Category Archives: Restaurant review

Lazy Moon Pizza restaurant review (Orlando Weekly)

“I feel like a 5-year-old!” says my wife, who, though certainly young, has at least graduated from kindergarten.

Dwarfed by the epic-sized slices of pizza at Lazy Moon Pizza (12269 University Blvd., 407-658-2396), she was reminded what it’s like to be a miniature person, when everything seems outsized. The wide variety of toppings make for endless flavor combinations, but it’s the thin, crispy crust that allows one to devour these ridiculously mammoth pieces without exploding. (And, with the honey decanters on the table, it also makes for a cheap dessert.)

The collegiate crowd that packs the place for said slices is able to wash down the pizza with an impressive selection of imports and microbrews, and the soups and salads on offer put Lazy Moon quite a few notches above the average pies-and-beer joints that dot college campuses. Keep in mind, however, that the median age of the UCF clientele may have some of you feeling the opposite of “young.”

First appeared March 1, 2007 in Orlando Weekly.

Bikkuri Sushi restaurant review (Orlando Weekly)

Picking up sushi for dinner on the way home from work is a fairly daunting proposition in that it usually means stopping by the Japanese deli case near the produce section at your local grocery store. The convenience is nice, but the sushi – while tolerable and far better than a delivery pizza – leaves something to be desired (especially the weird, plastic-looking tuna). If you’re one of the approximately 80 billion people who uses East Colonial Drive for the daily trip home, you’ve no doubt noticed the poster-sized photo of the scrumptious-looking “Sky Tray” of sushi that graces the window of Bikkuri Sushi and wondered: Wouldn’t that be great for dinner?

Although there is limited seating inside Bikkuri, the restaurant’s specialty is takeout, as the menu is almost completely composed of takeout trays. From the Rose Party (32 pieces, all rolls; $13.29) to the African Violet (80 pieces of rolls, 10 nigiri sushi; $46.59), a variety of sizes and combinations is available and all of them are, surprisingly enough, priced more reasonably than the stuff in the grocery store.

The 72 pieces (and $50 price tag) of the Sky Tray might be a little much for a typical after-work meal, but I had friends coming over and figured it would be a good opportunity to sample Bikkuri’s skills. Still, none of us expected Bikkuri’s fare to be as fresh as it was. Some of the nigiri wasn’t cut to perfection (a tiny piece of bone showed up in some yellowtail), but the fish was excellent and well-chosen, and the rolls were beautiful and bursting with flavor.

It would have been unimaginable a few years ago to think about picking up sushi as easily as picking up a pizza, much less FRESH sushi, but Bikkuri’s tray combinations make it easy, and their excellent sushi makes it a pleasure.

First appeared in the Jan. 13, 2005 issue of Orlando Weekly.

Mellow Mushroom restaurant review (Orlando Weekly)

When I lived in Atlanta in the early 1990s, I was one broke-ass sucker. Before I began my illustrious career in alternative journalism, I was sleeping on a friend’s floor, working various jobs, avoiding responsibility and managing to drink most of my paycheck. Therefore, despite all the wonderful dining options around town, my stomach had to endure the standard bohemian rations of cheap ramen and 99-cent fast-food menus.

Occasionally, though, minor financial windfalls would come my way, and whatever wasn’t spent in pursuit of entertainment was splurged on one of two meals: fried chicken at the Silver Grill (the best fried chicken on the planet) or pizza at Mellow Mushroom. And Mellow Mushroom was the first place I ever encountered a tofu anything that tasted good. Yeah, tofu on your pizza. Weird, right? But the, um, mellow vibe at the Mushroom helped keep the hippie leanings of its pizza menu from turning the joint into some sort of granola factory. The mood was communal, the beer was cheap and the pizza – with meat or without – was always excellent.

Not surprisingly, the restaurant was successful to the point of being an institution. The first Mellow Mushroom opened in the ’70s near Georgia Tech; there are now more than 50 locations throughout the Southeast. So when construction began on a Mellow Mushroom outpost – near my house even! – I was eager for a chance to see what happens when a restaurant whose identity is intertwined with its city of origin branches out into foreign territory. Would the atmosphere be as convivial? Would they have good beer? Would this charming and wonderful part of my own personal history have been turned into an Olive Garden-style commodity? Most importantly, would they have good pizza?

Answers: Yes, but with effort. Hell, yes. Yes, but not in a bad way. Absolutely.

As with any new restaurant in Winter Park, interest in Mellow Mushroom’s opening was high. We went just a few days after it opened and were greeted by a polite hostess who informed us there was a 15-minute wait, which was surprising, but would have been fine if there had actually been a place to wait. The restaurant is squeezed into a tiny plot of land in the Publix shopping plaza on Aloma Avenue, and there’s precious little room for parking near the restaurant (unless you count the plaza’s huge parking lot nearby). With no real waiting area, this means the parking lot also functions as an ersatz holding pen for those on the list.

That’s the only thing I found wrong with the new Mellow Mushroom.

Though it shone with a sparkly freshness that was a little off-putting, the classic-rock soundtrack and quasi-psychedelic artwork (right down to the “plasticine porter” bathroom-door markers) were all hallmarks of the relaxed, counter-culture Mushroom environment. A reassuringly long line of beer taps at the bar was a great sight; the fact that they all poured excellent Shipyard products made me giddy.

Our waitress was one of those sit-at-the-table types, which is usually annoying, but when she served our food, it could have been brought to us by Dick Cheney and we would have left a good tip. Huge chunks of fresh, moist mozzarella and tomato slices topped a massive bed of fresh field greens in the Capri salad ($7). The teriyaki-marinated tofu in our half-hoagie ($3.75) was accented by grilled onions, peppers and sprouts and slathered with mayonnaise. The pretzels ($3.70) were made with superfresh dough and baked on a pizza stone.

Oh yeah, the pizza. The 10-inch “Magical Mystery Tour” ($10.75) pie – spinach, feta, mozzarella, portobello mushrooms on a pesto (rather than marinara) base – was simply astounding, with copious toppings and a buttery, Parmesan-topped crust. Despite the other excellent offerings on the menu, the pizza’s what it’s all about here, and I’m pleased to report that expansion has done nothing to diminish the quality.

Sure, the slick new surroundings don’t have the same scrappy appeal as the original shops, but the pizza’s still great and, hey, I don’t have the same scrappy appeal I had a decade ago either. I guess that’s a fair trade.

First appeared in the Oct. 21, 2004 issue of Orlando Weekly.

Bear Rock Cafe restaurant review (Orlando Weekly)

What do plastic antlers, a nonworking fireplace and free wireless Internet access have in common? Not much, unless you’re immersed in the unnecessarily overthemed environment that is Bear Rock Café. Feeling that fresh, substantial sandwiches wouldn’t quite set them apart from Panera, Atlanta Bread Company and all the other similarly oriented chains, Bear Rock decided to go for some sort of “Rocky Mountain” theme. (Which is confusing, since the company is based near Chapel Hill, N.C.) Said theme involves bears, khaki shorts, copious use of green in the color scheme and a vague feeling that, because you’re in a restaurant that pretends like it’s in the great outdoors, the gigantic “Reuben’s peak” sandwich ($5.79) is somehow healthy. It’s a bit ridiculous and threatens to overshadow the surprisingly broad menu Bear Rock boasts.

With more than 20 different sandwiches and wraps (from $5.49-$5.99) – and the potential for more with the “create your own” option ($5.99) – more than a half-dozen salads ($4.59-$5.89) as well as soups, baked potatoes and even a breakfast menu (surprise, there’s a bear claw on the list), Bear Rock would have been better off going for the “Any Freakin’ Sandwich You Want” theme, rather than the fresh air and sunshine route. Whether it’s old-school deli sandwiches – the aforementioned Reuben or a ham and Swiss on rye ($5.69) – or more unusual selections like the “hoot owl” (turkey, Havarti, mayo, lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts and onion dressing; $5.69), you’ll likely find a sandwich to suit your needs.

I sat down with one of their vegetarian options, a massive “garden” sandwich ($5.79) with generous portions of fresh greens, tomatoes, mushrooms and sprouts. It would have been just good, were it not for the soft and springy vegetable bread it was stuffed into, and the swell touch of Havarti cheese and a garlic/tomato spread that pushed it way past the bland flavorings of many other restaurant’s veg-only sandwich choices and into the realm of “excellent.” A baked potato ($3.29 alone; $1.50 as a side option) was slathered in butter and sour cream (health, schmealth) and was cooked perfectly.

So, forgive Bear Rock’s needless theming and enjoy them for their sandwiches. After all, when you’re plunked down next door to a nail salon and between a Home Depot and a Super Target, there’s little that a wooden chair can do to convince a diner that they are anywhere but Orlando.

First appeared in the Sept. 23, 2004 issue of Orlando Weekly.

Gizmo Sushi restaurant review (Orlando Weekly)

Around my house, going out for sushi is the equivalent of what “pizza night” was when I was growing up: a guaranteed night of relaxed semidecadence that finds my family gathered around a table noshing through a community platter of food. Thus, hearing the words, “Go eat some sushi and we’ll pay for it,” issuing forth as an assignment is hardly the sort of thing to spark up my normal level of skepticism.

Rolling up into the scrappy strip mall that houses Gizmo Sushi with my clan, it didn’t take long for the negative vibes to start boiling up. In the old location of Momo Sushi (which was owned by a Japanese family; Gizmo is owned by Koreans, but more on that later), the back-of-a-gas-station-next-to-a-barbershop locale leaves something to be desired. Once inside, the décor – a cheaply Spartan blend of anime posters and Pier One furniture – and mess-hall openness of the dining room didn’t do much to improve matters. (Though Momo was similarly decorated, small touches of elegance did much to create a pleasant atmosphere; at Gizmo you’re left to visit the bizarrely decorated bathrooms for a touch of ambience.)

But when our waitress told us there was no beer (due to a delay in the receipt of their license), my mood turned awfully sour. I refer you to the above remark about “pizza night.” In the same way that a pie is that much better with a pitcher, you just have to have an Asahi with a boat full of rolls. Oh yeah, no boats at Gizmo either.

Strikes one, two and three (four if you count the boat) did not set off this visit to Gizmo on the right foot, and the flat sodas brought by our beleaguered waitress (she was the only one working the floor on this night, and it showed) had all my pessimist pistons running full-throttle. “The food better be good,” was the mumbled mantra, and with the (eventual) arrival of the appetizers, things started looking up.

Although the portion of edamame ($3.50) we were served was a bit piddling, the soybeans were salted and steamed perfectly, while the shumai ($4.95) – steamed dumplings filled with diced shrimp meat – were so good we ordered a second plate. But, really, what sushi place should be judged on its soybeans and shumai? It’s all about the rolls, and once they finally made it to the table, any doubts about Gizmo were soon gone.

In addition to the standards – California roll, super crunch roll – we decided to dive into what makes sushi joints special, their house rolls. With its Korean proprietorship, it was unsurprising to find something like the “seafood kimchee volcano roll” ($10.95) on the menu, but honestly, the thought of the flavor overload of a roll that includes cucumber, avocado, crabmeat, masago (smelt roe), tuna, salmon, snapper, white tuna, sesame oil, scallions, hot sauce and seafood kimchee was too much to consider. Especially with no beer. Instead, we tried the Mexican roll ($5.50) which included neither refried beans nor salsa, but was made up of shrimp tempura, wasabi-tinted mayonnaise and avocado; because, of course, mayonnaise is huge in Mexico. Regardless of its questionable lineage, the roll was excellent, like all the other rolls we were served.

Though it was easy to hold our lone server responsible for the delays in getting our food out, the “blame” probably should have laid upon the sushi chef. He was obviously meticulous in the construction of the rolls, as they all held together well and were perfectly presented. The supertasty Munch Man roll ($5.95) was crabmeat, crispy fish flakes, wasabi mayo and masago, a concoction that would fall apart under most circumstances, but held its own quite well. Likewise, the mushy baked conch/crab salad topping of the volcano roll ($8.50) should have been a messy disaster, but wasn’t.

Gizmo also features a decent enough selection of donburi (rice bowls, $8.95-$13.95) and noodle dishes ($8.95-$11.95) as well as standard fare like grilled items ($9.95-$15.95) and tempura dishes ($10.95-$14.95), but the individual servings those dishes require don’t provide communal “pizza night” vibe like rolls. And Gizmo absolutely excels at making rolls. Wait until they get their beer license, then ignore the location, ignore the dŽcor and have patience with your server, and you won’t be disappointed. “Disappointed,” of course, being a relative term.

First appeared in the Sept. 9, 2004 issue of Orlando Weekly.

Journeys restaurant review (Orlando Weekly)

Tucked into an oddly shaped and somewhat dated strip mall near the intersection of State Road 434 and I-4 in Longwood, Journeys Restaurant has a good bit going against it. Shadowed by Bonefish Grill and surrounded by vacant storefronts, the cozily luxurious tone that the owners clearly want to impart to visitors is a tough sell. With wrought-iron tables set up bistro-style outside the front door, it’s nonetheless hard to convince yourself that you’re anywhere but next to an abandoned department store off the highway.

But once you’re in the front door and have been greeted warmly by one of the owners, the tattiness of Journeys’ exterior environment melts away. Though neither aggressively stylish nor sumptuous, the dimly lit interior is pleasantly inviting, and the restaurant’s tagline of “world inspired cuisine” seems a definite possibility. Although there are too many tables crammed into the tiny dining room — you’re nearly elbow-to-elbow with your fellow diners — the overall atmosphere at Journeys is that of a communal meal. Co-owner Geraldine Fowler moves from table to table, striking up friendly conversation while gently ensuring that the servers are doing their jobs and each dish is meeting expectations. The servers themselves are knowledgeable and efficient, but friendly in a casual manner. All told, the vibe is much more dinner-party-at-a-cool-friend’s-house than fancy-dinner-at-a-snooty-restaurant. And that vibe, really, is the best vibe.

But you don’t go to a restaurant for “vibe,” now do you? You go for the, um, “world inspired cuisine.” I just can’t get over that tag, by the way. How, exactly, does food get inspired by the world? If it’s by dint of incorporating ingredients from different places, Journeys isn’t exactly on the cusp of a new trend, yet that appears to be the only “inspiration” the dishes have. In other words, there’s not much on your custom-printed menu (guests who’ve made reservations find their names on the bill of fare) that you haven’t seen before, and almost all of it comes from the Euro-American “world.”

That semantic quibble aside, Journeys actually benefits from avoiding the “fusion” tag. The dishes are well-composed without the jarring admixtures of contradictory flavor traditions that undermine many such noble endeavors. The “airline” chicken breast ($17), for instance, was simply pan-seared and laid atop a richly flavored fusilli with mushroom sauce. The exterior of the bird was crisp, while the plentiful juices within mixed perfectly with the pasta. Venturing into quasi-Asian territory, the ahi tuna ($28) was plated with a ginger-flavored risotto (!) and spaghetti-cut vegetables. Topped with a somewhat overwhelming beurre blanc with soy sauce and occasionally biting wasabi, it’s all about Asia … except when it’s about Italy.

The roasted duck breast ($22) was the high point of the meal. Drenched in a balsamic and cranberry glace, the duck was perfectly cooked with just enough greasiness to make it decadent, but not so much that it overwhelmed the plate. Oh yeah, the plate. Accompanied by spinach and an airy, goat-cheese-topped polenta, the balance of flavors, densities and textures was improbably excellent. (Journeys loves its goat cheese, by the way; the pan-seared goat cheese accompanying the baby greens salad, $7, was so tasty it could have been dessert.)

Entrees like those bode well for Journeys and the remainder of the menu was equally impressive. The above-mentioned salad was a joy, as was a stack of sliced heirloom tomatoes ($8) topped with Asiago cheese and soaking in a vinaigrette infused with tarragon, chives and sun-dried tomato oil. A spicy and densely flavored fumet with feta cheese, kalamata olives, sun-dried tomatoes and shrimp ($9) was a little intense for an appetizer, but the blast of flavor easily set the tone for a meal with wide-ranging tastes.

Service, as mentioned before, was excellent, but not overbearing. Although on this particular evening, the restaurant was out of my first two beer selections, the server was quick to provide a recommendation; that he also didn’t charge me for it should tell you how accommodating the staff is. Rather than being humbled by its surroundings, one can hope that Journeys will set the tone for the area’s future.

First appeared in the April 1, 2004 issue of Orlando Weekly.

Cafe Italiano restaurant review (Orlando Weekly)

If you’re in an Italian restaurant that plays the theme music from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” — without a hint of irony — you’re in a seriously old-school Italian restaurant. And if anything defines Café Italiano, it’s “old school.” Just a few red-checked tablecloths short of a cliché, the family-run Café has been in business on State Road 436 since 1965. In that time, the area has turned from residential thoroughfare to a blighted scar of fast food joints, strip clubs and used car lots. But such neighborhood disrepair has done little to persuade the owners — or patrons — of Café Italiano to move on to tonier climes.

Why not? The answer is simple: When you’re being served food this dependably good, you don’t care if the restaurant shares a building with a neon-lit nail salon. Rather than coasting on the reputation that four decades of business should allow them, the family owners are clearly maintaining close vigilance over the quality of their food. On the night we were there, a manager alternated between greeting guests at the front door, checking on the kitchen staff and visiting tables to ensure everything was as it should be. Our server was incredibly polite and helpful, always there when we needed her, never there when we didn’t.

On said server’s suggestion, we tried the chicken Florentine and the eggplant parmigiana ($9.25), which, according to her, were among the best dishes on the menu. As eggplant dishes can easily devolve into nondescript nastiness, I figured it would be a good test for the kitchen. The kitchen easily passed: Even wrapped in a solid coating of breading, the fried eggplant maintained its individual texture, and its flavor was enhanced — but not overpowered — by the mozzarella and marinara it was bathed in. The chicken Florentine ($12.75) fared almost as well — the spinach and cheese was stuffed perhaps a little too generously into the perfectly cooked chicken breast and the cheese on top was a little quick to congeal into a gooey mess, but overall the dish was excellent.

The side dishes and desserts were equally impressive. Calamari ($5.75) was served out-of-the-fryer hot, with a delicious herb-drenched breading that didn’t fall prey to the blandness problem that plagues most calamari coverings. A side order of spaghetti ($3.50) and a surprisingly rich cheese ravioli entrée ($9) kept the kids sated, while respectable cannoli ($3.75) and spumoni ($3) made them quite happy. The six-layer tiramisu ($4.25) made the adults smile; as with the calamari, the kitchen is unafraid to make it powerfully flavorful, with a healthy dose of espresso giving it a bite all too often missing from the dessert.

Despite a cavernous interior that’s a little run-down and a less-than-desirable location, there’s no reason to think that anything less than an exceptional dining experience awaits you at Café Italiano. The years of tradition and a devoted clientele demand that the place uphold some fairly high standards. It may not be the hippest restaurant you ever eat at, but with such thoughtful preparation and a staff this attentive and friendly, odds are this place will still be standing well after that chic, overpriced bistro your friends were all excited about is nothing but a foggy punch line.

First appeared in the Feb. 19, 2004 issue of Orlando Weekly.