Adventures in Dining

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Samba Room, July 24, 2007 July 25, 2007

Filed under: Sand Lake — hpandaw @ 2:29 pm

We’d eaten at the Samba Room once before, and had been favorably impressed by the service but rather underwhelmed by the food itself. We decided to give the Samba Room another, try, though, so we made reservations for 7:00 on a Tuesday evening. I don’t think that reservations were necessary, as the restaurant volume never got over 40% while we were there, but we’d rather be safe than sorry.

We are big fans of the mojitos at the Samba Room, so we grabbed 2 seats at the bar and settled down for a drink before actually entering the dining room. We’d read online that some mojitos were 1/2 price before 7 pm, so we were excited to take advantage of this offer. Mojitos usually cost $8 there, so half price was a good deal.

My husband ordered the Mojito Con Pina, a mojito with fresh mint leaves, pineapple juice, and a sugar cane stick for swirling. I ordered the Mojito Dos Coco, a mojito with fresh mint leaves and coconut rum. After tasting both of them, we quickly decided to switch mojitos. I really like the taste of pineapple juice, and my coconut mojito was stronger than my husband’s mojito. He preferred the taste of the coconut mojito and, since I was driving, the switch worked out well all the way around.

We were disappointed when we got the check to see that we’d been charged full price for our mojitos! I know it said that only “some” were 1/2 price, but I wish that the bartender had said something about this when we arrived. Half price mojitos are a nice selling point, and one that they should talk up more; it would also prevent people from expecting a discount that they weren’t going to get.

After finishing the drinks, we decided it was time to move on to the main dining room. The hostess asked us whether we’d like to be seated on the patio outside or inside. Now, the last time we’d been here, we had opted for the gorgeous lake view of the patio, only to realize that this was a poor decision. I am one of those people who goes ballistic if I see a bug hovering around my food or drink, and sitting on the patio about drove me batty last time. This time, we asked to be seated at one of the tables near the window, so that we would get all the advantages of the view, without the disadvantages of the bugs. Here was the view from our table:

Our appetizer was the Peruvian Fried Calamari with a chimichurri tartar sauce. This was okay, but not great, and here is why. The calamari itself was very soft and tender, and it tasted fresh. The breading, though, was slightly under-seasoned. The calamari was topped with tiny colorful pieces of red, orange, yellow, and green peppers, along with red onions. When eaten together, the small pieces of pepper and onion added a much-needed kick to the calamari. The chimichurri tartar sauce tasted like avocado mixed with cream and parsley. I looked up chimichurri sauce online, and it doesn’t seem to have much in common with what we were served.

While the tartar sauce here was nice and creamy and mellow, it just didn’t work that well with the calamari. The calamari was breaded, and kind of oily, and adding the fat of the avocado to the fat of the calamari breading tasted very mild and quite rich. A nice citrus sauce would have been great with this, as it would have really cut through the grease. The best calamari we ever had was at a restaurant in Sonoma Valley called Deuce, and they served their lighter-than-air calamari with a lovely lime aioli sauce. It was heaven on a dish.

We then moved on to our entrees.  My husband’s entree was an entire fried yellowtail snapper, which was the special for the evening.  The server told us that it cost a dollar less than it actually did, so, again, we were disappointed when the check came.  A dollar is not a big deal, but still…

This item was HUGE.  I’m sure it looked very creative and flashy, but I couldn’t get over the fact that an entire fish face was watching me throughout dinner.  Those breaded-over eyeballs were quite creepy, and I was strongly reminded of the extremely unappetizing Dancing Fish at Bluezoo.  My husband was not bothered by the presentation, though; he thought it looked interesting.

The yellowtail was stuffed with a rice/bean/sausage combo, which was not good, because he doesn’t eat meat unless we’re on vacation.  To be fair, he didn’t ask whether the fish had any meat included in it (which is what I did with my entree), but the server also probably should have mentioned this in the description.  He said that the sausage added a nice smoky taste to the rice, which he reported as tasting like my mother’s rice dressing (I am from Louisiana, and rice dressing is a big Cajun thing).  The fish had a nice fruity mango sauce on it that I enjoyed a lot.  The flavors were very mild, though, and my husband thought that the fish itself could have been better seasoned.

My entree was a Crispy Florida Red Snapper, pan seared over a warm spinach and grilled red onion salad, Shiitake mushroom “Al Ajillo” and mango beurre blanc.  Sounds good, doesn’t it?  It wasn’t.  The fish was exceeding UNfresh.  It tasted strongly of ammonia, so much so that I kept thinking I was eating blue cheese.  I couldn’t eat more than half of it.  My husband had two bites, and he agreed that it had a strong ammonia taste that made it quite unpleasant.

You may be asking yourself why I did not send my fish back, and the answer is simple: I was afraid to.  I was and am afraid of some horrible, disgusting retribution on the part of the kitchen staff if I send back a dish.  I have visions of someone hocking a loogie into my dessert or my replacement item.  Call me paranoid, but that’s how it is.  So I sucked it up and picked at my fish.

The spinach and red onions that accompanied the red snapper were interesting, and I ended up enjoying them.  The red onions tasted like they’d been pickled.  I think it was just that the vinaigrette poured over them might have been very strong, but they were definitely different.  The more I ate, though, the more I liked it, though it definitely isn’t the kind of thing that I’d order more of.  Frankly, it was a better alternative than the fish, so that’s why I kept at it.

The last time that we ate at the Samba Room, my husband ordered the scallops and I ordered the salmon.  I think that both of these dishes were better selections than what we ordered on this visit, which is why I mention them.  Neither the salmon nor the scallops were earth-shattering, but they were definitely better than the red snapper, and probably better than the yellowtail snapper.

The Samba Room offers small desserts in four flavors: Banana Brulee, Key Lime Cheesecake, Mini Carrot Cake, and Chocolate Mousse.  We selected the banana brulee and the carrot cake.  The banana brulee was very nice: light, soft, and creamy.  It wasn’t too sweet, and was a good way to end a meal.  This was my husband’s favorite of the two desserts.

My favorite dessert was the mini Carrot Cake.  This dessert was sweeter and richer than the banana dessert, and I am a fan of carrot cakes.  The maraschino cherries inside the cake added a nice texture to contrast with the creamy frosting.  The frosting, however, was the star.  It was a ginger cream frosting, which was outstanding.  The ginger added an unexpected kick to the carrot cake and raised it above the mediocre.

Would we go back?  Probably not.  We preferred the entrees at Timpano (right next door) to the Samba Room entrees, but Roy’s is still our favorite restaurant in this area.  I couldn’t help but contrast my ammonia-tasting red snapper with the unbelievably fresh, soft, luscious tuna we’d eaten at Roy’s.  The service at the Samba Room was very good; our server was very attentive, which we appreciated.

On another note, my husband’s dish has made me seriously re-think my dining habits.  I stopped eating meat for one reason: I knew that, if someone handed me a cow (or chicken or lamb or pig) and a knife and said, “Kill this and you can eat it,” I wouldn’t be able to do it.  And in that case, all I was doing was hiring a hit man to kill the animal for me.  I felt like a hypocrite.

Now, watching those dried out, breaded over eyes as I ate my dinner, I realized that I found my dish to be superior because it couldn’t watch me while I ate it.  But if I’m not comfortable with a fish watching me while I eat another fish, then maybe I shouldn’t be eating any fish at all.  Hmmm…  Is this the end of my pescatarian adventures, and the start of true vegetarianism?  Probably not until after our anniversary trip to Disney World next month, but after that – who knows?


Timpano Chophouse & Martini Bar, July 1, 2007 July 3, 2007

Filed under: Sand Lake — hpandaw @ 1:09 pm

This restaurant, like the Samba Room (which we will be visiting later on this month) is an e-brands restaurant. Though they are a chain, they strive for an upscale elegance in each restaurant. The Timpano’s self-declared theme is “Rare Steaks. Fresh Made Pasta. Tall Martinis. Swank Scenery.” And, if this is their mission statement, then they do deliver. Since Timpano is located on West Sand Lake Road, it’s in what is known as Orlando’s “Restaurant Row” in the Dr. Phillips area.

Upon entering, we decided to go for a drink before dinner, so approached the elegant, dark wood bar. Our bartender, Sticks, was very personable and friendly, even offering to change the television channel for us. Luckily, The Simpsons, which was playing at the time, is a favorite of ours.

My husband ordered a gin & tonic, while I ordered a vodka tonic. Yes, I know it’s a martini bar, but we are creatures of habit. The drinks here are great. At some places, we’ll order a drink and it’s all water, or all mixer: it tastes like it’s been waved over a liquor bottle. Our bartender here, though, gave us each a generous pour of liquor, so the drinks were quite strong, but not unpleasantly so.

The really odd note of the evening was struck here, at the bar area. While the bartenders, servers, and host staff all wear long-sleeved shirts, the barmaids are dressed in quite different apparel. They wear solid black low-cut tops, with black micro-mini skirts and black leather knee-high boots. The outfits, coupled with garishly streaked or bleached blond hair, make them look like women of a very different profession, so that my husband’s first comment was that there were hookers inhabiting this bar. We thought they might be on the take for businessmen, before realizing that they were actually employees.

The hookers notwithstanding, Timpano’s atmosphere is quite swanky. Dark wood and dim lamps permeate this restaurant, while Frank Sinatra’s voice croons on into the night. We had made reservations for this dinner, not knowing how crowded the restaurant might be on a summer evening here in Tourist Town. It was only at about 20% capacity when we arrived at 6:00, though by the time we left at 7:30, it was closer to 60% capacity.

We were seated promptly and began to look over our menus. There appeared to be some confusion about us among the wait staff, as our server, Von, arrived and said, “I know that Scott told me you’d been here before, but let me tell you about our specials.” She later approached us (after we’d received our entrees) to tell us that she’d confused us with another couple, and she then proceeded to give us the spiel about the dry-aged beef.

We started with a shared appetizer, the tuna carpaccio with calamata olives, capers, red onions and lemon aioli, served with flatbread. This was great, and was probably my favorite dish of the evening, but then again, I am a big tuna fan. The tuna was paper-thin, so it just melted in the mouth. My husband commented that he had a bite with just the tuna and aioli, and that it was very bland. With the olives and capers, though, this dish assumed more flavor and pizzazz, and we enjoyed it very much. At a cost of $9, it wasn’t unreasonably priced, but there was so little of the tuna that I ended up feeling it wasn’t a very good bargain.

The flatbread was quite good with this, and added a nice crunchy texture, to contrast with the melting softness of the tuna.

Neither of us was there for the steaks, since we don’t eat meat, but we did notice something odd on the menu: “Organic Grain Fed Veal.” In case you are not familiar with veal-raising practices, I will explain. Grain is what virtually all veal is fed, so that’s nothing unusual, and it’s definitely not a positive: quite the contrary. Cows are ruminants, and so are supposed to graze on grass; grain disagrees with their systems, which is why we have to pump our cows so full of antibiotics before they become beef. For someone to advertise as though it were out of the ordinary for a veal calf to be fed grain is a very odd thing. I have to wonder how many people have said, over dinner, “Ah, this is GRAIN-fed veal, not like that run of the mill GRASS-fed veal.” The veal calf wishes that were so.

Notice also that, while they point out that the grain was organic, they do not say that the veal itself was organic. This would mean the farmer would have had to provide some access to pasture, which is difficult to do if you’ve got the calf chained by its neck in a box too small for it to stand, and equally difficult to do if you’re having to give the calf antibiotics to keep it alive long enough to be fattened. But we got a good laugh out of seeing this on the menu.

My husband, at our server’s recommendation, ordered the Seafood Cioppino. This was a stew made from shrimp, calamari, “medallions of fresh fish” (tuna and salmon on that evening), P.E.I. Mussels, herbs, and fresh pasta in a lobster broth for $22. He usually doesn’t order stews, since they are generally the chef’s way of hiding mediocre quality seafood, but he made an exception that night and it turned out well. The broth had a nice, light, citrusy taste that cut through the heaviness and oiliness of some of the fish. He wasn’t expecting fresh pasta in a cioppino, so this was a nice surprise for him. Half of his pieces of fish were cooked perfectly, while the other half were overcooked and a bit mushy. Such is the danger of ordering a stew! But he felt fortunate in his selection and enjoyed it very much. At $22, it was competitively priced with similar dishes from other area restaurants.

I decided to go for a vegetarian entree and ordered the Wild Mushroom pasta for $15. This was a gastronomic disaster, from the point of view of my digestive system. The primary note here was oil. Oil soaked the noodles, coated the mushrooms, pooled around the edges of the plate. If I could have wrung the pasta and mushrooms out, I’d have had enough oil for a good, old-fashioned fish fry. While the mushrooms had a nice flavor, this was almost drowned out by the sheer amount of oil in this dish. Have I conveyed to you just how oily this dish was? I couldn’t eat much, since it was so heavy and greasy, and I became ill later that night.

For some reason, I feel guilty if I don’t eat much of my entree, and I always ask to have it boxed, whether I intend to eat it later or not. In this case, I definitely did not. My husband, against my recommendation, took it to work to eat for lunch the next day. When I called him that afternoon, he said, “Man, that pasta was oily!” Heh.

We then moved on to desserts, at which point, something strange happened again with our servers. Von, who had been our server, remained in the dining room – we could see her circulating to other tables. Some guy, who we’d never seen until that moment, brought us the dessert tray and was all smiles and happy, as though he’d always been our server. This abrupt change in servers confused us, and when the check came, we noticed that it had our server’s name as “Scott.” So I don’t know whether Von got the tip, or whether Scott, who only delivered the dessert and check, ended up getting it. We’d liked Von, though, since she’d visited and liked Charlotte, the town from which we’d moved. She had stayed in South Park, our favorite area, so we’d been happily conversing with her, when she suddenly disappeared!

Scott brought out the tray of desserts, the main feature of which was a cheesecake tree for $16. This basically consisted of a silver tree, but out of its branches protruded mini cheesecake lollipops. Since my husband is not a huge cheesecake fan, and I had had quite a heavy entree, we did not choose this option.

Around the cheesecake tree were the other desserts: mini-indulgences for $2 each. There was a tiny tiramisu, which I almost ordered, but I instead chose the Tartuffo: a mixture of chocolate cake and chocolate mousse, with white chocolate and a strawberry on top. This was served cool, and the chocolate cake added a nice texture to the mousse. We both enjoyed this dish very much and decided that it was our favorite of the two we tried.

My husband (remember – not a cheesecake fan) decided to break the mold again, and ordered the White Chocolate Berry Cheesecake. This was quite good, and the tartness of the berries contrasted nicely with the very rich and creamy cheesecake. We both agreed, though, that the chocolatey goodness of the Tartuffo surpassed the creamy goodness of the cheesecake.

In all, the service was very good here. Everyone we encountered was friendly and personable. We had two interactions with the manager: one at the bar and one at our table, and it is always a good sign when the manager is circulating and speaking to guests.

The food, with the exception of my Wild Mushrooms and Oil Pasta, was also quite good. Would we return? Probably not, but only because we are pescatarians, so we prefer a restaurant like Roy’s whose focus is on seafood. If we ate steaks and chops, we would not hesitate to dine here, though we would be wary of fancy-sounding items that are actually as common as day. We also wouldn’t hesitate to return here if we ever had guests who were big meat eaters, since that atmosphere is very nice, the service is very hospitable, and the prices are quite reasonable.

Okay, I had to add this to my review.  Just today (July 6) we got a card in the mail from Timpano.  It was handwritten and said, “Thank you so much for coming in.  We can’t wait to see you again.”   And it was signed “Von & Scott.” We thought this was excellent customer service, and we were very impressed with this attention to detail.  We are now, actually, more inclined to return than we were before receiving the card.


Roy’s on West Sand Lake, Orlando June 9, 2007

Filed under: Sand Lake — hpandaw @ 12:51 am

We dined at Roy’s on West Sand Lake Road (near I-Drive) for the first time this February, and it was OUTSTANDING. I would highly recommend it for someone looking for fresh, delicious seafood. I have to say that, having been to California Grill, Flying Fish, and Narcoossees (Disney restaurants) many times, they were blown out of the water by Roy’s for freshness of the seafood offerings as well as prompt, friendly service.

Reservations are strongly recommended; we ate there on a Saturday night, and a couple walked in behind us and were told it was a 3 hour wait without reservations. Yikes…

Instead of bringing bread, our server started us off with edamame beans topped with sea salt. These were light, and were a nice change for us. I am the type of person who LOVES bread, so I tend to fill up on that, and these prevented us from doing so.

On the recommendation of our server, we started with the lobster potstickers. These were quite good, though not extremely memorable. They were flavorful, and full of lobster pieces mixed with fish, but were a bit greasy for me. We both enjoyed the spicy togarashi miso butter sauce that came with these, and it wasn’t too spicy at all, even for my sensitive palate!

We are pescatarians, so we enjoyed the wide range of seafood available here. Our server recommended the blackened ahi tuna, but there were so many choices! My husband ended up ordering the mahi mahi, which is the signature dish, and I ordered a 3-dish sampler platter whose exact name escapes me.

The mahi mahi was a little dry, but that was more than made up for by the Maine lobster butter sauce. It had a slight crab boil taste to it, and even the red potatoes that accompanied this dish had absorbed the flavor. My husband, who rarely eats potatoes, practically licked his plate clean. He said that the mashed potatoes under the asparagus were a nice touch, and he wished that there had been more of them. It is difficult to sauce a fish well, and this one was superbly sauced.

The 3-item sampler that I ordered had a 2-ounce portion each of the Hawaiian style misoyaki butterfish with sizzling soy vinaigrette, the hibachi style grilled salmon filet with a citrus ponzu sauce and sticky rice, and the blackened island ahi with spicy soy mustard butter.

The butterfish was amazing; it was so tender and moist, and just came apart with my fork. The sauce with this was slightly sweet, but was offset by the minced tomatoes and onions topping the butterfish. I enjoyed the soft, tender butterfish, especially contrasted with the small pieces of crisp onion. This was my second favorite of the three fish, though it was only slightly ahead of the salmon.

The grilled salmon was my least favorite of the three, but it was still absolutely delicious. Again, it was moist and flavorful; the wood grilling had imparted such a lovely flavor to the fish that I enjoyed it very much. I only put it down third because the sauce was just a bit too sweet for my taste. The sticky rice that accompanied this was just unpleasant. It was too sweet and gingery for me, so I didn’t eat it.

The best was the blackened ahi tuna, and I have to say, this is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. I couldn’t stop raving about it. It was served raw, just slightly seared, and it was seasoned perfectly. It was such good quality fish, and so fresh – the server said that they fly in a shipment every morning, and that the fish had been alive the night before. The quality and freshness showed; it was so tender and flavorful that it just melted in my mouth. I hadn’t ordered this alone as my entree, despite the server’s recommendation, because I usually don’t care for tuna, and I don’t like mustard at all. This dish made a believer out of me. It was served with 2 strengths of the sauce: mild and spicy. The spicy sauce was too much for me, but the mild one was great, and complimented the tuna beautifully. I cannot say enough good things about this dish.
From left to right: tuna, salmon, and butterfish:

For dessert, we shared the melting hot chocolate souffle, which was served with a side of vanilla ice cream and a raspberry coulis. This was amazing, so rich, and the melted chocolate center was lovely. It was almost identical to the chocolate lava cake at the California Grill, and it was so rich that I was glad we’d decided to share it.

We were seated in the quiet room, off to the side, which was wonderful since we had wanted a romantic evening out. The main room seemed like it could get a bit loud, with the bar and show kitchen there. We decided, though, that when we return, we will ask to be seated at the kitchen counter, so that we can watch the chefs in action. My husband loves to cook, and that is the kind of experience he would enjoy.

I would highly recommend this restaurant to anyone who is a seafood fan; for freshness and quality within its price category, this restaurant is amazing. I only qualify it by price category, because it’s not in the 5 diamond category like Victoria & Albert’s, but I would venture to say that the tuna at Roy’s rivals anything I’ve eaten at V&A’s. They also offer a 3-course prix fixe menu for $33, which is quite a good deal.