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Although we tend to think of "Indian" as one cuisine, there are many cultures within that country, and diets differ dramatically. In general, the food of Southern India is fragrant with curry leaves, coconuts and tamarind. In the North, cream and yogurt are common ingredients and the predominant spice is garam masala, a mixture based on cardamom, clove, black pepper and cumin.

Serving Northern-style cuisine is just what Amit Kumar and partner Joy Kakkanad were after when they opened Aashirwad (meaning "blessing") last November on the south side of Orlando. And although that is not a part of town hungering for an Indian restaurant, the owners wanted to set themselves apart by keeping the cost affordable.

This is certainly the case at lunch, when Aashirwad serves a tasty, if depleted at times, buffet for only $6.95. Every day, the buffet is stocked with favorites such as chicken tikka masala, tandoori chicken, curry and rice. They also have salad and a rotating array of vegetarian items that make this buffet well worth the price of admission. But it's necessary to exercise patience when eating here – service is slow, and they don't always keep the buffet completely stocked. My second trip to the mother lode was fraught with empty chafing dishes (in one there were three florets of cauliflower) and puddles of spilled curry sauce. Eventually we were waited on, and eventually the buffet was restocked. Even though this wasn't a fast lunch, I would happily recommend it for the frugal and hungry.

The dinner experience at Aashirwad is more suggestive of the basic hospitality background studied by Kumar and Kakkanad in hotel/restaurant management school in India: They keep the lights low, the music medium and the service high. Still, the restaurant is in a strip mall on the corner of International Drive and Kirkman Road, and the dining room itself is nothing special, just a collection of booths and tables and Indian-inspired wall hangings.

We started our meal with aromatic vegetable samosas ($3.50), delicate and flaky pastry snugly enfolding a mixture of potatoes and peas. Most of the vegetables at Aashirwad seemed slightly abused, as if they were overcooked or kept around too long, and the starchy-tasting veggies in the samosas were no exception.

Both the tandoori chicken ($11.95) and the tandoori mixed grill ($15.95) were fabulously flavorful and rich with the characteristic charred smokiness of the signature clay oven. The lamb that comes as part of the mix was succulent and moist, but the morsels of chicken were on the dry side. A nice element of surprise was the addition of grilled paneer (Indian-style cottage cheese); the smooth creaminess of the cheese and the spiciness of the seasonings blended quite beautifully.

I was disappointed with Aashirwad's version of palak paneer ($9.45), creamy spinach with cubes of Indian cheese. The spinach lacked the usual creaminess and tasted flat; the cheese – though very tasty itself – kind of hung in suspension and seemed out of place.

Many things we tasted were good but were shy of being great. The cucumber and yogurt condiment, raita ($1.95), didn't burst with flavor; the chickpea crackers with cumin seeds, pappadam (complimentary), were slightly greasy; the lentils with tomatoes and onions, tadka dal ($8.95), had a watery quality. But the tandoor-baked bread, naan ($1.50) was spectacular: springy and soft in the center, yet crisp and smoky on the outside where it melded with the heat of the clay oven.

I have a feeling this restaurant hasn't quite hit its stride yet. Until then, I'll go back just for the naan.

In the midst of celebrity-branded restaurants and kiosks slinging theme-park kitsch, the Cowfish at Universal CityWalk, occupying a sprawling three-story space with more than 500 seats, fills the need for a kind of inventive, delightfully weird cuisine. There’s a menu section for burgers, one for sushi, and a selection of bizarre combinations requiring a suspension of disbelief, like the Buffaloooo-shi burgushi roll: chipotle bison, fried green tomato and feta rolled in crispy tempura flakes. It works.

When the pair of cordial thick-necked bruisers requested I remove my hat before entering this brassy two-story behemoth of a restaurant, I'll admit I was a little nonplussed. Would they rather I dine in their establishment with a severe case of hat-head? I mean, this is Pointe Orlando, not Park Avenue, and the restaurant, with all its kitschy details, seems like it could've been Epcot's lost Cuban pavilion. Not to mention the fact that in all my culinary travels in Cuba, not once was I ever asked to remove any headwear. So I found it somewhat ironic and a little pretentious that a restaurant named 'Cuba Libreâ?� would bar me from entering their establishment for not removing my hat. Free Cuba? Whatever.

I made sure my cabeza was free of any gorras on my second visit, and irony of ironies, they sat me outside. Yes, the ghost of Fulgencio Batista was undoubtedly chuckling from beyond the grave, yet after sampling an overly diluted mojito ($8.50) and cuba libre ($9.50), I got a few laughs in myself (unfortunately they were of the snickering variety). But after being seated by my blasé hostess, things got remarkably better thanks in large part to former James Beard award-winner Guillermo Pernot ' the chain's concept chef and a maestro of Nuevo Latino cuisine. I knew restitution was at hand after sampling the subtly crunchy papas rellenas ($9.50). The deceptively light potato croquettes came filled with luscious beef picadillo laced with a smoky guajillo pepper sauce, and each subsequent dish maintained the same level of quality. Heavenly cuts of pulled braised duck inside the cool, crisp and refreshing pato roll ($11) made double-dipping into peanut and ponzu sauces a delight. The spring roll was equally herbaceous and sweet, thanks to watercress, cilantro, candied papaya and mango.

An inordinate amount of time passed before our entrees arrived ' despite a phalanx of waiters and ear-pieced managers patrolling the 20,000 square-foot space, efficiency seemed to be compromised. No matter, I was giddy at the sight of the sea bass a la plancha ($25) when it finally arrived, and not one flaky bit of that chile/citrus/sesame-brushed fish failed to rouse. A nod to Havana's bustling Chinatown came in the form of a side of glistening 'Chino-Cubanoâ?� rice, colored with red peppers, okra, baby cauliflower, peas and carrots. Moros y Cristianos (literally 'Moors and Christiansâ?�), a blend of white rice and black beans, was the centerpiece in the plato cuba libre ($29.50), a platter of standard ropa vieja, succulent churrasco and an outstanding chicken infused with guajillo peppers. The trio of signature dishes in the platter changes nightly, but you're sure to get a representative sampling of traditional Cuban fare no matter what the night.

You'd expect desserts to have tropical leanings and, sure enough, all comprise a fruity component. Tres leches de banana ($8) was wonderfully milky ' being soaked in three banana-flavored milks will do that, though I didn't know three banana-flavored milks even existed. Roasted pineapple accompanies the warm soufflé torte ($8), a pleasing capper layered with dulce de leche and served with dulce de leche gelato.

Like the neighboring Capital Grille and Oceanaire Seafood Room, prices here aren't exactly recession-friendly. Passing the cost of running a grand establishment to the consumer isn't a novel tactic, but at least diners at Cuba Libre are treated to dishes of worth.

And for that, I offer a tip of my forbidden cap.

Rigorous sustainability and local sourcing are integral to chef Cory York's  stellar seafood dishes, though you'll have to navigate the depths of Disney property to sample them The astoounding crab cake is an absolute must, though the eight fresh fish options are the real draw. Don't overlook prime cuts of beef - the 22-ounce T-bone is a budget-buster, but well worth the price. Desserts please, but won't necessarily wow. Validated parking offered.


Teaser: Rigorous sustainability and local sourcing are integral to chef Cory York's stellar seafood dishes, though you'll have to navigate the depths of Disney property to sample them. The astounding crab cake is an absolute must, though the eight fresh fish options are the real draw. Don't overlook prime cuts of beef ' the 22-ounce T-bone is a budget-buster, but well worth the price. Desserts please, but won't necessarily wow. Validated parking offered.

Franco Petrarca always had grander visions for his humble pizzeria, visions that would gradually be realized through a series of menu tweaks, interior design facelifts and personnel changes. But the coup de grâce came earlier this year when he convinced Rosario Limonio, former head chef of Winter Park’s critically acclaimed Limoncello and Allegria restaurants, to run the relatively small kitchen at Famas and transport some culinary legitimacy to the I-Drive corridor. No question Limonio is a maestro of Italian cuisine – multiple requests for him to appear on Food Network’s Iron Chef are a testament to his kitchen mettle. While he bides his time gathering the right team for that boob-tube pressure cooker, he’s honing his skills inside this modest trattoria.

Famas has a split personality, with a brightly lit dine-and-dash left wing and a hushed, moderately romantic dining area to the right, but there’s no disorder when it comes to the character of the dishes. Limonio is on top of his game, brandishing a menu covering all regions of the Boot and, in the case of the insalata di mele ($8.95), a bit of the Pacific Northwest as well. The simple salad of Braeburn apple slices circling baby greens capped with gorgonzola crumbles and walnuts made for a vitalizing start, while artichoke oil and fresh basil added a bold dimension to the sun-dried tomato vinaigrette.

The chunky sauce in the cozze all’ arrabiata ($9.95) upstaged the generous heaping of mussels, the spicy bath of ripe, plump tomatoes offering plenty of zest to go along with the smack of garlic. If I had had additional wedges of garlic bread, that bowl would’ve been sopped clean.

Two mains – filetto al funghi porcini and agnello al rosmarino – were offered together as a special for $25.95, an absolute steal and a fine example of the chef’s talents. The filet’s silken coating of cognac and porcini mushroom sauce was just heavenly, as was the herbaceous rosemary-rubbed rack of lamb. The accompanying vegetable was a creative “burger” comprised of breaded eggplant, roasted red pepper, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and artichokes. The side of rice was infused with wild mushrooms, walnuts and the robust smokiness of guanciale (wild boar jowls – a flavor many chefs replicate with the more readily available pancetta).

I could hear the chicken for the pollo marsala ($15.95) being pounded in the kitchen, and the result was a wonderfully moist slab crowned with button and porcini mushrooms. On past visits, I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying a decadent four-cheese gnocchi ($14.95), scrumptious gourmet pizza ($14.95) and risotto campagnola ($15.95), a sort of vegetarian take on the filetto al funghi porcini.

Petrarca’s commitment to pleasing his rising star results in huge benefits for diners, as you’ll be hard-pressed to find a dish unworthy of praise. Same goes for the dolci, also prepared by Limonio. Tiramisu ($5.95), simultaneously spongy and boozy, is a post-meal pick-me-up; cannoli ($4.50), with velvety ricotta, strikes the perfect crisp/fluffy balance; and if the lemon cake ($5.95) is available, don’t think twice – just order it.

The evening’s only downside was the service. Our harried waiter seemed unfamiliar with the menu, neglected to ensure silverware was on the table and was slow to clear away dishes. But given the superiority of the fare such miscues seem trivial; the real draw here is Limonio. He may not b

Chef Penelope Brown is into the game, and mains like lean ostrich filet and the bison burger underscore the fact. The Monkey's decor, like the menu, is a hybrid of Eastern touches and big-city panache; there's nothing particularly funky in sight. The ample wine list should please the most cultured of oneophiles.


Teaser:

Chef Penelope Brown is into the game, and mains like the lean ostrich filet and the bison burger underscore the fact. The Monkey's decor, like the menu, is a hybrid of Eastern touches and big-city panache; there's nothing particularly funky in sight. The ample wine list should please the most cultured of oenophiles.

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