Sette (pre-opening media event)

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Well, folks, your friend and humble narrator The Saboscrivner has finally done it! Tonight I attended my first-ever media event to review a new restaurant: Sette (https://www.setteitalian.com/), the Italian restaurant owned and operated by Orlando’s beloved Chef Trina Gregory-Propst of Se7en Bites and her wife Va Propst.  Located at 1407 N Orange Ave, Orlando, Florida 32804, Sette is across the street from scenic Lake Ivanhoe, in a spot where several restaurants have come and gone.  This one is going to be different because of the people behind it, their vision, their hospitality, and their sheer culinary talent.

Chef Trina flexing her mussels in her spacious open kitchen:DSC01912

This was an auspicious beginning for what I suspect will become one of Orlando’s hottest restaurants.  Sette opens this Friday, March 22nd, and I suggest you get in as soon as you can.  It will be open for dinner Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10:00 PM, Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 11:00 PM, and Sundays 1:00 to 8:00 PM.  You can call 407.704.7771 for information and reservations in the meantime.

The restaurant seats 150, and they have regular tables as well as high-tops, both inside and outside, and seating at the inside bar as well.  I am pleased to report they have a parking lot (a rarity along that stretch of Orange Avenue near downtown Orlando), but I suspect it will fill up quickly.

Dig the homey, retro decor that screams “Italian restaurant!” without going into cliche territory.  You won’t find any red and white checkered tablecloths, candles melted into Chianti bottles, or artwork of stereotypical Italian chefs with Super Mario mustaches

The spacious and inviting outdoor patio:DSC01886

Even the musical selections fit the vibe perfectly: mid-century standards by the Italian-American triumvirate of Frank, Tony, and Dean, two of the three major Louies (Armstrong and Prima, but no Jordan), some jazz, nothing grating or out of place.

A welcoming bar well-stocked with wine, staffed by friendly bartenders serving up incredibly creative cocktails:DSC01887

Plenty of reds and whites I didn’t drink, but I was assured they have a great selection:DSC01889DSC01890

Most of the evening I nursed this blood orange Italian soda, which was crisp and clean and refreshing, and not cloyingly sweet like most store-bought sodas.  The bartender made this using one of several Italian syrups.  It looked like lavender, rose, and pistachio were among the other options, and I know they employ these in making cocktails as well. dsc01930.jpg

I don’t always get excited about salads, but this Caesar salad, with garlicky dressing and garlic parmesan croutons, and shaved parmesan cheese over romaine, was one of the best Caesar salads I’ve ever had, and well worth getting pumped over.DSC01893

I didn’t get to actually sample this beautiful Cucina salad, with romaine, cucumber, tomatoes, goat cheese, pine nuts, champagne dijon vinaigrette, and more of the garlic parmesan croutons, and I regret that.DSC01897

Trina and Va make their pastas from scratch.  I learned that all their extruded (shaped) pastas are vegan (think spaghetti, linguini, bucatini, etc.), but the flat pasta sheets, like their lasagna noodles, are not vegan due to containing eggs.  I can say that the pasta dishes I sampled tonight are easily some of the finest pastas I’ve ever had the pleasure of trying, and I LOVE pasta, and I’ve been to Babbo in New York (long before we knew what Mario Batali was really like).

Their lasagna was one of my favorite dishes, made with one long pasta sheet, painstakingly folded and assembled with layers of beef bolognese sauce, ricotta cheese, and pecorino romano, on a bed of creamy bechamel sauce.  Look at it!  Bellissima!DSC01923

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This was my favorite of all the pasta dishes, though.  These were so perfect, so chewy and thick.  I loved every bite, every morsel.  The sauce was so fresh and tangy.  It was an unfamiliar noodle to me called paccheri (kind of like a thicker rigatoni), in my favorite Italian sauce of all: amatriciana, the slightest bit spicy and a little bit salty from cured meats like guanciale, or in this case, pancetta.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.DSC01894DSC01900

I love thick, chewy, fresh pasta, and this bucatini carbonara was so good.  Tossed in eggs with crispy pancetta (bacon’s superior cousin), grated pecorino romano cheese, and peas, it was heavy and rich and oh so satisfying.  I never understand why carbonara isn’t more popular across the U.S. as a breakfast dish, considering it’s pasta served with eggs, bacon (although pancetta is always betta’), and cheese.DSC01924

More pasta: wonderful pesto linguini next to a stack of crispy fried eggplant, topped with a dollop of ricotta cheese, shaved pecorino romano, and fresh basil.  I’m usually not the biggest fan of eggplant, but this was one of two eggplant dishes tonight that totally won me over and made me a fan.  DSC01914

I absolutely loved the clam linguini, served with small neck clams, crispy pancetta, fennel, and a thick, rich lemon white wine sauce.DSC01920

Continuing with delicious bivalves, the Prince Edward Island mussels were on point, served in a lemon white wine sauce with fresh basil and grilled crusty bread.  Hard to eat neatly while standing up, but totally worth it.  DSC01891

This antipasta dish was maybe the greatest surprise of the night: Italian sausage served with fennel and… it ain’t new potatoes, it ain’t olives, and it ain’t what I was expecting, always-disappointing grape tomatoes, ready to explode and burn the hell out of my mouth.  DSC01922Nope, this sausage and fennel is served with blistered GRAPES, and they work so well together, the savory saltiness and the sweetness and tartness of the grapes.  I never would have thought of it, but that’s why Trina and Va are the visionary restauranteurs and I’m a librarian who writes about food as a hobby.

Despite all appearances, these are crispy eggplant “meat” balls, completely vegetarian, topped with sauce, dollops of ricotta cheese, and fresh basil, and served over polenta.  This was the other eggplant dish I loved:DSC01916

They served a similar preparation of actual beef meatballs too.  I tried and enjoyed a few of them, in fact, but didn’t get a good photo.  Trust me, if you like meatballs, you’ll love Sette’s meatballs.

This is another vegetarian dish, sort of a ratatouille, with tomatoes, eggplant, and zucchini served over rich risotto.DSC01896

And these were arancini, crispy fried balls stuffed with risotto, tangy gorgonzola cheese, and figs, served over a pesto cream sauce, and topped with crispy pancetta (which can easily be left off to accommodate vegetarians) and a balsamic glaze drizzle.DSC01902

Sette’s desserts were out of this world, as you would expect for the culinary wunderkind behind Se7en Bites.  My favorite was their unique take on the classic Italian tiramisu, a semifreddo (semi-frozen), cool, creamy concoction with a thin layer of ladyfingers that reminded me more of the graham cracker crust in a good pie, texture-wise, with espresso and dark chocolate ganache along the bottom.DSC01936DSC01937

They also served us amoretti cookies, very soft and chewy almond cookies dusted with powdered sugar and served with the most delicious and delightful little glasses of milk.  I thought there was something in the milk to make it sweeter, and it turned out it was “spiked” with white chocolate liqueur!  I don’t drink, but once I found out, it was so tasty I at least had to finish my little cup.  My wife will LOVE these cookies, since she loves anything almond-flavored.DSC01906DSC01933Almond lovers, they also serve a cocktail called “That’s Amore-etti,” with Real McCoy rum, almond syrup, DiSaronno amaretto, and almond milk.  I can imagine these cookies pairing very well with it.

Tonight they also served an olive oil cake with rosemary-accented lemon curd and lemon mascarpone buttercream icing, moist and tangy and fresh-tasting.  Loved it!DSC01911DSC01903

And while I’m not the biggest chocolate guy, this dense, brownie-like chocolate cake was garnished with fresh orange marmalade, candied oranges, and fresh chantilly cream.  The chantilly cream was my favorite part, and I would happily eat an entire bowl of that as a dessert!DSC01910DSC01909

This was a particularly special night for me because it was the first media event I’ve ever attended at a restaurant.  I’ve been reviewing and recommending restaurants and writing about food online for many years, on the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook and on the old Chowhound.com website before that.  Despite all that, it took me forever to gain the self-confidence to match my passion for food writing — I didn’t start The Saboscrivner until last June, 2018, so as usual, I’m a late bloomer.

While I’ve met several Foodie Forum members at various lunches over the last several months, tonight was the first time I met many of our serious and devoted Orlando food and lifestyle bloggers.  Of course everyone seemed to know and be friends with each other already, but I always feel like the odd man out, even when I attend professional conferences with my own colleagues in my field.  Just about everyone I met tonight was warm and friendly, though.  We were all caught up in sampling these delicious dishes at Sette, and I like to think I bonded with some people and didn’t embarrass myself or cramp anybody’s style.

I’ve been a fan of Chef Trina ever since she made her signature dark chocolate sea salt caramel pies for sale at Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria, years before Se7en Bites even existed, long before Guy Fieri helped make her nationally renowned by featuring her on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives and Guy’s Grocery Games.  I couldn’t be happier for her or prouder of her, and I was honored to be one of the local luminaries invited to chronicle Sette’s pre-opening event.  Every dish I tried was better than the last, I found myself saying more than once tonight.  Even though I was thrilled to be one of the lucky people to get this early look and taste, I would be raving about Sette no matter what.  In fact, as I write this at 12:30 AM, knowing I have to be awake in three hours to catch a flight to one of those aforementioned professional conferences, I’m already planning to take my wife to Sette as soon as possible upon my return, to enjoy it as any guest surely will.

Trust me — Sette is going to be Orlando’s next big thing.  Brava, Trina and Va!  Brava.

Cafe Madrid

Many years ago, I went to lunch with some co-workers at a Cuban restaurant that was fine.  Not bad, by any means, but I thought it was just okay.  I grew up in Miami, and while my parents didn’t love adventuring all over the city to try new restaurants the way I do in Orlando, they sure appreciated good Cuban food.  We were surrounded by some of the finest Cuban cuisine in the world: the Latin American Cafeteria within walking distance of our little 1950s-era house in the Kendall suburbs, two different La Carreta locations within easy driving distance, and the legendary, iconic Versailles, maybe the most quintessentially “Miami” dining experience there is, still not too far away.

As a result of this, my standards for Cuban food are high, and it is honestly hard to find any Cuban restaurants in Orlando that can compete with the classics in Miami.  So that little Orlando restaurant seemed much saltier and greasier than I was used to, I never found my way back to it, and I hadn’t thought about it in years.

Well, I recently went into work early and had to stay late, so I figured I’d go out to lunch to break up the day.  Believe it or not, dear readers, this is a rare thing for me.  I almost always pack my own lunches, and they are usually boring and relatively healthy — so unlike what I review on The Saboscrivner!  I happened to be driving west on Curry Ford Road, hungry and indecisive, and saw that familiar sign: Cafe Madrid (https://www.cafemadridfl.com/).  It had been so long, I figured I’d give them another chance, because even just okay Cuban food is better than a lot of things.

And to my pleasant surprise, Cafe Madrid was a brand new restaurant.  Same name and location, but new owners, new decor, new menu, new everything that matters.  They had only been open for four months in this new incarnation.  It was a much brighter, open, welcoming space, and instead of a Cuban restaurant, the new owners had reinvented it as a Cuban-Spanish bakery and deli, specializing in sandwiches and beautiful pastries displayed in glass cases, along with some tapas and hot lunch specials.  It ended up being exactly what I… wanted?  NO.  It ended up being exactly what I NEEDED.

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Again, hungry, indecisive, and expecting a longer night than usual at work, I was torn between two sandwiches and decided to order both: a chorizo sandwich and my old Miami standard, the medianoche, AKA the midnight sandwich.  I figured I’d enjoy one there and save the other for later, possibly even for the next day.

The chorizo sandwich came with thin slices of Spanish chorizo sausage, served warm on fresh pressed Cuban bread, baked in-house.  It included melty provolone cheese and was served with lettuce, sliced tomatoes, and mayo.  Due to the lettuce and tomato factor, that’s the sandwich I unwrapped and ate at the restaurant.  It was great!  DSC01800

The wet ingredients made it want to slide apart as I ate, but I am a grown-ass man and didn’t even get any on myself.  I would have liked more chorizo, but no matter the situation in life, it would be safe to say I would always like more chorizo.  You will never catch me saying “Maaaan, I wish I had less chorizo!”dsc01802.jpg

Flash forward to work the next day, I ate the medianoche sandwich straight out of the fridge because the less said about our break room toaster oven, the better.  And you know what?  It was a delicious sandwich, even cold.  I love the sweet, yellow egg bread of a medianoche even more than typical Cuban bread, and it was also pressed like a traditional Cuban sandwich.  The ingredients are the same as a Cuban, otherwise: roast pork (not dry at all, even after being made the day before, refrigerated, and eaten cold), sweet ham, swiss cheese, yellow mustard (I am a mustard aficionado, and Cuban and medianoche sandwiches are the only times I settle for plain yellow), and plenty of crispy pickles (which I am slowly developing an appreciation for).  It was definitely more generously stuffed than the chorizo sandwich.  DSC01806DSC01807

I rarely drink coffee, which is a rarity among librarians and people in general, it seems like.  The two kinds of coffee that tempt me are cool, creamy, sweet Vietnamese iced coffee, served with sweetened condensed milk, and rich, frothy, strong Cuban cafe con leche.  Coffee usually jazzes me up too many hours after I need the extra energy, and I often don’t like the way it makes me feel, with my heart feeling like it’s going to bust out of my chest, preceded by the acrid sadness of acid reflux.  But with that said, I suppose I like my coffee like I like my women: strong, sweet, and thick.

In a moment of weakness, I chugged this cafe con leche at 4 PM, which was ill-advised.  I do wish they had added their own sugar, since I stirred in two packets and it still wasn’t nearly as sweet as the cafe con leche I love from back home.  And I have no doubt the walk-up windows of Miami add a lot more than two packets worth of sugar to their sweet, sweet rocket fuel.dsc01801.jpg

I also ate a crispy fried empanada while I waited for my sandwiches at Cafe Madrid, stuffed with pizza fillings: delicious tomato sauce and melty mozzarella cheese.  I loved that, but to paraphrase comedian Jim Gaffigan, there’s no such thing as a bad empanada.  (Some are certainly better than others, though, and the fried Cuban style is my favorite by far.)dsc01799.jpg

And I selected an assortment of pastries to bring home to share with my wife: a guava and cheese quesito for me, a regular cheese quesito for her, a cannoli, a piece of sweet cornbread (Southerners may not appreciate that, but we did), and a chocolatey rolled cake called braza gitana, or “gypsy’s arm,” which ended up being very moist, and probably my favorite of the group.DSC01803

Braza gitana!dsc01805.jpg

So Cafe Madrid had nothing in common with the restaurant I ate at nearly a decade ago, aside from the name and location.  If you weren’t sold on it before, it might as well be an all-new place.  And if you loved the old Cuban restaurant, give this bakery/deli/sandwich shop a fair chance, and you should be pleasantly surprised like I was.  While none of the Cuban food in Orlando measures up to my Miami favorites, Cafe Madrid totally hit the spot, filling my heart and my stomach with nostalgic tastes of home.

Ring the Alarm! Cooper’s Hawk

My BFF (Best Food Friend) who is actually my lifelong best friend, has been recommending Cooper’s Hawk (https://chwinery.com/) to me for a while.  It’s an upscale chain restaurant, and he has raved about the location in Doral, Florida (near Miami) before.  I’ve been meaning to get back out to Waterford Lakes with my wife so we could try our local location, but between the heavy traffic and the sprawling, Fury Road-invoking parking lot, we typically avoid the east side of Orlando.

But my wife was hungry, and after going through the usual litany of all our regular restaurants, we decided to try something new and treat ourselves a little.  Cooper’s Hawk is a winery on top of being a restaurant, but even though we don’t drink, the menu was huge and intriguing.  If you do like wine (and going through my friends’ Facebook pages, it sure seems like most people love wine!), you should definitely check it out.  It looks like they offer a huge selection, all from their own label, so you wouldn’t find any familiar wine brands there.  But you enter through a wine retail store with a busy bar, and I’m sure oenophiles will find something to love on the way into the restaurant, or even while waiting for a movie at the Waterford Lakes Regal theater.

It was seriously hard to choose.  The menu is close to the legendary Cheesecake Factory with regard to choices.  There are steaks, seafood, chicken, and pork, Italian, Asian, and Mexican-inspired dishes, burgers and sandwiches, and more.  I strongly recommend studying the menu in advance, but I recommend that for most restaurants.

I’ve never been a pork chop fan.  Most of the ones I’ve had are relatively bland and dry, especially compared to all the other wondrous things you can do with pork: a world of sausage, salami, ham, prosciutto, capicola, pulled pork, al pastor, ribs, cochinita pibil, roast pork with crispy skin, pork belly, pancetta, bacon, osso bucco, German eisbein, chicharrones.

But my wife loves a good pork chop because her family used to eat them a lot, so I wasn’t surprised she selected one of the two different pork chop dishes on the menu: a maple-mustard-pretzel-crusted pork chop, served with Mary’s potatoes (whipped with butter and cream), an assortment of oven-roasted vegetables (including mushrooms, my old nemesis), and crispy onion strings I knew I would be eating, because she hates onions and I love them.

When it arrived, the plating was beautiful, and the pork chop was the thickest either of us had ever seen!  She thought it was the tastiest pork chop she had ever eaten, and even I, the pork chop skeptic, was absolutely blown away by the few bites she shared with me.  Pure perfection, dear readers.  She doesn’t even like mustard, but aside from a few bites that really startled her and cleared out her sinuses (she probably bit down on whole mustard seeds), she loved the flavor.  And it was so tender and juicy, despite not being a fatty piece of meat at all.  It was easily the best pork chop I’ve ever tasted, and I would totally order it myself on a future visit, as long as I could substitute the vegetables for another side.  (Our lovely server assured us the kitchen can usually substitute anything, since everything is made from scratch in-house.)ch1.jpg

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As much as my wife is drawn to hearty steaks and chops, my greatest meat loves are usually cured, smoked, braised, or stewed in a sauce until rich and tender.  I always love short ribs, even though I rarely cook them at home (although I should).  Cooper’s Hawk offered a braised short rib dish, as well as another dish with gnocchi pasta in a short rib bolognese sauce that also included pancetta (yes)! and San Marzano tomatoes, the best tomatoes.  When I make my own sauce at home, I use canned San Marzanos.  It makes a difference!  Anyway, they make everything from scratch here, even the pasta, so I was sold.  And even though I was experiencing major cognitive dissonance by choosing that over so many other tasty-sounding dishes I love, I’m so glad I did.  To paraphrase the old knight guarding the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, I chose wisely.

It was a better pasta dish than most that I’ve ordered from Italian restaurants, rich and hearty and extremely well-seasoned, with nice tomato chunks (sometimes I get turned off by huge, slimy tomato chunks in sauce), fork-tender short rib pieces, a bit of additional salty richness from the pancetta (a secret weapon I use in so many good recipes), and wonderfully chewy gnocchi dumplings.  The white stuff on top is creamy burrata dolce, a fresh, buttery cheese made from mozzarella blended with cream.ch3

I saw that a few of the dishes come with buttermilk onion rings, even though they weren’t listed on the menu as a side dish.  I asked our server if I could order onion rings as a side, and she said yes, but they are big, so the order would only come with three of them.  But since I have a little recurring feature I like to call RING THE ALARM! (AIR HOOORRRRRRN!), I had to try them.  And guess what: they were magnificent onion rings.  She wasn’t kidding when she said they were big.  They were the size of sour cream glazed “old-fashioned” doughnuts!  If I’m lyin’, I’m flyin’.

The onion rings (more like onion bracelets!) were battered, not breaded (thank all that’s good in the universe), with a rich, thick, crispy golden crust that stayed in place, with the slightest hint of sweetness and not greasy at all.  I’ve never had such puffy, fluffy onion rings, but they were a marvel to behold.  They weren’t served with any dipping sauces (shame, because I’m sure Cooper’s Hawk has some good ones), just sprinkled with some kind of salty seasoning that I must admit made they way too salty.  I think they’d be damn near perfect if you ask them to hold the salty seasoning.  Normally I enjoy salty fried foods, but it was a little much and took away from how great they were, otherwise.  ch4

Well, we couldn’t go to such a nice new place and not order a dessert!  I was stuffed and didn’t even finish my gnocchi, but my wife loves chocolate and really wanted to try the chocolate cake.  It is made with Valrhona chocolate, with layers of hazelnut ganache and served with vanilla ice cream, all made fresh daily in-house.  I had one bite of ice cream and one bite of cake, and even though I’d probably never order chocolate cake as my dessert, both were great.  The cake was very moist and the ice cream was rich and creamy, not icy at all, and no greasy mouthfeel.  My wife seemed to love it, but she finished the ice cream and brought the majority of the cake home.ch5

A funny thing we do at every single restaurant we visit is for me to ask my wife, usually rhetorically, if her parents would like the place.  Most often, I could answer the question myself with a big fat “no.”  They don’t go out to eat as much as they used to, and her mom is a relatively picky eater.  Great lady, I love her to pieces, but she likes what she likes, and one thing she doesn’t like is trying new foods!  (My own parents and brother read The Saboscrivner, and they often comment on how they probably wouldn’t go where I go or order what I order, but I appreciate them along with all my other readers.  There are dozens of us!  DOZENS!)

But anyway, when I asked if her parents would like Cooper’s Hawk, we both agreed that they probably would.  So a week later, when we were celebrating my wife’s birthday, we were able to wrangle them out of the house for a celebratory dinner there — the first meal the four of us have had out at a restaurant since her birthday the previous year!

My wife doubled down on the masterful pork chop, getting it as one of the Build Your Own Surf and Turf options, pairing it with pistachio-crusted grouper (one of her favorite fish).  She loved both, devouring the grouper on the spot and saving most of the pork chop for the next day.  It came with the same Mary’s potatoes and vegetables as last time.DSC01836

My father in law ordered the same pistachio-crusted grouper and seemed to love his.DSC01834

My mother in law ordered crab cakes, one of her go-to dishes anywhere, and swapped the fries and Asian slaw for Mary’s potatoes and excellent macaroni and cheese.  She has high expectations for her crab cakes, and these did not seem to disappoint.  They were mostly lump crabmeat, with very little filler.  (She asked and they answered!)DSC01835

And after recently reading an article about Nashville hot chicken, which I enjoyed so much on a trip to the legendary Hattie B’s in Nashville last year, I decided to try Cooper’s Hawk’s version, served open-faced on a buttermilk biscuit with blue cheese slaw and a side of rich, creamy macaroni and cheese, which was one of the better mac and cheese dishes I’ve enjoyed anywhere in Orlando.  The slaw wasn’t creamy and intense with blue cheese like I was hoping; the multicolored shredded cabbage was mostly dry.

I think the hot chicken was perfectly good, but it didn’t have the intense crunch, flavor, or heat of Hattie B’s, so my quest continues.  It was barely spicy at all, but Hattie B’s hot chicken was practically too spicy for me, so I think it would be a little much for most unsuspecting Cooper’s Hawk diners.  It came with a lot of sliced pickles, and I ate them all.  I’ve traditionally never been a fan of pickles, but I’m trying to develop an appreciation for them by sampling all the different kinds of pickles I can.   I love almost all other pickled vegetables (peppers, onions, giardinera), so I figure it’s only a matter of time.  Readers, feel free to recommend pickles, whether they’re store-bought or from certain restaurants!

I am fully aware this is an awful picture, despite bringing my “good” camera.  Sorry.  Mea culpa.  I think my photography has been better in general lately, but pobody’s nerfect.
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My wife and her parents are big dessert people, so we were all psyched to see what Cooper’s Hawk might bring out in honor of my wife’s birthday.  This is what she got: a lovely chocolate-covered strawberry and a white chocolate truffle.  She wasn’t really into either, so I got to enjoy both:DSC01837

After that, they went to town and shared a few desserts:

The same good chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream:
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Very good, tart key lime pie in a graham cracker crust (my mother-in-law’s choice, and I only wish I had taken more than one bite):
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And banoffee pie, which is a rich pie made with bananas and a gooey toffee filling, all nestled into a graham cracker crust.  Very sweet, rich, and heavy.  I should note that the fresh whipped cream on all these desserts had vanilla bean specks in it, and it was delicious.  I could easily and happily just eat a big ol’ bowl of that whipped cream with a spoon and consider it a swell, satisfying dessert.DSC01840

Trust me, the fact that we got my wife’s parents out to dinner at a new restaurant, and that they liked it,  speaks volumes right there.  Dear readers, if your parents visit Orlando and they balk at anything too unfamiliar, this would be a fantastic place to bring them.  It would be a great date night restaurant, a happy hour spot with friends, or a place to kill time before or after a movie at Waterford Lakes.  It’s not cheap, but every single thing we tasted was remarkable, and the service was superb on both of our visits.  And if you like wine, then face it, Tiger, you just hit the jackpot!  If I had to compare it to anything, it would be the ambiance and upscale feeling of Hillstone with the expansive depth of the Cheesecake Factory menu (but better quality across the board).  My Best Food Friend has never steered me wrong, and he was completely on the money with Cooper’s Hawk.

Ring the Alarm! Boston’s Fish House

I crave seafood pretty much all the time.  I don’t think it’s a shellfish impulse, but I like to say I’m on a seafood diet — if I see food, I’ll eat it, especially if it’s seafood.

While Orlando isn’t swimming in an abundance of seafood restaurants like our neighboring cities on Florida’s two coasts, we have a few local favorites.  Shortly after we started dating back in 2006, my wife and her parents introduced me to Boston’s Fish House (http://www.bostonsfishhouse.com/Home).  Modeled after the coastal seafood establishments of New England rather than beachy, tropical Florida seafood shacks, Boston’s specializes in fried favorites: shrimp, scallops, fresh fish (usually cod and/or haddock, but also farm-raised catfish), oysters, and clams.  But if you don’t want your denizens of the deep deep-fried, they also offer broiled salmon, pan-seared mahi, and even a chilled Maine-style lobster salad sandwich, which you probably know better as a lobstah roll.

However, my in-laws always opt for the seafood combo platter, which comes with a mountain of fried shrimp, scallops, fish, onion rings, and a choice of oysters, clam strips, or whole belly clams, a rare treat that you rarely see at any Florida seafood restaurants.  Oh, and you get two sides with it too! This platter comes in two sizes, the smaller Mate’s Platter and the larger Captain’s Platter.  You get more than enough food for two hungry people to share if you order the Captain’s Platter, so it’s just a question of everybody being on the same page.  For example, my mother-in-law doesn’t like scallops so she asks them to substitute extra fish.  My wife and I agree that the fish is the blandest part, so I’ll usually ask if we could get clams AND oysters but no fish.  They are always really cool and patient regarding these substitutes.

Be warned in advance: Boston’s gets REALLY crowded in the evening, especially on Fridays and weekends, especially with the “early bird crowd.”  Most of the time, I’ll call in a takeout order and pick it up, bypassing the long lines that queue up.

On our most recent visit, I ordered two platters but decided to experiment a little, beyond the fried standards.  No matter what, the clams and oysters are served fried, along with the onion rings.  Here they are:DSC01785

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the onion rings, since this is a recurring Saboscrivner feature we like to call RING THE ALARM!  [Insert AIR HORN NOISE! here.]  A lot of people go ga-ga over Boston’s thin, crispy onion rings, sporting the same batter as their fried seafood.  I like them, I certainly enjoy eating them (usually dipped in their tartar sauce or ketchup), but I just can’t rank them among my favorite onion rings, which are generally more of a beer-battered style.DSC01790

But moving past the fried stuff, you have some options with the shrimp and scallops, beyond just getting them dipped in the same old batter and fried.  One of our favorites is to get them broiled in butter and topped with crushed Ritz crackers, which happen to be my favorite crackers and the not-so-secret ingredient in my favorite pie recipe.  Here are those beautiful, buttery, broiled mollusks from my wife’s order:dsc01788.jpg

I happened to be craving pasta this particular evening, so I thought I’d get the food home and make some fettuccine really quickly, then toss it with my shrimp and scallops that were broiled in garlic butter and white wine:DSC01789They came out great, needless to say.

Since we ordered two platters, we got four sides between them, and my wife and I both love the broccoli salad they make at Boston’s: crispy, fresh broccoli florets tossed in a sweet, creamy dressing with bacon, golden raisins, and pumpkin seeds.  It’s delicious and refreshing, and it makes us feel like we are eating slightly healthier, because broccoli.DSC01786

But who are we kidding?  Between the plethora of fried foods, rich shellfish, and all that butter, they also make really nice garlic bread, which I can never refuse when we indulge at Boston’s:dsc01787.jpg

So that’s pretty much it.  I don’t even remember the last time we ate at the actual restaurant, but we live just close enough to Boston’s that the food is still hot by the time I get it home.  Always hot, and always good.  Stop by, just for the halibut.

And now I feel like I’m floundering, so I will clam up.

Pho 88

Well, before it got hot in Orlando again, it was remarkably chilly for a little while there.  I look forward to those brief blasts of winter all year, every year.  I’ve lived in Florida my whole life, which I guess makes me a true Florida Man.  I hate our humid, oppressive, sticky summers and eagerly anticipate the few weeks a year where we can walk outside, eat outside, and see the one coat or jacket everyone owns.  We don’t have to shovel snow or drive on icy roads, so our cold is a novelty, and we know it won’t last.

Winter is also perfect soup weather, and there are few soups finer than phở, the Vietnamese noodle soup that so many Orlando restaurants have perfected.  I have yet to get into the trend of fancy bowls of ramen, after so many years of subsisting on seven-for-$1 bricks of instant ramen noodles.  On the other hand, pho (which I was taught to pronounce “fuh,” although I hear “foe” all the time) is so warm and rich and hearty that it is a welcome meal year-round, not too heavy or hot to enjoy in warmer months.  But nothing beats a steaming bowl in 40-degree winter weather.

Slow-simmered broth is flavored with spices including cinnamon and star anise, and it includes rice vermicelli and different cuts of meat.  Thin slices of rare beef eye round are the most common, but other bowls of pho may also include beef brisket or flank steak, chewy beef meatballs (completely different from the meatballs you’d get with spaghetti or in a sub), tendon, and tripe.  Pho usually contains paper-thin slices of onion and diced green onions as well.  Then lucky diners can continue to customize their pho with sprigs of fresh Thai basil, bean sprouts (I’ve never been a fan, sorry), fresh slices of jalapeno peppers, and fresh lime wedges, which come on a separate plate.  Hoisin sauce, sriracha, and sambal oelek (chili garlic sauce) are common condiments that are always available on Vietnamese restaurant tables.  No two bowls of pho end up alike, which is part of its charm.

Anyway, we are very lucky to have a large Vietnamese population in Orlando, and plenty of delicious Vietnamese restaurants to choose from, mostly centered in the Mills 50 district near downtown.  I’ve tried most of them at least once, but I always return to two favorites: Saigon Noodle and Grill or the subject of this review, Pho 88 (http://www.pho88orlando.com/).  My wife and I had our first date at yet another local Vietnamese restaurant, Lac Viet, but we’ve been going to Pho 88 for many years.  Located on Mills Avenue, just north of busy Colonial Drive in the heart of our foodie-friendly Mills 50 district, Pho 88 also has more parking than a lot of the other nearby restaurants, which is one more reason we end up there as often as we do.  Not only do we like it a lot and seek it out, it often becomes our fallback choice when we can’t park near anywhere else.

This review is based on our two most recent visits to Pho 88.  My wife tends to crave pho even more often than I do, and during our most recent cold snap, she demanded it two nights in a row.  So like a good husband, we went two nights in a row!

The first night, we both ordered pho.  She likes the simple pho tai, with thin-sliced rare beef eye round.  I prefer the pho dặc biệt combination with the rare beef slices plus fatty brisket, well-done flank steak, dense and chewy meatballs, and soft, chewy, rich tendon.  Tendon and book tripe almost always come together, and while I must admit the texture of tripe doesn’t do much for me, I never ask them to hold it.  Here is my bowl, after I tore up several basil leaves and added them in.  These are HUGE bowls, by the way.  20181129_185826_resized

Instagram-hip foodies love to get the shot of pulling perfect noodles out of a perfect bowl of pho.  Most of you are already acquainted with the limitations of my phone camera, so apologies in advance for this action shot:
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On our second visit the next evening, my wife ordered her favorite pho tai again, but I decided to switch it up and get something spicy for the chilly night: a different kind of noodle soup called bún bò huế.  It contains thicker rice noodles than the vermicelli in pho, pork roll (similar to bologna, but chewier and cut thicker), well-done flank steak, lemongrass, and white and green onion in a rich, spicy, orangey-red broth.  It cleared up my sinuses and warmed my body from head to toe.20181130_184243_resized

Bun bo hue action shot:20181130_184359_resized

I am also a fan of banh mi sandwiches, which demonstrate the French influence in Vietnamese cuisine.  Served on a crusty baguette, my favorite banh mi includes a variety of pork-based cold cuts and is served with a spread of butter and liver pate on each side of the roll, cool, shredded pickled carrot and daikon radish, refreshing sprigs of fresh cilantro, and spicy slices of fresh (never jarred) jalapeno peppers.  Best of all, these sandwiches are usually quite cheap, often $4 or $5.  Pho 88 is one of the few Orlando Vietnamese restaurants that serves banh mi as well as pho, so I’ll often order a banh mi as an appetizer, devour half there, and save the other half for later.  I did NOT order a banh mi with my soup two nights in a row, just that first night.  20181129_184836_resized

Well, we’re over halfway into February and our local weather is already back into the 80s, but like I said, pho hits the spot year-round at Pho 88.

Tin & Taco

As much as I love going to concerts, I don’t attend many of them anymore, because they make me feel old.  Especially at the venues in downtown Orlando, I get stressed out finding convenient parking, get annoyed paying for parking, and dread standing still in the same spot for hours at general admission venues.  Of course I always end up having a great time, even if I’m stiff and sore later.  I might be an altacocker, but I’m not dead yet!

Anyway, I decided to grab dinner before the last show I attended: the incredible singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Neko Case, a prolific artist I have adored for over 15 years and seen live once before.   I arrived early (as usual), parked in a lot around the corner from the club, and had a nice and easy pre-show meal at Tin & Taco (http://tinandtaco.com/), one of Orlando’s many newer taco joints that have sprung up over the last few years.

The downtown Tin & Taco restaurant is a small, tight space.  You order at the counter, move down to pay and choose your drinks (a wide assortment of beers and Stubborn brand sodas), and then take a seat at one of the indoor high-top tables or the lower outdoor tables on the patio.  There isn’t much of a view on Washington Avenue, and I was flying solo, so I opted to sit inside.  My order was ready in mere minutes, and they brought it right over to me.

But I have jumped ahead!  You have several options to choose from, most of which cost a very reasonable $8:

  • two tacos (you can mix and match them),
  • a bowl with rice,
  • a burrito with rice (these looked huge),
  • a salad,
  • a wrap (the menu clarifies the wrap as “a salad in a tortilla,” so I guess a burrito minus rice plus greens), or
  • in a small bag of Doritos, kind of like the “Frito pies” that are a popular outdoor food in Texas.

But as much as I love Doritos, the bags looked really tiny (like those “fun-size” bags for little kids’ lunches or the sad vending machines when you’re trapped at a mechanic or a police station), so I went with tacos to capitalize on the variety and sample Tin & Taco’s tortillas.  In fact, they let you get three tacos for $11, so I saved a dollar!  I’m always trying to find bargains and share them with you, Saboscrivnerinos!

So my three tacos were:

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Al Pastor Style (left): slow and low braised shredded pork with shredded lettuce, pineapple pico de gallo, mango pineapple vinaigrette, and cotija cheese.  This one was my first choice because I love tacos al pastor (even though I realize this wasn’t real, authentic al pastor sliced off a spit), but I ate it last.  It was delicious, but rather sweet from the pineapple chunks in the pico and the mango pineapple vinaigrette.  It was almost like a dessert after the other two tacos, but I’m not complaining, because I love salty, spicy, and sweet flavors combined together.

Mac Attack (center): angus ground beef with craft beer queso macaroni and cheese, applewood smoked bacon, and green onions.  Delicious, with good quality, creamy mac and cheese and nice, crispy bacon pieces.  The seasoned ground beef was much more flavorful than I expected — this isn’t Taco Bell!

Tacosaurus (right): angus ground beef with shredded lettuce, pico de gallo, shredded jack and cheddar cheeses, cotija cheese, crushed Doritos, and Southwest sauce.  I’m still not sure what the Southwest sauce was, since I ate it in such a hurry, but I liked it a lot.  And I am always a fan of putting chips in sandwiches, so I was happy about the flavor, color, and especially the crunchy texture from the crushed Doritos.

Close-ups:

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They also have several more variations with the angus ground beef and braised shredded pork, even more shredded chicken taco options (but chicken is usually blander and dryer than beef and pork, from my taco experiences elsewhere), as well as a vegetarian option with black beans, corn, and quinoa.

These were definitely flour tortillas, but I could tell they were fresh and not some gross shelf-stable tortillas out of a bag from the supermarket.  I contacted Tin & Taco the next day to confirm, and they told me “We use a local supplier so that our tortillas can be as fresh/tasty as possible.  We then grill a blend of grated cheese on the shell in house to give it a range of flavors as well as support for the heavy amount of ingredients.”  I noticed the crispy, crunchy shredded cheese on the bottoms of the tortillas, which I thought was just a happy accident for me and not part of their master plan.  Well played, Tin & Taco!

And by the way, the tacos were served on metal (tin) trays, hence the name.  I think it’s a little weird when people online complain about metal trays in restaurants.  What’s the problem?  They can keep washing them and using them forever, and it beats having more plastic around.  Someone online once compared them to prison food trays, but all I know is that if shit ever jumps off at Tin & Taco, we’ll all be ready for it!

I have to admit, I didn’t know what to expect from Tin & Taco.  I chose it out of convenience and because people on the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook had good things to say about it, but I wondered if it was just going to be greasy, mediocre “drunk food,” meant for snack-outs before or after black-outs.

But I was impressed by the amount of food I got for my eleven bucks, the blends of flavors, textures, and colors, and how well everything worked together.  I ended up liking all three of my tacos a lot.  I CHOSE WISELY!  At $3.66 each, they were a decent value, but much larger than the more traditional tacos at more authentic taquerias, which are usually served on smaller corn tortillas with just some diced onions and cilantro as toppings.  These are very American tacos, which goes without saying, but as a pre-concert meal, they totally hit the spot.  I don’t know if I’d rush back to Tin & Taco and pay $10 to park next to it, but it’s a fantastic, fast, fresh, and affordable option if you’re hanging out downtown.  And if I hung out downtown more, I’d definitely work it into my regular restaurant rotation.

P.S.  As I expected and feared, I ended up standing in one place the whole time at the concert, so I was stiff and sore as I wrote this review later that night.  On top of that, a burly bouncer threatened to kick me out for having my phone out, and this was before the opening act even came to the stage!  They were nuts about phones that night, and you could tell the crowd was becoming ill at ease, not wanting to get in trouble but feeling that FOMO feeling and desperately wanting to check our phones (again, before the opening act and between the acts, not during the performances like sociopaths!).  But it was all worthwhile, because the legendary Neko Case amazed and astonished as always, and I got to try new tacos!

Chef Wang’s Kitchen

On my recent trip to Orlando’s Chinatown, on West Colonial Drive west of downtown, I stopped by Zero Degrees for a snack and some sweet drinks, and then I went on to bring home some takeout from Chef Wang’s Kitchen (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Chef-Wangs-Kitchen/1957726267879134), a well-regarded Chinese restaurant in the same shopping center as Zero Degrees.  Once again, this was a whole new area I was exploring, too far from work to jet off to for lunch, but it came highly recommended.

I ordered beef chow fun, one of my favorite Chinese dishes anywhere, with tender beef, onions, scallions, and wide, flat, chewy noodles.  After including the beef chow fun from Peter’s Kitchen, another fantastic local Chinese restaurant, in my Orlando Weekly Top Five Dishes of 2017 column, I am always on the lookout for other restaurants’ versions of this classic.  Chef Wang’s did not disappoint.  Now I always ask to hold the bean sprouts in everything, as I’ve never been that big a fan of those crunchy little things, and it makes a hugely positive difference for me.

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My wife requested cashew chicken for herself, stir-fried with onions and bell peppers in a thick, sweet-ish sauce.  I’m not big on nuts in anything, but this was much tastier and more satisfying than I expected, considering I finished it for her a few days later.  (She is not big on leftovers, whereas I live for them.)

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I also ordered us a very generous portion of pan-fried pork dumplings, which were terrific.

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And after almost a year of hype, what finally made me drop everything and schlep across town to Chef Wang’s: the BEEF KNISH.  Yes, dear readers, you heard it here first.  There’s a stereotype that American Jews love Chinese food, and many of us do.  For me and so many family members and friends, a Jewish Christmas involves going out to see a movie and getting Chinese food on Christmas Day.  My family and I have never kept kosher, but despite the prevalence of pork and shellfish in Chinese food, I have often wondered why there isn’t more crossover between Americanized Chinese and American Jewish cuisines.  But now there’s a BEEF KNISH.

The order comes with two knishes, made fresh to order.  Each one is about four inches diameter and a good inch thick, with a soft, chewy, doughy shell and a filling of hot (not spicy) tender beef seasoned with some chives, onions, and garlic.

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Here’s one of them after I took a bite.  I gotta tell you, at first I was shocked by how much liquid came pouring out when I bit into it.  It drenched my plate and hand!  At first I was wondering if these would be like xiao long bao, the infamous soup dumplings that apparently nobody in Orlando serves, but so many local foodies lust after.  But no, this was not exactly a soup shower, but a grease geyser!  Don’t get me wrong, these cross-cultural delights were delicious, and also an engineering marvel in how the perfectly-sealed baked dough shell didn’t allow for any leaking liquid.

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I have to say, Orlando absolutely kills it with Chinese food.  We have Chef Wang’s Kitchen and Taste of Chengdu (really creative and spicy Szechuan cuisine) both west of downtown on Colonial, my old favorites Chuan Lu Garden (also Szechuan) and Peter’s Kitchen east of downtown on Colonial along with old stand-by Tasty Wok, and Yummy House in Altamonte Springs.  They’re all worthwhile and worth visiting, and all a cut above your shopping plaza storefronts or mall food court Chinese places.  Chef Wang’s is great, and in great company.