Itamae Densho

I just recently learned about the existence of Itamae Densho (https://itamae-densho.square.site/), a Japanese pop-up restaurant affiliated with local favorite (and Saboscrivner favorite) Swine & Sons inside The Local Butcher & Market, a gourmet butcher shop and market in Winter Park.  Local chef Denni Cha set up there a week ago, creating beautiful donburi, bowls of sushi-seasoned rice topped with stunningly gorgeous arrays of raw fish, fresh and pickled vegetables, actual flowers, and so much more.  I’m a huge fan of poke and sushi, but I’m used to very casual build-your-own poke bowl places, and I’ve never done a full-on omakase dinner experience.  So even though these donburi look almost too pretty to eat, I wanted to destroy something beautiful.

I placed my online order on the above website late last night and paid in advance with my credit card.  The automated e-mail told me my order would be ready after 5:50 PM today, and since I grew up in a home where “Early is on time and on time is late,” I was there right on the dot.  I met Denni, who said they would just need some time to assemble everything so it would be at its freshest, and I appreciated that he didn’t have it already made, sitting there waiting for me.  I was out the door with three bowls packed in recyclable, dishwasher-safe, microwave-safe containers in about ten minutes.

This is the Salmon Oyako donburi ($16) that my wife ate most of.  The website describes it as including “Wild King Salmon Tataki, House Cured Salmon Roe, fresh and pickled veggies, served over sushi rice.”20200711_182329

Note the little yellow flowers and the beautiful green romanesco cauliflower, which has fascinating fractal patterns.  It looks like sci-fi food, and I always remember Rey actually eating some in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.  The salmon roe popped lightly in our mouths like delicate, salty, fishy bubbles, and the salmon was incredibly fresh.

This was the “Tuna x Tuna” donburi ($15), with “Tuna Sashimi, Tuna, Densho-Style Tuna, Yuzu-Kosho Aiolo, Tobiko, fresh and pickled veggies, served over sushi rice.”20200711_182309

I love tuna, so I was in tuna heaven with this one.  I also liked the seaweed salad, which had a nice crunch and a subtle saltiness from soy sauce.  The leafy green surrounding the roe in the above photo had an interesting bitter taste.  But those thin slices of pepper are serrano peppers with the seeds and ribs intact, so they are no joke.  I’m used to jalapeños, which are further down the Scoville scale, heat-wise.  Plus, I usually remove the seeds and ribs when I prepare jalapeños at home, always while wearing disposable gloves (a lesson learned the hard way, after one horrific incident I won’t go into in this space, in mixed company).  Anyway, before too long, we were like a couple of kids: her picking out the serrano slices for me, and me picking the tiny flowers off with my chopsticks for her.  (I don’t think they added much in the way of flavor, but damn, were they cute!)

And this was the Densho-Style chirashi donburi ($18), with “Chef’s Selection of sashimi grade fish with various garnished flavor profiles, house-cured salmon roe, unagi, fresh and pickled veggies, served over sushi rice.”
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Aside from tuna, salmon, and the roe, I think I recognized hamachi (yellowtail) in this bowl, plus more of the other ingredients.  The sushi rice was excellent, and even my wife, who normally doesn’t like the sweet rice vinegar flavor in sushi rice, enjoyed it.  My wife was the first one to discover that all three bowls had crispy fried onions near the bottom, underneath the rice.  She doesn’t normally like onions at all, but she enjoyed what these brought to the table.  As for me, I love onions, so I was very content.

I’m sure there is a grand tradition of this beautiful presentation in Japanese cuisine, but we usually don’t go to those high-end sushi restaurants.  However, my wife and I were both reminded of the award-winning restaurant Noma, in Copenhagen, Denmark.  No, we’ve never been there either, but it has been featured in many food and travel shows, including the late, great Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and No Reservations, David Chang’s Ugly Delicious, and Phil Rosenthal’s Somebody Feed Phil.  Those are all awesome shows that any Saboscrivner reader would love, if you don’t already.  Noma’s chef, René Redzepi, prepares these beautiful plates that look like little terrariums, or dioramas for fairies and elves to live in.  He uses lots of edible flowers and plants to build a little scene, and that’s what Denni Cha’s lovely donburi bowls made us think of.  As long as he’s set up at The Local Butcher & Market, preparing these dishes on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, I encourage all of you to place some preorders on his website.  But do it early, because I have a feeling he may only make so many of these every day, and you don’t want to miss out.

Something Fishy

This past weekend, I brought home takeout from another excellent Black-owned restaurant that I want more people to know about: Something Fishy (https://www.somethingfishyapopka.com/), located in Apopka, just west of Altamonte Springs on Semoran Boulevard.  I hardly ever make it that far west, but now I have a reason to!  Something Fishy is a casual seafood restaurant that is the very definition of a family business, opened by husband and wife Terence and Patrice Phillips two years ago.  This is their first restaurant, and they both had other careers before, but one of their sons graduated from culinary school and has helped guide them, their daughter is a graphic designer who designed their logo and flyers, and their youngest son works at the Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt location next door that the Phillipses also own.
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Terence, who is also the chef, took my order over the phone, and I got to meet him and Patrice when I showed up to pick up our lunch order.  They were really nice — warm, welcoming, and wearing masks — and I knew immediately that the food was going to be great.

I’ve joked before that my wife and I are on seafood diets: if we see food, we eat it… as long as it’s seafood.  Longtime Orlando residents know our local seafood options are scant and slim, especially for more casual, non-bank-breaking choices, so I’m thrilled to report that Something Fishy will satisfy your cravings, especially if you may already be a fan of places like Boston’s Fish House.  Now, I’ve been going to Boston’s since I first met my wife and her parents in 2006, but everything she and I tried today was a different style of seafood, maybe more Southern and less New Englandy.  There’s no point in trying to rank them, but I do think Something Fishy has bolder flavors. I encourage you to try it for yourselves, ideally as soon as possible.

“When marimba rhythms start to play,
Dance with me, make me swai”

My wife has lived in the Orlando area since she was three, which I guess makes her a Southern gal, at least geographically.  She loves catfish and grits, so she perked up when she saw fish and grits (together at last!) on the menu.  She asked me to order her the fried swai (Asian catfish) and grits ($9.99), but you can also choose tilapia, Atlantic cod, salmon, unicorn fish (AKA naso; a new one to us), or a fresh catch of the day.  It’s nice to have options, but she wanted swai!  The fish came in two thin fillets, fried in a light and crispy batter that looked cornmeal-based, and she devoured them with gusto.  It was a different style from the catfish she enjoyed from Nikki’s Place last weekend, but she was super-enthusiastic about both.
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She just wanted butter on her grits, which came in a separate container (one of those good plastic reusable containers that are dishwasher- and microwave-safe), but you can also get green onions and cheese on them, in addition to the butter.  Not being the biggest grit guy, I asked if these grits were better than our beloved Waffle House, and she said yes.  I’m guessing Something Fishy serves real grits, because as we all learned from My Cousin Vinny, “No self-respecting Southerner serves instant grits!”
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I was torn between multiple options, but narrowed it down to two and decided to get both, figuring she would want to try them anyway.  I got an appetizer order of fried oysters for myself ($8.99), because I always love oysters in any form, whether they’re raw on the half-shell, battered and fried, or pretty much anything else.  These twelve oysters had a completely different breading than the swai fish, darker and crispier, with savory seasoning — a little peppery.  They came with a small dipping cup of creamy, tangy remoulade sauce that I would love to be able to spread on anything or dip anything into, from roast beef sandwiches to potato chips to falafel, from fried chicken to grilled vegetables to roasted corn.  My wife also liked the fried oysters, since we share everything here.
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My other choice was the lobster roll, which is listed as “market price” on the menu, but today that came out to $16.99.  We always love lobster rolls, and it’s rare to find such a hearty and delicious sandwich that also manages to be refreshing, rather than heavy.  This was a different kind of lobster roll.  Instead of the rich lobster meat being served chilled in mayonnaise, this one was served warm, after being sauteed in butter with the most delicious sauteed, seasoned cabbage.  We chose wisely.  It was a beautiful sandwich, and after I cut it in half for us to share, it was a big hit.  My wife always “deconstructs” her sandwiches (just like a professor to do that!) and usually gives me her bread or roll, but this soft bun was so soaked through with butter and the lobster juices and seasoning that she even wanted that.
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The sandwich came with one side, and since my wife had her grits, I asked Chef Terence if they happened to serve onion rings, even though they weren’t on the website menu.  I was pleasantly surprised that he said they did, so I asked for those, and now this is a

[AIR HORN!]
RING THE ALARM!
[/AIR HORN!]

special review.  These were excellent onion rings, not too greasy, not dark and burned to a crisp, not falling apart, fried to golden brown in what I always default to calling the “good kind” of batter.  And once again, this was a completely different batter than the swai fish and the fried oysters, so their batter game is strong at Something Fishy.  I dipped some of them in the remaining remoulade sauce that came with the fried oysters, and had ketchup on hand for the rest.
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Something Fishy was a great catch in Apopka, which rarely shows up on Orlando foodies’ radar as a hot hub of gustatory goodness.  But it’s worth the 10-15 minute drive west when you get off I-4 on exit 92 in Altamonte.  Terence and Patrice were kind hosts who run a tight ship, and they definitely aren’t shellfish with the portions.  It’s a brightly-lit space with plenty of seating, for those brave enough to dine in restaurants these days.  It’s not a dive; you and your grouper won’t feel packed in like sardines.  Everything we ordered was reely good, so if you like what you’re herring, stop floundering.  Mullet over and swim by Something Fishy some time, just for the halibut.  It’ll have you exclaiming “Oh my cod, it’s so good!”

Bagel King

“You come at the king, you best not miss.”
–Omar Little, from The Wire (the greatest show of all time)

It’s no secret your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner loves bagels.  They are, after all, the food of my people.  I grew up eating bagels with my family on Sunday mornings in Kendall (one of Miami’s more staid suburbs) from a series of bagel shops and delis that are all decades gone.  On this very blog, I’ve waxed poetic about some of New York City’s best bagels, from the extraordinary Ess-A-Bagel and the rapturous Russ & Daughters Cafe.  I’ve sung the praises of Pickles Delicatessen in nearby Longwood, where their bagels are shipped frozen from New York, and they are almost as good as the real things, hot and fresh when you’re right there.

But if you want freshly baked bagels in the Orlando area, your best option is Casselberry’s Bagel King (https://www.bagelking.net/).  I’ve been going to Bagel King since I moved here in 2004, first with one of my good friends and former roommates, and then with my wife, ever since we started dating in 2006.  It’s a “friendly neighborhood” place too, with a wide open dining room and plenty of natural light streaming in, a gleaming glass case full of pastries baked in house, and a floor-to-ceiling rack of different freshly baked bagels behind the front counter.  You can order takeout at the counter (as everyone has to do these days), but in happier, safer times, it was a great place to grab a table for a leisurely breakfast or lunch.

This was the bagel selection on a recent busy weekend after the takeout lunch crowd came and went, but they still had everything I wanted:
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I can’t tell you how many times I ordered the “Fresh Fish Fantasy” ($10.99) over the last 15 years, where you can choose a bagel with cold-smoked nova salmon (what most people think of as “lox”) or much saltier belly lox, along with cream cheese, tomatoes, onions, and capers on the side.  Almost as many times as I would belt out “Well it’s just a fresh fish fantasy, baby!” in my head over that bouncy Tom Tom Club sample, to the tune of Mariah Carey’s “Well it’s just a sweet, sweet fantasy, baby!”  I would always opt for an everything bagel, thick and fluffy with that shiny exterior that only comes from boiling, dusted with onion, garlic, sesame seeds, and poppy seeds, or a crustier, non-boiled bialy roll with its oniony center.

Close-up of a bialy, for the uninitiated:
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Sometimes I’d switch up the Fresh Fish Fantasy formula and instead opt for smoked whitefish salad on a toasted everything bagel or bialy ($10.99), or sometimes I’d indulge and get Tinamarie’s stuffed potato knish ($8.99): pastrami, corned beef, roast beef, or turkey (I would NEVER get turkey) with provolone, caramelized onions, and dusseldorf mustard, served on a homemade potato knish, split open like a sandwich.  For those of you who have been deprived, a knish is a pastry made of a thin layer of dough wrapped around seasoned mashed potatoes.  You can buy delicious Gabila’s brand knishes in the frozen case at Publix (they are fried and made in New York), but a lot of bagel shops and delis bake theirs, including Bagel King.  You can buy a mini-knish for 99 cents or a full-sized one for $2, and your life will be so much better if you do.

However, my wife never deviates from her formula: a toasted, buttered everything bagel ($1.99) with a side order of pastrami ($4.49), always sliced into strips and cooked on the grill until it was slightly crispy, like bacon.  Bagel King isn’t a kosher restaurant, by the way — you can get applewood-smoked bacon with your eggs, cheddar cheese on your burger (on a pretzel roll), or provolone on any number of thick, meaty, overstuffed sandwiches.  But they also offer turkey sausage and turkey ham.

Most bagels are $1 each, or you can get a baker’s dozen (13) for $10.  Bagels freeze exceptionally well, especially if you slice them first, seal them in plastic bags, squeeze all the air out, and freeze them immediately.  Then they warm up perfectly in a toaster oven… or you can microwave them for 30 seconds before the toaster oven, if you always forget to slice them before freezing, like I usually do.

On this most recent trip, I stocked up with bagels to freeze: nine everything bagels and nine bialys.
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They were even kind enough to throw in these sweet treats: a raspberry danish pastry and a huge, dense cinnamon roll.
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Bagel King also makes their own flavored cream cheeses, which you can order on your bagel or get to-go tubs.  The savory veggie, bruschetta, chunky nova, and smooth lox cream cheeses are all outstanding, but they have sweet ones too, like strawberry, Nutella, and almond amaretto.  I just wouldn’t recommend those sweet ones on an everything bagel or a bialy!DSC03059

So that’s Bagel King, another old stalwart, and your source for the best fresh bagels in Orlando.  I’m so lucky to live near the one in Casselberry, but there are also locations in Winter Park, Lake Mary, Debary, and a wholesale location in Orlando.  Now more than ever, I know we’re all seeking comfort food.  To me, few meals are as comfortable as a good bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese.  If that sounds the least bit good to you, come at the king, and don’t miss.

 

Olympia Restaurant

“Hangin’ on the corner of 52nd and Broadway
Cars passin’ by, but none of ’em seem to go my way
An’ New York City, well I wish I was on a highway
Back to Olympia”
–“Olympia, WA,” written by Tim Armstrong, Matt Freeman, and Lars Frederiksen

With all due respect to legendary punk band Rancid and their ABSOLUTELY FLAWLESS 1995 album “…And Out Come the Wolves,” I only shared the chorus lyrics from that wistful song because I too wish I was on a highway back to Olympia, but a very different one than the one they meant.

Olympia Restaurant (https://www.olympiaorlando.com/) is Orlando’s oldest Greek restaurant, founded in 1979.  I’ve been a few times over the years, but not nearly often enough.  On my most recent visit, with a new co-worker and friend who loves the place, I realized that I need to return a lot more frequently.  This guy is an accomplished attorney who also plays drums in the ska-punk band Sucker Punch, so he’s basically one of the coolest people I know.  (And I don’t just say that because I’m an ex-ska-punk musician myself.)  He’s an Orlando native who has been a regular at Olympia his entire life, and if you know Olympia, you can tell it’s the kind of local institution that would retain regulars through the decades.

On past visits, I’ve ordered the gyro lunch special many times, which comes with outstanding fries.  And as a big sardine eater (some folks call me the Dean of Sardines*), I’ve enjoyed Olympia’s marides, or fried smelts — small, sardine-like fish that are lightly breaded and fried until crispy.  Unfortunately they were out of smelts on my most recent visit back in February, but the allure of fried seafood was hard to overcome.

When I asked about the fried kalamari, our server enthusiastically told us it was the best in town.  I think it has to be up there among the best, if not the best.  This huge and satisfying appetizer portion was only $8, and the squid were fried to crispy perfection, still tender and not overcooked to the point of being chewy and rubbery.  I really liked the fried onions and green peppers the kalamari came tossed with, and the rich tomato sauce that was perfect for dipping.  I’ve become enough of a squid fan that I’ve made it at home a few times, but never fried like this.  Olympia may have inspired me to try it, but I’d usually rather leave breading and frying to the seasoned professionals — no pun intended.DSC02989

My friend chose the Greek salad with his lunch, which was fresh and colorful, with nice shreds of feta cheese and a kalamata olive plunked in the middle:DSC02991

And he ordered the gyro dinner ($13), which came with a generous portion of rice topped with tomato sauce, some of my favorite pita bread anywhere, and excellent fresh tzatziki sauce for dipping:DSC02992

I chose the soup of the day, lentil soup, with my lunch.  I’ve become a huge lentil soup fan, especially since you can make infinite variations of it, and lentils are healthy, versatile, cheap, and delicious.  DSC02990

And as tempted as I was by a gyro, I ordered one of my favorite dishes that is much harder to find on menus: pastitsio ($13), which is like the Greek version of lasagna.  It is made with long, uncut ziti noodles, ground beef or lamb, a creamy bechamel sauce, and topped with a rich and zesty tomato sauce.  I loved it.  It came with nice, crunchy green beans on the side, a vegetable I rarely order but usually enjoy.  DSC02993

A cross-section of this architectural marvel:DSC02994

Long-time Saboscrivner readers might remember I ordered the pastitsio at Theo’s Kitchen back in the summer of 2018.  Then again, I can’t imagine anyone would remember that detail, and I would be a little concerned if I had obsessive superfans who did.  But the dish is rare enough on menus, even at Greek restaurants, that I always love to try everyone’s different versions.  Olympia’s pastitsio was definitely the better of the two.

This visit with my friend made me realize I need to work Olympia back into my regular restaurant rotation.  It has withstood the test of time serving all the classic Greek dishes almost as long as I’ve been alive — over 40 years.  With the restaurant business so tenuous even in the best of times, that’s a colossal accomplishment, worthy of praise and continued support.  When my work reopens, it’s close enough that I can and will swing by whenever I want.

But now more than ever, in this difficult time where restaurants are limited to takeout orders, consider dropping by and placing an order, whether you’re a returning regular or just happen to be craving Herculean portions of Greek food.  (See what I did there?)  Your takeout lunch or dinner will ascend to new, godlike heights at Olympia.  (See what I did there?)

*Nobody calls me the Dean of Sardines.  YET.

Uncommon Catering and Eatery

Orlando’s “Hourglass District” along Curry Ford Road is quickly becoming one of our most exciting dining neighborhoods.  It’s pretty far from where I live so I don’t make it down there often enough, but it includes some real gems like Pizza Bruno, Cafe Madrid, Theo’s Kitchen, and its newest neighbor, right next door to Theo’s: Uncommon Catering and Eatery (https://www.uncommoncatering.com/eatery).  The catering company owned and operated by J. Travis Smith and Tara Vernau-Smith just opened a lovely restaurant space in the former Gabriel’s Subs location in the Winn-Dixie plaza on Curry Ford and Crystal Lake Road.  Their hours are just for lunch: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 AM to 4 PM.

I had never been to Gabriel’s Subs before, so I didn’t know what the space would look like.  It turned out to be pretty and soothing with all the light wood and cool blue tones, like having lunch at the house of a friend with really good taste.

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The antique typewriter had a list of their artisan cheeses (including one of my all-time favorites, Cahill’s Irish Porter cheddar) and charcuterie.  BUT WHO TYPED THE LIST?  It is a mystery.DSC02948

They had some canned and bottled sodas (including Dr. Brown’s!), but this jug of strawberry and basil-infused water was complimentary, and it was a damn delight.  Reminded me of staying in a really nice hotel.  I could drink this every day of my life and never get tired of it.DSC02949

Travis invited me to take a peek into their kitchen.  I’ve never worked in a restaurant before, so I’m no expert on professional kitchens, but it was spacious and spotless.  This is where Uncommon Catering is based now, in addition to their new Eatery concept, and they will be hosting catered events in this space as well.

I always talk about how much I love empanadas, and because I’m from Miami, I feel like I’m naturally an empanada aficionado.  Well, I do, and I am, and I am, and these mini-empanadas (a plate of four for $10) were some of the best I’ve ever had in my life.  DSC02951

They were stuffed with picadillo, seasoned ground beef stewed in a tomato sauce with olives and pimentos.  That’s my favorite empanada filling, and one of the only times I put up with olives (also as olive salad on a muffuletta sandwich).  And these weren’t greasy at all, the way some empanadas can be when the filling oozes through the crispy fried pastry shell or even leaks out.  DSC02952

I put the remaining empanadas aside for later when my roasted pork sandwich ($11) arrived with a little ramekin of pork jus.  I’ve had a very similar sandwich before, the house specialty at DiNic’s in Philadelphia’s legendary Reading Terminal Market, one of my favorite foodie destinations of all time.  People always bring up the ubiquitous cheesesteak, but I think Philly’s finest sandwiches are the Italian hoagie (thankfully LaSpada’s serves the best version in Orlando, along with an excellent cheesesteak), and DiNic’s roast pork sandwich, which didn’t have a local equivalent until now.  Chef Tara cited her Pennsylvanian roots as an inspiration for this sensational sandwich.DSC02953
Close-up of the herb-roasted shaved pork tenderloin, sharp provolone cheese, broccoli rabe, and banana peppers on a soft, Philly-style roll (possibly an Amoroso brand roll, but also possibly something else).  I’m always a huge fan of pickled peppers, but I wonder if some sliced hot cherry peppers would have been even better than the banana peppers.  I don’t recall what kind of hot peppers I got on my sandwich at DiNic’s, and don’t get me wrong, I like banana peppers.  I just like hot cherry peppers more, but I defer to Tara and Travis on issues of authenticity.  DSC02954

I had every intention of visiting a second time so I could review at least one more dish, but I decided to publish my review now due to so many restaurants and other businesses being affected by fears of COVID-19.  (With any luck, new Saboscrivnerinos will discover this review months from now, long after life is back to normal, and they will think “Oh yeah, that was a weird few weeks!” with no lasting trauma.)  Uncommon Catering just recently opened their Eatery, and it’s fantastic, and they could really use your business.  Check them out, and order something to go!  Tip well, wash your hands, and enjoy.  You won’t be sorry.

Tibby’s New Orleans Kitchen

I was lucky enough to go to New Orleans four times between 1998 and 2001, with different groups of friends every time.  Back then, as a young guy in college, I never had much money, but I sure liked good food, good music, history, architecture, culture, adventure, and romance, so New Orleans was the perfect destination for all of those things.  (Never did find any romance there, though.)  I played an unforgettable gig with my old band once, went to an epic bachelor party with a bunch of my closest friends in the world (and we were all on remarkably good behavior, believe it or not), and even descended on Mardi Gras one time, which was actually too crazy, crowded, and chaotic to be as much fun as it should have been.  New Orleans is a legendary party town pretty much any weekend, but even as a senior in college, I thought Mardi Gras was just too much.

Obviously the city has changed a lot over the last 19 years, and especially since Hurricane Katrina devastated it in 2005.  I’d love to make it back to see how the city has bounced back and been revitalized, but have no idea when and if that’ll happen.  But in the meantime, when I crave the food of New Orleans — Cajun and Creole cuisine — we have a very good option right here in Orlando: Tibby’s New Orleans Kitchen (https://tibbys.com/), a locally-owned restaurant with locations in Winter Park and Altamonte Springs.  On my most recent visit, I went with two former co-workers who I grew very close to during my first years at my job.  Those were some tough times then, and we all found strength in numbers and looked out for each other.  We were long overdue to get together and catch up, so in true Sabsocrivner fashion, I sent them a list of multiple restaurants where we could have a leisurely lunch and hang out for a while, without feeling crowded or rushed.  I was relieved and excited when they chose Tibby’s, since I hadn’t been in a few years.

In fact, the last time I had been to Tibby’s was long before I started this food blog, so I realized I had never ordered the onion rings before.  That’s right, they offer onion rings as an appetizer ($6.50), which means I had to try them for a little recurring onion ring review feature I like to call RING THE ALARM!

[AIR HORN!]

This was a generous order of thick onion rings (or thicc, as the kids say), with a nice texture from their light, crispy breading.  They came with an excellent remoulade sauce for dipping, one of the best condiments to accompany onion rings at any local restaurant.  These rings seemed particularly salty, but I still liked them a lot.  DSC02870

My wife and I are huge fans of a wonderful, hilarious comedian named Tig Notaro, who had a short-lived and much-missed show on Amazon Prime called One Mississippi.  The theme song was “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” which I only recently found out was written by the legendary, prolific songwriter and country music legend Hank Williams back in 1952.  That song always makes me hungry due to the lyric “Jambalaya, crawfish pie, filé gumbo.”  (I have a real soft spot for songs about food in general, and there aren’t enough of them.)  So when I saw Tibby’s sampler consists of jambalaya, crawfish pie, and filé gumbo ($14.25), I knew it was meant to be.DSC02871

The jambalaya rice, stewed in a mildly spicy tomato sauce with onions, bell peppers, celery, andouille sausage, and tasso ham, is a classic dish I always love.  In college, I ate a lot of Zatarain’s jambalaya made from a box of rice with dehydrated vegetables and salty seasonings, and I’d mix in cheap sausage, chicken, canned sardines, you name it, plus any vegetables I could afford to stretch it out.  Even that was tasty back in the day, but real jambalaya with quality ingredients is a delicious meal.  The crawfish pie was essentially a crawfish empanada with tail meat in a crispy fried pastry shell.  The filé gumbo was on the salty side, but still very tasty, made with chicken and sausage.  Filé powder is made from grinding dried sassafras leaves, and it is used as a thickener for the hearty stew and other Creole dishes.  The other primary gumbo recipe uses okra to thicken the stew instead.

My one friend ordered shrimp Creole ($12.25), a tomato-based stew with a little island of rice in the middle.  She seemed to love it. DSC02872

My other friend wanted fried shrimp and fried oysters, but not necessarily in a po’boy.  Our server was very accommodating, and allowed her to order side orders of both ($12 for the oysters, $6 for the shrimp).  I tried one of her fried oysters, and it was delicious… but it’s really hard to go wrong with fried oysters.  DSC02873

She also ordered the sweet potato fries for us to share ($4), and they were a treat — salty and sweet at the same time.DSC02874

We couldn’t leave without a plate of beignets for dessert ($4.25).  These crispy-on-the-outside, soft and flaky-on-the-inside fried pastries are a New Orleans specialty.  I’ve had them at the legendary Cafe Du Monde, and nothing really equals that experience of sitting outside, listening to street musicians play incredible jazz and people-watching in the French Quarter… but Tibby’s beignets come close.  DSC02876

I’m really hoping to return to New Orleans for my profession’s big conference this summer, 19 years after my last visit.  It’s staggering to think of everything that city has endured in the meantime, especially the destruction of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.  But it’s an incredible place, like nowhere else in America, with some of the greatest food in the country.  If you can’t make it, Tibby’s is like a little piece of the Big Easy right here in Winter Park.  You should go there and laissez les bon temps rouler, especially as we celebrate Mardi Gras this coming Tuesday!

 

 

Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill

I really love Jamaican food.  Even though I usually go to the Golden Krust restaurant in Waterford Lakes to get my fix, I thought I would try a new place I’ve heard good things about — well, new to me, anyway — Mark’s Jamaican Bar & Grill (http://www.jamaicanbarandgrill.com/).  Located on University and Dean Roads, right off the 417, Mark’s is very close to the University of Central Florida, Full Sail University, East Orlando, and Winter Park.  It’s a small and casual restaurant in a shopping center with a Publix.  They have plenty of tables to dine in, and it seems like a relaxed little oasis.  But I ordered takeout on both of my visits.

On my first visit, I decided to finally try the national dish of Jamaica, ackee and saltfish.  It was served with boiled dumplings, boiled green bananas, and sweet fried plantains.  I’ve had saltfish once before, at Golden Krust, but never with ackee or the boiled sides.DSC02890

Ackee is actually a fruit!  Fresh, it looks like large, shiny black balls (the seeds) popping out of a pale pink apple-like fruit, and it is highly toxic.  But if you boil the ackee and then saute it with salted cod, it comes to resemble scrambled eggs, and tasted kind of like them too, but a bit more bitter.  I liked it a lot, especially with the onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes mixed in.DSC02891I have to admit, as much as I liked my first ackee and saltfish, I didn’t love the boiled bananas or boiled dumplings.  Both were kind of plain “starch bombs.”  The boiled dumplings were incredibly dense, slippery, and chewy.  The bananas weren’t sweet at all because they are unripe, kind of like green plantains.  But these were more like bland-tains!

Oxtails are one of my favorite dishes to eat anytime, anyplace, any cuisine.  I’ve written before about how I like them more than steak.  They are so rich and beefy, tender and juicy from stewing or braising them, and from all that gelatin.  You can’t possibly look cool while eating oxtails because they’re sticky and slippery, and you have to hold them in your hands, eat the meat off the rock-hard bones (it will be tender enough to pull right off), and then suck and gnaw what’s left, without having them squirt out of your hands and divebomb your clothes or your dining companions.
DSC02888The oxtails at Mark’s were on point, especially served over rice and peas in their rich, almost slightly sweet gravy (I would have liked even more gravy over the rice), with sides of steamed cabbage and fried sweet plantains, another one of my all-time favorite foods.

After that weekend feast (which I swear I turned into three separate meals), I went back the following Friday and brought back an even larger feast of a lunch to share with two of my co-workers in our break room.  We all chipped in for certain dishes — I might be a cool guy, but I wasn’t about to buy all this food myself.

Another round of those delicious oxtails so my co-workers could try it for the first time:
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Brown stew chicken, one of my favorite dishes.  This was another one I bought to share, but I brought the vast majority of it home and ate it two days later.  I suspect it would have been better fresh and hot.  I’ve had brown stew chicken from elsewhere that was more tomatoey, maybe from ketchup as an ingredient.  This was a mix of different pieces of chicken, both white and dark meat.
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Jerk chicken over white rice with plantains.  I had one bite with a nice spice to it, but wasn’t anywhere close to overwhelmingly spicy.  DSC02894

Curried goat (pardon the blurriness).  This was another one of my co-workers’ choices.  I’ve eaten curried goat before and liked it fine, but as a warning for the uninitiated, it is full of tiny little bones.  However, in recent years, my wife has become a huge fan of baby goats, and I’ve taken her to a local dairy farm multiple times to frolic in the field with adorable baby goats that are as soft, cute, funny, and playful as puppies.  This has made me take a step back from eating this particular meat, but no judgment from me toward those who like it!DSC02896

Spicy shrimp fried rice with lots of vegetables.  I snagged a shrimp, and it was very tasty.DSC02895

Callaloo, a bitter, spinach-like vegetable stewed with onions, tomatoes, and green bell peppers.  I had only ever tried it once before, at Golden Krust (once again, see that review).  I usally love bitter, braised and stewed greens like collards, spinach, and broccoli rabe.  But just like the boiled dumplings that came with the ackee and saltfish, I’m glad I tried it, but I probably won’t order it again at Mark’s. DSC02897

I always like to enjoy a pineapple soda when I have Jamaican food, especially the DG brand, so I brought back a bottle for each of us.  Sadly, pineapple isn’t the easiest soda flavor to find, no matter which brand.  But these two ladies had never tried ANY pineapple soda before, not even from Fanta!  Needless to say, they liked it too.DSC02900

Finally, I had ordered a roti, a chewy, doughy Jamaican flatbread, to share with everyone, since I liked the one I got at Golden Krust once.  But even though I was charged for it, the roti was left out of my takeout order, even though I specifically asked “Is everything here?  Even the roti?”  I order takeout a lot — much more than I actually eat at restaurants these days — and this happens from time to time.  I get pissed, and sometimes I hold grudges.  There are a few popular and well-loved local restaurants I’ve never returned to, after being charged for takeout items that weren’t included.  And I don’t want to hear that I should have checked.  When these places are slammed and my order is already boxed and bagged up next to the register, none of us have time to open every box and bag back up to conduct a roll call.

But despite stewing over the missing roti more than a week later, I realize I need to simmer down, as the legendary Robert Nesta Marley sang.  In the end, I liked the food at Mark’s enough to sing its praises here and now.  As if that doesn’t count for enough, I will still happily return, as a much closer source for really delicious Jamaican food.  Plus, they have something called “Rasta pasta,” and I really want to find out what that is next time!

Bento Cafe

It is 2003, and a really hip and cool restaurant empire has started in the most unlikely of places: Gainesville, home of the University of Florida (GO GATORS!), and where your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner came of age, played in some bands, and earned a few degrees in the late ’90s and early ’00s.  The fast-casual pan-Asian restaurant Bento Cafe (https://www.eatatbento.com/) opened its first location in the north central Florida college town in 2003, the last year I lived up there.  I remember going there on a particularly great day, that final summer before my final graduation.  It was the first place I ever tried beef bulgogi, udon noodles, Thai sweet chili sauce, and boba tea.  (Not all in the same meal, though.  My head would have exploded from the pure joy of discovery, and I also would not have been able to afford all that back then.)

It is 2009, and Bento Cafe has expanded into downtown Orlando.  I have already been living here for five years.  On the day of my wedding, while my fiancee was otherwise occupied, I go there for lunch with a group of my friends, killing time before the best night of my life.  We take over a long table, over-order (mostly sushi rolls), share everything, and reflect on how much our lives have all changed for the better — maybe mine most of all.  The day remains a blur, but the food was good and the company was some of the best ever.

It is 2019, and there are now 14 Bento locations, including three in Gainesville alone and four in Orlando, including Winter Park.  My wife and I go back and forth between the UCF and Winter Park locations, living about halfway in between them.  Both are solid, dependable favorites, and it’s much easier than going downtown and fighting for paid parking spaces.  The food is always good, and the price is right.  You can get something hot or cold, raw or cooked, as healthy or unhealthy as you want.  You order at the counter, at least at these two locations (downtown Orlando used to have table service and still may), and then they walk your food out to your table.

Hot food comes in the form of rice bowls (white or brown rice), noodle bowls (lo mein, ramen, or really great thick udon), or bento boxes.  You choose the dish you want, and if you want chicken, steak, shrimp, or tofu as your protein.  I particularly like the spicy beef bulgogi and “Pao Pao” spicy cream-glazed chicken, served stir-fried with green and red bell peppers.  I’ll take either of those topping udon noodle bowls, please.

But I’m always drawn back to the build-your-own poke bowls, because I love poke so very much.  (See my 2018 review of Poke Hana, another local favorite that made my Top Five favorite dishes of that year in Orlando Weekly.)  At Bento Cafe, you can get your poke over white or brown rice, mixed greens, or now noodles, a relatively new choice.  Last time I went, for the purposes of writing this review, they were out of noodles, so I stuck with the standard, white rice.  I ordered a large bowl ($14) and got tuna, salmon, and smoked salmon, with additions of mango, avocado, cucumber, masago, and wonton chips (you can choose up to five from a longer list), toppings of crispy fried onion and fried garlic (you can choose up to two from a separate list), and spicy mayo for my sauce of choice.  I’ll put spicy mayo on almost anything; I don’t even care anymore.IMG_0055It was, and is, absolutely delicious — so many flavors and textures and colors that harmonize together like a major chord that you eat, especially when I mix everything up in the bowl.  The only dissonant note came from the wonton chips, which were a little too large and crunchy to add to the harmony.  Next time I’d leave those out and get tempura flakes instead, for a more subtle crunch.

Here’s a poke bowl I assembled and photographed on an earlier visit.  Looks like I got tempura flakes and cream cheese in this one instead of the wonton chips, and it was probably even better this way.DSC01736

And here’s a poke bowl my wife ordered at some point in the past:
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My wife is usually drawn to their sushi.  She used to love a beautiful sashimi platter they made there, but that is no longer on the menu.  On this most recent visit, she got the sushi combo box ($11) which is a real deal with an 8-piece California roll, two 4-piece “classic” rolls of her choice, and a salad with ginger dressing.  She chose the rainbow roll, with tuna, salmon, yellowtail, krab, avocado, cucumber, and masago, and the Florida roll, with tuna, salmon, cream cheese, avocado, and masago.  I believe it also includes some kind of noodles, but as I said, they were out of noodles that day, so it looks like they doubled up on her salad (much to her chagrin).IMG_0054

They used to have a roll we both loved called the Envy roll.  This roll had EVERYTHING: salmon, tuna, krab delite, and avocado, and it was topped with kiwi, masago, and sweet chili sauce.  Unfortunately, the Envy roll has been gone from the Bento menu for several years, but we still talk about it!  It has been interesting to watch them refining the menu over time.  There are definitely fewer sushi rolls now, but as poke became a thing (and I’m so glad it did), we have more freedom of choice in being able to build our own poke bowls, and that’s a trade-off I can live with.

It is 2020, and I continue to love Bento Cafe and include it in our regular restaurant rotation.  I’m always in the mood for it, and even my wife can always find something good to eat, any time, no matter what she’s in the mood for.  That’s the highest praise of all.

Peter’s Kitchen China Bistro

Peter’s Kitchen China Bistro (https://peterskitchencb.business.site/)  opened in late 2017, and quickly made a splash on the Orlando Foodie Forum.  It developed a loyal following for its orange chicken, of all dishes — that syrupy-sweet, Americanized comfort food synonymous with mall food courts and greasy take-out places.  But Peter’s elevated the orange chicken and made it sing.  That’s what they do at this comfortable sit-down spot on East Colonial Drive, a former “cursed location” that they took over and made into a beloved local success over the last two years.

I first went there in December 2017, shortly after it opened, and met some new friends from the Foodie Forum there for lunch.  We ordered a veritable feast and shared everything, including that awe-inspiring orange chicken ($10.95) and lots of dim sum.
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I also introduced these new friends to one of my favorite Chinese-American dishes: beef chow fun ($13.50) — tender strips of beef and the greatest chewy wide noodles, stir-fried with onions, green onions, bean sprouts (not my favorite, so I ask them to hold the bean sprouts), and a soy-based sauce (I’m assuming) with the slightest bit of sweetness to it.  It’s a little greasy, but a truly perfect dish.  It is the best version of beef chow fun in Orlando, and I even listed it among my Top Five favorite dishes in Orlando in 2017, in the Orlando Weekly.20180604_171352_resized

In addition to the regular menu, Peter’s features a dim sum menu that’s available daily, except they only push the dim sum carts around the restaurant on weekends.  On that first visit, a Foodie Forum friend introduced me to some of the wonders of dim sum, including slippery, chewy rice paste, here served with shrimp and drizzled with soy sauce (which I think had something else mixed into it):
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Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlor!  From a later visit with my wife, this is the butter lobster (the dreaded market price) — a self-explanatory name for a truly rich and special dish, worthy of celebrations.  The lobsters are alive, furtively pacing around in tanks, perhaps contemplating their fates.  The unlucky crustacean is served fresh, broken apart, easy to spear and slide the meat out of the shell.  It is shiny with garlic and butter, easily one of my favorite lobster dishes I’ve ever had anywhere (not that I’m some fancy boy who eats lobster all the time; I can count the times I’ve sat down to a meal of lobster on my fingers and still have some left over).*  20180604_171945_resized*Fingers left over, not lobster.

On my most recent trip, I brought home takeout.  My wife had requested orange chicken from somewhere, and despite the ubiquity of this sweet, sticky, greasy dish in storefront Chinese restaurants and mall food courts everywhere, I remain convinced Peter’s Kitchen serves the best version of orange chicken anywhere.

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I can’t go to Peter’s without ordering beef chow fun.  I also won my wife over on this dish, and we split this portion over the course of two or three days.DSC02740

On this last takeout trip, I brought home some more dim sum too:

She requested and loved sesame balls ($3.25), filled with a subtly sweet red bean paste:DSC02743
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I’ve ordered these baked roast pork pies ($4.95) before, but the last photo I had of them was really blurry, and I know people already think I’m a crummy photographer.  I ordered them again for YOU, constant readers:DSC02744

The crust is flaky like an traditional American-style pie crust, and the roast pork is sweet, sort of like char siu.
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My wife also wanted these crispy taro dumplings ($3.85), which were stuffed with ground pork, surrounded by the soft, light-purple taro layer and then a crispy exterior, but neither of us loved them.  They reminded me a bit of Cuban papas rellenas, the crispy fried mashed potato balls stuffed with seasoned ground beef called picadillo.  But I like my papas rellenas much better than these.DSC02741

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Oh well, you can’t win them all, but at Peter’s Kitchen, chances are you’re going to like almost everything on the menu, if not everything.

I almost always end up with baked egg custard tarts ($3.85) for dessert, and got my wife hooked on them:
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So these photos were taken over a handful of visits over the last two years, but mostly from a recent takeout order that fed us for days.  I’m so glad Peter’s Kitchen is serving some of Orlando’s best Chinese food, and that they’ve turned a “cursed location” into a can’t-miss culinary destination.  And it’s so close to my job as well, which is a bonus for me.

Tori Tori

Tori Tori (http://www.toritoripub.com/) is an Izakaya-style pub — a laid-back Japanese neighborhood bar that happens to serve amazing food.  The menu has some surface-level similarities to Susuru, which I reviewed earlier this year.  But unlike Susuru, with its mid-20th Century Japanese kitsch decor, Tori Tori is sleek, sexy, ultra-modern in its design.  And unlike Susuru, which is every bit a restaurant, Tori Tori is a bar all the way.  That means you place your orders at the bar and then sit wherever you want — either at the long two-sided bar itself that forms the centerpiece of the attractive space on Mills Avenue just south of Pho 88, or at a number of U-shaped booths or smaller tables.  There is a nice outdoor patio that should be delightful to hang out on now that it’s finally getting cooler outside, with several tables out there.  The whole front of the bar is open, so you can walk in and out, to and from the patio.

They seem to have a large and well-stocked bar, with pages of beers, sake, and cocktails to choose from, but I did not partake in any of those.  Having missed out on the frenzy and hype of Tori Tori’s first two months, I finally made it out there this past Saturday night, with one agenda: TO EAT.  Preferably A LOT.

I should note that Tori Tori doesn’t open until 5:30 and doesn’t serve lunch.  I arrived about ten minutes early because I didn’t want to wait around for it to get too crowded and not even be able to park.  It filled up fast, but unlike so many Mills 50 establishments, I am thrilled to report Tori Tori has its own ample parking lot!  I sat right down at the bar, had the very friendly Sean (Shawn?) give me a menu and make some suggestions, and then I checked off what I wanted on a small paper menu, kind of like how many sushi restaurants take your order.  Shawn (Sean?) kept my credit card like many bars do, to run a tab in case I was going to order more.  I didn’t this time (due to over-ordering on my first go-around), but this is the kind of place where a group would probably order multiple rounds of food and beverages, so it’s an organized system for keeping track.

Once Shaun (Sian?) passed my selections to the kitchen, it seemed like my food flew out at top speeds — definitely faster service than I expected, especially since the restaurant bar filled up and got busy almost immediately.  This is all traditional Japanese bar food — small plates, designed to be cooked, served, and eaten quickly, and ideally shared with your party.  It was all fresh and delicious, and I appreciated that they staggered the appearance of my dishes.  By the time I finished something, the next dish was arriving.

I didn’t include the terrible photo I took of the “handie” roll stuffed with delicious otoro, or fatty tuna ($9).  It was similar to those cone-shaped sushi hand rolls wrapped in nori seaweed, but this one was more of a burrito shape.  It held a thin piece of paper my server instructed me to pull out, separating the rice from the outer layer of nori to keep the nori crisp.  (That’s a major design flaw with every other hand roll I’ve ever had — the nori gets really chewy and is often difficult to bite through.)  It was really tasty, but also really tiny for the price.

Everything else photographed well:

Tender chicken hearts ($2.50), pierced on a skewer.  I’m sure Charles Bukowski would have had something to say about that.dsc02622.jpg

Excellent pork belly gyoza dumplings ($6), served over creamy, tangy, lightly citrus-y yuzu remoulade:DSC02624

A perfect skewer of crispy, salty chicken skin ($2.50):DSC02626

Crispy tempura corn balls ($5), reflecting in a pool of spicy, garlicky mayo.  Hopefully nobody was burned by a Cornballer while making these.DSC02623

Skewers of chicken oysters ($3; top) and thighs ($3; bottom), both brushed with tare.  All the yakitori (chicken) and other skewers are grilled over binchotan charcoal, and they have that unmistakable grilled flavor I can’t duplicate at my grill-less home.DSC02627

And this was okonomiyaki ($7), a very traditional dish I’ve never tried anywhere before.  It was described as a “pancake” served with several toppings, but it probably looks more like a flatbread or a pizza, and the base was much less firm than any of those.  It was a soft, almost sort of mushy base made of Japanese mountain yams, and topped with lots of sauteed cabbage (I love cabbage, but if you don’t, skip this dish).  On top of that, it is decorated beautifully with swirls of Kewpie mayo, Japanese barbecue sauce, tangy pickled ginger, and very strong, fishy-tasting, paper-thin bonito flakes.  It was a real melange of flavors and textures, but it probably tempered my enjoyment a bit that I ate it quickly while it was still burning hot — temperature-hot, not spicy-hot.  DSC02629

I’m glad I ordered the okonomiyaki, the tempura corn, and the handie roll, but I probably wouldn’t get any of those again.  They were perfectly good, but when (not if) I return, I would simply want to try other things.  The yakitori chicken, on the other hand, was amazing, and I would probably go back to those favorites on every subsequent visit.

Tori Tori is a very hip, cool place, and a great option in the Mills 50 area for people who don’t want to drive all the way out to the Disney area to go back to Susuru.  While some of their menu items are similar, the vibe was very different.  There were a lot of happening-looking young people here, lots of couples on dates.  It’s kind of a sexy place to bring in curious diners and drinkers seeking novelty and sophistication, but most people will try anything once, your Saboscrivner included.  In the end, the high quality of the food, the low prices and shareability factor (and also the drinks, from what I have been assured) will keep them coming back.  Just remember: it’s a bar, not a restaurant, so get used to ordering at the bar.  (And beat the inevitable crowds by being an early bird like me, but that’s my standard plan everywhere I go.)