Friday, October 19, 2007

Saganaki and Pyromania

With my birthday rapidly approaching and a full weekend ahead, hubby suggested that we celebrate a couple of days early. Saturday is the Lake Louisa Trail Obstacle Challenge, so I'll be busy convincing my equine, Figment, that the poles and tires and teeter totters and plastic chairs that have suddenly sprung up in the woods are harmless to horses. Sunday there is a picnic event here in Celebration, so I'll be busy at the East Village Pool partying with friends and neighbors. Thus, it looked like Friday night was our best option for a nice birthday meal.

Picking the day was the easy part; when you live next door to Disney World and just a short drive down I-4 from Sandlake Road and International Drive, picking a restaurant plunges a person into the midst of a dizzying array of options.

I ruled out the usual Disney dining options because I am in a rut at our usual WDW restaurant choices. For example, if we went to Artist Point, I knew I would order the chef's cheese selection, a vat of the Mushroom Soup of the God, and either the venison spring roles or a salad, with sorbet and shortbread for dessert. Since this was a celebratory meal, I thought it would be fun to try someplace entirely new.

My mind wandered up International Drive and down Sand Lake Road, considering the plethora of eateries from which I could choose. Suddenly it hit me: Taverna Opa! I had read about it on Celebration's intranet, and it sounded like a fun place both in terms of food and ambiance. We had been meaning to try it anyway, so why not today?

I called to get a reservation, and at the appointed time we headed down I-4 to brave the traffic nightmare that is International Drive. Indeed, even I-4 itself was moving slowly but at least we made steady forward progress. The exit was backed up so far that we sat through three traffic light sequences before we finally managed to get moving again.

Taverna Opa is located in Pointe Orlando, a rather God-forsaken shopping center that I've passed often but never visited. It has a multi-story parking garage, which is the kiss of death for me (for some reason, I have an unreasonable hatred of parking structures...perhaps it's a leftover vestige of the general horror of parking in downtown Chicago, where garages are a special hell but are often the only option). But since we had a purpose in visiting, I steeled myself to park in the concrete cavern. There was a charge, but I figured that the restaurant would probably validate the parking slip.

When I had called for reservations, the helpful person I spoke with had instructed me to park on the third level and head across the walkway. Indeed, that was the simplest way, although Taverna Opa is not easily visible until you've walked quite a ways down. The area was a semi-ghost town; there was a Hooters and some other kind of restaurant that were both open, but there was also a huge former eatery that appeared to be abandoned, with a tax lein notice on the door. Not the sort of thing to inspire confidence in the financial viability of the shopping center!

Of course, it made me think of Mercado, another former shopping center just a bit farther down the road. We went there to see the Titanic exhibit a couple of months ago, and it's a good thing we did because the whole place is now shut down and mostly demolished. Titanic was virtually the only thing left open when we visited, and shortly thereafter they were evicted from the complex as one of the final steps to clear the way for the demolition. Apparently they are going to build a new shopping center there, which begs the question: If the old one couldn't survive, why on earth would a new one be able to?

At least Pointe Orlando didn't seem quite as forlorn as Mercado. There was a cinema that seemed to be doing an okay amount of business, although I couldn't tell whether the stores on the lower level were drawing any traffic.

I was a bit worried, however, when we entered Taverna Opa. Considering that at was almost 7 p.m. on a Friday night, I was expecting a capacity crowd. At many of the free-standing I-Drive restaurants, like Cafe Tu Tu Tango, you face an hour or more of wait time on the weekend. In contrast, the Taverna was almost empty.

We were quickly seated and began our perusal of the comprehensive menu. It was chock full of options with a Greek flair, including several iterations of lamb, lemon chicken, kabobs, and even a gyros plate! They start you off with bread and hummus spread, and that hummus was delicious! I also loved their iced tea, which had some sort of a subtle fruit flavor. I drink my tea unsweetened, despite the fact that that's a mortal sin in the South, so I always love flavored-but-unsweetened versions.

It was difficult to decide from all the mouth-watering options. To start with, we ordered yogurt/cucumber dip and saganaki (for the uninitiated, that is a flaming cheese appetizer). I was a little surprised when they didn't flame the cheese at our table, as the usual Greek restaurant standard is to bring it to the table, pour on the brandy, touch it with a match, and watch the resulting conflagration.

I need not have worried, as there was plenty of pyromania yet to come that would make flaming cheese look tame. But I'm getting ahead of the story...eventually I decided on the Chilean Sea Bass, while hubby had some sort of seafood-laden Greek paella, filled with mussels, scallops, and even octopus! He ordered the house white wine as an accompaniment, while I stuck with my iced tea.

As we munched on our appetizers, the excitement began around us. There was music, dancing around the restaurant by both the servers and the guests, and a vertiable shower of paper napkins that rained down from the ceiling! We watched, dazzled by the spectacle, as it progressed to literal dancing on the tables! It's a bit hard to make out, but below is a camera phone shot of the table dancing:

Fortunately, more diners had trickled in so there was more of a crowd to catch the energy and to participate in the revelry.

In addition to the group dancing, a belly dancer appeared and put on quite a performance. Her talent wasn't limited to gyrating her belly; she soon demonstrated her talent for handling fire as well! She tossed, touched, and even ate the flame...ouch!

Since the camera phone didn't have a flash, it came out rather blurry. But that bright blob in the picture below is flame, and you can also see the "snowfall" of napkins scattered on the floor around here. After the first dance number, the whole restaurant is pretty much covered in a blanket of napkins, much like the peanut shells that you encounter in Logan's Steakhouse:

The show was so entertaining that I realized I was neglecting my sea bass. I quickly tucked into my meal, and it was excellent. The portions were very generous, so I ended up taking a big hunk home that hubby will devour for lunch. Somehow he managed to finish every bit of seafood on his brimming plate and to still have room for dessert. He had walnut cake, while I tried the baklava. Since I was already quite full, I ended up taking most of that home, too.

I never dared mention my birthday; at a place where people dance on table tops and eat fire, I couldn't even imagine what sort of embarrassment I might be subjected to.

I noticed that more and more people trickled in over the course of the evening, although the restaurant never came close to filling. It needs to be in a more visible location; it would be very difficult to stumble upon it by accident. It's a wonderful eatery, and I'd hate to see it close down just because of a poor location.

It's still pretty new, so I hope that it catches on and pulls in some traffic from the convention center. It already has great word-of-mouth here in Celebration on our intranet, and that is rather rare as people in our town are often faster to condemn a business than to praise one.

We'll definitely be back to Taverna Opa, and if I indulge in a martini (or two or three) next time from their extensive menu, who knows...I might just be dancing on the tables too!

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