Kabuto Sushi & Grill

Kabuto Sushi & Grill (https://www.kabuto-sushi.com) is the closest sushi restaurant to our house, but it took us a while to try it.  It used to be a different sushi restaurant years ago, which we only ever went to once.  Once was enough.  It was really expensive and just okay, but Kabuto has a completely different menu, different management, different décor, different everything.  I ordered takeout, but the dining room was gorgeous — very modern and sexy, especially for a sushi restaurant in uber-suburban Winter Springs, next door to our regular Publix where everyone knows me.

I ordered takeout for that first visit to Kabuto, starting with a pretty typical eel roll ($10), with baked eel and cucumber inside the sushi rice and a little dipping cup of sticky, sweet eel sauce on the side:

My wife thought the Kabuto’s summer roll ($16) sounded interesting, with tuna, salmon, a krab stick, avocado, and mango, wrapped in spring mix leaves and rice paper, with house-made raspberry wine sauce on the side.  It was an interesting combination, especially with the sauce, that was like a sweet and sticky vinaigrette dressing, and no rice to speak of.

I ended up using the sauce as dressing on a homemade salad a few days later, since she isn’t into sauces and dips anyway.  It was perfectly fine, but I like my sushi rolls with rice, so I probably wouldn’t order this one again.

I’m glad I ordered a spicy tuna crunch roll and a spicy salmon crunch roll ($8 each; below left and center), both with tempura flakes inside to give them that gentle crunch, and we really enjoyed both of those.
But there were two highlights, even though these other rolls were solid.  One was the mango passion roll that my wife chose ($16; on the right side in the above photo), with yellowtail, salmon, and avocado inside, topped with more yellowtail and salmon, plus mango salsa.  It was AWESOME.  What a great combination.  I always order mango in my poke bowls with tuna and/or salmon when it is available, and it worked so well here.

My personal favorite wasn’t a roll at all, but a selection from the “cold small plates” part of the menu: spicy tuna crispy rice ($12), with cubes of deep-fried rice topped with spicy tuna, avocado, masago, scallions, sesame seeds, and a sweet glaze.  It came with four pieces, which we split evenly, but I could have eaten two hundred of them, seriously.

I love ramen almost as much as I love sushi, but my wife doesn’t always share my love of ramen (aside from the instant stuff).  I was surprised when she suggested we order a bowl of the tonkotsu ramen ($13) to split, since I figured she wouldn’t be interested, but I was half-considering ordering one just for myself.  In the end, I liked it more than she did and ended up eating most of it, which was fine with me, but I was relieved she suggested it in the first place.

I really liked how rich and creamy the pork bone broth was, how tender the thin slices of chashu pork and bamboo shoots were, and how springy and chewy the noodles were.  I always think I’m going to hate the bamboo in tonkotsu ramen, expecting it to be tough and fibrous like a cross between chewing on celery sticks and saxophone reeds, but it is more like al dente lasagna noodle sheets.  The soft-boiled egg halves were cooked to gooey perfection as well, although I chomped them both rather than letting the yolks mix into the tonkotsu broth.  The broth was served on the side in our takeout order, which was the ideal way to do it, to keep those great noodles from getting soggy.

I had no idea Kabuto also has a happy hour menu, since it wasn’t on the website.  If you dine in between 4:30 and 7:00 PM, you could get much cheaper sushi rolls, and if I had known, we might have done that instead of ordering takeout.  Here’s a photo, because the people need to know about this great deal!
In fact, we returned two weeks later to dine in and take advantage of happy hour, since the food was so good.

My wife started out with two pieces of escolar sashimi ($4) and two pieces of tako (octopus) sashimi ($4):

Then we went hard on those happy hour rolls!  I got the same spicy tuna crunch roll and spicy salmon crunch roll we liked so much at home ($5 each; right center and bottom), as well as the full-priced mango passion roll we loved (top left):

We also got the Philly roll ($4; top right), the fire dragon roll ($5, bottom left), and the lobster sensation roll ($5, center).  I always gravitate toward “Japanese bagel” rolls, with smoked salmon and cream cheese (the food of my people!), but the Philly roll was regular (non-smoked) salmon with cream cheese.  Still very pleasing.  This was my first fire dragon roll, with salmon, asparagus, and avocado inside, and topped with yellowtail, thin-sliced serrano peppers, and dollops of “house-made kobachi sauce,” as the menu said.  It looked and tasted more like sriracha to me.

Finally, the lobster sensation roll isn’t listed on the regular menu, but it contained lobster mixed with cream cheese and was lightly fried in tempura batter.  Really good stuff.  I’m sorry I didn’t take more close-ups of this beautiful sushi tray.

There are also daily specials at Kabuto that we didn’t order, but I snapped a photo of the menu from the day we went, since they aren’t on the website either:

There is no shortage of good sushi restaurants in and around Orlando, but Kabuto Sushi & Grill is definitely the closest to us.   It may not be super-upscale, but that isn’t The Saboscrivner’s style anyway, and it is still a really nice place with fresh, delicious, unpretentious sushi and ramen, tucked away in Winter Springs, where foodies rarely dare to venture.  Please dare.  In the meantime, we will keep enjoying this friendly neighborhood restaurant moments from our home.

Thai Singha

Thai Singha (https://thaisingha.net/) is the first Thai restaurant I ever visited in Orlando, shortly after meeting my wife and starting to date her, back in 2006.  It is out in the sprawling Waterford Lakes shopping center in East Orlando, south of the University of Central Florida.  The area is full of restaurants, but not many stand out and draw attention.  Thai Singha definitely does, or at least it should.

We realized it had been years since we had gone together, especially after discovering newer favorites like Mee Thai and Naradeva Thai, both wonderful places.  But you never forget your first, especially since Thai Singha is where I discovered my favorite Thai dish that is now my benchmark order at any new Thai restaurant, to compare and contrast them all.

My wife started with hot ginger tea ($2.95), which smelled really good and came in a neat-looking receptacle:

Then she ordered one of her favorite dishes, that she also introduced me to at Thai Singha over 15 years ago: mee grob ($6.95).  Some restaurants call it mee krob or meekrob, but many around Orlando don’t serve it at all.  It is a veritable mountain of crispy rice noodles, shrimp, pork, and tofu, tossed in a tangy sweet sauce and garnished with scallions and bean sprouts.  It is awesome, folks.  It is very sticky, crunchy, sweet, salty, and sour — a feast for all the senses.  The shrimp is fried so nicely that you can even crunch and swallow the crispy tails.  It is one of the only places where I like tofu, but I fully admit I haven’t had enough tofu to discount it completely.  Maybe everyone is already wise to the joys of mee grob, but if ya don’t know, now you know.

My wife ordered her favorite entree as well: late night noodles with a combination of shrimp, scallops, and squid ($16.95).  You can choose any of the options from the “Favorite Dishes” section of the menu to come with mixed vegetables, tofu, chicken, beef, or pork for $11.50, shrimp for $14.50, or a meat combo or this seafood combo for $16.95.The late night noodles are soft, chewy rice noodles stir-fried to perfection, then tossed in a light soy sauce with eggs, the shrimp, the buttery little bay scallops, and the tender squid, and served over a bit of lettuce.  She loves it.

And this is my favorite Thai dish, made with the same flat, wide, perfectly chewy rice noodles: drunken noodles, also known as pad kee mao or pad kee mow.  I got mine with tender pork for $11.50, and I always wish the portion was bigger here, because it is so incredibly delicious.  Drunken noodles are stir-fried with onions, green bell peppers, fresh Thai basil leaves, and a sweet chili paste sauce.  It is always sweet and spicy at once, which I just love in any cuisine, and the Thai basil brings such a unique herby flavor — very different than the typical basil in Italian recipes.  Despite the name, there is no alcohol in this dish, but it is a common, beloved Thai street food for drunken revelers.  I’m sure the late night noodles have a similar origin story from nocturnal hawkers and their grateful post-partying clientele.

So that’s our first Thai restaurant we were able to share with each other, Thai Singha.  I am pleased to report we enjoyed it as much as ever after being away for far too long.  I was just sad to see it dimly lit and not busy, despite it always bustling during our past visits, too long ago.  We got there in the late afternoon on a recent Friday, too early for the dinner hour, but we were the only diners in the place, while others popped in and out to pick up sporadic takeout orders.  It is difficult to get to Waterford Lakes, and we rarely end up on that east side of Orlando anyway, but it remains a treasure well worth braving UCF-area traffic to return to from time to time.  Over the years we’ve been together, we have ordered other dishes on the menu that are always solid, but we are always a little disappointed when we don’t go with our favorites here.  Now you’ve seen our go-to dishes, so pay it a visit, decide on your own favorites, and let me know what they are!

St. Johns River Steak & Seafood

A while back, we met one of my wife’s best friends for lunch at St. Johns River Steak & Seafood (https://stjrss.com/), a lovely restaurant near where she lives in Sanford.  My wife and I had never been there before, but the biggest draw was being able to sit outdoors on the huge covered patio overlooking picturesque Lake Monroe on a glorious spring day.

My wife and I shared a bowl of gumbo ($9), which looks very small due to the large bowl they served it in, with just a small space in the middle.  The  rich, thick, spicy, tomatoey stew contained chicken, shrimp, crawfish, and andouille sausage, and I think I liked it a lot more than my wife did. 

I also ordered gator bites ($15) for the three of us to share.  Gator is almost a novelty food.  I don’t know anyone who loves it, but when people see it on menus, especially in casual seafood restaurants in places like Louisiana and Florida, we feel obligated to order it, I gar-ron-tee.  Maybe it’s an “eat them before they eat you” defense mechanism, or a way to prove our local “Florida Man” bona fides.  Anyway, these were chewy and chickeny, as gator bites usually are.  I think we got them grilled, but you can also get them fried or blackened.

All three of us were in the mood for grouper, which is one of the finest fish you can eat.  A surprising amount of local seafood restaurants don’t offer grouper on their menus, and some others sneakily serve other, lesser fish, even when they advertise grouper.  We figured we were coming to a place that would treat us grouper groupies right.

Our friend ordered a Caesar salad ($9) with grouper added on (I can’t find my receipt, but some of the other protein add-ons were $9, or it might have been whatever “market price” was that day).

My wife ordered the fried grouper sandwich ($18.50) and upgraded to a side of Sidewinder fries (an extra $2).  The regular sides that come with sandwiches are house-made chips or cole slaw, but we both love Sidewinder fries.  They might be some of my favorite fries ever.  It came with lettuce, tomatoes, and red onions on a lightly grilled brioche bun, but since I love sandwiches and my wife doesn’t, I took her bun and vegetables to turn my own grouper (see below) into a sandwich. 

And I got a blackened grouper entree ($27) with two sides: rich and creamy macaroni (really penne pasta) and cheese, and terrific onion rings.  RING THE ALARM!

Sadly, all three of us thought our grouper was a little dry.  Mine reminded me more of a denser fish like mahi, and was less flaky and buttery than grouper I’ve had elsewhere.  But the two sides were top-notch, and I really enjoyed them.

Sanford’s food scene is really blowing up with wonderful restaurants and hip bars and breweries in the quaint downtown area.  There are so many choices, it can be hard to choose.  We used to always end up at Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe, and last summer I discovered Christo’s wonderful diner and their legendary Greek nachos.  But it is nice to know about a seafood option too, moments away from that main drag on First Street, and with that gorgeous patio and lake view.  I can’t decide if I would give the grouper another try when I inevitably return to St. Johns River Steak & Seafood or branch out to another favorite like soft shell crab or even jambalaya.  However, I would definitely get the onion rings, mac and cheese, and Sidewinder fries again… and probably leave the gator to first-timers.

The Aardvark

I’ve been wanting to try The Aardvark (https://theaardvarkfl.com/) for a while now, even though it is in the SoDo district, south of downtown Orlando, far from where I live and work.  It’s a restaurant, bar, and bottle shop that is kind of a hip gastropub.  The menu is eclectic, and they have a huge selection of beer and wine for those who drink.  They even serve brunch on Saturday, Sunday, and even Monday from 10 AM to 4 PM, with unlimited mimosas for $15!

Here is part of their selection of bottled and canned beer — almost entirely microbrews with lots of local choices, and some interesting and eclectic imports.  Since I rarely even go down these aisles or hang out at bars, it was all pretty impressive to see.  Where was all this variety when I still drank beer once in a while? 

When I mentioned I would be in the SoDo area, I showed my wife this menu, and she requested the mushroom risotto ($19).  She loves mushrooms, which stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know are one of the only foods I cannot eat, tasty though they are.  So I didn’t sample this, but she seemed to really like it.

The Aardvark didn’t have any grouper sandwiches when I called in my order, so my second choice was their Nashville-style hot chicken sandwich, the Spicy Guy (kind of like your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner).  The sandwich is $15 and comes with an order of hand-cut fries, but knowing it would take almost 45 minutes to drive home, I paid an extra $4 to substitute chicharrones, crunchy fried pork skins, which would be more edible by the time I got home.  They also had pimento macaroni and cheese as an upcharge option, but I knew my wife would prefer the chicharrones, so that’s why I chose ’em.  The chicharrones were good — not so hard that you can’t bite through them, or worse yet, so hard hurt your teeth on them.  That’s a pet peeve for sure!  But the Spicy Guy was a terrific hot chicken sandwich.  I’d consider it “medium” heat, and the boneless fried thigh had a nice crunch and a slight sweetness that I always appreciate in Nashville hot chicken.  It came topped with some creamy blue cheese (I would have liked a little more), sliced house-made pickles (I would have definitely liked more), and romaine lettuce.

I wasn’t expecting to order a dessert, but when I walked into The Aardvark for my first time to pick up this pickup order, I saw the special dessert on this Saturday was maple bread pudding.  Longtime readers also know I love maple anything, especially when they don’t add walnuts or pecans to it.  I couldn’t resist, and I’m glad I indulged.  The top got a little dark in some spots, but other than that, it was rich and delicious and truly mapley, not just flavored with artificial “pancake syrup” flavors.  Warmed up back at home, it totally hit the spot on a cool evening. 

Since my wife and I haven’t been eating in as many restaurants while the Omicron Variant rages (and so many friends, family members, and co-workers are still dealing with COVID infections), I appreciated that The Aardvark had some outdoor tables.  It looked so festive, dining al fresco on a cool, sunny day, almost like everything is safe and normal.  We may have to return and do that some time soon.

Ming’s Bistro

I recently met a friend at the Chinese restaurant Ming’s Bistro (https://www.mingsbistro.net/), in the heart of Orlando’s Mills 50 district, full of Asian restaurants, markets, and shops centered around the busy intersection of East Colonial Drive and Mills Avenue, near downtown Orlando.  This was our first time at Ming’s Bistro, but we had both heard for years that it specialized in dim sum, and that’s what lured us out there — better late than never.

What is dim sum, you ask?  It’s a Cantonese tradition that started in teahouses that served little snacks with the tea, now most commonly served as brunch (yum cha).  A lot of restaurants push carts around the dining room, allowing diners to point and grab what they want, while other places have you check off your choices on a paper menu, like how some sushi restaurants do it.  Ming’s Bistro mostly does it the latter method, with an illustrated menu to give you ideas and a paper menu you check off next to each item.  The prices are listed, which helps, since you can get in some real trouble grabbing too many dishes off the rolling carts.  But they push some carts around too, and we picked a few random things that came by our table, just because they looked good.  And just to clarify, Ming’s also offers a whole regular menu of Chinese food to choose from, in addition to the dim sum menu.  So all your usual favorites are probably available here, too.

Ming’s opens at 10:45 AM (every day except Thursdays, when it is closed), and I was there right when it opened to grab a table.  We didn’t have to wait at all, and it was slammed by the time we left, a little after noon.  I have written many times that I’m not a brunch person, but dim sum is a unique brunch experience, where you ideally go with a group, hang out for a long time, order a bunch of small plates, and share everything, including good times.  Even though it was only two of us, we shared nine different dim sum items, and we chose wisely.  There wasn’t a dud in the whole bunch!

We started out with an order of steamed roast pork buns (top; $4.50) and an order of baked pineapple buns (bottom).  The roast pork buns are a dim sum classic for good reason.  For the uninitiated, the steamed buns are kind of like soft, bready rolls, and the pork inside is in a red sauce, savory but also slightly sweet.I love pineapple anything, and these baked pineapple buns were a subtly sweet treat that would have been ideal as a dessert, but they came out early, so we enjoyed them early in the meal.  I was expecting something more like sticky pineapple preserves in the centers, but it was creamier than I thought.  Still good, though.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Two sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerinos confirmed my suspicion that dim sum pineapple buns don’t contain any pineapple, but get their name from the crackly crust.  I still liked them, but thought it was odd they were generically sweet without any obvious pineapple!

We didn’t even order these, but a nice lady wheeled a cart next to our table, loaded up with several dim sum dishes already on plates, and asked if we wanted any.  These looked like jalapeño peppers stuffed with something, which is all good with me, so we went for it.  It turned out to be a shrimp filling, but the shrimp was processed into a soft, savory paste, and the peppers were lightly roasted.  I make similar roasted jalapeños once or twice a year, stuffed with light cream cheese and sometimes topped with bacon, chorizo, or prosciutto.  They are a delicious, keto-friendly snack, and these were equally delicious.  I’m not sure what the sauce on top was, but it added to the experience of flavors and textures without overpowering the shrimp or the peppers.  They weren’t very spicy at all, so don’t worry about that if you’re the type who sweats when the heat is on.

These are pan-fried pork pot stickers ($5.50), which had a wonderful crispy shell and a strong ginger flavor inside.  I always appreciate pot stickers, but my friend liked these even more than I did, so I only had one.   

Another foodie friend introduced me to rice paste dim sum during a feast at another great local Chinese restaurant, Peter’s Kitchen, a few years ago.  I probably never would have tried them on my own, but now I recommend them to everyone else.  This is beef rice paste ($4.75), where the rice paste itself is kind of a slippery, chewy crepe wrapped around a filling — almost like a thicker and more slippery manicotti pasta.  I’m not a fan of things that are too chewy and starchy, like certain bao buns and Jamaican boiled dumplings, but these are terrific, especially swimming in the soy-based sauce.  It’s a challenge to keep them from sliding out of your chopsticks, but we both persevered like the functional adults we are!

We also randomly picked these off a later cart that came by our table.  Some kind of fried dumplings that are both crispy and chewy.  I think they are crispy taro dumplings ($4.75), and they were yet another pleasant surprise.

Here’s a cross-section of one of them.  They were stuffed with shrimp and green vegetables, and we joked that these were the healthiest part of our dim sum brunch, despite obviously being fried.  
EDITOR’S NOTE: A sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerino informed me these might have been pan-fried chive dumplings ($5.50).

I always like beef short ribs — I rank them up there near oxtails on a list of favorite meats.  This was beef short ribs with black pepper ($5.80), which I enthusiastically ordered, despite not knowing exactly what to expect.  It was great.  It was a relatively small portion, like so many of these diverse dishes, but still plenty for two people to share.  The short ribs came chopped into tiny chunks of rich, succulent, moist, fatty meat, braised until they were very soft and easy to pull off the shards of bone.  They were extremely flavorful and easier to eat than I expected.  I wished I had saved some of the doughier buns and dumplings to dip into the short ribs’ sauce.

I ordered us the pan-fried sticky rice ($5.50) because the couple at the table next to us got it, and it looked good.  That was another pro move on my part.  It was sticky and savory, with maybe the tiniest bit of subtle sweetness you get from Chinese five-spice powder, a blend of Chinese cinnamon, fennel seed, star anise, cloves, and peppercorns (or sometimes ginger).  It also would have been good to soak up some of the short rib sauce, but the rice was so flavorful, we ate it on its own. 

The last dim sum dish we ordered was another winner: fried meat dumplings ($4.75).  I can’t tell you if the meat was beef or pork, or maybe a combination of both, or something else entirely.  It was ground, spiced (but not spicy), and saucy, and served in these awesome dumplings that reminded me of Indian batura, Native American fry bread, hand pies, lightly fried empanadas, or even funnel cakes at a fair.  That perfect flaky dough that is lightly crispy but mostly soft, that leaves your fingers greasy and your soul happy.  

Like I said, not a bad dish in the bunch.  It was a great meal, and while we probably could have done more damage, it was the perfect amount of food for two people, with some leftovers at the end.  I’m guessing most of my readers are already familiar with the joy of a communal dim sum brunch, and many know the wonders of Ming’s Bistro.  But if you don’t know, now you know!  I hated crowds and lines long before there was a pandemic, so in addition to recommending all these delicious dishes we tried, I also strongly suggest getting to Ming’s early — ideally in that golden half hour between 10:45 and 11:15 AM — to beat the lunch rush and avoid having to wait.

The Osprey

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

Ernest “I Love When You Call Me Big Papa” Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

The Osprey (https://www.theospreyorlando.com/) is one of my favorite restaurants in all of Orlando, but it had been over three years since my last visit.  They didn’t do anything wrong — owners Jason and Sue Chin run a tight ship, and it never disappoints.  In fact, their restaurant is so good, they were recently named James Beard Award semifinalists, which is a huge honor in the restaurant industry.  (And we here in Orlando feel like they were robbed of an official nomination!)

But so much had changed since my last visit, even the name!  The restaurant was renamed The Osprey (it used to be The Osprey Tavern), and the menu was revamped to focus much more on local seafood.  My last meal there with my wife was excellent, but that was in early 2018, before I started this blog.  As a result, I never got around to writing a belated review, since most of my photos were of dishes we ordered that are no longer on the current menu (and my photos were also pretty bad back then).  So I was long overdue for a return trip.

The Osprey does not serve lunch, but it opens for dinner at 5:00 PM every day of the week except for Monday.  It runs one of the best happy hours in Orlando runs from 5:00 to 7:00 PM, Tuesday through Friday only.  It is also open for brunch on Sundays, which was my first experience at The Osprey many years ago.  I’m just not a brunch guy; it doesn’t matter where it is.  But I am very much a lunch/dinner/happy hour guy.

But my favorite thing about The Osprey Tavern, and now The Osprey, was $1 oysters during happy hour on weeknights.  Since I work so late, I was hardly ever able to make it over there to take advantage of one of my favorite meal deals in Orlando, so it was a rare and wonderful treat.

The $1 happy hour oysters were the main thing that recently drew me back to The Osprey in the middle of a long and exhausting recent workday where I had several classes to teach.  (Since that visit, they are now $2 each.)   I ordered an icy platter with a dozen fresh mid-Atlantic James River oysters on the half shell ($12), plump and juicy, from Virginia.  These were much smaller and more delicate than the typical huge Appalachicola oysters I’m most used to, which come from Florida’s Gulf Coast.  These James River oysters were slightly firmer in texture too, which may be a boon for those who don’t love the texture of oysters.  I sipped their briny liquor and slurped them down with gusto; they didn’t need any lemon, cocktail sauce, or horseradish.  I wrote about the raw oysters I enjoyed so much from High Tide Harry’s and the late, lamented Lombardi’s Seafood Cafe during the stressful, chaotic year of 2021, and I share my Saboscrivner Seal of Superiority with these oysters from The Osprey.I should have taken a close-up of that other little ramekin of sauce near the 2:00 position above.  That is a mignonette, a unique condiment I tried for the first time on my previous visit to The Osprey for oysters, back in early 2018 — far too long ago — before I started this blog.  I remember that mignonette was different from this one, but the menu refers to it as “seasonal” mignonette, so they may change out ingredients and flavor profiles throughout the year.  I’ve never had anything like them before or since.  It’s kind of like a peppery vinaigrette, with small bits of crispy shallots floating in it, and it’s a little sweet.  I like my oysters straight-up to fully savor their flavor, but the mignonette was too delicious to leave behind… so I sipped and chewed it, just like I did in 2018.  It’s that good.

This was the calamari ($9 during happy hour; otherwise $12).  These tender, breaded squid rings and tentacles come adorned with paper-thin slices of piquant pickled peppers (a very nice and colorful touch), served on a bed of hazelnut romesco (the tangy orange sauce on the plate below, made with roasted tomatoes and peppers), and served with a ramekin of cool, creamy, slightly lemony citrus aioli.  All the flavors and textures worked together perfectly for a beautiful harmony. 
I usually love calamari, but some places serve you a greasy mess of chewy rubber bands, sometimes hidden under too much crunchy, overcooked, tasteless batter.  Not here.  If you had any doubt that a seafood restaurant as nice as The Osprey would excel at the calamari game, dispel those doubts now.

Now I come to one of the best pasta dishes I’ve ever had — certainly in Orlando, and possibly an all-time Top Tenner.  It even made my list of Top Twelve Tastes of 2021 in Orlando Weekly, where it was the only dish from a restaurant I hadn’t reviewed yet.  Well, here’s my full review, better late than never.  This is spaghetti alla chitarra ($15; not a happy hour special), and this picture cannot possibly do it justice.

The pasta itself was freshly made in house, and it was tossed and served with shelled clams from Cedar Key, Florida, blistered tomatoes, herbs, and an ingredient I’ve been obsessed with since learning about it a few years back: bottarga.  As if fresh, handmade pasta and local clams weren’t awe-inspiring enough, bottarga is the egg sacs of a fish (usually grey mullet or bluefin tuna), cured in salt, then pressed and dried until they are solid blocks of savory, salty, fishy goodness, then shaved or grated onto a dish to lend it an umami-laden intensity.  If you’ve ever had bonito flakes on a Japanese dish, bottarga is like that, but more intense.  At least to me, it is also vaguely reminiscent of caviar, only without the unique “popping” sensation and all the bougie attitude that goes along with caviar.  As an unabashed aficionado of all cured, smoked, and pickled seafood, this is a dream ingredient, and the spaghetti alla chitarra was a dream dish.

Finally, I wasn’t sure if I’ve ever had the fries at The Osprey, but a trusted foodie friend had raved about them before.  I saw the cheeseburger and fish and chips both came with fries, so I asked my wonderful, attentive server Savannah if they would consider selling me a separate order of fries, even though it wasn’t listed on the menu.  She said they would, and she brought me a plate teeming with a huge “side order” of fries (only $4).   Folks, these join the potato pantheon of the finest fries in Orlando, alongside other fabulous fries from the likes of Mrs. Potato, Chicken Fire, Makani, and Se7en Bites.  They have a crispy, seasoned outer coating like the fast food fries I love so much from Arby’s, but they are pillowy soft and potatoey inside.  Not too thick, not too thin.  Just fantastic fries all around.  Savannah brought them with ketchup and a house-made creamy, tangy “comeback sauce” that you absolutely have to try, whether you get fries or something else to dip in it, or just shoot it out of the little metal ramekin.

I still had to return to work and teach one more late class after that luxurious dinner, but I ordered something to bring home to my wife, who loves desserts as much as I love oysters and pasta and cured stuff.  This looked like a dessert that would bring us both joy: the s’mores tart ($7), with “smoky ganache,” graham cracker crust, and toasted meringue topping.  This was another standout dish, even for me.  I might not be the biggest dessert eater, but I sure do love pie, especially chilled pies with graham cracker crusts, and this one was right up my alley.  We both had tiny tastes that night, and my wife liked it, but I liked it even more than she did.  Because of that, she was kind enough to eat a little more for breakfast the next morning, but saved me some to enjoy when I got home from work that following evening.  She’s the sweetest of all, but this was an excellent dessert I would recommend to anyone.  It was so rich, we were able to get four servings out of this one slice!

So that’s a long-overdue review of one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando.  Even though oysters are $2 each at happy hour instead of the buck they used to be, I still strongly recommend them — even at full price.  Jason and Sue Chin are building a local restaurant empire with their Good Salt Restaurant Group, and I look forward to returning to their other concepts and trying their newest place.  But don’t sleep on The Osprey!

Hidden away on beautiful, idyllic New Broad Street in Orlando’s burgeoning Baldwin Park neighborhood, it feels like it exists in another world, another reality, compared to the industrial, somewhat dilapidated stretch of East Colonial Drive just minutes away (and minutes from my workplace).  Making the short drive to savor a happy hour dinner on a busy, stressful workday transported me away from real life temporarily, as all the best meals should do, to one degree or another.  If you like seafood, I hope you will allow yourself that experience as well.

 

The Stubborn Mule

The Stubborn Mule (https://www.thestubbornmuleorlando.com/) is a “New American” restaurant and bar in Thornton Park, the picturesque neighborhood full of cobblestone streets and minimal parking near downtown Orlando.  I had never been before, but my wife and I were meeting an old friend of hers and his fiancée, and I was tasked with finding a restaurant with the following specifications:

      • Lots of pescatarian options
      • Outdoor seating
      • Very close to the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
      • They take reservations so the other couple could leave at a specified time

My first two selections were booked solid for the evening we needed, so I remembered The Stubborn Mule was right near downtown Orlando, next to The Abbey, the club where I saw legendary rapper KRS-One and hilarious stand-up comic Kyle Kinane (not on the same night, although that would have been the best concert ever).  Walking by The Stubborn Mule on the way to those shows, it looked like a nice place, with a spacious outdoor patio, and the online menu looked like it had plenty of good options.

I reserved an outdoor table on the website, we parked in a convenient garage across the street from the restaurant, and we met the other couple there and ended up having a great time.  Or at least we did; we hope they did too.  It was the first time we had hung out with friends in almost a year, and one of the only times since this pandemic had started.  It was so nice to catch up and/or meet them, and also nice to just feel some semblance of normalcy again.

That said, they are not distributing paper menus.  You have to scan a QR code at the table to pull up the menu on your phone, which never seems to work for me.  I just went to the website on my phone to read the menu, but it was kind of small and hard to focus, so I didn’t pay as much attention to detail as I usually do.  This will become relevant later.

My wife wasn’t super-hungry, so she ordered the soft pretzel rolls ($9), which came with havarti fondue and honey mustard.  She always loves soft pretzels, but she ate most of them the following day.

The pescatarian ordered the fresh catch sandwich ($16), with grilled corvina (a fish I don’t think I’ve ever tried before), a slice of beefsteak tomato, brussels sprouts slaw, sweet heat pickles, and lime tartar sauce on a brioche bun.  She chose rosemary-parmesan fries as her side.

My wife’s old friend ordered the Stubborn Mule burger ($15), with an eight-ounce angus beef patty, mixed greens, a slice of beefsteak tomato, havarti fondue, maple-pepper bacon, cider onion jam mayo, and a “crispy potato nest” (whatever that is) on brioche.  He chose regular fries as his side.

I had a hard time deciding between a few different things.  I was also distracted by the conversation, and not super-hungry at the time either.  I impulsively chose the Double Double Animal Style burger ($19) due to being a huge fan of the burger of the same name from In-N-Out Burger, the West Coast fast food chain with a cult following, and wondered if this would be a serious gourmet recreation of the same.  It was both more and less.

This monster burger came with TWO eight-ounce angus beef patties.  I had asked for them medium rare, but they came out more like medium well.  We were sitting right under a loud music speaker, so it’s possible our server misheard me, or I didn’t enunciate enough.  I wasn’t going to complain over that, and it was perfectly okay.  I just wish the patties had been juicier, but I appreciated a lot that they were thicc, like my beloved and dearly departed Fuddruckers, rather than smashed flat, like so many trendy burger joints do. It came topped with bibb lettuce (an underrated lettuce), a tomato slice, sharp cheddar cheese that was nicely melted, caramelized onions (always a selling point for me), and was supposed to be served on a “Dijon toasted” pretzel bun.  There was quite a bit of yellow mustard on this burger, but no trace of Dijon.  As much as I love pretzel buns for certain sandwiches, like sausages, roast beef, turkey, or ham and cheese, I always think they’re a little too dense for burgers.  A lightly toasted brioche or potato bun might have been better, even for this heavy Double Double.

The menu also promised sweet heat pickles on this burger, but there were none to be found.  I didn’t read the tiny menu on my phone closely enough, so when it arrived, I realized it didn’t have the creamy, tangy “spread” that goes on In-N-Out’s version of a Double Double Animal Style.  But that was my expectation that wasn’t based on reality, so what are you gonna do?  For my side, I chose poorly.  These sweet potato fries were okay, but the fries the other couple got looked so much better.  Oh well, you live and you learn.  At least I got two meals out of everything!

The Stubborn Mule is a very cool place, and you can’t beat its location if you are headed to a show at The Abbey, the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, or any kind of event in downtown Orlando.  I would totally return, and next time I’ll get those amazing-looking fries, as well as one of their offerings that is a little more interesting than a burger.

 

Corfu Greek Restaurant

I recently learned about the existence of Corfu Greek Restaurant (https://www.facebook.com/CorfuWinterSprings), located at 124 State Road 434 in Winter Springs.  When my wife and I were playing the interminable game of figuring out what to eat on a weekend not that long ago, I suggested Greek food and sent her the menu photos from Corfu’s Facebook page.  It sounded good to her (huzzah!), so I placed a large order to ensure we had enough food to get us through the weekend and even the first day or two of the coming work week.

I took the liberty of scanning Corfu’s menu.  You may want to right-click on these menu pics and open the images in a new tab, to read them in a larger size.

I loved the interior of the restaurant.  The blue walls, all the artwork and photographs of Greece highlighting its beautiful blue seas, and the blue and white retro-looking booths created a cool, welcoming atmosphere.  The two-tone booths reminded me of a gorgeous 1950s automobile, like a ’57 Chevy Bel-Air, which made me think of a classic diner setting.  And I LOVE diners!  I ordered our food to go, but would not have minded hanging out there.  By the way, I picked up our order around 3:30 PM on a Saturday, which is why these booths are empty.  There were some diners on the other side of the restaurant, but I didn’t want to be a creeper and photograph them in their booths.  I met the lovely Rita, one of the owners, who was very sweet and welcoming, especially when I mentioned this was my first time ordering from there.  Corfu opened eight years ago, so better late than never.  And we ordered so much, to make up for lost time!

This first photo is the dish that made my wife agree to try Corfu: the charbroiled octopus appetizer ($17.99).  I’m not a huge octopus fan, but it is one of her favorite foods, and she proclaimed this might be her new favorite octopus dish anywhere.  It was marinated in olive oil and vinegar — I’m guessing red wine vinegar, but I could be wrong.  I did try one bite of one of the thicker tentacles, and it was remarkably tender, when so many places serve it on the chewy side.  She was in heaven after this dish.

She also requested the fried calamari appetizer ($12.50), but I ended up liking these crispy squid rings more than she did.  They went really well dipped into the little cup of marinara sauce that was included.  
I definitely give Olympia Restaurant the edge for fried calamari from Greek restaurants in Orlando, but these were good, don’t get me wrong!

I’m a big fan of sampler platters, especially when I’m visiting a new restaurant for the first time.  I love trying new tastes and new dishes, especially to find out how a particular place handles an old favorite.  So I was drawn to the Corfu Platter ($21.95), where diners can choose three options.  I went with three things I thought both of us would enjoy: gyro meat, roasted lamb, and moussaka.  Other options included spanakopita and one of my favorite Greek dishes, pastitsio, which is like a Greek version of lasagna, but made with long, uncut macaroni similar to ziti and topped with a bechamel sauce.  But I know pastitsio isn’t my wife’s favorite, and I had homemade lasagna in the fridge, so I went with three safe choices I knew she would like too.
She LOVED the moussaka, so I only took one bite and saved her the rest, because she’s more into it than I am.  For those who don’t know, moussaka is a baked casserole of sliced eggplant, sliced potatoes, and meat sauce (not a tomato-based meat sauce, like bolognese), topped with bechamel sauce and melted mozzarella cheese.  I’m not even the biggest eggplant guy, and I liked it a lot.  The gyro meat must have been grilled on a flattop after being sliced, because it had a nice char to it.  We are both huge lamb fans, and we both thought the roasted lamb was a little bland compared to the other two choices — but I still ate it.  If I order the Corfu Platter again, I would get pastitsio instead of the roasted lamb.

But being a huge lamb fan, I was even more tempted by the lamb shank Kapama for myself, knowing my wife wouldn’t even be interested in tasting it.  Stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know how much I mark out for braised and stewed meats, especially on the bone — cooked at low temperatures for a long time in some flavorful liquid until they’re tender enough to cut with a fork.  I’ve raved about similar braised lamb shanks from Cappadocia Turkish Cuisine, but this was a uniquely Greek take on the lamb shank, with green and kalamata olives and capers in the rich tomato sauce.
I’m not even a fan of olives or capers (two of the few foods I tend to avoid), but I inhaled every morsel of this dish.  The lamb was done so perfectly, the bone pulled out completely clean.  Even though it is always my impulse to try new things when I return to a restaurant, this dish will tempt me again and again.

The Corfu Platter and lamb shank Kapama are both entrees, so each one came with a side — as if this wasn’t enough food already!  I chose lemon roasted potatoes with one of them, which were a little bland.  Funny enough, lemony desserts are among my favorite desserts ever, but I’m just not the hugest fan of lemon as an ingredient in savory dishes.  That’s just me being weird.

But I love green beans, and this large side order of tender green beans stewed in a tomato sauce was my preferred side.  The other options were French fries, which I worried might not be hot by the time I made it home, and rice, which I will try next time.  I really liked these green beans, though.

The two entrees both came with lightly grilled pita bread wedges, my favorite kind of pita and my favorite way to serve it.  It picks up flavors from the grill and has a slightly crispy exterior while still being soft.  Believe me, I used these to scoop up every drop of that delicious tomato sauce from the lamb shank.

I didn’t taste the baklava ($5.50), but my wife requested it and seemed very happy with it.

Even though I rarely order dessert for myself, I realized I had never tried baklava cheesecake at a Greek or Mediterranean restaurant before, and decided to do something about that.  Corfu’s baklava cheesecake ($6.95) was rich, creamy, sticky, and delicious.  No regrets.  I’m glad I treated myself to it!

There aren’t a lot of nice, sit-down Greek restaurants on my end of town, especially after some old favorites like Greek Flame Taverna, Patsio’s Diner, and Cypriana (all near us) closed so many years ago.  So I was thrilled to recently learn Corfu existed, and even more thrilled to sample so many dishes and enjoy them at home with my wife.  This is a place I would definitely return to, even for the simple thrill of sitting in those blue and white booths when it feels a little safer to dine out — which is hopefully months away, rather than years.  Regardless, I will still come back to Corfu to order more takeout in the meantime!

Christner’s Prime Steak and Lobster

I’m not usually a big steakhouse person, but if you ask me, Orlando’s best steakhouse is Christner’s Prime Steak and Lobster (https://christnersprimesteakandlobster.com/ ), located at 729 Lee Rd, Orlando, Florida, 32810.  Christner’s is very old-school and classy, with impeccable service and prices to match, but you get what you pay for at a place like this.  When I was still just dating my wife, her parents took us all out to Christner’s, and I must admit I had never been to a restaurant like this before.  I got sticker-shock from the prices, even though her generous father, a stand-up guy, treated us all.  But the steak was the finest I’ve ever had in my life — even better than the steak at the vaunted Bern’s in Tampa — and the sides were all top-notch as well.

Well, we’ve returned to Christner’s a few times in the intervening years, but we’ve canceled just about as many reservations just due to a lot of bad luck — someone always getting sick or injured right around the time of an anniversary, a birthday, or some other event worth celebrating.  This year we decided to treat ourselves.  Our anniversary and my in-laws’ anniversary are a day apart, so a while back, we finally returned to Christner’s for the first time in quite a few years, and everyone was healthy and safe and somehow stayed healthy and safe.  It was a lovely night out with three of the best people in the world, and we ate like kings.

I have made no secret of my love for oysters on this blog, and Christner’s has the absolute best fried oysters I’ve ever had.  Seriously, I’ve never had anything this good.  They would make a fine, filling meal in and of themselves, even if we didn’t get steaks.  This sharable appetizer portion comes with tartar sauce, which is really good, and cocktail sauce, which I didn’t even bother with.  But the oysters are so plump and well-seasoned, and the breading is so perfectly crispy, that they didn’t need either.

My mother-in-law ordered lobster bisque, and she was willing to share.  I just got a spoonful, but wow, was it good.  Lobster bisque is an all-time Top Five soup, even if it’s hard to make it look exciting in a photo.  Was this the best bisque?  Best believe it’s the baddest bisque, bro!

My father-in-law ordered a Caesar salad.  I didn’t ask to try any of it, but those croutons looked pretty fantastic.

The croutons are probably made from the fresh-baked bread that is delivered to your table with soft, spreadable butter as soon as your party sits down.  The photo I got of the bread didn’t look nearly as good as it actually is, so I left it out of this review.  It is a round loaf you have to cut yourself, but it is so soft and fluffy and warm, and I challenge anyone to try it and not like it.

My in-laws aren’t used to me always playing the food photographer, so I didn’t get a chance to take pictures of everyone’s main courses.  I did capture mine, though — Russ’ USDA Prime strip, a twelve-ounce steak seasoned with a nice amount of cracked pepper and cooked to a perfect rare, just like I like it.  I regret not taking a photo of the red center, which meat lovers would salivate over.  That would have been pure “food porn,” though.   This steak is one of the cheaper ones on the menu, and I still get sticker-shock after all these years, even when someone else is generous enough to treat.  But of course, at Christner’s, even the cheapest steak is relative.  But that’s not all!  I usually choose it because it is one of the only steaks that comes with a side item; almost all the rest come a la carte.  Russ’ USDA Prime strip is accompanied by the richest, creamiest, most buttery chateau potatoes, which are just very posh mashed potatoes.  Best mashed potatoes ever, though!

We also ordered the skillet potatoes and onions for everyone to share.  This is one of the best potato dishes I’ve ever eaten in my life.  Sliced thin and fried, these aren’t crispy-crunchy like potato chips, but more like thin, disc-shaped steak fries, seasoned with lots of good cracked pepper.  As a notorious onion fan, the onions are practically caramelized and so, so perfect.  Everyone loves the skillet potatoes and onions, even my onion-averse wife!

And speaking of onions, I finally got to try Christner’s legendary onion rings, which I had only stared at longingly on our previous (rare) visits.  I always hesitate to request extra stuff when someone else is being generous enough to treat, but onion rings are kind of my thing.  I even have a whole category on this blog called RING THE ALARM! (no air horn sound effects this time, because this is a very upscale restaurant), so here are Christner’s huge, thick, mountainous onion rings, at long last.   At least my father-in-law tried some, which made me feel less guilty for asking, and even my wife (yes, the onion-averse wife again!) tried one and really liked it.  You can get these rapturous rings in orders of five or nine, and I was glad everyone was okay with getting nine.  These were definitely opulent, ostentatious onion rings!

Everyone enjoyed their dinners, but we all ended up with plenty of leftovers to box up and enjoy the next day.  By now, we knew enough to save room for one of the most delicious, decadent desserts I’ve ever encountered: mandarin orange cake.  My photo doesn’t communicate the size of the slices nearly well enough, but each one is gigantic.  The icing is a “tropical pineapple-orange whipped cream icing,” and the cake is always moist and rich, with a subtle citrusy tang.  It is served a la mode with a nice scoop of vanilla ice cream (quality stuff) and a little ramekin of chilled orange sauce that might be my favorite part, because it tastes like melted orange sherbet with chunks of actual orange in it.  I always pour it over the ice cream and eat it first, because I’m usually pretty full at this point.  
Fruity desserts are my absolute favorites, especially anything with citrus or tropical fruit.  I believe Christner’s mandarin orange cake is an all-time favorite restaurant dessert anywhere, and you can easily get two or three servings out of each stupendous slice of cake.

Well, after not doing anything at all last year due to the pandemic, this year my wife and her parents were (relatively) healthy and fully vaccinated, so it was so nice to celebrate our back-to-back anniversaries with this sumptuous feast at Christner’s.  Everything felt normal for a little while, and everyone left very full, satisfied, and happy.  I think all the time about how lucky I am to be married to such an amazing woman, and to have amazing in-laws too, who I love and get along with, and vice versa.  I know not everyone has that privilege and good fortune.  And to be able to enjoy a fancy meal like this at a fancy restaurant like Christner’s speaks to our privilege and good fortune too.  We rarely come here — only every few years — but each time we do, we are all reminded of how consistently excellent it is, and how lucky we are.

Thirsty Gator

Thirsty Gator (http://thirstygator.net/) is a great dive bar and casual restaurant located on a lonely stretch of Goldenrod Road between University Drive and East Colonial Drive.  The address plants it firmly in Winter Park, but the surrounding area doesn’t look or feel like Winter Park.  To be completely honest, entering the bar feels like you’ve entered a portal that transports you to the Southern college town of Gainesville, Florida, two hours north of Orlando.  It doesn’t even matter when you knew Gainesville best — it will feel like Gainesville from “back in the day,” whenever that day was for you.

As if the name wasn’t a dead giveaway, Thirsty Gator is a Florida Gators-themed bar, so I’m sure it is a hot destination when Gator games are on or when University of Florida alumni in Orlando are feeling particularly nostalgic.  I have a few degrees from UF, but as I get older, I rarely feel that nostalgia for “bright college days, oh carefree days that fly” anymore.  I had some of the best and worst times of my life during my seven years as a UF student, but I met a lot of amazing friends there, and I’m so honored to know them and so proud of what they have all become.  Also, I fully realize I am able to lead the life I live now — educated, gainfully employed, happily married — because of what I accomplished back then, so in the end, it all worked out.  I never thought I’d feel more content and fulfilled in my 40s than I did in my late teens and 20s, but here I am.  Aw heck, when I was in my 20s, there were times I honestly didn’t think I would even make it to my 40s, but here I am, doing better than pretty much anyone expected, myself included.  Stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, it really does get better.  I’m living proof of that.

But enough about an old man’s reflections of times past.  On to the food!

I brought home an order of ten mild wings ($15):

And an order of ten garlic wings ($15):
These are some of my favorite wings in Orlando.  I’ve written before about how I dislike typical sports bar wings that are tiny, greasy, crunchy, and dry.  These are the exact opposite — decent-sized wings that are tender, moist, juicy, incredibly well-seasoned, and barely greasy at all because they are baked, not fried.  I probably would have preferred them hot, but then my wife couldn’t enjoy them at all, and we always endeavor to share.  Thirsty Gator may be known for its seafood, but don’t sleep on these wings!  Seriously, they have to be near the top of the Top Five in Orlando.

My wife and I can never refuse the allure of a soft pretzel.  This one was $3.25, and it was pretty large, soft, and buttery.  It wasn’t as flaky and perfect as an Auntie Anne’s soft pretzel (the only thing I like going to malls for anymore), but still hit the spot.  That is yellow mustard in the little plastic cup, not butter! 

I can never resist garlic rolls or garlic bread either, and this garlic bread was $3.25.  You get four pieces that are similar to the frozen loaves of Cole’s garlic bread I enjoy a little bit too much.  They had softened by the time I got everything home, but they had plenty of garlic, butter, and herbs on them.  You just can’t go wrong with garlic bread.

And the main reason I got takeout from Thirsty Gator, rock shrimp (market price; currently $21.95 per pound).  This delectable denizen of the deep rarely appears on any restaurant menus, and this is the one restaurant I know of in Orlando that specializes in the little crustaceans.  These are peel-and-eat rock shrimp, and their shells are slightly harder to pierce, penetrate, and peel than the typical shrimp we all know and love.  So they’re more work, but totally worth it.

This is what one of the rock shrimp looks like peeled.  The meat is succulent and sweet, and my wife and I agree they taste more like lobster than shrimp.   
Funny enough, one of our featured songs at our wedding was “Rock Lobster” by the B-52s.  If you’ve ever had spiny lobster, AKA langoustine or langostino, those guys are the real-life rock lobsters, and I honestly think they taste more like regular shrimp than lobster.

These are a real treat, and since each one is a bit of a hassle to peel, you never take these for granted.  The peeling process may not be appealing, but you never eat rock shrimp without appreciating each sweet, tender morsel.  As a result, we took our time making our way through the pound we got.  They are served warm, but we also enjoyed them chilled out of the fridge the next day.

Aside from the rock shrimp and the wings, the other big food specialty at Thirsty Gator is the fresh raw oysters, but those aren’t great takeout food.  I’ve made no secret of my great love of oysters, so I’ll just have to go back another time to enjoy them in person.  Whether you love the Gators, hate them, or just fear them as so many do, there is so much to love at Thirsty Gator.