Updated 5 yearss ago
One of the ever-expanding operations of the Outback conglomerate, Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar boasts not only an upper upscale great leap forward from the anchor Outback operations in its setting but also in the attention paid to the grape. Its wine list has 100 offerings by the glass, and it's revised annually after input from customers and managers has been analyzed by the director of wine, Marian Jansen op de Haar. During the year she organizes various tastings and special events, such as Mardi Gras dinners featuring the finest from South America. She also supervises the presentation of new wines to add to the list of 100 and decides which wines to feature in their Discovery Wine Flights and various wine and food pairings. There are 32 Fleming's locations nationwide, including five in Florida. The newest is in Coral Gables.The Mellow Mushroom pizzeria discussed in a previous column ["Shroom for Growth," January, FloridaTrend.com] is not the only Winter Park chain restaurant making every effort to avoid creating the image of just another corporate cookie-cutter. There's Brio Tuscan Grille in the heart of the vibrantly revitalized and greatly expanded Winter Park Village (480 N. Orlando Ave., 407/622-5611). An oversized, indoor-outdoor extravaganza with a beautiful display kitchen and spiffy staff, it's part of the 13-link chainlet out of Columbus, Ohio, including three in Florida. There is no relationship to the Brio in Fort Lauderdale on Las Olas Boulevard.
Lunch prices range from $8.95 and $10.95 for "panini" (sandwiches), pizza and pasta to $14.95 and $19.95 for a pair of four-ounce tournedos. Dinners range from $7.95 to $9.95 for starters and $15.95 to $22.95 for specialties from the grill. A few weeks ago, nine of us worked through the menu and had such a roaring good time praising all that was brought before us, the Italians broke out in joyful song much to the joy of the other patrons who might have thought we were part of the entertainment. A lady from another table came over to ask if anyone spoke English and then explained it was her daughter's birthday. "Would you come over and sing 'Happy Birthday' to her in Italian?" How could we refuse?
In between we enthused over flatbreads given a Margherita treatment or one with a coating of spinach, caramelized onions and mushrooms highlighted with fresh thyme and roasted garlic. Presented on giant platters, as was the beef carpaccio bedded down with fresh field greens, shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano in mustard-spiked aioli. Other notable starters were the roasted garlic-spinach-artichoke dip served bubbly hot with wood-fired Parmesan flatbread, Brio bruschetta crowned with shrimp scampi, fresh mozzarella and seared peppers and fried calamari with pepperoncini.
They were great beginnings to the hot-off-the-wood-burning grill entrees: An innovative chicken "Under the Brick" covered with a splendid mushroom-loaded Marsala sauce and served with grilled asparagus spears and Tuscan mashed potatoes, beaten out back with garlic and butter; a full rack of lamb chops grilled on oak and saluted with Marsala; and probably my favorite entree, 14 ounces of strip steak crusted with top-quality Gorgonzola with a side of swiftly sauteed fresh spinach leaves lightly kissed with a touch of garlic and olive oil.
Our other Winter Park dining outings were in the center of town, at non-chain- related winners, starting with one of our old reliables:
Park Plaza Gardens
Chef Justin's Park Plaza Gardens (Park Plaza Hotel, 319 Park Ave. S., 407/645-2475) has been reborn with new management and personnel. Chef Justin Plank was formerly at Manuel's on the 28th and then Hué, both stunners from restaurant guru Manny Garcia, whose organization oversees this operation, which retains its rustic charm and is a wonderful noontime break from all those shops on the avenue. More than a dozen selections range from $13 to $32 and include excellent Maryland-style jumbo lump crab cakes and non-farm-raised Pacific King Salmon served with a few bay shrimp mingled with roast corn/black-eyed pea succotash and steamed jasmine rice.
There's a similar escape around the corner, at 3-year-old Hot Olives (463 W. New England Ave., 407/629-1030), where the Garcia group has been brought in as consultants to boost the popularity of a place where the specialty is Spicy Fried Olives, breaded black olives and asiago served in a martini glass with bleu cheese dipping sauce. There's a fine selection of $9 to $13 sandwiches far removed from the ordinary and 11 entrees, pegged from $15 for chicken breast marinated with herbs de provence and served over a mound of linguine with citrus sauce or crusted with almonds and splashed with lemon-caper beurre blanc with a plate mate of roasted rosemary potatoes and veggies of the season. Other entrees include farm-raised catfish lightly fried and paired with Creole-style black bean cake and yellow rice, $15; New York strip with a demi glaze of Dijon and rosemary, $20; and $24 for a center cut filet mignon covered with Gorgonzola with caramelized Marsala demi glaze.
Chapters on Park
The menu at Hot Olives is more ambitious than another non-chain operation on the avenue of avenues, Chapters on Park (358 N. Park Ave., 407/644-2880), but then they have all those books, floor to ceiling and everywhere you look, plus live music and dinner theater with such stalwart performers stimulating your historical senses as Thomas Edison, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Service and Ulysses S. Grant. Luncheon salads and sandwiches are $6.95 to $12.95, and dinner entrees range from $10.95 to $18.95.