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New Yorkers like secrets, and (since 1936) one of the most closely kept has been the Valencia Bakery, known in Manhattan and the Bronx for a particular style of cake -- rich buttercream frosting covering super-moist white cake with three layers of real pineapple filling.

Well, the secret is out in Casselberry, where you'll find Ray Perez's own Valencia Bakery. It is filled with sugary pasteles (pastries from Puerto Rico), including cannolilike sweets with flaky outsides and custard fillings, and turnovers filled with guava jelly. There are also pastelitos (like empanadas), but they sell out fast.

Well, the secret is out in Casselberry, where you'll find Ray Perez's own Valencia Bakery. It is filled with sugary pasteles (pastries from Puerto Rico), including cannolilike sweets with flaky outsides and custard fillings, and turnovers filled with guava jelly. There are also pastelitos (like empanadas), but they sell out fast.

Then, of course, there are the cakes, actually made in the original New York bakery and shipped down. Valencia has only been open since November, but more than 800 of these beauties already have graced local palates.

Lee & Rick's is an experience; it's an event, not to mention a tradition. You go with lots of people. You dress so it doesn't matter if you drop a Tabasco-laden raw oyster down your shirt. You eat way more than you expect to, and it's all good -- even when you do things that you normally would not, like gesture wildly with a shrimp tail or eat great stacks of saltine crackers covered in horseradish and cocktail sauce.

A restaurant doesn't stay in business for 50 years by accident, especially not one shaped like a dry-docked old boat and about as unfancy as they come on the inside, particularly not one on the far end of Old Winter Garden Road. I am told on very good authority that the place hasn't changed an iota since the early '60s, so we can probably say with some safety that it has never changed at all.

And why should it? Not when you can order a dozen oysters (raw or steamed, $6.95), and a large plateful of the ocean's jewels are laid before you, the raw mollusks straight from Apalachicola Bay and so fresh that they're sweet. When steamed, they are cooked just enough to satisfy the squeamish, but they're every bit as good.

The best deal is a bucket - three dozen for $14.95 - but you have to sit at the room-length oyster bar to get it. Settle in with a group at the bend of the bar, on the right side, so you can talk and watch some world-class shucking at the same time.

A pound of shrimp (hot or cold) is $12.95, and a big helping of fresh shellfish it is - firm enough to give your teeth some resistance, steamed spicy but not overbearing.

Fish dinner platters, like stuffed flounder ($9.95), come with a heap of fries. There's a lovingly uncomplicated piece of flounder, filled with a crabmeat (real and faux) and cracker stuffing. My companion described the fish as tasting "like my dad just took it out of the water," and I can't think of higher praise.

Those same plump shrimp can be ordered fried ($11.95 platter) with just enough breading to satisfy your craving for carbohydrates without masking the shrimp.

The servers don't lack from experience; this is a fast-paced atmosphere, and you've got to know your stuff to work here. So it's a pleasure to get food delivered quickly, to never have to worry about running out of beer and to be called "honey," all at the same time.

Lee & Rick's Oyster Bar just kicked off its 50th year in the business this month. They're going to be shucking like crazy, so take along a few friends and an old shirt, and have yourself a time.

Claude and Chantal Wolff’s unassuming cafe on the fringes of Dr. Phillips may not conjure up images of enjoying lattes and croque monsieurs on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, but it won’t conjure up images of pouty, mustachioed servers dishing out attitude along with the chocolate croissants either. The Wolffs are so genuinely charming and exuberantly welcoming that you’d think they’re out to single-handedly undo France’s reputation for brusque, splenetic service.

Claude, it seems, takes it upon himself to personally greet every customer, while Chantal, though somewhat limited in her proficiency of the English language, perpetually beams as she preps soups, sandwiches and salads behind the counter. The French quarters here are cramped: The handful of tiny tables can sometimes make for a near-mob scene, and the tables outside fill up quickly. But there’s good reason for it – the savory sandwiches.

Le Café de Paris’ secret lies in the baguettes, which Claude flies in daily from a small village in his home région of Lorraine. So whether you opt to layer your baguette with ham, Swiss cheese, lettuce and tomato (as in the croque monsieur – $5.95), or with butter, brie cheese and tomato (as in the Le Parisien – $5.95), it’s really hard to go wrong. The pan bagna chicken ($6.50), a livelier version of the chicken salad sandwich with black olives, is so named because the bread (pan) is usually bathed (bagna) in olive oil, but because many patrons here don’t have a palate for huile-dressed bread, Chantal will only brush the oil on by request. I enjoyed the enormous sandwich, which was cut into three filling diagonals, but I would’ve preferred a side of potato salad instead of a bag of Lays potato chips.

Though the quiche (as well as all tarts and pastries) is prepared by a good friend of Claude’s, the outsourcing hasn’t affected the taste any. The fluffy core of eggy quiche Lorraine ($5.50) is accentuated with bacon and ham and walled by marvelous crust. Vegetarians will enjoy a more intensely flavored version with spinach, broccoli and cheese ($5.50), but if you’re up for a high-caloric intake, the tartiflette ($5.50) with potato, eggs, bacon and cheese will disprove the claim that real men don’t eat quiche.

Chantal’s salad du jour ($6.95), on this visit a Niçoise-like salad sans hard-boiled eggs, was a humdrum assemblage of green beans, cucumbers, black olives, onions and thin tomato slices with a dollop of canned tuna occupying the core of a large plate. Tomato bisque ($3.95), though a tad salty, was perfectly rich and creamy, while chicken soup ($3.95), with its pungent oniony broth teeming with carrots, celery, thick noodles and morsels of chicken, proffered one comforting slurp after another.

I’ve always been partial to chocolate croissants ($1.90), and the flaky rectangles served here are buttery indulgences. The only issue I had with the crème brûlée ($3.38) was the consistency – more runny than custardy – but the wonderful essence of vanilla bean had me scooping the bowl clean. The flaky peach tart square ($4.50) would’ve been better served warm, a request I later realized I could’ve made. A thick chocolate chip cookie ($1.50) goes well with any of their espresso-based coffees, which Claude is more than happy to refill au gratis should the mood strike him.

In France, I quickly learned that conversing in the native language, or at least making an effort, resulted in pleasant experiences and favorable outcomes. At Le Café de Paris, a similar approach may tip the balance in your favor, though the Wolffs are so affable, they seem to extend their hospitable generosity to just about everyone.

Dim sum: It's not for brunch anymore. Not under the auspices of Ming's Bistro where the a la cart scarfing extravaganza is an all-day affair. Sure, the cart (and a few specialty items) is only available weekends before 3 p.m., but the selection is impressive and, more importantly, as authentic as any you'll find in cities with large Chinese populations. So don't come expecting to find egg-foo-this and sweet-and-sour that; bastardized Chinese fare can be had up the street at P.F. Chang's.

Like many a dim sum joint I've visited, the dining room is spacious, high-ceilinged and almost proletarian in its essence, nuanced only by a half-dozen faux-crystal chandeliers and a trio of horizontally hung Chinese watercolor prints. Dinner by the flicker of fluorescent lighting is the norm, but it fails to cast a shadow on the medley of items on the dim sum menu, most of which can be had for under $3.

Dumplings ' shrimp, pork, taro and turnip ' are dim sum staples, but a true gauge of a kitchen's worth is the quality of its chicken feet ($2.50), and this kitchen does 'em right. Textural excellence is attained by frying, boiling, marinating and then steaming the talons, the end result being nothing short of divine. There's not much flesh to chomp on, granted, but teething the delicate bones, then tearing away the fiery-hot and velvety skin is absolute magic.

Oddly named, but superbly tasty, 'fried noodle rice pasteâ?� ($2.50) ' rolls of flaky pastry wrapped in a soft, candy-white noodle and splashed with sweetened soy sauce ' could be served for dessert. The peppery zing of spicy beef tripe ($2.50) outdid that of the chicken feet, but the dish was far too chewy to devour. Best to suck the spicy juices out of the honeycomb stomach lining and discard the remnants. If you're used to meatballs of the Swedish or Italian variety, you'll likely find the trio of ashen-colored steamed beef balls ($2.50) too dense, pasty and flavorless. Dim sum dishes are often loaded with salt and MSG, so order a pot of tea (the oolong is good); if you want more tea, turn the lid over to get the waitress's attention.

If you'd rather order a la carte (not cart), there's a host of dishes from which to choose ' everything from barbecue to congee to casseroles. The house special spicy beef hot pan ($8.95) is served in a small steel wok and kept simmering by a burner underneath. The advertised spiciness in the piping-hot mix of tender beef strips, vermicelli, carrots and mushroom caps was lacking, possibly because my mouth was still feeling the burn from the chicken feet and tripe.

Vigorous slivers of ginger in the ginger scallion fish fillets ($8.95) are the sole flavoring in this simple, refreshing dish. Circular morsels of soft whitefish are accented by scallion, all held together by clear, thick sauce. Glistening stalks of bok choy highlight the tender beef and vegetable chow fun ($6.95), a decent, if entirely pedestrian, dish.

Aside from the occasional 'Are you sure you want to order that?â?� look, my waitress, one of a small army of red-vested waitresses patrolling the restaurant, was quite affable and helpful in pointing out the ingredients of the assorted dishes (menu descriptions are terse).

Ming's is a little hard to spot, tucked away a block north of the intersection of Colonial and Mills, but it's well worth seeking, and its reign as the top Orlando destination for real Chinese cuisine is sure to flourish into a dynasty.

One of the best new patio bars in town, the Biergarten is inviting, with a friendly staff, tons of beer options and a great atmosphere. Expect a mixed crowd of all ages, especially on the weekends when folks are day-drinking.

Food and film: It's an odd combination, but it works, even if there are a few interruptions while watching the movie. Order staples like buttered popcorn, soft pretzels or chocolate-chip cookies, or get fancy with creative salads, sandwiches and pizzas. The al fresco Eden bar is a good place to grab a cocktail before the show.

Neighborhood jewel offers an eclectic pan-Mediterranean menu, with Indian, Latin and Asian influences on the horizon. Curry-crusted fish is deftly executed, as is chef Bret Ashman's intriguing take on gnocchi alla Sorrentina. A delightful smoked onion mince offers a contempo take on traditional Caprese salad. The wine list is ample and studied. Sunday brunch offered from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. 


Teaser: Neighborhood jewel offers an eclectic pan-Mediterranean menu, with Indian, Latin and Asian influences on the horizon. Curry-crusted fish is deftly executed, as is chef Bret Ashman's intriguing take on gnocchi alla Sorrentina. A delightful smoked onion mince offers a contempo take on traditional Caprese salad. The wine list is ample and studied. Sunday brunch offered from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
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