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Some Florida restaurants

I last visited Florida 8 years ago and, as a food and wine destination, I found it pretty desolate. For my visit in October 1998 I took advice from several wine and food-loving contacts in the States and left armed with a sheaf of restaurant names and addresses that I was assured would change my mind.

As far as wine buying goes, the best sources I discovered were Bern's winestore, about a block down from the Tampa restaurant of the same name on South Howard Avenue, and ABC Wines which I visited in Naples, but which has several branches around the state. Both offer large selections, strong on both domestic and european wines.

Spending a first night in the neon-lit wasteland of highway 192, Kissimmee, it would have been easy to think little had changed. A succession of depressing all-u-can-eat fast-food joints hawking their wares based on 1) quantity, 2) price, and 3) speed of service. Quality didn't seem to be a particular concern.

Over the next couple of weeks my opinion certainly did change for the better. Interspersed with visits to 3 or 4 top-class, fairly expensive restaurants specialising in the fantastic "fusion cuisine" that California helped pioneer, I discovered fresh, simple and delicious seafood in most areas, a burgeoning scene of Continental style cafes and brasserries, and some stunning American originals. Here's a quick, though obviously very limited overview of half a dozen places I enjoyed in case you find yourself in the Sunshine State.

Guide prices are for 2 people ordering 3 courses, a decent bottle of wine and coffee.

Orlando Area

I confess, I would never even have considered the Disney Empire as a fine dining destination. Several people urged me to try however, naming in particular the Portobello and the more expensive Californian Grill (see below). Both are within Disney World, but neither require Park tickets to attend.

The Portobello Yacht Club, Disney World Pleasure Beach. Phone 407/934-8888.
The Portobello has a nautical theme with lots of polished wood, brass and decorated with fine ships models. Like everywhere else in the Magic Kingdom it is also large, noisy and child-friendly (a good or bad point depending on your point of view!). We ate here on the first evening after flying in and I felt a bit jet-lagged, but I enjoyed what I remember very much. True to its Italian leanings, before the meal we were served warm, home-made Italian bread with excellent olive oil and a whole bulb of slow-roasted garlic for spreading. Delicious. My Seabass was seared and, though slightly over-cooked, very tasty, served with good, fresh vegetables and rice pilaf. Decaffinated Espresso was good. The individual pizzas made in the wood-fired oven looked terrific too, and the wine list (mostly Californian and Italian) was pretty good with a fair by-the-glass selection. Worth a visit.
$110 for dinner. Open every day.

The Californian Grill, Disney's Contemporary Resort. Phone 407/824-1576

logo  This was easily the best meal of the 2 weeks. The Californian Grill has a big reputation for food and wine, regularly appearing in "America's Top 100" type lists. It is situated on the 15th floor of a large Disney hotel within the Magic Kingdom, with easy parking, mono-rail connection and absolutely spectacular views over the theme park and lake which can be enjoyed from a couple of large terraces.

We were very lucky in that we were given a prime seat facing directly onto the Disney Castle and evening fireworks. Kitsch or not, it is a remarkable view compared to that from most restaurant tables! The food really was superb, light and imaginative. A starter of Sonoma goats cheese ravioli in a tomato and herb broth was wonderfully textured and full of flavour. For a main course I chose the filet mignon which was truly stunning - the best steak I've had in a long time - served on mashed sweet potato. My partners seared yellowjack tuna steak was also fantastically good, blackened and cooked just raw in the centre. The waiter suggested sharing a hot triple-chocolate souffle with peanut butter ice-cream for dessert which was the right decision - it was densley rich, yet light as a feather and as good as any dessert I can remember. Again, good espresso to finish things off (still not always easy to find in Florida). The wine list really is first class - a choice of about 100 interesting and some quite rare bottlings, with reasonable mark-ups and - best of all - everything available by the glass. Friendly staff complete the picture of a really enjoyable night out.
$150 for dinner. Open every day.

La Venezia, 142 Park Avenue South, Winter Park. Phone 407/647-7557

logo  Winter Park is a posh suburb to the north of Orlando. I have to say that sitting in La Venezia for lunch, which I did twice, is one of the nicest dining experiences I've had in the States. The airy Cafe sits facing the lovely park with a shady terrace where you can watch the world go by, including the Amtrak trains which run right through the middle of the park.

As you sit enjoying fine food and a glass of chilled wine in the sunshine, the great trains rumble past at a snail's pace, clanging their bells. It makes for a dramatic and unique setting. I really enjoyed the food here - very light, continental style salads with lots of herbs and fancy leaves topped with simple grilled scallops or a char-grilled tuna and imaginative dressings. Served with baskets of crispy bread and washed down with a glass of wine from the small but nicely put together list, it's a lovely way to pass an hour or two. This place is run by the Barnie's coffee company, so there' s tremendous selection of excellent and unusual brews. Take my advice - share dessert - portions are enormous.
$50 for lunch. Open 7 days.

Tampa

Bern's Steak House, 1208 South Howard Avenue, Tampa. Phone 813/251-2421

What can I say about Bern's? A legend in its own lunch-time.

logo  This place is over-the-top, unique and wonderful in an awful kind of a way Formed from what looks like a large concrete warehouse under a freeway slip-road, the interior is a wonderful concoction of red velvet, Roman statuery and rococco lighting - an unholy cross between Parisian bordello and Blackpool pleasure beach. They can't be serious, can they???

Apart from the steaks and the decor, Bern's is famous for its wine list. Weighing in at a couple of Kilos, it has 7,000 entries including, for example, 100 vintages of Latour going back to the 1830's. Bern's operates on a vast scale, with several large dining areas and lots of hustle and bustle. The dining room I was in (Burgundy), despite the red velvet and wine-themed murals, was basically a large, ambiance-free hanger of a place with horrible lighting. The waiting staff were helpful and charming though which helped make up. The steaks are superb - you specify weight, thickness and cut and its cooked the way you like. All meat is top quality and hung for 8 weeks to ensure it's succulent and tender. Desserts can be taken in a special dessert room with a piano player belting out schmaltzy show tunes and cheesy ballads. Designed with 50 individual booths, all of which have a view of the piano player or a TV screen relaying the sound and pictures. Great fun, decent food and quite a wine list. Maybe not very sophisticated, but an experience.
$110 for dinner. Open every day.

Near Clearwater Beach

Guppy's, 1701 Gulf Boulevard, Indian Rocks Beach.

A fairly chic, but casual and friendly place with a large outside terrace and a couple of big indoor rooms, Guppy's does some really good fish and seafood at reasonable prices. I loved the smoked-fish pate served with crackers as a starter - a lovely, rough texture with chunks of fish and a really nice flavour. One of the house specialities is the tuna steak - cut like a filet-mignon in a thick, small portion and broiled (Charcoal grilled) just nicely. Wine list is a single sheet of A4 - mostly Californian - and there's a good list of beers. The waitress made that familar but annoying mistake of treating foreigners as if they don't know to tip - she did a huffy number on us when she thought she was only keeping $3 change out of the $60 I gave her - hope she felt bad when she discovered the other $10 I left on the table....

$65 for dinner. Open 7 days.

Jensen Beach (north of Palm Beach)

Eleven Maple Street, Jensen Beach. Phone 561/ 334-7714

logo  Outside the door on a Thursday evening is market and neighbourhood street-party, but inside it's an oasis of calm with a comfortable yet up-market atmosphere. This was probably my second favourite place in food terms. The cuisine here is definitely "fusion" with a Pacific Rim flavour.

My Oak-grilled Grouper was served on sticky rice and Thai Crab-cakes, with a Thai green curry sauce. It was garnished with delicious wild mushrooms, smoky bean-sprouts and stir-fried vegetables. This was a sensational dish - not nearly as weird as it sounds! The oak-burning grill in the kitchen imparts a wonderfully smoky flavour. Dessert was equally good - a light pineapple and macadamia nut cheescake, served with a berry coulis and some sweet, black, mission-figs - scrumptious stuff. Wine list is also quite interesting with some unusual choices from small US producers. We had a pinot and viognier by the glass, both good. Eleven Maple could be an expensive choice with main courses starting at $20 and everything a la carte, but it is very good.
$120 for dinner.

View the tasting notes for the wines drunk at these and other Florida restaurants.