** (2 stars)

I loved the ambience of this place, which looks and feels exactly like a cafe in old Havana.

Unfortunately, that’s where the love stopped. As someone who lives much of the year in Florida, I’ve had a lot of Cuban food at many different restaurants, and I’ve never encountered anything like what is served here.

First off, the lunch menu has been taken over in part by Tex-Mex items such as quesadillas, not a good sign. Perhaps foolishly, I stuck with something that sounded authentically Cuban, and had the Pollo from the dinner menu, along with a cup of black bean soup.

Good black bean soup is smooth, with plenty of whole beans and crispy bits of onion. This gritty slurry had none of those characteristics.

Traditional Cuban chicken is roasted, with a crisp, garlic coated skin and moist interior, exactly as described on the menu. What showed up, though was a soggy mess covered in a weird salty white gravy that had almost no flavor.

It had more flavor than the “congri,” it was served with, though. That mixture of rice and black beans was dry and utterly flavorless. Fried yucca was similarly flavorless, but had a nice crisp exterior.

The saving grace on the plate were the ripe plantains, which were perfectly caramelized and still hot from the sauce pan. Sadly, one out of five is not enough to get me to ever return.

It’s a shame because the service was efficient, and the place looks great. They just need major adjustments in the kitchen.

412 N Clark St
Chicago, IL 60654
(312) 644-1900

Mariano’€™s Fresh Market

***** (5 stars)

I think I’m in love.

I’ve always considered the ultimate grocery store to be Southern California’s Gelsons (although many vote for Wegman’s, where I’ve never been) with The defunct Florida Gooding’s a close second. But Mariano’s certainly has those two beat.

Basically it’s like Whole Foods plus normal foods, plus a good wine, spirits and liquor store.

I love the vast variety of produce, the way everything is displayed, the logical arrangement of the two levels of the store, the extensive cheese offerings, and the large international section.

It’s great to be able to get organic produce, gourmet products and everyday packaged foods (okay, junk) without having to visit Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Jewel. Mariano has it all. Although I’m not a comparative shopper, prices also seems quite reasonable.

The employees I met were very helpful and cheerful, and the whole store seems like a great place for everyday shopping and discovering new goodies.

I think it will be a long honeymoon.

Mariano’s Fresh Market
333 E Benton Pl
Ste 206
Chicago, IL 60601
(312) 228-1349

Wildberry Pancakes and Cafe

***** (5 stars)

This bright and sunny spot is an excellent place for breakfast, with a giant, double-sided menu of everything from sweet to savory.

A standout was the wild berry crepes, fluffy crepes wrapped around mixed fresh berries without any goo weighing them down.

The applewood smoked bacon is also wonderful, thick cut and succulent.

Intelligentsia coffee is served (one of my favorites) and the chai tea lattes are huge.

Service is friendly and quick, making it a great breakfast stop.

Wildberry Pancakes and Cafe
130 E Randolph St
Chicago, IL 60601
(312) 938-9777

Siena Tavern

**** (4 stars)

Despite its name, Siena Tavern doesn’t really come across as either Italian or a tavern. True, there is a list of pizzas, and they serve drinks, but it seems more like  a Hillstone concept to me.

The decor is open and modern, with a few too many hard surfaces to control the noise level when it’s busy (which seems to be most of the time).

We went for Sunday brunch/lunch, and I was pleased to find that while there were some very tasty looking brunch items, there were also lots of non-breakfast choices.

The chopped salad was an interesting conglomeration of vegetables, cheese and meat, and had enough juice from the artichoke hearts and other veggies that it didn’t really need the accompanying honey mustard dressing, so I’m glad I had that on the side.

The “burnt crust” pepperoni pizza wasn’t quite as charred as I would have liked, but it did have a very thin crust and good flavor.

Service was efficient, a necessity given how busy they were.

I’m not sure what would draw me back for a revisit (maybe some of the breakfast items, which looked really delicious and really bad for you) but my visit was fine.

Siena Tavern
51 W Kinzie St
Chicago, IL 60654
(312) 595-1322

Bandera Restaurant

**** (4 stars)

I love the atmosphere of this place, which is intimate and fairly dark, with spotlights aimed at the tables rather than the diners. The live jazz is just the right volume, giving the place a supper club feel.

The menu is similar to Hillstone’s and Houston’s, which isn’t surprising since it’s affiliated. A couple of our favorite starters from there appear here. The spinach artichoke dip is creamy, and served with sturdy tortilla chips perfect for dipping. Also included are sour cream and a salsa with just a hint of heat. House smoked salmon is very smokey, delicate and flaky, served with crisp toast and a mayo and dill based spread.

Bandera’s Caesar salad isn’t for purists, as it uses kale, and the croutons are made from a fairly sweet corn bread. Ours were heavily over-dressed, but when the waitress noticed we weren’t enjoying them she immediately had them remade with about one fifth the dressing, and they were much better.

A house specialty is the enchilada, which is available with steak or a la carte. It’s a bit unusual in that it’s stuffed with squash, but is quite creamy, cheesy and satisfying.

Much of the menu is given over to burgers and other sandwiches, so the price for dinner and a show can be quite reasonable.

Service was super attentive without being intrusive.

Waits can be long, so reserve ahead, despite the fact that their reservation system doesn’t work as well as opentable.

This is definitely a great place for live jazz in a supper club atmosphere.

Bandera Restaurant
535 N Michigan Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 644-3524

Panera Bread

**** (4 stars)

Every Panera I’ve been to has essentially identical food, so reviewing it seems superfluous; you either like it or not.

Panera always seems a bit like a bait and switch to me, as they bill themselves as healthy, yet most of what they serve is not particularly good for you. Just look at that bakery display! But you can eat healthy if you try, and assuming their calorie counts are honest they must have the lowest calorie tuna sandwich on the planet. Also, did you know you can get an apple instead of chips?

What sets Paneras apart is the location, and this one is well-sited. It’s easy to get in and out, has lots of parking, and even a drive through. Also, there is a porch, so you can eat outside, yet be in the shade.

Service is friendly, but I sure wish they wouldn’t page you before your food is up, a reliable occurrence. What’s the point of the pager if you’re just going to stand at the counter anyway?

You can also order online and pick your food up in a bag on the shelf; very convenient.

Panera Bread
4200 Conroy Road
Orlando, FL 32839
(407) 248-0811

Taverna Opa

**** (4 stars)

Taverna Opa offers one of the most fun venues at Pointe Orlando. Serving both lunch and dinner, the restaurant has very different atmospheres at day and night.

Lunch is a quiet affair where you can eat outside, inside, and large parties can be accommodated in the spacious back room. At night it transforms into a lively party atmosphere, with much twirling of napkins and shouts of “Opa!”

The menu offers all the Greek standards. The cold appetizer platter is a nice sampling of three dips, and the hot appetizer platter offers delicious wings, lamb ribs, and so-so calamari.

Complimentary hummus that you crush yourself is served with very fresh pitas.

The best appetizer is probably the flaming cheese.

The souvlaki is actually a gyro served with fries, and your choice of filling.

Service is friendly and the wine list is extensive.

Taverna Opa
9101 International Dr
Orlando, FL 32819
(407) 351-8660

Caprino’s Italian

**** (4 stars)

Caprino’s is a much better restaurant than anything that has previously occupied this space. Run by Chef Stefano, who previously had the restaurant at the entrance to Summerport, and also has Stefano’s Grill in Dr Phillip’s Marketplace, Caprino’s strikes a balance between neighborhood Italian restaurant and sports bar.

The space is still the amalgam of Rialto’s ornate fine dining restaurant wrapped around a somewhat incongruous bar dotted with big screen TVs, but this serves the menu well, with its emphasis on combining traditional Italian dishes with sports bar food.

Whether your party wants wings, hoagies, pasta or pizza, there is likely something for everyone. And at the higher end, the beef is reportedly all prime; it and the seafood are butchered on site.

Our server was friendly and well-informed, and the service in general seemed quite polished for a restaurant open less than two months. On a moderately busy Friday night the kitchen was having trouble keeping up, which caused some service issues, but presumably these will be corrected.

The pizza is thin crust and has an authentic Naples taste to it. We tried two specials: the osso buco was heavily over-salted, but the lobster ravioli was well-prepared. Caesar salad is conventional and includes house made croutons.

Desserts are the same offerings as at Stefano’s Grill. The tira misu was generous.

Wine by the glass selections are somewhat limited, but there is a nice list of 29 bottles for $29 each, and also extensive cocktail offerings.

Chef Stefano was circulating throughout the dining room on the night we were there, and his hands on approach has certainly improved the experience at this neighborhood restaurant. So far it’s paying off with increased patronage.

Caprino’s Italian
7782 Winter Garden Vineland Rd
Ste 140
Windermere, FL 34786
(407) 500-3663

That One Spot


onspotbbq**** (4 stars)

This is one of the best quick serve burgers in town. I’m a particular fan of the BBQ burger, which is a bacon cheese burger with all the toppings, BBQ sauce, and three onion rings on it.

The fries are much better here than at just about any of the competitors, with a crispy exterior and soft inside.

Service is friendly. Arrive early, as the line gets long at lunch.

That One Spot
10968 W Colonial Dr
Ocoee, FL 34761
(407) 877-7575

The Ocoee Taco Company

**** (4 stars)

This family run place can get quite busy, but they are always friendly and helpful, and glad you are there. They offer their version of most authentic Mexican dishes, along with a few inventions of their own.

The quesotaco is a grilled tortilla with cheese melted on it, then filled with your choice of meat.

There is also a version of a burrito that is enroll to being a quesadilla.

The torta is a huge sandwich, enough lunch all by itself.

Meat choices include several different preparations of pork, chicken and beef. The pastor is usually my favorite, but I didn’t find it as rich and tasty here as some places.

There are mild and hot versions of both green and red sauces, which are all tasty.

Pricing is very reasonable. But the best reason to come is the sincere thank you you’ll receive form the owner.

The Ocoee Taco Company
40 Taylor St
Ocoee, FL 34761
(407) 614-2990