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.

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Cafe Tu Tu Tango

Cafe Tu Tu Tango (https://www.cafetututango.com/) is a beautiful restaurant located in the heart of Orlando’s tourist district on International Drive, near Universal Studios and the Orange County Convention Center.  I used to take my wife there for special celebratory occasions back when we were dating, mostly between 2006 and 2008.  The restaurant is bright and bustling, its red walls strewn with lovely art that is all for sale.  There are local artists painting and sculpting all over the restaurant, dancers are often dancing, and tarot card readers will read guests for a small fee.  It’s a very bohemian place — maybe too loud to be intimate, but festive, fun, and as romantic as you want it to be.  The menu matches the vibe, with small plates featuring fusion foods from around the world, ideal for sharing.

As cool as that all sounds, we fell out of the habit of going, mostly because it is all the way across town.  But we had some wonderful meals and memories there, including two strips of photos we had taken in a photo booth, those completely obsolete but fun and beloved novelties of recent times past.

Well, my wife had a birthday coming up, so I asked her where she wanted to go out.  It had been a few months since we had dined out anywhere together, and me being me, I sent her a list of good restaurants — some old favorites, some we had yet to go to together, and a few that we loved but hadn’t been to in a long time.  She chose Cafe Tu Tu Tango, and we were both excited to return after all these years.  I even wore the same shirt and tie I wore in the photo booth photos (because I hate buying new clothes), hoping to get some updated pics and maybe frame them all together.

Best of all, like its sister restaurant Mia’s Italian Kitchen just up the road, Cafe Tu Tu Tango features an all-you-can-eat weekend brunch on Saturdays and Sundays for $28.22 per person.  Like Mia’s, it is not a buffet, but you just order whatever you want off the brunch menu (slightly more limited than the regular dinner menu), and as much as you want, for that fixed price.  Back in the day, before I was as gainfully employed, those small plates with their pretty presentations and puny portions could really add up.  It is a hell of a bargain to go for brunch and be able to go and sample anything and everything, so that’s exactly what we did.

We started with two “non-spirited frescos,” essentially mocktails, since neither of us drink.  My wife ordered the $6 Pollock Punch (named for the artist Jackson Pollock, of course), with pineapple, mango, and cranberry juices, passion purée, Coco Lopez cream of coconut, and almond-flavored orgeat syrup, the necessary ingredient in mai tais and so many other tropical drinks.  I ordered the $6 Lichtenstein Lemonade*, a delicious-sounding combination of house-made lemonade, muddled cucumber and basil, strawberry purée, and club soda to make it fizz.  Funny enough, once we sipped each other’s drinks, we realized we each liked the other one better.  The Pollock Punch (left) was too sour for her, while I love sour, and she preferred the fizz in my Lichtenstein Lemonade (right), so we switched them.
*The Lichtenstein Lemonade is named for the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, who I DESPISE, because he swiped art from underpaid and underappreciated comic book artists, blew their panels up to giant size and got them displayed in galleries, took all the credit, and got rich and famous off their artwork.  Screw that guy, but if you want an artist who specializes in Lichtenstein’s mid-century retro pop art style but is a truly iconoclastic original, check out my all-time favorite comic book artist Mike Allred.

Anyway, we went on to order A LOT of food from our sweet and patient server Chelsea, who was absolutely slammed, but had a great attitude and personality.  The first thing to come out was the churro waffles (which would normally be $9 if we ordered a la carte) –perfect Belgian waffles with crispy exteriors and fluffy interiors, topped with cinnamon sugar, dulce de leche, vanilla cream, cinnamon  whipped cream.  There were actually two of these in the order, so we each had one.  This was my wife’s first choice, and it was a good one.

I ordered the butter chicken tikka masala (normally $13), a good-sized portion serviced over ‍fluffy basmati rice with pickled red onions, fresh cilantro, roasted corn, and creamy tikka masala sauce.  I love Indian food, but my wife is convinced she doesn’t, because most things she has tried have been too spicy for her.  I was thrilled that she loved this dish, even more than I did, since she never wants to get Indian food, and now we had a dish we know she likes.  The chicken breast meat was very tender, and it wasn’t spicy at all.  I tried a little, but was happy to keep it on her side of the table.Since this meal, I have researched butter chicken and chicken tikka masala, two distinct Indian dishes that use similar ingredients, but aren’t the same.  We are going to run further tests to see which one my wife actually prefers, since Tu Tu Tango’s “butter chicken tikka masala” may not be the best example of authentic Indian cuisine.  It was good, though!

I had never ordered any of the brick oven pan pizzas on our past trips to Cafe Tu Tu Tango, because it always seemed like there were more interesting things to try.  But this time I ordered the sausage and peppers pizza (normally $9.25), with Italian sausage, hand-crushed San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, mozzarella, caramelized onions, and roasted red peppers.  It was magnificent, and pan pizza usually isn’t even one of the pizza styles I prefer.  Perfect crispy edges and a nice, fluffy crust.  All the toppings came together beautifully.  It was relatively small, like a “personal” pizza, but I always say that if you believe in yourself, any pizza can be a personal pizza.

Next up, my wife ordered the monkey bread (normally $7), a rich, sticky, super-sweet pastry with golden raisins, pecans, dulce de leche sauce, whipped cream, and enough powdered sugar to make it look like it was partying in Miami.  Funny enough, the monkey bread ended up being too sweet for her, but I ended up really loving its chewy, sticky texture.  It was heavy, and it probably sapped some of my strength and endurance mid-meal, but what a way to go.   

I ordered these breakfast tacos (normally $8), with jalapeño jack cheese, huevos rancheros, and crumbled, seasoned beef  on two soft corn tortillas.  My wife wanted no part of them, but they ended up being among my favorites of the brunch.   I really thought the beef was chorizo sausage — it was that kind of savory flavor with just a little spice.

Next up, she ordered the grilled fish tacos (normally $11), with honey-lime escabeche sauce, cotija cheese, crunchy cabbage slaw, and more pink pickled onions on the same soft corn tortillas.  We both appreciate good fish tacos, but both agreed the fish was on the “fishy” side.  I ended up eating everything except the tortillas, which she wanted for herself.  I wouldn’t get these again.  Loved the toppings, but the fish — not so much.

Anyone who knows me at all would glance at the menu and predict I would order the Cuban sliders (normally $12), two wee sandwich halves with capicola, genoa salami, pulled pork, pickles, Swiss cheese on pressed bread with a ramekin of the most delicious, vinegary mojo sauce.  I’m predictable when it comes to food.  I liked these, but the sauce was my favorite part!  I thought about how much I might have preferred chilled Italian-style sandwich sliders with the capicola and genoa salami and some pickled vegetables.   But don’t get me wrong, I really did enjoy them. 

Next, I got the Tango home fries (normally $4), with sautéed red pepper and onion strips, scallions and a house spice blend.  These were delicious, but I thought the potatoes could have been crispier.  They had a pleasing amount of heat, but not so much that a person who likes things mild wouldn’t enjoy them.  I was starting to get full, so I didn’t finish these, and I still feel guilty about that.

My wife ended her meal with one of her favorite dishes of the day, shrimp and grits (normally $12), served with corn relish and scallions.  She loves grits, whereas they are not usually my favorite.  I didn’t try this, but she ate it with gusto, so it must have been good.  I’d say this, the butter chicken tikka masala, and the churro waffle were her favorites.   

Next up came the dessert that I thought was going to be my favorite: guava and sweet plantain bread pudding (normally $7), served in a sizzling skillet and topped with Nutella sauce.  I wish I had asked them to hold the sauce.  Believe it or not, I could take or leave Nutella.  Thanks to it, the whole thing ended up tasting like chocolate and muted the flavors of the guava and sweet plantains, two of my favorite things to eat anywhere.  I could only eat one of the two pieces, and she wanted nothing to do with it. 

Finally, my Southwest Caesar salad arrived (normally $10).  It contained romaine lettuce, avocado, crunchy fried tortilla strips, cotija cheese, salsa roja, and chipotle-garlic dressing .  I make salads and eat them in my work lunches almost every day, so I rarely order salads at restaurants, but this had a lot of neat-sounding ingredients, and it was included in the fixed price for brunch, so I decided to give it a try.  I’m glad I did, but I ate all the interesting stuff off the top and tapped out before I could make it through all the romaine lettuce. 

So that was it for brunch, and that was pretty much it for the two of us for the rest of the day.  But what a way to go.  This has to be one of the best values in Orlando, folks.  I crunched the numbers, and these eleven small plates we ordered would add up to $102.25 if we ordered them a la carte.  Instead, we paid $56.44 for the both of us (minus our drinks) — almost half that price for the all-you-can-eat brunch deal.

Sadly, Cafe Tu Tu Tango got rid of its photo booth at some point before Chelsea even started working there, as I had feared.  In this age of camera phones, selfies, Instagram, and “pics, or it didn’t happen” culture, a photo booth taking up space in a busy restaurant or bar seems like less of a sound and necessary investment, but there’s something about printing out those momentous moments on a little strip of paper to cherish forever, in a way that doesn’t seem the same when staring at images on screens.  But in the end, we didn’t need new photos.  We had each other, we had our memories –both old and new — and we had an epic brunch in beautiful, bohemian surroundings that would tide us over for a while.  At least until dinner that evening.

 

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.

The Ravenous Pig

The Ravenous Pig (https://www.theravenouspig.com/) has always been one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando for a special occasion.  I started dating my wife in 2006 when I was a poor grad student just starting to work in libraries.  Back in the beginning, we’d go out for burgers or Vietnamese food, or a special date night for us was the Cheesecake Factory or P.F. Chang’s.  So perhaps just in time (especially for us), chef-owners James and Julie Petrakis opened the Ravenous Pig in 2007.  It became one of Winter Park and Orlando’s hottest restaurants, and probably our first “gastropub.”  The Petrakis’ ever-changing menu was always full of creative, beautiful dishes and elevated takes on beloved comfort foods made from locally-sourced ingredients.  The service was impeccable, and the atmosphere was upscale, yet warm and welcoming, never formal or stuffy (two things I hate).  Luxury gives me anxiety, anything too fancy seems like a betrayal of my stoic, down-to-Earth parents.  But the Pig always made me feel like I belong there — at least once in a while, when we were celebrating something.

I took my now-wife there for a date shortly after it opened, feeling so cutting-edge hipster cool after reading a blurb about the Pig in Orlando Weekly.  It almost felt like something clicked for me that night, changing me forever.  Maybe the Ravenous Pig was my foodie origin story — my radioactive spider bite, my lightning and chemicals, my intrinsic field subtractor.  That dinner — that menu! — made me think more about food, and where it came from, and all the cool and new things you could do with it.  The Pig might have been the first restaurant of its kind I had been to as a dude in my late 20s used to canned tuna and sardines, ramen and spaghetti, and Fuddruckers for a real treat — a restaurant where even a burger and fries could be high art.  And since then, we’ve had some memorable meals there, often shared with friends from near and far.

But along the way, with so many great new places to eat (some of them definitely inspired by the Petrakis’ successes), a few years had passed since our last visit to the Ravenous Pig.  Flash back a year to February 2020, in those innocent, pre-pandemic days.  We found ourselves out on the town the evening before Valentine’s Day, arguably a much better night to go out.  We decided to treat ourselves to a romantic dinner date, knowing we’d stay in and law low the next night, and I’d prepare a nice dinner at home.

This was only our second visit to the Ravenous Pig’s “new” location on Fairbanks Avenue, across the street from Fiddler’s Green and Swine & Sons, even though they moved in a few years ago.  I never noticed the hostess station was a card catalog-looking setup behind glass, which appealed to my librarian’s sense of aesthetics.  DSC02921

It’s a stunning space.  DSC02922

And they cure their own charcuterie in this climate-controlled case, which is always impressive!  I consider myself a connoisseur of the salted, smoked, cured, and pickled.DSC02923

We started out with an order of smoked wings ($9).  Believe it or not, my wife is more of a wing eater than I am, but I knew the Ravenous Pig would have wondrous wings.  It’s a wonder we had never tried them before, but it’s possible these particular wings were a newer offering, considering they change their menu often and we hadn’t been in a while.  These were nice and juicy, with a crackly skin and a good smoke flavor that didn’t overpower the taste of the meat.  They were seasoned with garlic, parmesan cheese, parsley, and Calabrian chiles — a kind of spicy pepper I am obsessed with.  But even though these weren’t spicy, I liked these wings much more than she did, and ended up eating four out of the five.DSC02924

Another thing my wife always loves is octopus.  There are a few restaurants that make excellent octopus dishes, including long-time favorite Pizza Bruno, but this charred octopus ($32) definitely made the grade with her.  The huge tentacles were firm and meaty, grilled to perfection.  I admit I’m not the biggest octopus fan, because I’ve had tiny, shiny, slimy baby octopus a few times, and I just can’t get into those.  This kind of preparation, with large char-grilled tentacles, is much better.DSC02925
This Spanish-style octopus was served with the most excellent papas bravas (some of the finest fried potatoes I’ve ever had anywhere), a tomato-olive vinaigrette (I like tomatoes and she doesn’t; she likes olives and I don’t), and topped with an artistic swirl of paprika aioli that went perfectly with the papas bravas.

I was torn between a few choices, but since it had been so long since our last visit, I went with my old friend the Pub burger ($18).  This is a contender for Orlando’s best burger.  Some of the only ones that come close are from Orlando Meats, which I named one of my Top Five dishes of 2018 in Orlando Weekly, and a recent find at Alex’s Fresh Kitchen in Casselberry, which I listed in my Top Ten Tastes of 2020, also in Orlando Weekly.  But the Pub burger is the granddaddy of them all.  Cooked to a perfect medium rare and served on a fresh-baked, grilled brioche bun, it is topped with melty blue cheese (sometimes too pungent for me, but perfect in these proportions), with bibb lettuce, marinated red peppers, and crisp, house-cured pickle slices.  I’ve written ad nauseam about my slow quest to appreciate pickles, and this gastropub made the first pickles I’ve ever liked, the first pickles to make me think “Mmmm, good” and not “Ew, gross!”DSC02926The shoestring-style fries are usually truffle fries, but I’ve also written ad nauseam about mushrooms being my enemy, and that unfortunately includes truffles too.  I guess I’m just not a fungi.  On this visit last year, I had the foresight to ask our patient server Tanya to ask the kitchen to leave off the truffle oil or whatever truffle seasoning they use, and everyone came through for me.  They were great, especially dipped in a little ramekin of garlic aioli that you know someone whips up fresh every day.  I ate most of the fries first, because we all know how fries get cold quickly, especially the shoestring variety, and how sad cold fries are.

Close-up of that beautiful burg:DSC02927

For dessert, we usually default to an assortment of the Ravenous Pig’s daily house-made ice creams and sorbets (three scoops for a very reasonable $6).  Tonight my wife asked for a single scoop of their incredible chocolate ice cream made with cacao nibs ($2), which is so rich and deeply, darkly chocolatey, served over crispy crumbles of shortbread.  It’ll have you calling out “CACAO!  CACAO!”
DSC02929

But we couldn’t say no to the cheesecake ($8), a special for the special night out.  The soft ricotta-based cheesecake was served with fresh grapefruit, a scoop of grapefruit sorbet, crunchy honeycomb-type things that got stickier as you chewed them, and a swirl of local honey.  This was small, but rich, and we made every bite matter.  DSC02928

I want to reiterate that even though I try to publish a restaurant review every week, we’re not bougie people who go out to classy joints like the Ravenous Pig that often.  But Valentine’s Day (or the night before it) is an opportunity to treat ourselves, and more importantly, treat each other.  We chose the perfect place to do that treating exactly a year ago, so I saved this review to publish now, to give my constant readers, my Saboscrivnerinos, an idea for this looming V-Day.  With the pandemic still raging, my wife and I still don’t feel comfortable dining in anywhere, so I haven’t made it back to the Pig since this visit, 364 days ago.  But we look forward to an end to all of this, when everyone can get vaccinated and be safe to eat out again.  All that time away makes our occasional visits to one of Orlando’s all-time best restaurants that much more meaningful, memorable, and magical.  When the world gets safer, safe enough to go back out to eat again, I’m sure we’ll return to The Ravenous Pig and hopefully meet up with friends to celebrate still being alive, surviving and thriving together.

Fiddler’s Green Irish Pub

I don’t drink anymore, but I always appreciate an atmospheric pub or bar that serves warm, hearty fare.  Pub grub is some of the ultimate comfort food, especially when the temperature finally drops a bit (which in Florida means a few days in the 50s and nights in the 40s).  I miss the old Fox’s Sherron Inn in South Miami, a dimly lit dive bar straight out of a Tom Waits song, jukebox and all, that served surprisingly good food.  It has been gone for over a decade, and it makes me sad that there’s no trace remaining, and too many people will never even know it was there.

But on a happier note, ever since I moved to Orlando in late 2004, I’ve been a huge fan of the great Irish pub in Winter Park, Fiddler’s Green (https://fiddlersgreen.pub/).  It feels like it was teleported here directly from Ireland — full of dark wood, no windows, a cozy little hideout near Park Avenue and Rollins College.  Luckily almost everyone knows the place, and those who know it love it.  Over the past 15 years, I’ve eaten countless meals at Fiddler’s Green that nourished the body and the soul, always accompanied by my wife or friends or co-workers, and good times were had by all.  Once, on one of their rare visits up here, I even brought my parents to Fiddler’s Green.  These are people who like what they like and don’t always like trying new things, but they loved it.  Years later, they still talk about the dinner we had — certainly nothing fancy, but one of those “perfect in every way” meals that just hit the spot for everyone.

This is the fish and chips ($17.95) that won my parents over, and also my wife’s go-to order at Fiddler’s Green.  You get three huge beer-battered Atlantic cod filets, fried to crispy golden-brown perfection — never too greasy, always tender, with just the right level of crunch to the batter.  The batter stays on and maintained that ideal crispness even after transporting my most recent order home.  The fish is served with a cool, creamy remoulade sauce, with the slightest tangy zip to it. 

Here’s a close-up of that gorgeous fried fish.  It’ll make you moan “Oh my cod!”

And here are the chips, delicious potato wedges.  I figure anyone reading this review knows that with British and Irish fish and chips, the “chips” refer to fries, and if you want thinner, crunchier potato chips, those are “crisps.”  So much for a common language, eh wot?  As far as fries/chips go, I’m often skeptical of potato wedges because they are rarely crispy, and if I wanted a baked potato (which I never do), I’d just order a baked potato.  But these are firm on the outside and soft on the inside, but not flaking apart either. 

You might expect an Irish pub would serve potatoes using multiple masterful methods, and you’d be right.  These are the ceili chips ($4.95), which are actually the potato chips most of us know and love… so in Irish pub parlance, they are crisps.  Don’t expect the hard crunchiness of store-bought kettle chips — these are thinner and crispier, and thankfully never soggy from grease.  We can’t go to Fiddler’s Green and not order a round of these. 

Longtime Saboscrivner subscribers know I am obsessed with condiments, so whenever we would go to Fiddler’s Green, I would request a bottle of HP Sauce for the table and dunk the ceili chips (crisps) and potato wedges (chips) in it.  It’s a British condiment that’s a dark reddish-brown, savory and tangy, with a superficial similarity to our A1 sauce, but a million times better.  I asked for a few dipping cups of HP Sauce with this takeout order, and they were kind enough to oblige, but I really should just buy a bottle at our local British Shoppe in Orlando’s Mills 50 district.

I am especially obsessed with mustards, and Fiddler’s also has glass bottles of sinus-clearing Coleman’s prepared English mustard that they will bring to the table upon request.  A little of that stuff goes a long way, but it’s totally worth trying a dab, especially if you are congested.

But after all this talk of fried potatoes and far-flung condiments, I ordered myself an entree that was also really good: Irish stew ($16.95), a thick, rich, heavy concoction of lamb, potatoes, carrots, “and a hint of thyme,” according to the website.  Lamb is one of my favorite meats and thyme is one of favorite herbs, and you can definitely taste them in a perfect melange in this stew.  Of course they top it with a dollop of creamy mashed potatoes and some scallions.  Some people might mix it into the stew like it’s a container of hummus with a little island of sun-dried tomatoes in the middle, but I prefer to get a little morsel of the mash in every spoonful of stew. 

This is one of those ultimate cold weather comfort foods for me, like chili and lasagna.  If there wasn’t a pandemic going on, I’d love to sit down to another bowl of Irish stew inside Fiddler’s Green the next time we get a cold (for Florida) day.  It just feels good — the warmth, the familiarity, the surroundings, the Irish music playing in the background or sometimes performed live by wonderful local musicians.

On other visits, I have also enjoyed the corned beef and cabbage (the best thing to add a dab of the Coleman’s mustard to), bangers and mash with these delicious caramelized pearl onions I would eat by the bowlful, and rich potato leek soup, topped with bacon and cheddar cheese.  I think of these as fall and winter foods, even though we don’t really get a fall here, and our winter consists of random days that add up to about two weeks out of the year.

Long before COVID, I was at a point where I don’t hang out at bars and pubs anymore unless I’m eating or going out of my way to catch live music.  That said, Fiddler’s Green has always felt warm and welcoming, like a piece of home.  I love that it’s a little dark inside with no windows.  On a sweltering, humid Florida summer day, it can transport you to the old country, even if Ireland was never your people’s old country.  And on our rare days of jacket weather, it feels like a safe, comforting cave in the best possible way.  Maybe some day soon, we can all feel safe and comfortable huddling in there again, over pints and chips (crisps) with family and friends.  In the meantime, I’ll keep ordering takeout from here, and hopefully we have a few more chilly days this season for maximum enjoyment of it.

Rasa

Get off I-4 at exit 74 in Orlando, and you’ll be on Sand Lake Road, near a stretch referred to as “Restaurant Row.”  It is very close to the touristy International Drive, the Orange County Convention Center, and the Universal Studios theme parks.  Many of the restaurants in the immediate area are upscale, aimed at convention-goers with generous per diems and expense accounts, but there are plenty of options — including some at lower price points, luckily.  While I’m almost never out here to eat, there are some hidden gems that I continue to learn about all the time.

One of these Restaurant Row rewards is the radiant Rasa (https://www.eatatrasa.com/).  The long, modern-designed dining room is gorgeous — sexy, even! — but instead of overpriced steaks, bank-breaking seafood, or mediocre Mexican, you can enjoy some of the most unique and interesting Indian food in Orlando.  Rasa specializes in South Indian cuisine as well as Indo-Chinese, which is exactly what you think it is: Indian-Chinese fusion fare.DSC02855

I don’t even drink, but that’s still a nice bar.DSC02853

The most exclusive table is in the back, closed off behind glass, with a lush wall of verdant vegetation to put diners at ease. dsc02852.jpg

I went with one of my closest friends who is a vegetarian, so we stuck to vegetarian dishes so we could sample and share everything.  I had seen photos of the triple Schezwan [sp] rice, so I definitely wanted to try that.  It comes with soft noodles, fried rice, fried noodles, peppers, broccoli, scallions, and my old foe mushrooms, which they gladly left out of our order.  For our protein, we got paneer cheese ($14).  Our server even warned us it was hot, but I’ve been practicing ordering “hot” Indian dishes at Moghul, and both of us love hot sauces, so we were brave and bold and went for it. DSC02854It was spicy, but we handled ourselves with courage and honor.  And it was a beautiful and delicious dish with incredible flavors and textures.  I’m used to paneer cheese being much softer, cubed up with spinach in saag paneer, but the pieces on the left were thick, solid-feeling fried strips of the cheese, similar in consistency to dense halloumi cheese when it is grilled or pan-fried.  The fried rice is underneath the cylindrical tower of soft noodles, and it’s worth excavating to find it.  This was an awesome dish that I’d probably order every time I return, despite my constant impulse to branch out and try more things.

Last year, I was introduced to dosas, giant, thin, crispy crepes of fermented rice and lentil flour, when I joined fellow foodies at the Hindu Temple in Casselberry.  I didn’t think my friend had ever gotten a dose of a dosa before, so we had to order the paper Masala dosa ($11).  It definitely draws attention when it arrives at your table, rolled into a long, hollow, paper-thin cylinder.  It was served with the most delicious curry-spiced potatoes, a thin red sauce that seemed to have chunks of eggplant, and tomato and coconut chutneys.  The only way to attack this guy is to tear off pieces and dip it in different things.  It is somehow crispy yet soft at the same time.
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And this was the channa batura ($12): puffy white leavened bread, served with spiced chickpeas stewed with tomatoes and topped with sun-dried fenugreek leaves called kasoori methi.  At first glance, it made me think of the puffy lavas bread at beloved Turkish restaurants Cappadocia and Bosphorous that I’ve reviewed before, but despite being puffed up with air, this was much thinner than either of those, with a completely different texture.  It almost reminded me of a super-thin funnel cake or elephant ear — essentially fried dough, lightly crispy but also soft, and somehow in a completely different way than the dosa.  DSC02857

Not only did we love it, but since I brought home our leftovers, my wife loved it too — and I have yet to get her into Indian food.  I just knew she would love this bread.  And this was the sole recommendation from our server, who at one point warned us we might be ordering too much food!  I really appreciated this recommendation.

Anyway, as much as I enjoy our closest Indian restaurant Moghul, the menu at Rasa is almost completely different, with the emphasis on South Indian and Indo-Chinese cuisines.  I really liked trying so many new things and sharing them with my friend, and I would totally come back to Rasa.  It’s a shame it is all the way across town.  But if you’re visiting Universal Studios or the convention center, or if you want to have a hot date down that way, Rasa would be a great choice, and not just because some of the food is quite spicy.  It’s such a cool, sexy room with ambience you don’t get at many Indian restaurants, with a really unique menu that I haven’t encountered anywhere else.

Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen

I’m not a big fan of hanging out at Citywalk, Universal Studios’ dining and shopping complex, mostly because you have to pay $26 to park there.  Because of this, I call it “Shittywalk.”  Yes folks, I’m here all week.  Tip the veal, try your waitress!  But I recently had a friend in town, a brilliant fellow librarian and former Floridian, who was visiting from up north with her husband.  She wanted to schedule a lunch with me and two of her other friends, and after several Saboscrivner suggestions, they chose the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen (https://www.universalorlando.com/web/en/us/things-to-do/dining/toothsome-chocolate-emporium-and-savory-feast-kitchen).  Even though it’s out at City/Shittywalk, I was happy to catch up with her, and let’s face it, also happy to be invited to anything.  Plus, it sounds like something that could only exist in the long-gone glory days of The Simpsons: like T.G.I. McScratchy’s Goodtime Foodrinkery, or the Fantabulous Contraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel.

I had been once before, a few years ago.  The coolest part about the restaurant is the unique steampunk-style theming.  For the uninitiated, steampunk is kind of an offshoot of science fiction based in the late 19th Century (usually England, sometimes the U.S.), where there are very modern, fantastical creations powered by steam technology, including luxurious airships, robots, gleaming brass and bronze factories churning out anachronistic wonders, and lots of gears.  So many gears.  If you can’t think of any famous steampunk movies, TV shows, or books, you’re not uncultured — there just aren’t many.  For fans, it’s more of an aesthetic than anything else — a chance for creative cosplayers to dress up all fancy, in an retro-futuristic, well-to-do manner (because in a Victorian society where trailblazing inventors and explorers ruled, there would be no exploited underclasses toiling in those fantastical factories, right?).  Men favor waistcoats, vests, jodhpurs, cravats, and the occasional old-timey facial hair.  Women get dolled up in fancy dresses and corsets, and I can’t find any fault with that.  There are plenty of goggles to go around, due to steampunk’s overarching themes of invention, discovery, and exploration (think of the Industrial Revolution and also — sigh — British colonialism), and a surprising amount of top hats (including tiny top hats for the ladies).  Is there jewelry?  You bet there is.  Just find some old watches, crack them open, and glue gears to various things.  Put a gear on it!  I always joke that steampunk style is for goths that just discovered the color brown.

Anyway, the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium looks like a fantastical steampunk factory from the outside, with billows of steam rising from the central smokestacks.  DSC02780

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On the way in, you can wait for your table in a gift shop that sells all kinds of fancy chocolates, candies (some in fancy glass jars and bottles), and steampunk accessories (goggles, jewelry with gears, and even tiny top hats).  Nothing is cheap.

The two-story dining room is actually gorgeous, but it’s dark enough inside that I can never get good photos of it.  I apologize for that.  I love the look of the place and all the thought that went into the design and theming.  It’s truly unique, especially as far as restaurants go.  There’s a romantic quality to the gilded, retro-futuristic decor, despite the quirky nerdiness of it all.  It feels like you’ve been transported away dine to somewhere exotic, strange, and beguiling, not like you’re chowing down with tourists on the outskirts of two sweaty Florida theme parks.

There is a public face to the restaurant, a steampunk-inspired character named Doctor Professor Penelope Tinker-Toothsome, who is played by a statuesque blonde actress (or probably multiple actresses) in a luxurious-looking blue gown, accessorized with the aforementioned corset, goggles, and tiny top hat.  The world-traveling founder and heiress to the Toothsome fortune goes around the dining room doing schtick at people’s tables in a big, stagey British accent.  She warmly greeted us, but didn’t linger at our table.

Once our gang of five assembled and started to order, the people who didn’t know each other seemed to hit it off, which is a testament to my friend’s good taste and judgment.  Me being me, I ordered onion rings for the table, so… wait a minute… is this a little recurring feature on The Saboscrivner that I like to call RING THE ALARM?  I think it is!

RING THE ALARM!  These were the Black and Tan onion rings ($10.95), and they were very good, despite a few of them being a little burnt and falling apart.  They were served on a bed of lightly crispy fried noodles that were pleasant to crunch on.  The cocoa ranch dipping sauce was cool, creamy, and slightly chocolatey, going along with the chocolate theme of the place (as opposed to the steampunk theme), but it worked.  Get in with The Saboscrivner and be a good person, and you’ll find I am usually happy to share my onion rings.DSC02786

I’m reasonably sure my friend ordered the chopped Asian chicken salad, but I’m not sure if this was a half for $7.95 or a full for $11.95.  It included grilled chicken, Napa cabbage, Tuscan kale, roasted peanuts, and peanut-lime vinaigrette.  I didn’t try it, but she seemed to like it.dsc02787.jpg

Her husband, an accomplished artist and cartoonist, ordered the Southern-fried chicken BLT ($14.50), with a crispy boneless chicken breast, tomatoes, butter bibb lettuce, bacon, and Dijon mustard on a toasted brioche bun.  He seemed to like the sandwich, but I don’t know how he felt about those fries.  dsc02789.jpg

One of my friend’s friends I had never met before chose wisely, ordering off the brunch menu.  This was the patty melt ($12.95), which inspired awe around our table.  The half-pound house-made fresh hamburger patty was served on thick slices of challah bread (CHALLAH IF YOU HEAR ME!) with cheddar cheese, topped with a sunny-side up egg and grilled pork belly, and served with Lyonnaise potatoes that looked more interesting than the fries.  If I go back, I’ll probably order that.  dsc02791.jpg

On my one previous visit, I ordered a burger that was quite good: the “May Contain Bacon” burger ($15.50).  That was another half-pound burger served on a pretzel bun with bibb lettuce, smokey thick-cut bacon, grilled pork belly, pineapple chutney, and chipotle Jack cheese.  I couldn’t find a photo from that meal from almost three years ago, but back then I was still using my awful phone camera, so it probably would not have been any good anyway.  The photo, I mean.  The burger was very good.

I made friends with one of my friend’s friends, another foodie.  She was vacillating between two menu options, so I asked if she wanted to order one thing, I’d order the other, and we’d split both.  She was down with that plan, so she ordered herself a burger: the “Tour de France” ($14.95).  Of course it had another half-pound patty, this time served on toasted brioche, with bibb lettuce, roasted tomatoes, sunny-side up egg, avocado, crispy onions, and French brie.  Ooh la la!  DSC02788
I got to enjoy half, and it definitely was a tasty burger.  Funny enough, as much as I love cheese, Brie has never been one of my favorites, but it worked well in conjunction with the other ingredients here.  (Ironically, my wife isn’t big on cheese at all, but brie is one of the few she enjoys!)

I went with her other choice, which I was already considering anyway: the Fork & Knife grilled ribeye steak sandwich ($15.95), and I gave her half.  The steak sandwich sounded right up my alley, topped with sautéed onions, roasted tomatoes, arugula, herb shallot aioli, and horseradish cheese (awww yissss!), served on a toasted onion brioche roll.  It also came with sauteed mushrooms, which I asked them to serve on the side so she could enjoy them and I wouldn’t be poisoned by them.  I asked for fresh, house-made chips with the sandwich, which looked way better than the fries, and did not disappoint.  I thought it was a rather small sandwich for $16, but hey, that sort of thing happens at theme park restaurants.  At least it was a solid steak sandwich, despite being on the puny side.dsc02790.jpg

Well, as I’m sure you surmised from the name, the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium is big on decadent desserts, especially massive, mountainous, monstrous milkshakes.  Pardon the blurriness, constant readers — these beauties were on display behind glass.
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When I was here years ago, I tried the key lime pie milkshake, garnished with an actual slice of key lime pie.  (That’s it in the foreground in this recent picture from their milkshake display.)  It was okay, but actually ended up being too much, on every possible level.  For one thing, I thought the whipped topping tasted more like artificial Cool Whip than fresh whipped cream, although it’s possible I am wrong about that, or they might have changed it since then.  And being a native Floridian and enjoying key lime pie whenever and wherever I can, I’m always a little put off when key lime pie is tinted green.  The pie slice on top clearly isn’t green, but I don’t think the milkshake had to be that pale, almost seafoam green color either.

Surprisingly, only my one brave librarian friend ordered a shake this time.  The rest of us were just too full.  This was the Espresso Buzzzz (copied and pasted right off the website’s menu to ensure I had all the “z”s present and accounted for).  This $12.50 milkshake has everything: coffee ice cream, espresso, and chocolate espresso beans, and it was topped with “fresh whipped cream” (that’s what it says on the menu!), and a cherry.  She was craving coffee, so this was the best of all possible worlds.  Sea turtle lovers, you’ll be relieved to know the large, festive straws in all these milkshakes are paper (more like cardboard).  DSC02792

So it was a really pleasant lunch in a beautiful dining room with old and new friends alike.  The distance and having to pay for parking keep me away from “Shittywalk,” but we end up down there every year or so for a show at the Hard Rock Live, so I’d totally return to the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen.  In fact, we’ll be back a little over a month from now to see Patton Oswalt perform at the Hard Rock, so maybe I’ll go back again with my wife.  But she’s not a corset-and-goggles kind of girl, so I know better than to even ask.

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.)

Naradeva Thai

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s going to the mall.  The only kinds of shopping I like are grocery shopping and comic book shopping.  However, once or twice a year I end up near Orlando’s upscale Mall at Millenia, rarely for anything I need.  At least there’s a very welcoming and well-stocked Coliseum of Comics location near that mall, along with one of my favorite Thai  restaurants anywhere, ever: Naradeva Thai (http://naradevathai.com/).

In the middle of a sprawling retail district, in the shadow of a Super Target, Naradeva feels like an oasis.  It’s definitely one of the best restaurants in that part of Orlando, but because it’s tucked into a little strip of shops (a musical instrument store, a GameStop, a Subway, and the aforementioned Coliseum of Comics), it is easy to miss.  But once you get inside, you will see what I mean about the sense of calm, relaxation, and beauty that will wash over you.  It’s one of the prettiest dining spaces anywhere in the city, on top of serving top-notch Thai food.  It is a sanctuary.DSC02472

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Going there recently with my wife, we both bemoaned the fact that Naradeva is across town from us, or otherwise we would be regulars for sure.  Even in the blistering August heat and sweltering humidity, it feels cooler inside, with the calming sounds of a little waterfall soothing us after weaving through the unknowable weekend traffic on I-4.

We both started our lunch with sweet, rich, creamy Thai iced coffees (one of the few kinds of coffee I like):dsc02476.jpg

After stirring it up (little darlin’):dsc02477.jpg

Back when I reviewed the wonderful Mee Thai last fall, I mentioned that I don’t eat enough Thai food and would like to try more dishes and even experiment with upping the heat levels.  Sadly, I haven’t done that enough.  On a rare trip to Naradeva, I defaulted to my favorite Thai dish: pad kee mao, also known as drunken noodles.  I feel like I need to try every Thai restaurant’s version of this, since everyone makes it a little different, and even a mediocre version is still going to be good.  Naradeva’s pad kee mao was above and beyond.  It was exactly what I wanted and needed, with nice chewy rice noodles, ground pork, crispy bell peppers and green beans, scallions, Thai basil, and bamboo shoot strips all stir-fried together.  I used to be skeptical about bamboo shoots, but they’re great — chewy and inoffensive.  One reason I love pad kee mao is the slight sweetness that cuts through the spice, probably from the basil leaves.  DSC02481I wish the noodles they used were thicker and wider, but those super-thick and wide noodles are pretty hard to find around here.  I tried the “hot” version for the first time, up from my usual medium heat.

This is Naradeva’s Thai red barbecue pork fried rice, which we ordered to split because we both love it so much.  It’s definitely my favorite fried rice dish anywhere.  The char siu-style pork is juicy, sweet, and tender.  It pretty much melts in your mouth.  They add eggs and scallions, plus the cilantro garnish on top, keeping it pretty simple but never boring or bland.  It’s amazing, and as long as you eat pork, I would strongly recommend any visitors to Naradeva try this dish.DSC02480

And my wife, who always has impeccable taste, selected the boneless duck in sweet and sour sauce, which was as gorgeous to look at as it was delectable to eat.  Naradeva serves their duck in a very light batter that comes out crispy from deep-frying, but never too crunchy or heavy with batter, and never dripping with grease.  You can choose from three sauces: tangy sweet and sour, pad kaprow Thai basil sauce (that probably would have been similar to the sauce on my pad kee mao), or red curry sauce.  But I know she doesn’t like curry or anything spicy, so she chose wisely and regretted nothing.  The sweet and sour sauce includes onions (which I dutifully picked out for her, like a good husband), tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumber and pineapple chunks.

I can’t get over this plating!DSC02482

The duck comes with white jasmine rice, which neither of us paid much attention to, not with that perfect fried rice there between us.  But I took it home and made it into my own (not nearly as good) fried rice a day or two later.

On past visits to Naradeva, we have treated ourselves to puffy fried Thai doughnuts served with coconut custard dip, but we had more errands to run and were pretty full after this particular meal.  We will definitely return, though.  I’m sure our blood pressure and stress levels drop every time we visit that gorgeous restaurant, as we transport ourselves to a serene jungle oasis.  It’s even worth braving the bougie mall if I can stop at Naradeva on the way in or out.  And after that luxurious lunch, I found a comic I had been looking for forever at the shop a few doors down, and I even had a coupon for a $5 discount.  As my man Cube once said, “I gotta say it was a good day.”

Washington D.C. Part 5: Momofuku CCDC

EDITOR’S NOTE: Momofuku CCDC closed in May 2020.

***

It’s hard to choose what was the best meal of my trip.  China Chilcano‘s Peruvian-Chinese-Japanese fusion feast with friends was legendary, and the Union Market was everything I love, with a trifecta of sandwiches, again shared with friends.  (Well, we shared the experience, but they didn’t want any of my three sandwiches, even though I offered!)  But Momofuku CCDC (https://ccdc.momofuku.com/), the Washington D.C. outpost of celebrity chef David Chang’s New York City restaurant empire, was also a meal to remember — once again improved exponentially by the excellent company.

I had sampled one of David Chang’s iconic dishes once before, his pork belly bao, when I visited the Momofuku-affiliated Milk Bar bakery on our NYC honeymoon back in 2009.  As great as delightful Chef Christina Tosi’s baked goods were, I was overjoyed that they were serving those famous bao there, and so lucky I got to try it.  I’ve tried to duplicate that pork belly bao at home over the years, but I’ve been waiting a decade for a chance to sample more food from the Momofuku family.

I am in a group that held an evening business meeting at our big professional conference, and we scheduled some dine-arounds for our members after the meeting.  There was a list of D.C. restaurants near the convention center for people to choose from, and I volunteered to “host” a group at Momofuku CCDC, just because I wanted to eat there so badly.  Four people signed up, and the five of us walked over together.  I knew most of them, but mostly just by their impeccable reputations, and none of them knew each other.  I made everyone do an icebreaker (which could have gone badly but didn’t), and by the end of our incredible dinner, I think everyone parted as frolleagues — colleagues who had become friends.

One of the CCDC specialties is bing bread, which is kind of like a cross between a pancake, a tortilla, and a pita.  It was soft and fluffy and warm and steamy, and perfect to spread things on or rip pieces off to dip into stuff.  Somehow a group of information professionals failed to make any “Bing” jokes, but it had been a long day and we were hungry.

My bing bread came with salted chili pimento cheese, topped with bread and butter pickled kohlrabi ($7).  Pimento cheese is rapidly joining onion rings as something I’ll order whenever it’s on the menu, and I loved it.  It has been a few weeks since this meal, but I’m 90% sure this was served chilled, which I always prefer to warm versions.DSC02445

One of my companions got the bing bread with chicken liver mousse, topped with fennel jam, Chinese five spice seasoning, and toasted almonds ($15).  I desperately wanted to try it because I love chopped chicken liver, but we had just met on the walk over here, and I didn’t dare ask her for a taste.  She seemed to really enjoy it, though.DSC02449

These were my garlic noodles, with crab, shrimp, corn, green tomato relish, and Thai basil ($33, which is out of my comfort zone for what I’d normally order as an entree, but I was at Momofuku CCDC and probably won’t ever make it back!).  I’m so glad I splurged, because it was amazing.  DSC02446

Someone else ordered charred broccoli with smoked béarnaise sauce ($13).  It normally comes with XO vinaigrette, but she’s a vegetarian so she asked them to hold it.  I discovered XO sauce recently, and now I’m a little obsessed with it — a rich, savory umami-bomb of a condiment made with dried shrimp and scallops, cured Chinese ham (or bacon or lap xeong Chinese sausage), chilies, onions, garlic, soy sauce, and/or oyster sauce, cooked into a thick jam, sometimes with oil added, and in this case, vinegar.  I should have asked if they would serve the XO vinaigrette on the side so I could try it, but it didn’t occur to me until just now, because these are the things I dwell on, weeks after the fact.DSC02448

I’m not seeing this on the menu, but it looks like the same charred broccoli dish served with softshell crab, so that must have been a special that night.  My colleague demonstrated his good taste, between the softshell crab and his seersucker jacket.  (I was sporting mine too, and miraculously didn’t get anything on it.)DSC02447

And this has to be the spicy cucumber, served with crushed almonds and togarashi seasoning ($7).  This would be a great restaurant for vegetarians, since they had several options that are much more interesting and luxurious than their usual choices of fries or a salad.DSC02450

After dinner, four of the five of us, now bonded over this magnificent meal, piled into a Lyft to attend a fancy party at the Library of Congress.  (Not a hoax, a dream, or an imaginary story!)  Then we split up almost immediately once we got there, but at least we’re all cool now.  And at least they didn’t see me completely wipe out on some slippery marble stairs in the Great Hall.  Luckily I wasn’t carrying anything and didn’t hurt myself, or worse yet, anyone else.