handsomely appointed restaurant must have hosted a tired bunch of buckaroos during our midweek visit, as none of the diners took advantage of the opportunity to cook themselves a meal.

    The chain restaurant not only promises an array of "the biggest and best grain-fed beef direct from the Midwest," but invites patrons to grill their own steaks over a brick hickory pit. The handsomely appointed restaurant must have hosted a tired bunch of buckaroos during our midweek visit, as none of the diners took advantage of the opportunity to cook themselves a meal.

    Or perhaps, like us, none of them wanted to expend the effort and end up smelling like a backyard barbecue, a distinct possibility given the pungent charcoal smoke generated by the display grill, which made a mockery of the designated non-smoking room.

    Or perhaps, like us, none of them wanted to expend the effort and end up smelling like a backyard barbecue, a distinct possibility given the pungent charcoal smoke generated by the display grill, which made a mockery of the designated non-smoking room.

    Our reservation was honored within minutes of our arrival, our enthusiastic server greeted us promptly, and we began our menu perusal. No surprises: Though two fresh seafood catches and grilled marinated chicken breast are available, the specialty here is red meat. No appetizers, no gourmet soups or salads, just the basics. And it ain't cheap.

    Our reservation was honored within minutes of our arrival, our enthusiastic server greeted us promptly, and we began our menu perusal. No surprises: Though two fresh seafood catches and grilled marinated chicken breast are available, the specialty here is red meat. No appetizers, no gourmet soups or salads, just the basics. And it ain't cheap.

    Steaks range from an 8-ounce filet mignon ($17.95) to a 28-ounce T-bone ($23.95). There are also rib-eyes, top sirloins and Kansas City strips. Prime rib lovers may order a 16-ounce boneless cut ($17.95) or a 32-ounce king cut with bone ($23.95). Chicken and seafood entrees begin at $13.95. All dinners come with salad and bread. The only accompaniment offered is a half- or full-skillet order of sautéed mushrooms in light garlic and butter sauce ($3.95 and $5.95). Our dinner rolls were nondescript; our salads were fresh, with a nice assortment of trimmings but an overabundance of dressing.

    Steaks range from an 8-ounce filet mignon ($17.95) to a 28-ounce T-bone ($23.95). There are also rib-eyes, top sirloins and Kansas City strips. Prime rib lovers may order a 16-ounce boneless cut ($17.95) or a 32-ounce king cut with bone ($23.95). Chicken and seafood entrees begin at $13.95. All dinners come with salad and bread. The only accompaniment offered is a half- or full-skillet order of sautéed mushrooms in light garlic and butter sauce ($3.95 and $5.95). Our dinner rolls were nondescript; our salads were fresh, with a nice assortment of trimmings but an overabundance of dressing.

    My husband's weekly steak craving was satisfied by his 14-ounce rib-eye ($16.95), which was nicely marbled and cooked to order. The tableside gourmet steak sauce – featuring such bizarre ingredients as pineapple, raisins, anchovies and bourbon – didn't suit us. His half-order of sautéed mushrooms, presented in an iron skillet, was enough to share. While they were nicely cooked, the garlic seasoning was not discernable.

    My husband's weekly steak craving was satisfied by his 14-ounce rib-eye ($16.95), which was nicely marbled and cooked to order. The tableside gourmet steak sauce – featuring such bizarre ingredients as pineapple, raisins, anchovies and bourbon – didn't suit us. His half-order of sautéed mushrooms, presented in an iron skillet, was enough to share. While they were nicely cooked, the garlic seasoning was not discernable.

    I sent my first plate of 12-ounce yellowfin tuna back, as it was overcooked. Our server accommodated the request with a smile and an apology, returning five minutes later with a tender and juicy fillet. Our foil-wrapped baked potatoes were plump and enjoyable.

    I sent my first plate of 12-ounce yellowfin tuna back, as it was overcooked. Our server accommodated the request with a smile and an apology, returning five minutes later with a tender and juicy fillet. Our foil-wrapped baked potatoes were plump and enjoyable.

    Our "Katie's delight" house dessert ($3.50) was a deliciously chewy and crunchy creation that featured cream cheese, whipped cream and chocolate pudding on a bed of crushed pecans, topped with chocolate chips and more pecans.

    When dining out, do you like to be greeted three times, by name, before you are seated? Do you like to have someone refold your napkin every time you get up to use the bathroom? Speaking of the bathroom, do you like to have someone lead you there? Do you like to have the waiter give your leftovers to the valet, who delicately places them in the backseat of your car so you don't have to be burdened with carrying them yourself?

    If you answered yes to any of these questions, your table is waiting at The Capital Grille. Enjoy your meal. If, on the other hand, you think that $200 is an outrageous sum of money for two people to spend on dinner at any restaurant ' quality of service and food be damned ' then you're better off at almost any of the innumerable other steakhouses in this town, because you'll leave The Capital Grille impressed with the service and annoyed with the prices. Just like I did.

    So let's get this out of the way: No steak served a la carte is worth $36. An excellent steak that came with two or more generous sides could fairly command that kind of money. But a slab of beef sitting there all lonely on a white plate? Not unless you are a lobbyist trying to buy Katherine Harris' largesse.

    Oh yeah, the food. In a word, it's good. Notice I didn't use 'exquisite,â?� 'otherworldly,â?� 'masterfulâ?� or any other adjective that would convey the sense that dinner was worth two C-notes plus.

    We started with a lightly battered, pan-fried calamari appetizer ($12) in which the salty crunch of the squid was nicely balanced by the heat of sliced cherry peppers. Topped with a squirt of fresh lemon, it was the best dish of the night; ahem.

    A cup of French onion soup ($5) was unremarkable, as was the spinach salad with warm bacon dressing. The latter didn't quite cut it because I was expecting a wilted salad just like mom used to make, and what I was served was an unwilted salad with room-temperature dressing. Mom, by the way, never charged $7 for her salad.

    All of which is a prelude to the aforementioned lonely slab o' beef. Our waiter, Christopher (I know his name because he gave me his card), almost lulled me to sleep with a long tale of beef dry-aged in-house. There were so many options, cuts, sauces and crusts that I could not follow along. So I ordered the 'Kona-crusted sirloin steak with caramelized shallot butterâ?� ($36). My companion went with a porcini-rubbed filet mignon ($34).

    Yes, these were fine steaks. No, they were not the best steaks I've ever had. The crust on the sirloin was a spicy mixture of coffee, pepper and sugar that tasted much better than it sounds. But for all Christopher's talk of dry aging, the beef lacked the intense flavor and almost fall-apart tenderness of really top-shelf steak. Similarly, the filet was tender, juicy and more than satisfactory, but nothing different than cuts available at a dozen other places.

    Add a skimpy side of creamy mashed potatoes ($4.50 for a half-order), a plate of roasted mushrooms ($9), two drinks and a bottle of wine ($54) and the total came to $190 and change. With a tip you are in a rarified realm of dining that had better be extraordinary. While the fastidious service and posh atmosphere were worthy of those prices, I can't say the same for the cuisine.

    Other than, what a waste of time and money, about the only other thing I could think about on the drive home from an overpriced dinner at the Capriccio Grill Italian Steakhouse was how many starving people could have been fed with the money just spent. The experience was that much of a downer. When more than 100 bucks is dropped on a dinner for two, not counting drinks or wine, then it had better be a hedonistic experience, worthy of the indulgence. And there was only one thing that was special about Capriccio's new menu: The steak, from Ruprecht's, one of the oldest operating beef processors in Chicago and a purveyor of quality meats to high-end steakhouses around the country. Though expensive – $37 for the restaurant's "signature" 24-ounce rib-eye – the meat was worthy. The experience as a whole was not.

    Reservations are recommended at Capriccio, and it's a good thing we had them. The hostesses were routinely turning away party after party that showed up without them, making it seem too big a deal when we sailed into the shotgun-style dining room, ushered past grumbling guests. Capriccio is on the first floor of The Peabody Orlando, easy to park at and enter, across the street from the Orange County Convention Center. It's the hotel's supposedly midpriced restaurant; there's also the more formal and expensive Dux and the cheaper and more fun Beeline Diner. The decor is an outdated style of subdued urban chic, with contemporary lighting and fresh exotic flowers contrasting dark wood tables and checkered marble floors.

    Reservations are recommended at Capriccio, and it's a good thing we had them. The hostesses were routinely turning away party after party that showed up without them, making it seem too big a deal when we sailed into the shotgun-style dining room, ushered past grumbling guests. Capriccio is on the first floor of The Peabody Orlando, easy to park at and enter, across the street from the Orange County Convention Center. It's the hotel's supposedly midpriced restaurant; there's also the more formal and expensive Dux and the cheaper and more fun Beeline Diner. The decor is an outdated style of subdued urban chic, with contemporary lighting and fresh exotic flowers contrasting dark wood tables and checkered marble floors.

    In the back, the main dining area is built around the kitchen, where sweating cooks and steaming pans are in full view. We were seated at a small round café table squeezed into a sort of makeshift spot between the pathway and the bussing station, in front of the kitchen. Many passing eyes observed our table that night, and we managed to avoid any injury when water spilled and dishes broke at the server station. I was surprised into politeness when a server ducked under the table to pick up some broken glass – "Excuse me, madam," he said, kneeling down beside me with a towel ready to dry me off – or maybe wrap my wounds – if necessary.

    In the back, the main dining area is built around the kitchen, where sweating cooks and steaming pans are in full view. We were seated at a small round café table squeezed into a sort of makeshift spot between the pathway and the bussing station, in front of the kitchen. Many passing eyes observed our table that night, and we managed to avoid any injury when water spilled and dishes broke at the server station. I was surprised into politeness when a server ducked under the table to pick up some broken glass – "Excuse me, madam," he said, kneeling down beside me with a towel ready to dry me off – or maybe wrap my wounds – if necessary.

    Our cocktails were unimpressive – the dried olive and brown-spotted lime wedge stuck on the toothpick in the Bloody Mary ($6.25) looked like leftovers. The Grey Goose martini ($8.50) ordered "dirty" was served clean, and also was cheapened by aged olives. The flatbread in the complimentary basket was stale, but there were some fresh rolls in there, too.

    Our cocktails were unimpressive – the dried olive and brown-spotted lime wedge stuck on the toothpick in the Bloody Mary ($6.25) looked like leftovers. The Grey Goose martini ($8.50) ordered "dirty" was served clean, and also was cheapened by aged olives. The flatbread in the complimentary basket was stale, but there were some fresh rolls in there, too.

    Ordering entrees, we acknowledged Capriccio's Italian past. We selected one of the favorite pasta dishes still on the menu, as recommended by our friendly server, the "penne e pollo" ($16.95), with pieces of chicken, grapes and walnuts covered in a Gorgonzola sauce. And we ordered the 12-ounce filet mignon ($34), topped by an "Oscar" sauce that was a special on this evening. Later, the bill reflected the $12.95 addition of the teaspoon or so of rich crabmeat and two stalks of asparagus topped by hollandaise sauce.

    Ordering entrees, we acknowledged Capriccio's Italian past. We selected one of the favorite pasta dishes still on the menu, as recommended by our friendly server, the "penne e pollo" ($16.95), with pieces of chicken, grapes and walnuts covered in a Gorgonzola sauce. And we ordered the 12-ounce filet mignon ($34), topped by an "Oscar" sauce that was a special on this evening. Later, the bill reflected the $12.95 addition of the teaspoon or so of rich crabmeat and two stalks of asparagus topped by hollandaise sauce.

    When it arrived, the beef carpaccio appetizer ($9.50) offered the perfect opportunity to taste Ruprecht's product in its rarest form – thin shavings of raw meat, seasoned and dressed with tangy capers, tart lemon and a sprinkling of Parmesan. Sanguine and delicate, the carpaccio paired well with the spinach salad ($7.95), which was fine if nothing fancy.

    When it arrived, the beef carpaccio appetizer ($9.50) offered the perfect opportunity to taste Ruprecht's product in its rarest form – thin shavings of raw meat, seasoned and dressed with tangy capers, tart lemon and a sprinkling of Parmesan. Sanguine and delicate, the carpaccio paired well with the spinach salad ($7.95), which was fine if nothing fancy.

    Then came the $17 pasta insult. To relive the experience as quickly as possible: Cool al dente penne was dumped on top of a puddle of steaming sauce, so I had to mix up the dish myself. (My fingers got a bit burned – no big deal.) The rich and biting Gorgonzola sauce desperately needed the sweet grapes and the texture of the nuts to cut the thickness. But the spare bits and pieces of grape and nut and chicken were hunted and downed within a handful of bites. Across the table, the properly "flash-seared" fillet was full of flavor, enhanced by the Oscar treatment. The recommended glass of Merlot was a smart choice for taste but was a $12 slam.

    Then came the $17 pasta insult. To relive the experience as quickly as possible: Cool al dente penne was dumped on top of a puddle of steaming sauce, so I had to mix up the dish myself. (My fingers got a bit burned – no big deal.) The rich and biting Gorgonzola sauce desperately needed the sweet grapes and the texture of the nuts to cut the thickness. But the spare bits and pieces of grape and nut and chicken were hunted and downed within a handful of bites. Across the table, the properly "flash-seared" fillet was full of flavor, enhanced by the Oscar treatment. The recommended glass of Merlot was a smart choice for taste but was a $12 slam.

    The coffee was good and a bargain (no charge), and there was no oversweetening of the mixed berries in the cobbler ($7.75), though the crust tasted stale, like it had been out in the humid air too long.

    The coffee was good and a bargain (no charge), and there was no oversweetening of the mixed berries in the cobbler ($7.75), though the crust tasted stale, like it had been out in the humid air too long.

    If you're here for a convention and want steak, jump on I-4 and head downtown to Kres Chophouse for a much more special night out. If you're stuck in the hotel, head for the Beeline Diner for meatloaf.

    We didn't review this location but you can check out the review of Charley's Steak House on International Drive.

    When it comes to eating meat, steakhouses still reign supreme. What meat-eater is not enamored with those dark, lavish dungeons that allow us to feast to our blood-craving heart's content? Even those who rarely go out to eat are likely to occasionally splurge on an outing at a local steakhouse institution – one like my long-standing favorite, Charley's Steak House. It dresses up, yet sensibly. It's hedonistic, yet polite. It's luxurious, yet wholesome.

    The minute you step through the opulent wooden doors of Charley's, you know right away that you have entered an old-school establishment. Even the newer location on International Drive transports you to a time when the steakhouse was the only option for fine dining. The low-hung lamps and yellow lighting might appear outdated in another setting, but they just made my mouth water as I remembered years of celebration meals here – proms, anniversaries, graduations and birthdays. (No meal at Charley's would be complete without hearing "Happy Birthday to You" from across the room.)

    The minute you step through the opulent wooden doors of Charley's, you know right away that you have entered an old-school establishment. Even the newer location on International Drive transports you to a time when the steakhouse was the only option for fine dining. The low-hung lamps and yellow lighting might appear outdated in another setting, but they just made my mouth water as I remembered years of celebration meals here – proms, anniversaries, graduations and birthdays. (No meal at Charley's would be complete without hearing "Happy Birthday to You" from across the room.)

    Our evening started with the opening of the heavy wooden doors. The charred fragrance of porterhouse mingled with cigar and port, as we heard the refrain of the birthday song and the sizzle of meat and asparagus on the open-fire grill. We were led into one of the many nooks and crannies and were shortly greeted by our server. Charley's has great service, but it's more science than art. Every move made by the servers and hosts seems programmed by market surveys and management policy, and they rule the upselling roost. I was midway through ordering crab legs ($15.95) as an appetizer when the server suggested the "seafood sampler" ($29.95). The "seafood sampler" is not listed on the menu, however,and I wasn't aware at the time that I was being cajoled into spending twice as much money. I find this behavior irritating in a server. Call me crazy, but I want a server who is as much my ally and advocate as the establishment's robot.

    Our evening started with the opening of the heavy wooden doors. The charred fragrance of porterhouse mingled with cigar and port, as we heard the refrain of the birthday song and the sizzle of meat and asparagus on the open-fire grill. We were led into one of the many nooks and crannies and were shortly greeted by our server. Charley's has great service, but it's more science than art. Every move made by the servers and hosts seems programmed by market surveys and management policy, and they rule the upselling roost. I was midway through ordering crab legs ($15.95) as an appetizer when the server suggested the "seafood sampler" ($29.95). The "seafood sampler" is not listed on the menu, however,and I wasn't aware at the time that I was being cajoled into spending twice as much money. I find this behavior irritating in a server. Call me crazy, but I want a server who is as much my ally and advocate as the establishment's robot.

    The next round of upselling was the server's insistence on adding an additional side dish to our order. I naively bought in to his spiel and believed that without the chef's spinach and artichoke casserole ($5.95), we would be lacking a substantial meal. Not only was the casserole mediocre in taste, it was sheer gluttony to have it on our table. I would have been just as happy (and full) with the side dishes of jumbo grilled asparagus ($6.95) and baked potato ($2) alongside the delicious porterhouse steak (29.95). I also enjoyed the fresh chopped salad that came with my meal, but when the server offhandedly asked me if I wanted some blue-cheese crumbles, I should have known there would be an extra charge on the bill.

    The next round of upselling was the server's insistence on adding an additional side dish to our order. I naively bought in to his spiel and believed that without the chef's spinach and artichoke casserole ($5.95), we would be lacking a substantial meal. Not only was the casserole mediocre in taste, it was sheer gluttony to have it on our table. I would have been just as happy (and full) with the side dishes of jumbo grilled asparagus ($6.95) and baked potato ($2) alongside the delicious porterhouse steak (29.95). I also enjoyed the fresh chopped salad that came with my meal, but when the server offhandedly asked me if I wanted some blue-cheese crumbles, I should have known there would be an extra charge on the bill.

    Let's get down to business: Charley's has some of the best steaks in town – no bones about it. The meat is superior. They cure and cut it on the premises, rub it in a secret (heavenly) spice blend and then flame-grill it over oak and citrus wood in temperatures that reach over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The result of all the carnivorous muss and fuss is a sublime steak.

    Let's get down to business: Charley's has some of the best steaks in town – no bones about it. The meat is superior. They cure and cut it on the premises, rub it in a secret (heavenly) spice blend and then flame-grill it over oak and citrus wood in temperatures that reach over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The result of all the carnivorous muss and fuss is a sublime steak.

    Appetizers and dessert are merely the parentheses around the main affair. Our dessert was a ridiculously big piece of chocolate Grand Marnier cake ($7.95) – something Charley's has on hand to accompany the chorus of birthday tunes, I presume. Even the side dishes are trifling dashes, momentarily interrupting the meat-eating. And don't bother with the lobster (market price), one of my usual favorites. That's not what you come here to eat. Thinking ahead to the next time, I think I'll go for a filet mignon ($24.95) appetizer, a porterhouse main course and a T-bone ($20.95) dessert.

    When we first started business 10 years ago at Church Street," says Oscar Lagos, owner of Choo Choo Churros, "we had a small cart that we sold fried pastries from – churros. And since there was the train there, my wife named it Choo Choo Churros."

    From that small cart the Lagos moved to a little coffeeshop on Bumby Avenue, and then four years ago to Lake Underhill, always keeping the name. "Argentinean people and American people, they both ask, what does this name mean?" Lagos says. Well, to anyone who asks, in the universal language of food it translates into "good."

    From that small cart the Lagos moved to a little coffeeshop on Bumby Avenue, and then four years ago to Lake Underhill, always keeping the name. "Argentinean people and American people, they both ask, what does this name mean?" Lagos says. Well, to anyone who asks, in the universal language of food it translates into "good."

    Choo Choo has an affinity for small spaces, and there are barely nine tables in the room, with three more outside on a patio. Renovation is going on, but nothing will change the fact that Lake Underhill Road and the East-West Expressway are right outside. That seems to be the only negative Ã? unless you're a vegetarian.

    Choo Choo has an affinity for small spaces, and there are barely nine tables in the room, with three more outside on a patio. Renovation is going on, but nothing will change the fact that Lake Underhill Road and the East-West Expressway are right outside. That seems to be the only negative Ã? unless you're a vegetarian.

    Much of the food of Argentina and Brazil can be summed up in four letters – meat. Lots of meat, delicious big slabs of it, served in styles and from parts of beasts that some people, even carnivores, would rather not think about. So unless you know Spanish or aren't afraid to ask, you could order "morcilla" and end up with blood sausage, or be served a big order of lemon- grilled sweet breads because "molleja" is such a lovely word.

    Much of the food of Argentina and Brazil can be summed up in four letters – meat. Lots of meat, delicious big slabs of it, served in styles and from parts of beasts that some people, even carnivores, would rather not think about. So unless you know Spanish or aren't afraid to ask, you could order "morcilla" and end up with blood sausage, or be served a big order of lemon- grilled sweet breads because "molleja" is such a lovely word.

    What you might want to start with is "churrasco" ($12.95), a word that usually refers to an open-flame style of cooking rather than a cut of meat, but which in this case is a two-inch-thick skirt steak that is tender, juicy and unadorned. Here is a chef who doesn't have to season, flavor, dress up or disguise a piece of meat, but knows how to cook for the best effect. The mixed grill, or "parrillada" ($15.95 to $32.95, depending on the number of people) is a popular dish that features a little sample of everything on a sizzling platter.

    What you might want to start with is "churrasco" ($12.95), a word that usually refers to an open-flame style of cooking rather than a cut of meat, but which in this case is a two-inch-thick skirt steak that is tender, juicy and unadorned. Here is a chef who doesn't have to season, flavor, dress up or disguise a piece of meat, but knows how to cook for the best effect. The mixed grill, or "parrillada" ($15.95 to $32.95, depending on the number of people) is a popular dish that features a little sample of everything on a sizzling platter.

    If you need a break from beef, the sweet corn or ham-and-cheese empanadas – small and dense deep-fried turnovers ($1.50) – are great. There are a couple of chicken dishes "milanesa" (breaded) and a wonderful "Sierra fish" cross-cut steak (usually white fish, but on this occasion, salmon) that was firm but still juicy in a slightly spicy lemon and wine sauce.

    If you need a break from beef, the sweet corn or ham-and-cheese empanadas – small and dense deep-fried turnovers ($1.50) – are great. There are a couple of chicken dishes "milanesa" (breaded) and a wonderful "Sierra fish" cross-cut steak (usually white fish, but on this occasion, salmon) that was firm but still juicy in a slightly spicy lemon and wine sauce.

    Entrees come with a simple salad, good bread and the sounds of vintage tangos in the background, including some recordings that customers bring in to share from their own collections. (Mention Astor Piazzolla, and you're golden.) The owners are charmingly friendly. Mix in their well-prepared meals and cozy atmosphere and you have a winning combination, regardless of language.

    With more than 20 locations across the country, Fleming's Steakhouse is another in the "upscale chain" concept of restaurants coming from the popular Outback Steakhouse folks (whose other partnerships include Roy's and Bonefish Grill). Paul Fleming, founder of the restaurant bearing his name, came into the business by opening a Ruth's Chris Steak House franchise in Beverly Hills, then moved on to start P.F. Chang's ("P.F.", get it?).

    Ironically, Fleming's is sited on the high-traveled intersection of Lee Road and Orlando Avenue, a hop, skip from Ruth's Chris Steakhouse and P.F. Chang's in the Winter Park Village.

    Steak was the food of choice for businessmen back when I walked the corporate corridors, and judging by the number of suits in this atmospheric dining room of dark wood and leather, it remains so.

    The distinguishing ingredient of the Fleming's chain is its multipage wine menu, with every vintage available by the glass, one that's the size of your head. And since everything is big here in Steak-house Land, the cuts of meat range from a four-inch-high "petite" filet mignon ($23.95) to a humongous 22-ounce bone-in rib eye.

    The miniature mignon came to the table as rare as any red-meat lover could hope, an aged hand-cut as thick as a brick that was almost fork-tender, except for a cord of gristle that ran down one corner (which probably only proves that the meat wasn't processed). A starter of "wicked Cajun" shrimp ($10.95) found four large, slightly undercooked shrimp bathed in a pleasingly spicy garlic butter.

    As is the fashion, side dishes are extra and, like everything from entrées to desserts, enormous. The platter of sautéed spinach, cooked in brown butter with red onion, is enough for four people; and a smooth and spicy creamed-corn dish with two cheeses would take a family to finish (both $4.95). The baked potatoes are big enough to have Wilson stamped on the side.

    Those taking a break from beef can find a select offering of fish or chicken. The "tuna mignon" ($24.95) was just as thick as the petite filet, perhaps too thick to do such a lovely piece of fish justice, as the center was not just rare but ice-cold.

    Our waitress was friendly and casual, albeit terribly busy, which pretty much describes the room itself. At least while Fleming's is a new draw for the culinary curious, reservations are mandatory for timely seating. But full service is offered at the booths in the bar area, and at the bar itself, so you might be able to sneak in past the waiting throngs. Steak lovers won't be disappointed.

    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.

    Novelist Ernest Hemingway never owned a restaurant. While he did originate the line, "Paris is a moveable feast," I don't think he was talking about food. Still, he was known to frequent some of the finest restaurants in Italy, France and, of course, Cuba.

    I think he'd be just as likely to be found in the Hurricanes Bar at the sprawling Grand Cypress Resort as he would in the hotel's restaurant that carries his name. (He did say, after all, "I have drunk since I was fifteen and few things have given me more pleasure.")

    I think he'd be just as likely to be found in the Hurricanes Bar at the sprawling Grand Cypress Resort as he would in the hotel's restaurant that carries his name. (He did say, after all, "I have drunk since I was fifteen and few things have given me more pleasure.")

    Yes, Papa might have liked this Hemingways, a Key West-styled eatery overlooking a half-acre pool and surrounded by lush gardens and the enormous, 750-room hotel. (There's a golf course and an equestrian center, too.) One of six restaurants on the grounds, the multilevel and multiroom setup means that almost all of the 140 seats have a glass-walled view of the scenery. It's a comfortable space, with whitewashed walls and high ceilings, although I could have done without the nonstop Jimmy Buffet music. The hotel itself is full of impressive Buddhist and modern art, and it is worth a tour.

    Yes, Papa might have liked this Hemingways, a Key West-styled eatery overlooking a half-acre pool and surrounded by lush gardens and the enormous, 750-room hotel. (There's a golf course and an equestrian center, too.) One of six restaurants on the grounds, the multilevel and multiroom setup means that almost all of the 140 seats have a glass-walled view of the scenery. It's a comfortable space, with whitewashed walls and high ceilings, although I could have done without the nonstop Jimmy Buffet music. The hotel itself is full of impressive Buddhist and modern art, and it is worth a tour.

    Executive chef Kenneth Juran has worked in California, New York and France, and the widely influenced dishes are impressive, if expensive.

    Executive chef Kenneth Juran has worked in California, New York and France, and the widely influenced dishes are impressive, if expensive.

    But this is tourist territory, where prices don't seem to be an issue. A featured appetizer of lobster tail and angel-hair pasta had a subtle combination of flavors; but at $18.50, I was expecting the lobster to be more tender and the pasta less so.

    But this is tourist territory, where prices don't seem to be an issue. A featured appetizer of lobster tail and angel-hair pasta had a subtle combination of flavors; but at $18.50, I was expecting the lobster to be more tender and the pasta less so.

    My first reaction to the lobster and pumpkin bisque ($8) was to shut my eyes and enjoy. Meaty pieces of crustacean were immersed in pureed pumpkin and topped with roasted seeds, the deep tastes switching from sweet to smoky.

    My first reaction to the lobster and pumpkin bisque ($8) was to shut my eyes and enjoy. Meaty pieces of crustacean were immersed in pureed pumpkin and topped with roasted seeds, the deep tastes switching from sweet to smoky.

    Fish (served without any old men) is a specialty, available grilled, broiled or sauced. The red snapper ($26) was the big-gest piece I'd ever seen, yet still tender and flaky. I didn't quite know what to expect of shrimp and sweet-corn ravioli ($29), which turned out to be a wheel of shellfish chunks, corn and red peppers interspersed with less impressive pasta stuffed with a bland shrimp paste.

    Fish (served without any old men) is a specialty, available grilled, broiled or sauced. The red snapper ($26) was the big-gest piece I'd ever seen, yet still tender and flaky. I didn't quite know what to expect of shrimp and sweet-corn ravioli ($29), which turned out to be a wheel of shellfish chunks, corn and red peppers interspersed with less impressive pasta stuffed with a bland shrimp paste.

    A commendation must go to the sous chef who prepared the vegetables. The "smashed" potatoes (tender buds of buttery splendor), crisp broiled asparagus and shredded carrots (with a sweetness that filled the mouth) show an admirable attention to quality of preparation.

    A commendation must go to the sous chef who prepared the vegetables. The "smashed" potatoes (tender buds of buttery splendor), crisp broiled asparagus and shredded carrots (with a sweetness that filled the mouth) show an admirable attention to quality of preparation.

    As Hemingway would say, Let's get to the point. After the evening at Hemingways is over, you'll leave knowing you've had an enjoyable meal.

    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.

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