Ulyssee’s Prime Steak House

Written By Scott Joseph On June 1, 2006

I’m just going to come right out and say this at the beginning and get it over with: Ulysses’ Prime Steakhouse is a restaurant of the highest caliber and may very well be one of the best in Central Florida.
That it should be located in Cocoa (Village, not Beach) makes it all the more delightful.
It was complete serendipity that I happened upon Ulysses’. I was on my way to Café Margaux, because after almost 12 years since visiting that fine restaurant I thought it was time to go back and check up on it. I had to pass Ulysses’ to get to Café Margaux, and it wasn’t until a few days later that I discovered both restaurants are owned by the same people, Alex and Pamela Litras.
Café Margaux has continued quietly over the years to provide east coasters with a brand of moderately upscale dining, a tad frilly in the décor, perhaps, but with delicious continental cuisine. Even though my absence lasted a dozen years, I continued to hear from satisfied diners that things were status quo, and my own recent experience proved that if the years had done anything at all to Café Margaux it was all on the plus side.
But Ulysses’ Prime Steakhouse is a different dining experience. It is more upscale, both in food and décor, and it offers a quiet and intimate dinner of exquisitely prepared food served with absolute precision.
One of the finest items I sampled was the seared duck liver, which though priced like an entrée at $19 was one of the standout appetizers and easily worth its cost. It featured a beautiful fat lobe, dearingly sauteed with figs braised in sauterne then glazed with mandarin-infused black pepper. It was served on challah toast and topped with chervil. Too many chefs feel a need to go overly sweet with foie gras; the chef here knows how to grace the taste of the liver instead of masking it.
Nearly as good were the diver scallops ($15), monster-sized mollusks served on the half shell with a tangy relish of kalamata olives.
The kalamata is clue to the underlying theme of the restaurant, which, as scholars of Homer will have guessed from the restaurant’s name, is Greek. Litras was attempting to pay homage to his heritage, but the Greek items tend to be the ones that don’t work. That may be because there are but a few passing nods to Greek cuisine.
Avgolemeno ($7) is one. The traditional chicken soup thickened with egg and tinged with lemon can be quite good when done well, but it is still a pedestrian soup that doesn’t blend well into a high cuisine menu. But the Greek notes are rare on the menu, and I’m grateful for that. I love Greek food, but to work it into this environment would have been a detriment.
Once you get past Ullyses’ in the restaurant’s name, you’re left with the words Prime Steakhouse, and that is were the Litras’s wisely focused their attention. The steaks were quite simply wonderful.
The menu features some Wagyu beef selections, though they are of course the domestic variety. True Japanese Wagyu can fetch astronomic prices. But the domestic variety sold here is fairly pricey, too.
How’s $56 for a 16-ounce Wagyu ribeye? For the true connoisseur it’s a mere pittance. The meat fairly meltet on the plate, let alone in the mouth. And it was cooked perfectly to the requested medium-rare. When you’ve got a product that costs as much as this does, you need a grill cook who isn’t constantly cooking re-dos.
I also had the Wagyu short ribs ($35), braised in a ragout of roasted vegetables and rose wine. The meat was delightfully fatty and coated the mouth with richness. The three ribs were served on a pallet of risotto blended with parmesan cheese and roasted garlic.
From the non-Wagyu meat list, the filet mignon stuffed with crab meat ($45) was a study in overindulgence. The USDA prime meat would have been treat enough; so could the lump crab meat that covered it. Put the two together and you’re willing to sacrifice an artery or two.
Meats are served with four sauces, served in ramekins arranged on a tiny bridge. They included rosemary cabernet demiglace de veau; chocolate demiglace de veau; pink and green peppercorn; and Maltaise, a hollandaise tinged with 150th Anniversary Grand Marnier for a slight orange flavor. All were good, but frankly the meat didn’t need saucing.
For dessert, bread pudding ($6), made with challah and dates, figs, raisins and apricots, was heavenly. The bread was custardized to a creamy texture and then sauced with rum caramel. And the macadamia pecan baklava ($8) was unlike any I had tasted before, covered with a tangerine glaze and drizzled with Mt. Ranier fireweed honey. Remember what I said before about the Greek theme not working on the menu? Forget it.
Service was positively top-notch. It wasn’t just the attentiveness – something that shouldn’t be hard in a restaurant with only 36 seats – it was also the intuitiveness, the ability to know what the diners want before they ask for it. Sometimes before they even realize they want it.
Pamela Litras designed the décor, which is sumptuously lush without being gaudy. Yards of alternating fabrics swoosh down the windows. Tables are draped with crisp white linens. And the kitchen is only slightly hidden behind glass panels that look as though they’ve been smeared with chocolate. The panels slide apart for kitchen staff to pass plates to the servers, like it was some elaborate Horn & Hardart’s automat.
I told you my assessment of Ulysses’ Prime Steakhouse at the top. There’s only one thing left to say: go.

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Aubergine Bistro

Written By Scott Joseph On May 16, 2006

I don’t often have the chance to go back to restaurants unless there has been a major change, a new menu, new concept, different chef or word that there has been a drastic change in the quality, good or bad.

In the case of Aurberinge Bistro, which I first reviewed in early 2000, there were never any indications over the years that anything had changed. In fact, the tiny bistro in Casselberry often slipped my mind when I would try to think of places to recommend in that area. It just kept quietly offering its simple yet good food in an unassuming manner. When I dined with friends earlier this year it was just for fun. I didn’t realize than that it would be the last meal I’d have from then-owner Bernhard Schwab.

Word came a couple of months ago that Schwab had sold the restaurant to Paul D’Amelio and his parents, Mike and Judy. So, then, it became one of those conditions that warranted a revisit.

I’m delighted and relieved to report that anyone who knew Aubergine Bistro before will find it largely unchanged. There are still some things done quite well, — exquisitely, even – and some things that fall flat. But overall it is still a lovely and unassuming café that obviously strives to produce a quality meal.

I was glad to see the signature Aubergine Napoleon appetizer ($8) is still on the menu and still easily one of the best things to come out of the kitchen. It’s a stacked tower of alternating layers of grilled eggplant, tomatoes and creamy-firm goat cheese with fresh basil and drizzles of balsamic vinegar. Instead of slashing through the layers, or toppling it over, one need only lift off the top three layers and leave the rest for one’s tablemates to do the same. What wonderful flavors of the smoky aubergine and tangy yet creamy chevre, and the red pepper coulis sauce was a perfect accompaniment. Even if more menu changes are in the future, this should be written in indelible ink.

Wild mushroom and andouille sausage ($8.99) was another winning starter. It had the main ingredients finely chopped and seasoned with fresh sage all rolled up in flaky phyllo dough, fried and served like some sort of cajun egg roll, with a creamy Boursin cheese sauce.

Stuffed mushroom caps ($8.50), tiny buttons filled with a crabmeat mix that included sun-dried tomatoes, were fairly pedestrian. But a soup of the day ($5), a creamy mushroom, was filled with lots of chewy mushrooms in a rich and flavorful broth.

Sea scallops Provencale ($19.95) was one of the better entrees. It featured thick, pan-seared scallops, the outsides brown and crisped and the insides still warm and moist, served with chopped tomatoes, mushrooms and a hint of garlic in a wine sauce.

One of my guests had the chicken cordon bleu ($18.50), which was offered as a special of the day – and I’ll have a word about the specials in a moment. The breast meat was rolled and baked the slices so the ham and cheese inside peeked out. It was served, as many of the main dishes were, with simply steamed veggies, uncomplicated and unadorned.

Our server told us the new chef seemed to like cooking fish, so I chose one of the fresh offerings, a wahoo ($23.50). It was the only complete stumble I saw from the kitchen, but it was a big one. The fish was hard and dry and not even the buttery sauce that came with it could do anything to save it.

That fish was one of three offered as a special of the day, along with the chicken dish and one or two other dishes. Each was recited by the server with details of the preparation and the sauces, and each time she moved on to the next one I completely forgot what she’d said before. When there are that many specials they should be written down. Surely there’s a printer somewhere in the office, or they could buy a blackboard for the dining room. Something.

When dessert time came there was another litany of items not printed on the menu. The white chocolate bread pudding ($5.50) was firm and had little surprises in the form of cranberries and almonds. The carrot cake ($6.50) was a tad dry, but the crème brulee ($6.50) had a rich and creamy custard under a crust that was only slightly burned.

Little has changed in the interior – not much that could be done with a small space that seats barely 40. But it’s pleasant enough, comfortable and welcoming.

D’Amelio could easily continue the quiet tradition of Aubergine Bistro and maintain a steady following. But I hope that as he becomes more comfortable with his new restaurant he’ll try new things and turn it into the sort of place that one wants to visit more often.

Aubergine Bistro is at 1455 State Road 436, Casselberry. It is open for lunch Tuesday-Friday and dinner Tuesday-Saturday. The restaurant does not currently have its own Web site. The phone number is 407-678-3300.


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Written By Scott Joseph On August 15, 2005

A while ago I told you about the upscale seafood chain McCormick & Schmick’s, where the menu lists the origins of the featured fresh catches – blue marlin from San Jose, Costa Rica, for example.

This week we’re at another upscale seafood restaurant, Moonfish, where the menu gets even more specific. I not only know that my Black Island swordfish came from just off the coast of Cape Hatteras, I even know that it was caught – harpooned, to be exact – by Paul Josephs.
It may be more information than you need or want (heck, some people don’t even care what their waiter’s name is), but the bottom line, not to mention the hook and the sinker, is that the quality of seafood restaurants around here is getting better.
Moonfish is the latest concept from the Charley’s Steak House folks, Talk of the Town, Inc. They’re certainly not new to the seafood game. Just down Sand Lake Road you’ll find their other seafood restaurant, Fish Bones (not to be confused with Outback Steak House’s nearby Bonefish, and that you might perhaps find it confusing is the basis of a complaint against Outback by Talk of the Town calling for them to stop using that name, but that’s another story).
That swordfish, so ably harpooned by Josephs, was nicely grilled and had a smoky flavor to complement the firm texture and moist flakiness of the fillet.
More impressive was the Vietnamese basa, a catfishlike fish, fried whole and posed on the plate to make it look as though it might swim away. It had sweet flesh that was enhanced by slivers of whole ginger that had been placed in slits along the body. It was topped with a slaw tinged with toasted sesame oil that gave it an Asian edge.

The Alaskan halibut stuffed with blue crab, shrimp and brie just didn’t work. There wasn’t anything wrong with the fish itself; it had fresh qualities and good flavor. But that flavor was done no favor by the overpowering cheese.

It shouldn’t be surprising that steaks are properly prepared for those in the group that don’t care for fish. One of my guests had the 20-ounce bone-in New York strip ($18.95), grilled so the outside was crispy but the inside was pink and juicy, even with a requested temperature of medium-well.

For appetizers there was nothing better than the crab cake, which wasn’t very cakelike but rather a mound of lovely lump crab meat, slightly warm and rich in natural flavors.

For dessert there was an impressive sampler of sorbets, including pineapple, coconut, lemon and an unusual apple, all served in hollowed fruit. And the chocolate cake, an enormous slice of multi layers, moist and rich, the icing studded with chocolate chips, was also delightful.

Service tended toward the “let’s be friends” end of the spectrum. If you know the name of the person who caught your fish you’re certainly going to hear the name of the person serving it to you. The wine list has a number of good selections but precious few by the glass.

The moonfish, also known as opah, figures into the decor beginning with a manhole-sized door handle on the entrance. Round shapes, not necessarily fish in form, have been worked into the interior, which also features a slate entry way, dark woods and the signature wood-fired pit at the front of the kitchen.

Tables are covered with white cloths then topped with butcher paper. (Note to staff: check the stains on the portion of the cloth that hangs down, please, and change them when necessary.) The dining room is inexplicably noisy – there aren’t a lot of hard surfaces, but in a room that was only a little more than half full, my guests and I had trouble hearing each other across the table.

Still, the surroundings are mostly pleasant, and the quality of the seafood is encouraging.

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Victoria & Albert’s

Written By Scott Joseph On June 1, 2005

It’s been a long time since we’ve had a comprehensive look at Victoria & Albert’s, Disney’s top-of-the-line restaurant at the luxurious Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. The restaurant, which last year snagged top ratings from AAA and Mobil Travel Guide, recently underwent some changes, but most are subtle.
Wedgewood has replaced Royal Doulton as the house china, Sambonet flatware has been replaced with Cristofal. The Schott-Zweisel crystal has been supplanted by Reidel, the choice of wine snobs everywhere.

There are changes to the intimate dining space as well. The walls have been repadded with coverings that fit the turn-of-the-previous-century theme. The eight thick, squat columns that ring the center rotunda have been replaced. But the room is still the elegant space it was when it opened in 1988, sumptuously appointed, romantic and quiet.

The servers still wear costumes of circa 1900 servants, but their Disney name tags no longer misidentify them as a Victoria or an Albert, one of the bits of silliness that did disservice to an otherwise high-class dining experience; the staff may now use their own names.

Scott Hunnel still oversees the kitchen, as he has done most ably for the past 11 years. Dinner is, as it was, prix fixe. Ninety-five dollars is the going rate these days. For another $50 you can pair each course with a wine chosen to complement the food. Add the tip, plus a premium for an upgraded item (more on that in a moment) and you’re looking at over 200 bucks for one person. In terms of the quality, the unique offerings, the pampering and the enjoyment of an experience that will last nearly two-and-a-half hours, it’s a bargain.

Dinner is presented in six courses from a personalized menu with options in each category. The menu my guests and I enjoyed will surely have changed significantly by the time you read this – Hunnel makes changes periodically – but the gist will remain.

 The first course, which followed an amuse bouche of a seared scallop with mango, featured a terrine of Dungeness and lump crab with three types of asparagus carefully arranged on the plate. Or, Applewood smoked buffalo as part of a stylized Waldorf salad, graced withapple walnut vinaigrette. This course presented the first upgrade option of Iranian caviar that, had anyone at my table selected it, would have added $70 or $140 to the bill depending on the size of fish eggs. We were all happy with the other selections, especially the crab.

In the next course, pan-roasted foie gras was worth the $15 premium. The buttery-textured lobe was served atop a brioche scented with vanilla and accompanied by cherries. The other choices were good too: pork tenderloin with Maui spring onions as part of a creamy sauce soubise, and Gulf of Mexico shrimp with coconut curry broth and bok choy. On another visit I had a “Napoleon” devised of veal from Marcho Farms layered with melted leeks and roasted baby fennel.

The fish course had Maine skate wing, firm, white and sweet, served with artichoke confit and preserved lemon to add a touch of tart. Monterey abalone was the premium selection ($25), dollar-sized coins of of the mollusks sauteed with baby spinach, toasted capers and accented with Meyer lemon. On one visit they were done perfectly; on the other they were tough and hard and the only disappointment I experienced.

My first choice for the seafood course was the Scottish smoked salmon cream with barely seared Copper River salmon, which was more of a soup course. But it was wonderful, the richness of the cream playing off the smoky notes of the salmon. And in a truly inspired pairing, instead of wine it was served with a Belgian ale.

For the putative main course the selections included guinea hen with mushroom risotto, morels and truffle foam; Jamison Farm lamb with Laura Chenel goat cheese gnocchi and ratatouille. The meat featured sliced medallions as well as a slender chop. The gnocchi were seasoned simply with kosher salt, which enhanced the myriad flavors within.

Grilled prime filet with celery root-potato puree, braised short ribs and oxtail jus is for the meat and potatoes types. For those types with a little extra money, the Austrailian “Kobe” beef premium ($25) is identical except for the meat.

Instead of a classic cheese course, Hunnel offers a cheesecake fashioned with English Stilton served with a cheesestick of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Desserts showcase the genius of pastry chef Erich Herbitschek. A Grand Marnier souffle was superb, but another presentation of chocolate and spun sugar presented a tableau of a salute to Disney’s new Soarin’ exhibit. Very impressive.

The dining room is under the watchful eye of Israel Perez. The erstwhile Vicky and Al’s comport themselves professionally, and service is painstakingly proper. I do wish they’d dispense with the line-by-line reading of the menu.

Much more annoying, however, is the grilling that takes place when making a phone reservation. It is a long ordeal during which you will be asked personal questions that shouldn’t matter when making a dinner reservation. There’s no need for that.

But with that experience in the past, dinner at Victoria & Albert’s, the only restaurant in Central Florida that still requires gentlemen to wear jackets, is truly top-notch. It’s a magnificent dining experience that is worthy of the accolades it has received.

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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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