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Dec 12, 2008 07:34 AM

Orlando's best - recs please

Heading to Orlando for business and need to entertain some customers. We will be staying near the convention center, but will have a car. Something not further than 10 or 15 minutes. Don't need any steakhouse recommendations, but anything else will be great. How is The Beacon? Also, best Japanese/Sushi as well.

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  1. The Beacon has a great atmosphere, but it's more of a nightclub with food than a restaurant, and it's at least half an hour from the convention center. You'll find several appropriate non-steak venues on nearby Sand Lake Road, our restaurant row. Amura is a good Japanese restaurant with a nice atmosphere. Roy's is good for Hawaiian-fusion; it caters to groups all the time. Seasons 52 has a relaxed upscale-casual atmosphere with wonderful yet subtly healthful food. Vine's is primarily a steakhouse with jazz music, but the menu is quite varied; it's unlike the chain steak houses. Antonio's Sand Lake has good Italian food in an upscale conventioneer-oriented setting.

    1. Rona covered Restaurant Row nicely. Also on Sand Lake you'll find J. Alexander's, Timpano, Samba Room and the wonderful Chatham's Place. (Ocean Prime has recently opened but I haven't reviewed it yet -- have you, Rona?)
      Also in proximity to the convention center, you'll find Oceanaire Seafood Room (I have a review on my flog -- food blog -- under Seafood) and Everglades, an upscale restaurant at the Rosen Centre hotel. At Rosen's Shingle Creek there is Cala Bella, an upscale Italian restaurant with excellent food.
      Hanamizuki is my choice for best Japanese (also on the flog under sushi/Japanese). It is on International Drive close to the convention center as well.


      12 Replies
      1. re: Scott Joseph

        I haven't visited Ocean Prime yet, no. I'm a big fan of Cala Bella too, as well as Hanamizuki.

        1. re: Scott Joseph

          Scott, I've followed your writing for several years although I live in the D. C. area but travel to Orlando regularly for business and entertain quite a bit in your city. I probably first visited Orlando in the early '80's. Thank you for saying "the wonderful Chatham's Place." I've liked it for a long time and it seems not to receive the attention I think it deserves on a number of sites/books/etc. I'm also a fan of Seasons 52 with an average of fix or six dinners a year at the one on Sand Lake (I've also been to Altamonte). Overall, it may have dropped down a notch but I still love it for what it is. (I did not like the piano player who was there during the week in the middle of November.)

          Oceannaire was a disappointment on a visit three weeks ago. I've been to Oceannaires in a number of cities including the Minneapolis original and felt this was a notch below, at least on the night we went. I continue to love Del Frisco's believing it challenges Luger's for America's best. I also prefer it to the Lone Star owned outposts in other cities. What is Norman's like today? Also, I've heard Le Coq Au Vin (which I haven't been to in six or seven years) is among Orlando's best now. Your thoughts? Last, I've been to Christini's and Enzo's on the Lake-is there an Italian in the Orlando area that you feel is truly exceptional?

          Thanks again.

          1. re: Joe H

            Thanks for the kind words (and my apologies for the tardy reply).
            The next time you're in town you may want to try Ocean Prime, a new place on Sand Lake Road that is squarely going after Oceaniare's business.
            Del Frisco's has recently been renovated, though the steaks are the same. Thank you for having the nerve to compare it to the likes of Peter Luger's -- I've sat in many a New York restaurant and thought to myself, "This is pretty good, but I can get food just as wonderful in Orlando." (I include Per Se on that list.)
            Le Coq Au Vin is still quite good but we're watching it closely these days -- after a couple of decades at the helm, Louis Perrotte has sold the restaurant to Reimund Pitz. Pitz is quite capable, and Perrotte still plans to stay on (and cook more), but there are bound to be some differences.
            I've had several terrific meals at Norman's, but lately I've been hearing from some disgruntled patrons. Odd, too, since Van Aken has closed most of his other restaurants and is giving more attention to this one.
            As far as Italian, I still love Terramia in Longwood/Altamonte Springs, and Rocco's in Winter Park is capable of doing some exceptional fare. But Enzo's has maintained its fine standards as well.

            1. re: Scott Joseph

              Joe - For Italian, why don't you try Primo. I had an exceptional meal there last year and I am returning again in a few weeks. I understand that there was a change in chefs a little while back and I am wondering if there has been any change in the quality of the food. For some reason I haven't seen people mention it on this board as of late.

              Scott - Have you heard anything about Primo? BTW, that's quite a statement regarding Per Se. Although I haven't eaten there as of yet, I have dined at the French Laundry and rank that meal up there with the best I have ever eaten. If there is a comparable restaurant in Orlando (both in food and service), I would love to know the name (as I haven't heard of one).

              1. re: bgut1

                I used to be Primo's most frequent customer. I have cut back on going (mainly due to cutting back on costs), I still go in about twice a month. I think the food is still excellent. I haven't noticed a decline in quality since the previous chef left. The restuarant has gone 'more corporate' in recent years, and the creativity isn't what it used to be, but it is still one of the best restaurants in the area.

                Last month they had a 'Chill Plate' on the menu (stone crabs, ceviche scallops and something else (i'm haveing a mental block). It was a great dish, supposedly they are working to put it back on the menu in January. Definitely do it, if it's on the menu.

                1. re: herbert1

                  Thanks Herbert. I'll report back about my meal.

              2. re: Scott Joseph

                Thanks, Scott, but it's not a matter of nerve. It's just that it is AS good as Luger's especially when the sides are considered as well as the beef. I do believe that Luger's has the best beef in America; but they're not alone. I also remember well the original cramped Del Frisco's from Dallas in the early '80's whose owner (I believe) helped set up the Lee road restaurant. I've been there as well as Lone Star's Manhattan restaurant twice with good friends and they agree with me: the New York Del Frisco's is NOT as good as Orlando. (Nr is Denver.) They've also been to Luger's and also agree that while Orlando does not have the "image" that Brooklyn or Florence (i.e. Sostanza or Panzano- Vescovino) or Buenos Aires does for beef, it really is as good.

                I also remember Norman's in Coral Gables from 15-20 years ago as well as the Orlando restaurant soon after he closed the South Florida original (and, I think, his L. A. restaurant, too). We had a couple of fantastic dinners in Orlando. Fantastic! There's also a table with a "theatrical setting" in the middle of it for six to eight people. I don't know what they call it but it's surrounded by wine shelves and is the focus of the room. A wonderful stage for his food when this is at his best.

                I've had some great meals in Orlando. Not the image of San Sebastian or Rubano or Manhattan but at its best, among America's best.

                I will try Ocean Prime on my next visit in several months. Thank you.

                bgut1: I haven't been to Primo, at least not yet but thank you for the recommendation. I've been to the FL twice and believe that, if Norman Van Aken is in the kitchen, his namesake restaurant is as good. I should also add that I've made ten or more recipes out of his cookbook over time and really love his food and his flavors. I find his food-at its best-to be really "exciting" as well as creative. I did not go to Norman's on my last trip to Orlando-it's been a couple of years now. But on two visits in 2007 it was sensational.

                1. re: Joe H

                  The Orlando Del Frisco's was the first one outside of Dallas and was opened through a deal with the original Dallas owner and Russ Christner. Christner opened his restaurant on Lee Road and called it simply Del Frisco's, leaving off the Double Eagle moniker. When Lone Star bought the rights to the original Del Frisco's, the company started opening others across the country. But because Christner had a separate deal, the Orlando restaurant technically isn't part of the chain (and still does not carry the Double Eagle name). Christner died several years ago after a long battle with melanoma. His wife and son carry on the tradition.

                  The center area of Norman's dining room is called the chef's table, but if it's not in the kitchen why would you call it a chef's table? I have a story in the January issue of Winter Park magazine (now on newsstands -- remember newsstands?) about a WP dentist who won a charity auction item to have Norman Van Aken come to his home and cook a five-course meal, with wine pairings, for 10 people. The winning bid: $1400. You couldn't take 10 people to Houston's for dinner for that amount of money.

                  1. re: Scott Joseph

                    I would find it far more interesting to cook FOR Norman Van Aken than have him cook for me. I'd also like to POUR for him, too. It wouldn't be about impressing him. Rather, just sitting down and sharing dinner and hearing his own experiences.

            2. re: Scott Joseph

              Scott, thanks for the recommendations. I go to Orlando a couple of times a year and outside of Restaurant Row I am hard pressed to find a restaurant, I like, especially a seafood restaurant. I'll be sure to try Ocean Prime when I go in February. A few months back, I had a very nice dinner at Salt Island Chop House and Fish Market on International Drive. I try to stay away from the restaurants in the hotels but I am curious about Todd English's BlueZoo. A very low-key restaurant I return to is Columbia in Celebration and of course Seasons 52. Any other suggestions would be appreciated.

              1. re: BelleJo

                I'm not much of a fan of bluezoo, and I don't think Todd English is too involved with it.
                If you don't mind taking a hike up Interstate 4, FishBones in Lake Mary has very good seafood. (There is a FishBones, which is owned by the same local concern that has Charley's Steakhouse and Vito's Chophouse, on Sand Lake Road near International Drive, but there is no comparing the two -- they even have different items on their menus.)
                But there are other terrific restaurants outside the Tourist Corridor, including Ravenous Pig, Winter Park; K Restaurant & Wine Bar, College Park; Graze, downtown Orlando; and Circa 1926, a newcomer on Park Avenue in Winter Park.

                1. re: Scott Joseph

                  Fouind myself unexpectedly in Orlando for one night (details are boring) so headed out to Circa based on your review - and we're glad we did.
                  A very pleasant evening with good-to-very-good food although we passed completely on the mains as the appetizers sounded better. Except we did add the side of wild mushroom bread pudding - which for me was the best dish!
                  Admittedly there wasn't a great deal of variation - mostly sturdy dishes with full flavours (and very similar 'fixin's'). Nothing wrong anywhere although I would have preferred more 'crunch' to add texture to some of the dishes. The mushroom bread pudding included some toasted morsels - and it was this crunch that lifted that dish for me.
                  Although my travel plans rarely include Orlando, I would certainly return to Circa if in the area. Service was excellent and the meal was better than anything we had in the Tampa/St Pete's area - which was our intended destination.

            3. Since moving to Orlando in 2003 from Philadelphia, I've really tried to support and stand up for the restaurant scene here. But to compare ANYTHING in Orlando, including Victoria and Alberts and Norman's (if you'd even put those two in the same category, which I wouldn't b/c I believe Norman's is HIGHLY overrated), to Per Se is just absolutely insane. My apologies if that sounds harsh, especially since I've enjoyed some of your reviews Scott, but Per Se is in a different league, even by NYC standards.

              Are there good places to eat in Orlando, sure. But to compare any restaurant here to the best of its kind in NYC is just silly to me.

              6 Replies
              1. re: Corporate_40

                Thank you Corporate!! I agree 100%.Finally some sanity.

                1. re: bgut1

                  Sanity? Norman Van Aken, at his best, can't compare to Thomas Keller? Really.

                  1. re: Joe H

                    Joe - The discussion was not whether one chef compared to another (even though I must admit that I disagree with your assertion) but whether the best of Florida was the equal of the top NYC restaurants. I don't think you will disagree that Norman's and Per Se are on two completely different levels.

                    1. re: bgut1

                      There is a point here: Whether it is Per Se or other restaurants in New York they are not alone in their excellence for at least certain dishes. It may be that overall Per Se is better than anything in Orlando but there are dishes in Orlando that, at their best, do compete with Per Se. This is my point. I've eaten Norman Van Aken at his best in both Coral Gables and when he briefly was in Orlando. I LOVE his food, his flavors, his textures. But an important qualification: I love it most when he is in his kitchen cooking it. (Ask him to do a blowout four hour dinner with no limit for the prix fixe ((What's Per Se? $250? + wine, tax and tip? with special dinners 2x and more this?) and then make your comparison to Keller; give him a couple of days notice, the "wine table" and six or eight enthusiastic friends to share it.

                      I will argue that Bouchon and the FL are not as good overall when Keller is not in the Kitchen. In fact Bouchon was a disappointment for me on both visits but Keller may not have been there. Still, Keller is an enormous talent, arguably America's best.

                      My point is that he is not alone at the top. There are others as there are other dishes so sublimely conceived and orgasmically delicious that they MUST be compared to anything as over the top good from anyone else.

                      I think where we really differ is my belief that you are saying that a restaurant must be in New York or Philly or D. C. (where I live) or S. F. to be considered for the top. I am arguing, why? Why not Eiginsinn Farm north of Toronto, why not the Towne House Grill in Chilhowie, VA. I've had a filet mignon of tuna at the FL and a week earlier a filet of tuna at North 44 in Toronto; I preferered the Canadian presentation. A bisteca in a small rural restaurant, Vescovino, in Panzano had the best Porterhouse steak I have ever tasted (the white Chiannina (sp?). A month later I was at Luger's and thought the bisteca clearly better. I could go on and on about this. Simply, there are many parts of the U. S. where extraordinary food can be found, that are not mere wastelands. Often these compare favorably to acknowedged city temples of dining. I still maintain the best Italian in Ameica over the past ten years were both in Washington, D. C. area restaurants, Fabio Trabocchi's Maestro in Tyson's Corner, VA and Roberto Donna's Laboratorio del Galileo when it was open downtown. When Jean Louis was at the Watergate the argument could be made that it was America's best French. Jean Banchet could have made that argument in 1980 at Le Francais in suburban Wheeling west of Chicago. And, the best restaurant in Las Vegas? Some would say Lotus of Siam. Still.

                      And, there are regional restaurants that are just superb: Portland's Fore Street, Atlanta's Bacchanalia/Quinones, Stephen Pyles in Dallas, Several in Sante Fe; you mentioned Philly: I loved Amada. Loved it! Sat at the back counter and we enthusiastically worked our way through 10 or 12 of his small plates.

                      Last, if we open this up to include "the best of Florida" we are now including Mark's Place when it was in North Miami Beach in the early and mid '90's. This was a great restaurant that equalled anything in Manhattan at the time. Along with Van Aken and Allen Susser and Douglas Rodriguez there were real flavors, big creative exciting flavors coming out of South Florida. Emeril, when he was still IN THE KITCHEN ON TSCHOUPOULITAS street in the mid '90's overwseeing every single dish that came out of his kitchen was as good of a chef as there was in America. I had four dinners one week there including two sitting across from him at his Food Bar in back. For me he was a revelation. When he went to New York for the Food Network everything changed (his first Food Network show was teaching with little showmanship; that later changed as did the food his expanding restaurant empire served). But, when he had only the one-even before NOLA-he was GREAT. As was Dean Fearing and Stephen Pyles. And others.

                      I do not believe that anyone should be surprised if a real talent surfaces in central Florida. Unheralded and unexpected gifted chefs have blown city dining scenes wide open before and will again. The trick may be to keep them in Central Florida before they are recruited to New York, D. C., Chicago or San Francisco.

                      1. re: Joe H

                        Joe - I don't disagree with your premise. In fact, my only issue is with the statement that there exists a restaurant in Orlando that is the equal with the best NYC has to offer. BTW, I 've dined in most of the restaurants that you have mentioned (FL,, NOLA, Le Francais, Mark's Place and Jean Louis at the Watergate).

                        1. re: bgut1

                          Forgive the interruption. Please keep the discussion focussed on great Florida restaurants, rather than than discussing them relative to other places in distant states. Thanks!

              2. You asked for Orlando's best. It's not fancy by anyone's standards, but IMO the best food in Orlando, hands down, is Memories of India. I've been to Norman's, BlueZoo, Ravenous Pig, Oceanaire, and 90% of all the other high end recs, and they're all good, but I'll take MOI any day. Turkey Lake Rd off of Sand Lake Rd, in a shopping center.

                For sushi, the best is Zen at the Omni resort, exit 58 on I-4.

                1. All of the comments were directed at the comparison made between anything in Orlando vs. Per Se, or any NYC restaurant. I've eaten all over the world, so I agree with what you saying Joe about its not just NYC/Philly/DC.

                  And I've had great meals in Orlando, and incredible single dishes. But overall there's NO comparison between Orlando and any of the places mentioned above.

                  And to say one more thing, I hope you're right about some great talent coming to Central Floriday. Trust me, I'll be the first one booking a table.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Corporate_40

                    I love "Cedars" restaurant beside of Seasons 52 on Sandlake. Great lebanese food and very friendly and accomodating staff.