Boca Kitchen Bar Market

Exterior

Interior

**** (4 stars)

I used to think this space was cursed, because of the long succession of unsuccessful restaurants that occupied it. But it turns out it wasn’t the space, it was the restaurants that were the problem. Boca is packed every day, and with good reason.

The food and service are both top notch. We had the day’s lunch special, a blackened amberjack sandwich. The amberjack was a thick piece, perfectly cooked. The accompanying mango slaw was a bit sweet for my taste, but with just a little on the sandwich it was perfect.

Rather than fries we asked for the mixed vegetables which had been sauteed and had a delightful smokey flavor.

Boca is one of the best bets for lunch on Park Avenue.

Boca Kitchen Bar Market
358 North Park Ave
Winter Park, FL 32789
(407) 636-7022
http://www.yelp.com/biz/boca-kitchen-bar-market-winter-park

Haven

Peel and Eat Shrimp

Cheese Monger

Hamachi crudo

Interior

**** (4 stars)

If you are a cheese lover, Haven is a must visit. There are dozens of cheeses on their menu, and the “Cheese Monger” offers a selection of 18(!) of them on one well-organized plate. My only wish was for more variety, as they were almost all cow’s milk, and mostly the same firmness. I’d have liked some more soft ones, and some stinkier ones. But that’s just me.

The menu also offers a nice selection of other small plates. We liked the hamachi crudo. The peel and eat shrimp was okay, but I didn’t care for the harissa flavor of the accompanying remoulade, as it overwhelmed the other flavors.

The interior decor is gorgeous, with reasonable lighting levels and not too noisy, even though there are no soft surfaces except the booths (which offer the quietest place to sit).

The wine list is extensive, and the more expensive wines are actually the better deals.

Service was friendly and efficient.

Haven
2208 W Morrison Ave
Tampa, FL 33606
(813) 258-2233
https://www.yelp.com/biz/haven-tampa-3

Earls Kitchen + Bar

Exterior

Interior

Dining room

Salt and pepper wings

Kung pao

Bibimbap

*** (3 stars)

This is an absolutely stunning (and huge) space, that sports perhaps the best interior design of any restaurant in Orlando. Unfortunately the food doesn’t live up to the high expectations set by the design.

We tried the salt and pepper chicken wings (actually we wanted to try Leroy’s crispy ribs, but the waiter got the order wrong). They were the best thing we had, with a nice crisp skin, not too much oil, and a nice black pepper spice. The accompanying parmesan ranch dressing was also good.

We almost tried the Bronx Burger, and probably should have, because it seems like the strategy here is to stick with junk foods. But instead we tried the Hunan Kung Pao and the Bibimbap.

It’s a good rule to avoid Asian foods in non-Asian restaurants, and that was reinforced here. The Kung Pao didn’t offer any of the fresh, discrete tastes that make it special (although it looked very nice). The Bibimbap didn’t even look nice. By the time it was mixed tableside to get the raw egg to cook, the rice had turned into a gelatinous mess that was a pale imitation of a well-made bibimbap. I would definitely not order this.

Lunch for one, without appetizer or alcohol, but including soft drink and a tip will run you about $20.

Our waiter was well intentioned, but as he talked about how two weeks of soft opening had benefitted the staff since many had never worked in a restaurant, we became a bit worried. Getting the order right and splitting a check, and even tableside credit card processing were all part of the learning curve. Still, I will say that every employee we encountered (and there were many) were extremely friendly, outgoing, and obviously cared about making a good impression. I’m sure this will soon be a very well run operation. Now they just need to do something about the food.

Earls Kitchen + Bar
Mall At Millenia
4200 Conroy Rd, Unit H246
Orlando, FL 32839
(407) 345-8260
https://www.yelp.com/biz/earls-kitchen-bar-orlando

il Porcellino








**** (4 stars)

I was a big fan of Paris Club, which occupied this space, but I must admit that Il Porcellino is a much better restaurant–and business plan. It was packed the night I visited. But even though it was full, I liked the fact that I could still hear the background music (an odd blend of 20th century pop and cliche Italian restaurant music) and conversation was easy.

The space is unrecognizable and gorgeous. Hundreds of light bulbs hang over the dining room, creating a romantic aura, and the large bar out front and various room dividers are also cleverly lit to show off the bottles and other stuff on the shelves.

Service is extremely polished, with constant attention from the servers, and independent delivery of the food straight from the kitchen via runners.

I was unimpressed by the complimentary risotto ball amuse bouche, but after that everything was excellent.

The garlic loaf is a great way to start. It’s a mini boule, crisped on the outside and sliced into six pie wedges. Grated parmesan is stuffed into the cracks and then, tableside, garlic butter is poured in. It was delicious, and even managed to maintain its crispness throughout dinner.

Fried Brussels sprouts were also good, not too oily and not too buried in cheese.

I’m not too big on pasta, so I opted for the brick chicken specialty. Good move. It was a giant slab of boneless breast meat with a unique, super-crispy crust. But the thing that made the dish was the mixture of cauliflower, garden vegetables and butter on which it sat.

If you’re into hot fudge sundaes you’ll like the semi-fredo, but I wished I’d selected a different dessert.

Drink-wise, I started with a negroni. There are three choices, and I liked the Fernet-based one I picked because it was particularly bitter. The house Chianti I segued into wasn’t particularly good. But I finished with a Nonino, my favorite Amaro.

If I have any complaint about Il Porcelino it’s simply that there are no healthful options on the menu. Everything is either friend, drenched in butter or swimming in carbs. Even the salads look pretty heavy. It’s all delicious, but I couldn’t eat there very often without some lighter choices.

il Porcellino
59 W Hubbard
Chicago, IL 60654
(312) 595-0800
http://www.yelp.com/biz/il-porcellino-chicago

Tapa Toro

***** (5 stars)

This may be Orlando’s best tapas restaurant. Its diverse menu offers all the standards, plus a lot of dishes with a unique twist, and unlike some tapas places there are a lot of lighter selections and many vegetarian offerings.

My favorite dish by far was the roasted cauliflower, which was perfectly seasoned and sauced, and topped with sultanas and capers. Yum! Grilled asparagus served with grated manchego was also very good.

More conventional were the salmon crudo and the grilled garlic shrimp plates. The assorted cold meat platter was also conventional except for the inclusion of a delicious house-made pate and house-made pickles.

There’s an extensive list of wines by the glass or bottle, plus a very intriguing cocktail list. I tried the Feliz Boca, an inspired mixture of rosemary, lavender, blood orange and bitters. Delicious, and an amazing match to the pate.

There’s a nice dessert menu, but note that there’s also a Ben and Jerry’s about ten feet away! Hmm. Decisions.

Service was very friendly and attentive, and the outdoor dining area is great–mostly shaded, with a view of the Orlando Eye, which is nearby.

Tapa Toro
8441 International Dr
Ste 260
Orlando, FL 32819
(407) 226-2929
http://www.yelp.com/biz/tapa-toro-orlando

GreenRiver

**** (4 stars)

Green River offers one of the better cocktail lists in Chicago, and the dining area is upscale, trendy and yet intimate. The approach, through long hospital-like corridors is a bit weird, but once there you can settle in and enjoy some interesting small plates and a lot of cocktails.

One word of caution is that wine offerings are pretty limited, so it’s definitely a cocktail place. I liked that there were a lot of choices that weren’t overly sweet.

Food was good, even if there were no real home runs. Service was very knowledgeable and helpful.

GreenRiver
259 E Erie St
18th Fl
Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 337-0101
http://www.yelp.com/biz/greenriver-chicago

Celeste

***** (5 stars)

Celeste offers a different concept on each floor. Online reservations get you a table in the cozy cocktail bar on the second floor.

A fifteen page cocktail list offers something for everyone. My server was really into it, and actually created a cocktail to my taste from some new liqueurs they’d just received. There is also a limited but well-thought-out wine list.

The menu is brief, but excellent, with a number of small plates and a few entrees.

The octopus is a specialty, and was tender and flavorful, set off by bits of citrus and served on a creamy puree, topped with cilantro. It was delicious.

But my favorite was the smoked trout salad. The sour citrus wedges combined with the smoky trout and light dressing on the greens to something that was much more than the sum of its parts.

Food service was lightning fast, and the four bartenders did a good job of keeping up with the bustle. The low ceiling keeps noise to a reasonable level.

Celeste is definitely one of the better cocktail and dining experiences on Hubbard.

Celeste
111 W Hubbard St
Chicago, IL 60654
(312) 828-9000
http://www.yelp.com/biz/celeste-chicago

Trenchermen

***** (5 stars)

Trenchermen provides a very interesting menu in a great environment that is a mix of retro and modern.

The very reasonably price four course menu offers a nice way to sample (rather large) tasting portions of two appetizers, and entree and a dessert. Having complete flexibility of wha tot choose from the menu is really a nice idea. Our eight choices were:

Shrimp was served on interesting toast, and with a lemon curd garnish, it was good, not superb.

Ham was thin sliced and served with a BBQ-like sauce, very good.

Carrots with exotic spices were accompanied by wonderful English pea falafel.

Pickle tots were more like potato puffs, with very little pickle flavor.

Cauliflower was a spectacular slice of a whole cauliflower, browned on both sides and served with tangy relish. This was stellar.

Double burger was perfectly cooked, served with spectacularly crisped steak fries and the most delicious “burger sauce” for dipping I’ve ever tasted. This was addictive.

Basque cake had a wonderful buttery crust and came with delicious poppy seed ice cream.

The cheese plate included three American artisanal cheeses, but the highly was the accompanying house-roasted nuts.

The focus here is on cocktails more that the rather eclectic selection of wines. Service was very friendly.

Trenchermen
2039 W North Ave
Chicago, IL 60647
(773) 661-1540
http://www.yelp.com/biz/trenchermen-chicago

21c Museum Hotel

***** (5 stars)

I love this unique boutique hotel, where every wall is filled with captivating modern art. There are extensive galleries off the lobby and downstairs, and many different media are represented. There is also an excellent restaurant, Proof on Main. Many of the city’s most interesting attractions are within two blocks. This is definitely the place to stay when passing through Louisville.

21c Museum Hotel
700 W Main St
Louisville, KY 40202
(502) 217-6300
http://www.yelp.com/biz/21c-museum-hotel-louisville

Proof on Main

**** (4 stars)

This excellent and popular restaurant is lively and fun. There is an interesting wine list with more countries represented than any list I’ve see (Armenian wine, anyone?) Menu selections are limited, but constantly changing, and there is a special three course dinner every Sunday night. An excellent choice in Louisville, and a no-brainer if you’re staying at the wonderful attached 21c Museum Hotel.

Proof on Main
21C Museum Hotel
702 W Main St
Louisville, KY 40202
(502) 217-6360
http://www.yelp.com/biz/proof-on-main-louisville