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    Some of my greatest meal memories are from the original Dexter's in Winter Park. It was there that I discovered my love of sitting around a table for hours with friends, eating, drinking and conversing. The original Dexter's on Fairbanks Avenue was magnificent for this discovery, an absolutely pleasurable spot where you could linger and listen to music, sip wine and enjoy enlivening food.

    Then came Dexter's in Thornton Park, which became my morning-after remedy from long nights at the Go Lounge. I loved getting up and riding my bike over to Washington Street to have brunch. There was no better way to nurse a hangover than with a basket of sweet potato chips and a Dexter's "special" – a honey-cured mesquite-smoked turkey sandwich. When the original Dexter's moved to another location, in west Winter Park, I went a couple of times, mostly on dates before the movies or to grab a quick sandwich and tasty salad.

    I guess you could say that Dexter's and I have grown up together. Dexter's kind of supplied the comfort food of my early adult life, introducing me to such favorites as buccatini, jerk spice and smoked cheese. So when I heard Dexter's was growing again and moving north to the suburbs, I wasn't sure what to think. I mean, I'm not ready for the suburbs yet. And would it have the same cool warehouse-space feel? Would the food be just as simple and pleasing?

    The new Dexter's in Lake Mary suffers a little from what I like to call Multiple Growth Restaurant Syndrome, the pesky disorder that occurs when a restaurant has been getting it right for so long that they become formulaic. Don't worry, though. Dexter's is up and running and handling this minor affliction quite well. The first sign of MGRS is in the restaurant's sterile location in a spanking-new shopping plaza. To get to the restaurant, I had to navigate I-4 up to the Lake Mary exit, then pass by the marquee of a shopping mall and drive past endless rows of parking spaces. There's not much of a chance that I'll wake up on a breezy morning and hop on my bike for a ride over here. Each of the other Dexter's locations is unique in the way the business molds itself to the surroundings. The new entry offers a more manufactured ambience, but my friends and I still found the experience enjoyable in every way. This Dexter's was still the Dexter's I knew and loved.

    A beautiful glass wine-storage closet nestled in nicely by the bar, creating the fun, sophisticated flair Dexter's is so well known for. All of the comfort foods I crave were on the new menu, so I had to start with the basket of delicious "cha-cha" chips mixed with sweet chips ($1.95), which always kicks up my appetite.

    From the café menu, my friends ordered my beloved garlic buccatini with fresh pesto ($6.95), a delectable mix of Alfredo sauce, basil, pine nuts and thick, hollow egg noodles. We also tried the "low country crab cakes" ($11.95) and our resident Marylander gave them the thumbs-up – flaky and tender, packed with sweet crab flavor and piqued by plenty of fresh red pepper and onion.

    We tried some items from the chef's special menu and found them delicious, as well. The chef here has the familiar Dexter's flair for giving comfort-food ingredients an exciting twist. The "chipotle marinated pork tenderloin" ($17.95) was bursting with heady spices such as cumin and cilantro, complementing the smoky aroma of the chipotle pepper. The "grilled filet with Stilton-bacon-demi glace" ($22.95) was steak and potatoes at its best. The fillet, juicy and served medium rare, was compatibly married to the opulent flavors of bacon and blue cheese. All of the dishes were enhanced by the accompaniment of a reasonably priced bottle of Acacia pinot noir. To finish our dinner off, we virtually scarfed the very satisfying and solid crème brûlée ($4.50) and the decadently chocolate "two mousse brownie" ($4.50).

    When I got up from my meal I realized that I had, once again, passed a lively two hours with friends at Dexter's. So even if Dexter's has become a bit formulaic, hey, the formula works.

    A chance to sit under the stars on a warm December night is worth the tolls and endless construction. The Sanford Wine Company, located in the severely underrated historic district, boasts an international wine list that includes classics from Spain, Italy, France and the western United States, and more obscure vintages from Canada and Eastern Europe. With over 100 wines to choose from, even the staunchest white zinfandel devotee will trade in that sophomoric rosé for a sophisticated riesling.

    Sanford Wine Company is as much dive bar as it is wine temple. There are over 40 micro-brewed and specialty beers both on tap and in bottle, sourced from Poland to Portland. Try Florida’s own Honey Amber Rose beer ($3.50), brewed along the Indian River, with hints of rosehips and orange blossom honey.

    Unpretentious surroundings and ESPN-beaming flat-panel televisions defy the example of the trendy wine bar and encourage more discussion of onion rings than opera. In fact, the Wine Company forgoes so-chic seared-tuna appetizers in favor of snappy bratwursts (perfect paired with a glass of Elyse 2003 Le Corbeau from California) and meaty burgers (the dark fruit, leather and tobacco of the Italian barolo makes for a classic combo). A variety of cheeses is also available, and the knowledgeable waitstaff can pair camembert with the perfect cabernet.

    The wine bar hosts wine and beer tastings, live music, lectures, and block parties throughout the year, making it an epicenter of the North Central Florida social structure. Taking wine from insurmountable pretension to cool modesty is a formidable task, but the Sanford Wine Company accomplishes this without sacrificing dedication to high-quality beverages. This temple to fermentation is as friendly to the diehard Mondavian as it is to the most urbane oenophile.

    For many foodies, Lake Mary's Colonial TownPark offers a culinary dead end, a place where homogeneity meets the uninspired, but a place that suburbanites flock to nonetheless. That's not to say the food inside the entertainment complex is bad, but there's an cookie-cutter approach to many restaurants here, and the Vineyard Wine Company falls into that category. The appellation of the wine bar'bistro'bottle shop doesn't exactly scream originality, and the fact that it sits across from 'The Coffee Caféâ?� underscores the argument. A place for intrepid or adventurous diners it's not ' though if you're the type to judge quality by the way dishes are plated, VWC more than holds its own.

    The cutesy star-shaped dish flaunting warm 'drunken bruschettaâ?� crostinis ($7.95) was outdone only by the puzzle-piece plates that held orbs of 'jumboâ?� lump crab cakes ($13.95). And like their serving contrivance, the toastettes were stellar tapas items that held up under the weight of vine-ripe tomatoes, goat cheese and a liberal balsamic drizzle. The crab cakes weren't jumbo in the least, but the meaty pan-seared rounds were given a Southern kick with the addition of roasted corn, bell peppers, caramelized onions and a Cajun remoulade.

    Mains comprising a selection of beef, poultry and seafood courses are available, but the wide-ranging tapas menu proves most popular with regulars, most of whom pair those items with a selection from the extensive wine list. An option for 3-ounce pours allows for great variety with your meal without the inconvenience of utter inebriation. There's no doubt that wine is taken seriously here, and sommelier Fidel Palenzuela may just stop by your table to lend his expertise. I enjoyed a glass of the Rutz Sonoma Cuvee Pinot Noir ($4.49) with some toasted beef-filled ravioli ($7.95) ' that is, until I dipped the crisp bite-sized pasta bits into a pomodoro sauce of cloying sweetness. I can understand adding a little sugar to offset the tomatoes' astringency, but this sauce was ridiculously sweet and practically inedible. The hummus trio ($5.50) was as insipid as the pomodoro was sweet ' the kalamata pesto was a timid mush; the roasted garlic lacked any zest; and the sundried tomato, humdrum at best. None of the three, unfortunately, were worthy of the pillowy-soft pita bread. Greek chicken kebabs ($6.95), featuring a quartet of corpulent, lemony chunks with an accompanying dish of tzatziki sauce, were satisfying, but nothing to Opa! about, even when enjoyed with a glass of delicate Dr. Loosen Riesling ($4.49).

    Just as tame were the two desserts we sampled. Romanoff strawberry butter crepes ($5.95) were sauced nicely, but the hotcakes were overcooked; the praline-chocolate mousse cake and lemon-blueberry roulade in the 'night and dayâ?� ($6.95) made for unremarkable endings.

    Vineyard's inviting space is an attractive assemblage of Floribbean stylings with touches from Ethan Allen, and it possesses the primary characteristics of an ideal first-date locale: It's eye-catching, predictable and safe.

    It's eye-catching, predictable and safe.



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