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    I've known about Amazonas Latin Grill for quite a while, but their cafeteria-style method of service didn't make me want to rush to visit. Also, I assumed, quite wrongly, that because Amazonas was located in a brutally unappealing strip-mall plaza anchored by a Wal-Mart, the fare would be equally unappealing.

    But when a friend extolled the virtues of their Venezuelan-inspired cuisine, I swallowed my pride ' and, ultimately, everything on my plate. Since that initial visit, I've been back scores of times, and their meals have never failed to impress. Most remarkable is how delightfully cheap everything is, which may also explain the long line that forms at noon. In fact, they close relatively early ' 7 p.m. on weeknights and 8 p.m. on weekends. With all the businesses in the Sand Lake Road'John Young Parkway corridor, it's no surprise that it gets busy at the lunching hour. What is surprising is how appetizing the array of dishes in the steam table looks. Owners Enrique and Gabriela Vuolo appear committed to serving quality food ' just take a look at the heaps of glistening yellow rice, perfectly caramelized plantains and saucy shredded meats behind the counter and you'll be convinced.

    Amazonas is a place you love taking newcomers to ' particularly those apprehensive about the quality. There's a pleasure in witnessing their conversion after a bite of the tender, chunky shredded pork ($7.99 with two sides), the superbly spiced shredded chicken ($7.99 with two sides) or the salty shredded beef ($7.99 with two sides). Even those who'd rather play it safe will find gratification in an order of grilled chicken ($6.49 for quarter-chicken with two sides) ' moist, tender and nicely seasoned. A rare disappointment: On my last visit, the side of cilantro roasted potatoes wasn't very flavorful.

    Sandwiches are another specialty, whether it's a traditional pabellón ($6.99) ' a hoagie filled with shredded beef, french fry sticks, plantains and cilantro mayonnaise ' or the Venezuelan burger ($5.99), a must for diners with a penchant for protein. A fried egg and ham add to the meatiness of the burger, which also includes avocado, white cheese, lettuce and tomato. The churrasco ($8.99 with two sides) is a hefty slab of beef, and a wonderfully tender one at that; the price would lead you to think otherwise, but the steak is one hell of a deal. (Be sure to ask for some chimichurri sauce and a cup of their homemade hot sauce for an added kick.) Smaller items, like doughy ground-beef-filled potato balls ($1.50) and crispy chicken arepas ($4.99), are nice options for those who don't want as filling a meal. I wasn't so impressed with the flan ($2.49), but the tres leches ($2.99) and bienmesabe ($2.99), a spongy, creamy coconut-rum cake, made scrumptious endings. Same goes for the marquesa de chocolate ($2.99), a layered chocolate-cookie cake that's rich, but not too rich.

    The fact the joint is always packed at lunch is a testament to the kitchen's prowess in churning out massive quantities of food ' good food ' in so short a period of time. The diverse patronage that patiently waits in line serves as an affirmation for uninitiated diners, and guarantees a return visit.

    After a slowdown from the sushi overload of last year, several new restaurants have opened lately in various parts of town. Gracing the dining hot spot of Sand Lake Road is a familiar name in new clothing: Amura.

    Owned by the same folks behind the cozy Church Street location, Amura on Sand Lake is upscale and reservedly glitzy. It's to their credit that, despite some stiff competition and the shaky state of Church Street, Amura has thrived enough to expand.

    Owned by the same folks behind the cozy Church Street location, Amura on Sand Lake is upscale and reservedly glitzy. It's to their credit that, despite some stiff competition and the shaky state of Church Street, Amura has thrived enough to expand.

    This venue includes teppan tables, secluded on one side of the restaurant from the main room; judging by the appreciative noises coming from that end they seem to go over well. The new Amura is a gorgeous space, with backlit glass walls, rich marble flooring and tiny halogen lights suspended invisibly overhead like stars. But oohs and aahs at the decor quickly turn to gasps at the pricing – $21.99 for boring salt-coated scallops? A "deluxe Isleworth boat" sushi assortment for $99.98?

    This venue includes teppan tables, secluded on one side of the restaurant from the main room; judging by the appreciative noises coming from that end they seem to go over well. The new Amura is a gorgeous space, with backlit glass walls, rich marble flooring and tiny halogen lights suspended invisibly overhead like stars. But oohs and aahs at the decor quickly turn to gasps at the pricing – $21.99 for boring salt-coated scallops? A "deluxe Isleworth boat" sushi assortment for $99.98?

    The quality of the sushi does remain high, and it's particularly nice to see varieties of fish that have a low environmental impact, like hamachi (yellowtail, a kind of amberjack) and saba (mackerel). The saba is particularly good, with a slightly pickled taste that complements the firm rice. I recommend any of their nigiri sushi or sashimi, which glistens like jewels under those lights, except for the sashimi appetizer ($8.99), which includes a piece of surimi (that horrible fake crab). Surimi also turned up in the sunomono salad ($7.99) – shame on them.

    The quality of the sushi does remain high, and it's particularly nice to see varieties of fish that have a low environmental impact, like hamachi (yellowtail, a kind of amberjack) and saba (mackerel). The saba is particularly good, with a slightly pickled taste that complements the firm rice. I recommend any of their nigiri sushi or sashimi, which glistens like jewels under those lights, except for the sashimi appetizer ($8.99), which includes a piece of surimi (that horrible fake crab). Surimi also turned up in the sunomono salad ($7.99) – shame on them.

    The rolls didn't fare as well as the sushi. The "bamboo wine roll" ($8.99) of white tuna wrapped in avocado was limp and tasteless, the avocado overwhelming other flavors. And the "Magic roll" ($7.99), with shrimp, crab and asparagus was so soggy with a sweet, watery sauce, that it was almost impossible to pick up.

    The rolls didn't fare as well as the sushi. The "bamboo wine roll" ($8.99) of white tuna wrapped in avocado was limp and tasteless, the avocado overwhelming other flavors. And the "Magic roll" ($7.99), with shrimp, crab and asparagus was so soggy with a sweet, watery sauce, that it was almost impossible to pick up.

    It's when we get to the kitchen that everything falls apart. Not everyone likes the same thing, but I'll bet very few people enjoy oily and lukewarm shrimp tempura, with batter-dipped vegetables that are either undercooked or in such large pieces, like the broccoli, that raw batter sits inside as an unpleasant surprise. All that for $16.95. "fiery garlic chicken" ($15.99), a small portion of chewy chicken bits, was more overseasoned than fiery. The "geisha shrimp" ($18.99) were battered, then covered in an odd white sauce, with a bitter, burnt garlic taste that lingered for hours.

    It's when we get to the kitchen that everything falls apart. Not everyone likes the same thing, but I'll bet very few people enjoy oily and lukewarm shrimp tempura, with batter-dipped vegetables that are either undercooked or in such large pieces, like the broccoli, that raw batter sits inside as an unpleasant surprise. All that for $16.95. "fiery garlic chicken" ($15.99), a small portion of chewy chicken bits, was more overseasoned than fiery. The "geisha shrimp" ($18.99) were battered, then covered in an odd white sauce, with a bitter, burnt garlic taste that lingered for hours.

    If you go, stay with what Amura knows best – sushi – and let the kitchen staff take a break.

    'Our pizza is well done,� state the numerous 'warning signs� at Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza, an upscale chain in the Whole Foods plaza specializing in Brooklyn-style thin-crust pie. The 'well done� here amounts to a slightly blackened undercrust with a flavor akin to charred toast. Now, I like the taste of charred toast, but when tomato sauce (more sweet than herbaceous) and mozzarella is thrown into the mix, the resulting flavor takes some getting used to. 

    I did ultimately finish the cheese pizza ($6.50 lunch portion), so that has to count for something. And the pies are baked in just four minutes inside 800-degree ovens using eco-friendly anthracite, so you won't have to wait long. 

    Another plus: the simplicity of the menu. You have pizza, coal-oven-roasted chicken wings (the plump numbers are topped with grilled onions), Italian salad, a couple of focaccia sandwiches and New York'style cheesecake (though my dessert preference would be to skip the cheesecake and head across the parking lot to Piccolo Gelato for a post-pizza affogato). Waitresses are wonderfully bright and cheery and you will be too before your meal's over. 

    Another plus: the simplicity of the menu. You have pizza, coal-oven-roasted chicken wings (the plump numbers are topped with grilled onions), Italian salad, a couple of focaccia sandwiches and New York'style cheesecake (though my dessert preference would be to skip the cheesecake and head across the parking lot to Piccolo Gelato for a post-pizza affogato). Waitresses are wonderfully bright and cheery and you will be too before your meal's over. 

    Seemingly everything is imported from Italy, from the glassware to the tile. Drink prices are the usual Sand Lake high, but low traffic to this second-floor restaurant means you'll have the bartender's undivided attention. The bar features a walk-in wine closet and flat-screen TVs, and there's live entertainment on weekends.

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