Sette (pre-opening media event)

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

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

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

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

Dig the homey, retro decor that screams “Italian restaurant!” without going into cliche territory.  You won’t find any red and white checkered tablecloths, candles melted into Chianti bottles, or artwork of stereotypical Italian chefs with Super Mario mustaches.
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The spacious and inviting outdoor patio:DSC01886

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tin & Taco

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

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

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

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

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

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

So my three tacos were:

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

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

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

Close-ups:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taste of Chengdu

Before the end of 2018, I was able to meet a large group of Orlando Foodie Forum members at one of Orlando’s hottest (no pun intended restaurants), Taste of Chengdu.  Connected to a Best Western hotel west of downtown Orlando on West Colonial Drive, Taste of Chengdu has emerged as one of our best and most innovative Chinese restaurants, with Chef Tiger Tang specializing in spicy Szechuan cuisine.  This is not a place to go for glistening honey garlic chicken, sticky-sweet spareribs, greasy fried egg rolls, or a buffet with crab rangoons and Jell-O for dessert (although they do have a handful of more Americanized dishes available).  In fact, it might be a little intimidating for those with unadventurous palates and anyone who prefers their food non-spicy.  But it’s a fantastic restaurant if you want to try new things and exciting, unfamiliar variations on Chinese classics.

The lunch organizer worked it out with Chef Tiger in advance that he would send a bunch of dishes out of the kitchen for us to pass around and share, family-style, and we would each pay a flat fee of $20, plus tax.  It was a real bargain, as there would be no way to ever try this many dishes in one sitting under normal circumstances.  Some of these were regular menu items, and some were his new and innovative creations, just for our gathering of intrepid eaters.

So since I don’t have official titles for everything, my descriptions that follow are the best I could do.

Cold boiled chicken in a spicy chili sauce with sesame seeds and scallions:dsc01737

Bamboo!  And while I was expecting this to be woody and fibrous and awful, it was delicious.  It reminded me a lot of rich, chewy, meaty mushrooms, which I cannot eat due to some digestive allergy.  I think vegetarians would love this dish, and I surprised myself by really liking it.dsc01738

Cool sliced cucumbers in a garlicky sauce.  An excellent palate cleanser between the dish that preceded it and the one that followed.  It never would have occurred to me to order a cucumber dish at a Chinese restaurant, but they were cool, fresh, and crispy and well with everything else we tried.dsc01739

Green tea fried rice with bacon.  Loved it!  I always order fried rice at pretty much any Chinese restaurant, and this one was one of the better fried rice dishes I’ve tried anywhere.dsc01740

This was a duck dish that everyone around our large table devoured.  The duck was sliced thin and pan-fried, extremely soft and tender, not greasy at all. It was served in a brown sauce with green leeks.dsc01741

These stir-fried shrimp, in a spicy sauce similar to dan dan sauce with finely-minced pork, might have been my favorite dish of the entire lunch.  The shrimp were huge, with lightly crispy outsides from the frying process.  Apparently Chef Tiger normally serves these in the shell, with heads and legs and everything, but was kind enough to de-shell them for our group.  Shell yeah!dsc01742

Cold sesame noodles, very good:dsc01743

A “hot pot” of spicy, crispy, breaded fried fish, with onions, potatoes, peppers, and lotus root (the first time I had ever tried lotus root).  If you’ve ever tried the la zi fish at Chuan Lu Garden, this was similar, but a lot better.  It was spiced with the Szechuan peppercorns that deliver a tingling, numbing, almost metallic sensation to your lips and tongue, which is more pleasant than it sounds.  dsc01744

Whole fried snapper in a tomatoey sweet and sour sauce with a spicy dimension to it.  One of my fellow diners was cool enough to filet the fish for everyone, making it a heck of a lot easier to share and eat.  Another one of the best dishes that I admit would probably have intimidated me as a solo diner.dsc01745

Wok-seared green beans, better than green beans have any right to be:dsc01746

Finally, Szechuan wontons in chili oil — some of the finest damn wontons ever.  I could have easily eaten a whole big bowl just of these, but this was a lunch of sampling, so I made do with these two.  dsc01747

I NEVER make it west of downtown, so there’s a whole side of Orlando I need to explore for more Saboscrivner-worthy dining.  But I had been reading so many rave reviews for Taste of Chengdu for so much of 2018, I’m glad I finally got to get in there before the year was over and share all these delicious dishes with my fellow foodies.  If you don’t mind spicy food, especially trying new things, definitely hit up Taste of Chengdu.  Whatever you order will be top-notch, under the watchful eye of Chef Tiger.

My Top Five Dishes of 2018 list made the Orlando Weekly!

I’ve been a huge fan of the Orlando Weekly ever since I first moved here in 2004.  Now this city is my home, and if my finger is ever on the pulse of local culture, the Weekly is a major reason why.

In 2017, they offered me my first professional gig as a food writer when they asked me to list my Top Five Dishes of 2017.  It was a huge honor for me, and I’ve been coasting on it all year.

I recently had the opportunity to make a new list for the Orlando Weekly, with my Top Five Dishes of 2018, and they were kind enough to even link to this very blog!  Please check it out, and check out my Saboscrivner reviews of these excellent local restaurants as well:

LaSpada’s Original Cheese Steaks and Hoagies

Kai Asian Street Fare

Cappadocia Turkish Cuisine

Poke Hana

Orlando Meats

Ring the Alarm! The Rusty Spoon

Occasionally you’ll see posts titled “Ring the Alarm!,” so you’ll know onion ring reviews are coming.  I love onion rings, and I’m always on a quest for good ones.  Sadly, there are a lot of mediocre-to-bad onion rings out there.  But on June 11, I had some really good ones.

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My quest for good onion rings continued at the Rusty Spoon (http://therustyspoon.com/) before my wife and I saw a play downtown last night. It’s always a solid restaurant, but I finally tried their “Rusty O-Rings,” which totally sounds naughty. They have a nice crispy, golden batter coating that stays on pretty well, and they dust them with powdered sugar, which seems weird, but it worked to counterbalance the pungency of the onion and the saltiness of the batter. They also served them with a dipping sauce that our server told me was made with Guinness, balsamic vinegar, and mustard. “Three of my favorite things!”, I exclaimed.