Samba Room

Written By Scott Joseph On April 4, 2005

I’ve always thought Samba Room was the coolest of the eateries on Restaurant Row. In my imagination,  it’s what the swank clubs of Havana in the ‘40s must have been like. Lighting, décor and music come together in a moody meld that is not so much romantic as it is seductive. The coffered ceiling undulates throughout the large space, sheer drapes may be pulled back to provide a more secluded rendezvous, and throughout the meal the rhythmic beat of Latin music pulses and begs to be danced to.
Latin, of course, is the overriding theme of the menu, although, just as with the original, the current bill of fare does not claim authenticity. It is more a reimagining of Latin American and Hispanic dishes.
Still, no amount of imagination can explain why there is a Thai satay appetizer and an entrée of Japanese soba noodles. A press release on the new Samba Room claims a Latin-Asian fusion, but simply putting stir-fried buckwheat noodles on the menu next to Spanish paella does not constitute fusion. Now a paella made with soba noodles – that’s another thing.
But why mess with something as good as the original paella ($25.50)? Samba Room’s rice based version, boldly seasoned with intense saffron, had generous portions of shrimp, mussels, squid and chicken and a half a lobster.
Even better than the paella was the Argentinean style skirt steak ($21.50). The thin steaks, well marinated and seasoned, were folded together so as to appear to be a thicker cut of meat, I suppose. Skirt steak can be tough but this was tender. And the traditional chimichurri sauce was a nice complement. My companion also requested a side dish of shiitake mushrooms al ajillo, leathery flat caps in a subtle garlic sauce, that offered another dimension of taste as well as texture.
I also enjoyed the pork barbacoa ($18.95), stringy chunks of beer-marinated pork wrapped in banana leaves for roasting, which rendered the meat moist and full flavored. In one of the real attempts at fusion, it was served with something that was supposed to be an Asian barbecue sauce, although the flavors of the Orient escaped me.
Chilean sea bass enchilado ($24.95) was based on a superb hunk of fish, fresh-tasting with beautiful white flesh. Enchilado is not misspelled – it refers to a Creole style stew rather than the Mexican dish. But instead of a stew the fish was graced simply with a tomato-based sauce.
Appetizers didn’t have the same positive consistency as the entrees. I liked the oysters Samba ($7.95), three impossibly plump oysters coated with seasoned panko, Japanese style bread crumbs, deep-fried and served on the half shell with Manchego cheese and sweet plantains. It was neither Latin nor Asian but it was delicious.
Crab cigars ($8.95) were without substance. These, apparently, were meant to be like Mexican taquitos, but they were mostly wrapper with little inside.
Peruvian fried calamari ($8.95), besides having little to distinquish it from calamari from any other part of the world, was much too greasy.
Arepa ($6.95), the sweet corn cake from South America, had a small amount of shredded beef and a bit of cheese. More ingredients would have made this one a winner.
The tres leches  dessert was a little too dry for a cake that is supposed to be soak in three kinds of milk. Guava cheesecake had a nice creamy sweetness. The crust on the coconut crème brulee was too thick although the custard was tasty.
Service varied greatly. On one visit a hostess snipped at me and gave me attitude, and the waiter felt the need to announce, “That looks great,” each time a plate was put on the table. But on another visit the service was prompt, sincere and unintrusive.
I still think Samba Room is one of the coolest spaces on Sand Lake Road, if not all of Orlando. And I’m glad the “new” owners are tweaking the menu and improving on the quality of the food. But I wish they would stick with the Latin theme and not try to confuse with the infusion of Asian influences.

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Written By Scott Joseph On June 21, 2004

I don’t know why more locals don’t go to Everglades. Since it opened in late 1995 in the then-new Omni Rosen Hotel, now the Rosen Centre Hotel, it has served consistently high-quality food in a unique, if slightly odd atmosphere.

The entree I liked most was the Spanish Harbor swordfish ($25), but it was just one of the items I enjoyed here that has me wondering why Everglades isn’t on a list of local favorites.

The swordfish was a thick and flaky steak, served atop a scattering of succotash and dressed with a just-so-tangy barbecue sauce. A couple of slices of fried green tomatoes gave it a decidedly southern accent.

Although they tend not to roam in South Florida, the tenderloin of buffalo ($32) was another satisfying entree. The pan-seared meat was a juicy medium-rare, and it had just the tiniest hint of gaminess, just enough to set it apart from its beefy cousins. It was accompanied by a ragout of chunky mushrooms in a finely executed zinfandel reduction sauce.

For the lover of more traditional meats, the filet Key Largo ($29) should suffice, and then some. It featured a filet mignon, cooked a bit past the requested medium-rare, but still acceptable, topped with a heaping helping of jumbo lump crabmeat and bearnaise. A pinot noir demiglace added a darker flavor note to complement the sweetness of the crabmeat.

Only one dish, the Florida Bay bouillabaisse ($36) failed to satisfy. Here was an ample amount of clams, shrimp, scallops and lobster with linguica and potato chunks in broth tinged with saffron. But unfortunately the seafood had all been overcooked, the lobster falling apart into mush and the scallops hard little disks. Ironically, a section of corn on the cob, the item that is usually the overcooked one, was practically raw. And all of this was all the more disappointing because the broth was wonderful.

One of my favorites from the original menu, gator chowder, is still featured. Actually, it’s now called Alligator Bay chowder ($6), but it still features pebbles of ground gator meat and chunks of potatoes in a tomato laced broth.

Another good starter course was the duck confit ($9), a tender leg quarter with a perfect salty taste graced with a blackberry syrup. A preparation of Florida rock shrimp ($9) had the firm bits of shellfish prepared with roma tomatoes and shiitake mushrooms in an al dente risotto. Quite a substantial starter course.
Boca Chica mushroom ($8) was supposed to be crispy, but the portobello, served on watercress with balsamic vinaigrette, was not. Still, I enjoyed the flavors.

Any restaurant in Florida, let alone one with a South Florida landmark as its theme, should be ashamed to serve the Key lime pie ($5) that was offered here. Besides the lime filling being insufficiently tart, it was topped with a thick layer of tasteless white substance.

Two better desserts were the chocolate marquis ($7) and the pecan tuile ($7), each offering a sweet and rich finish.

I’m still not a huge fan of the decor, which features an enormous airbrushed mural of an Evergladescape. There is also a mother and calf manatee sculpture hanging from the ceiling and an alligator creeping down a banister. One nice touch was the addition of blinds in the windows at the front of the dining room, shutting out the stark and decidedly unattractive lobby area on the other side. On some nights there is a piano player in the lounge who can be heard throughout the restaurant, which helps drown out the swamp sound effects that are piped in.

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Written By Scott Joseph On May 31, 2004

Rosario Spagnolo has been a part of Central Florida’s restaurant scene since 1989 when he opened a charming little hosteria called Bravissimo. But it wasn’t the Bravissimo that is now on Shine Avenue in Orlando. Spagnolo’s restaurant was on Howell Branch Road in Winter Park. But then he sold that restaurant and took a position of chef de cuisine at Capriccio at the Peabody Orlando.
Then after a couple of months he went back to Bravissimo.
Then he sold it and opened a pizza place on Central Boulevard downtown.
Then he sold it and opened a new Bravissimo in Seminole Towne Center in Sanford.
Then…well, you know.
Spagnolo, it seems, is as peripatetic as was the late Sergio Scardino, who cooked for a number of Italian restaurants, including, as coincidence would have it, Bravissimo in Winter Park and Sanford.
In the meantime the Bravissimo on Shine opened, so when Spagnolo was ready to open another restaurant, this time on Lyman Avenue just off Park Avenue, he called it Allegria. I told you about Allegria – and its inevitable new owners – a couple of weeks ago.
Now Spagnolo is back with a new restaurant and a new name. Terramia Winebar-Trattoria, hidden away in a strip mall in Altamonte Springs, is somewhat different from the restaurants that came before, and yet the same in that it serves the high quality, authentically Italian cuisine we’ve come to expect from a Rosario Spagnolo operation.
Most impressive is the array of delicacies on the antipasti table temptingly displayed inside the front door. Simply tell your waiter you’d like the antipasto Terramia ($8.50 per person) and he’ll assemble an impressive platter with such things as sweet roasted red, green and yellow peppers, spicy peppers, buffalo mozzarella with tomatoes garnished with a sprig of basil, soppressata and mortadella, provolone, and Italian olives. And with the exception of some rather anemic tomatoes, every bit of it a delight.
Another worthy appetizer was the mussels fra diavolo ($7.50), a stack of mussels in a spicy broth. The only disappointment here was that there was too little broth to sop up with the doughy house bread.
Pollo Rosario ($14.50) was a predictable – and welcome – entrée. This signature dish features boneless breast meat sauteed with shrimp and sun-dried tomatoes graced with a cream sauce spiked with vodka and garlic.
Salmone Portofino ($17.50) featured a fine fillet topped with nutty, firm rock shrimp and clams with fresh artichokes. The salmon had a refreshingly fresh taste.
The beef in the braciola di manzo all Naploetana ($13.50) was a bit dry, but when submerged in the wonderfully complex marinara that also dressed the rigatoni tubes it was delicious.
A special of double-thick veal chop ($29.95) was indeed special, the meat milky and tender and cooked just so. But grilled lamb chops ($18.50) seemed to be more about the wild mushrooms that accompanied the dish than the rather smallish, tough chops.
From the list of pastas I sampled the fettuccine with braised rabbit ($14.50), which was substantial enough to be a secondi rather than a primi. The rabbit was cooked alla genovese, which in Spagnolo’s native Naples means braised in white wine with onions.
For dessert there was a tarty lemon sorbet ($6.95) served in an intimidatingly large hollowed lemon, and an Italian version of Black Forest cake ($5.95) with a liqueurish high note. Tiramisu ($) was bland and uncharacteristic, and the cannoli ($5.95) had a thinnish filling inside a too-hard pastry tube.
Service was first-rate, though the kitchen tended to bog down. There is an impressive wine list, as you’d expect from a wine bar, with numerous selections by the glass.
Wine features into the décor as well with wine storage bins behind the bar and separating dining areas. The lighting is soft and moody and the overall ambience is casually upscale.
Terramia, which translates loosely to my land, is hidden in a group of shops behind where the Altamonte Springs Pebbles used to be. It’s a tough location but fans of Spagnolo’s will undoubtedly seek him out. Don’t wait too long  — you never know.

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Flying Fish Cafe

Written By Scott Joseph On June 21, 2003

There is enough good food here to keep Flying Fish Cafe on the short list of the best restaurants at Walt Disney World.

The Fish itself, however, is a little stale. The interior, which was once exciting and invigorating, seems to have faded. And as far as service is concerned, I witnessed a waiter perform an act that would be unacceptable in even the greasiest of greasy spoons. But we’ll come back to that.

The menu, dated and printed daily, is a single sheet that, although presented in a confusing order, leaves no question that the restaurant is aptly named. I sampled only seafood entrees, although there is a steak and a chicken breast for those who wander in clueless, and I was not dissatisfied with any of them.
One of the specials – which are listed under the heading Chef’s Thunder, a reference to a Coney Island ride, one assumes – was a pan-roasted black grouper ($27). The fish itself was a fine fillet, firm with moist flakes, but it was the accompaniments of littleneck clams, baby artichokes, nicoise olives and olive oil that gave the dish a wonderfully briny note.

Another special on one of my visits was the whole crispy yellowtail snapper ($29), an impressive presentation that had the fish placed on the plate as though it were still swimming. The crispy fried flesh came off the bone easily, and its sweet flavor went well with the basmati rice and vinaigrette sauce.
The Fish’s signature dish of potato-wrapped red snapper ($27) remains on the revamped menu (indeed, so popular is it with regulars that Curry could remove it only at his own peril). John State was the first in the area to present this now common concoction and it’s still a winner. The fillet is wrapped with a long thin potato slice and deep-fried to a dark brown crisp. The creamy leek fondue may be new, but it still comes with the appropriate wine reduction sauce.

One of my guests had the oak grilled mahi mahi ($29), which was served on a wonderful risotto laden with lumps of rock shrimp. On another visit the same risotto was served with wahoo. Regardless of the fish, the risotto was an ingenue that upstaged the star.
For appetizers, the peeky toe crab cakes ($13) were full of meat that was complemented well by the ancho-chile remoulade. Ahi tuna tartare ($12) was slightly dull, but the oak grilled dayboat scallops ($12), served with fresh corn polenta and onion rings, were quite a treat.
As far as starters go, however, I enjoyed the frisee salad ($9) as much as anything. The frizzy leaves with a slightly bitter taste were accompanied by oven roasted beets, goat cheese, candied pecans and drizzled with an orange vinaigrette. Each component was distinct, and they all came together to make an excitingly tasty salad.

Goat cheese is best as an appetizer and not as a dessert, which was made clear with the goat cheese beignets ($8). The fritterlike nuggets were too savory for dessert, even with the Rainier cherries served with them. The Fish was the first restaurant in the area to present the omnipresent chocolate lave cake ($8), which is still good although I think some of the imitators now do it better.

ut it will likely be a long time before I taste a dessert as satisfying as the banana Napoleon ($8). A sheet of crisped phyllo dough was set atop a creamy vanilla creme brulee with large diagonal slices of bananas sitting nearby in a sweet caramel sauce.
Service was exemplary on one visit and stunningly bad on another. On that occasion the waiter brought a second glass of wine for my dinner guests and when he removed the used glasses he poured out the last drops of wine into the new wine. It doesn’t matter that they were the same wines, that was one crass act.

The interior of Flying Fish was designed by the late Martin Dorf, who also did California Grill and Citricos. It is a whimsical paean to the glory days of Coney Island, with booth backs that rise and dip like the tracks of a roller coaster and light fixtures of parachuting porpoises. Columns and decorated with fish scales and even the tiny tiles on the food bar surfaces appear fishlike. But the interior seems to have faded somewhat and it no longer seems special. One of my companions put it right: It seems like any other Disney restaurant.

On the surface perhaps, but in regards to the food, the tradition of high quality continues.

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Mayerion Mykonos

Written By Scott Joseph On June 5, 2002

This Longwood cafe is small, only 65 seats, but it’s an appealing place with an exuberant staff and a menu of family heirloom recipes not likely found at the other local Greek restaurants.
The recipes, says Mayerion Mykonos’ owner, Dimitrios Salivaras, have been handed down from his grandparents to his father, who still uses the recipes at the family’s restaurant of the same name in Tarpon Springs, to him. Salivaras cooks those recipes with ease in full view of the entire restaurant.
In fact, Mayerion means open kitchen, nothing more exotic than that, though the pronunciation (MY-eer-e-on) and spelling in Greek alphabet on the menu might make you think so.
Several of the dishes definitely have an exotic taste, even in their simplicity. My favorite among the entrees was the chicken Mykonos ($10.95), which featured several hearty chunks of chicken breast meat sauteed with tomatoes, onions, feta cheese and various fresh herbs to create what the restaurant calls its Mykonos sauce. Not the prettiest dish you’ll ever be served, but certainly tasty.
For an array of tastes the combination platter ($11.45) of pastitsio, moussaka, gyro meat and stuffed grape leaves is the way to go. At many Greek restaurants it’s difficult to distinguish between the moussaka and the pastitsio, and indeed there are similarities. But here they were as distinctive as they were delicious. The pastitsio had large macaroni layered with ground beef and cheese, topped with a thick bechamel sauce. The moussaka had ground beef layered with thick slices of eggplant, baked with the bechamel.
The stuffed grape leaves, called fila here but also known as dolmades, were filled with a rice and ground beef mixture and topped with a sauce made of lemon juice and eggs, a nice complement to the pungent flavor of the grape leaves.
The gyro meat was not special, neither was it served with pita bread. In fact an appetizer dish of three spreads ($9.95), which included a wonderful tzatziki and a rather garlicky feta cheese spread, dips that would ordinarily come with pita, were served with regular leavened bread, good bread, mind you, but not what you’d expect with these spreads. When I asked the server why they didn’t use pita he answered, quite honestly, pita bread is too expensive. One could argue that the profit earned from demanding nearly 10 bucks for three spreads would buy a few packages of pita.
There was more honesty, this time from a different server, when I asked about the fresh fish selection of the day. He told me one wasn’t offered because it came in frozen and hadn’t thawed. When I spoke to Salivaras later on the phone, he told me he buys only the freshest ingredients, including seafood. He may want to have a talk with his staff on that point.
Still, the baked grouper ($17.95) I had instead of the fresh fish of the day was good enough. It was a large fillet, tender and prepared simply with herbs and oil. My guest’s roast leg of lamb ($9.95) was fairly plain and unremarkable, though the juices from the meat were perfect on my rather dry dish of rice. Dinners come with a choice of side dish and either the potatoes or the vegetables make a better choice than the rice.
Diners also get a choice of soup or salad with each entree. The soup on each visit was the traditional avgolemeno soup of chicken broth thickened with egg. Instead of the usual rice Mykonos uses orso. The soup was better on the first visit; it was too watery the second time. Still the soup was better than the salad, an unimaginative Greek salad whose only attraction was a small square of feta cheese sitting oddly atop the lettuce.
For appetizers I heartily recommend the patatokeftedes ($5.95), but don’t eat them there. Have the waiter box up the wonderful patties of mashed potatoes and feta cheese, take them home and have them the next day with fried eggs. A meal fit for Zeus.
The combo appetizer of charbroiled shrimp, octopus and squid ($14.95) offered some different tastes and textures. The shrimp were rather plain, but the half octopus with its black-charred crust and the tender rings of squid drizzled with oil were both wonderful.
For dessert the rice pudding ($1.50) was good, but the galatobutoko ($2.75) was stellar, a creme custard layered in phyllo dough and sprinkled with cinnamon.
Besides being honest to a fault, the servers were all friendly and helpful, and Salivaras made a point of saying hello to every table from over the kitchen’s glass partition.
Mayerion Mykonos is small and narrow but quite comfortable. The tables are uncovered and set with a large container of sea salt and a small pepper grinder. The walls sport bas-relief sculptures of typical structures and landscape features found on the island of Mykonos.
Just for the record, Salivaras’ family is actually from a small island next to Mykonos, but they named their restaurants for the more recognizable tourist mecca. The Mayerion in the name may confuse some – it certainly confounds the directory assistance people when attempting to get a phone number – but don’t let it dissuade you from enjoying some of the fine food from the Greek Isles.

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