By Cynthia McFarland
Among my favorite stories are the ones that require me to participate in some activity. When that activity happens to be eating, I take my duty seriously.
This summer, I had the company of Dakota, a dear college-age friend I call my “Oklahoma daughter,” who was doing her internship at a bridal salon in Gainesville. When I told her about my eating assignment, she eagerly agreed to be my “partner in food.”
Our mission: to search out international flavors right here in Ocala. Follow along on our eating adventure and you’re sure to find some new favorites of your own.
Located in the Colours Plaza on State Road 200, Tony’s Sushi & Japanese Steakhouse has been an Ocala favorite since 2000. It’s also a staple for sushi lovers, so we headed in to sample as many different items as we could. I was stunned to learn that, as extensive as the menu is, there are over 100 off-menu sushi rolls.
We loved the Gilman roll with its tuna, spicy crab, avocado, cream cheese and tempura. Another favorite was the Jimmy roll, a memorable combination of spicy tuna and shrimp tempura served flaming, thanks to a splash of 151 rum. Butone of my absolute favorites was the Kani-Su, featuring crab, avocado and masago (the processed roe from a fish known as the capelin), wrapped in cucumber with a rice vinegar sauce.
If you have sushi questions, Tony has the answers. He shared that one of the secrets of eating sushi is to put the entire piece in your mouth at once.
“Don’t bite it in half or you’ll lose half the flavor,” says Tony, who seemed amused at our efforts to comply. At one point, I mangled a piece with my chopsticks and he brought a fork to the table, laughing that “the fork costs extra!” (Don’t worry, it doesn’t.)
If you aren’t a fan of sushi, you’ll still find an enormous amount of options on the menu, including chicken, seafood, pork, beef and noodle entrées. Although we weren’t dining on the steakhouse side of the restaurant with its tableside hibachi grills, we had a great view of the activity and meals prepared there. We thought we were too full for dessert, but found a little room for the tempura ice cream, nestled in a crispy, crunchy shell and drizzled with chocolate.
I’m already planning a return visit to enjoy some of my favorite sushi rolls. I can’t get that Kani-Su out of my mind!
Before Breadilicious opened, there was nothing in the way of a real French bakery in town. That changed when owner and Paris-transplant Maxime Fogin opened his doors for business.
Max developed a fondness for the U.S. during his time in California as an exchange student in the early 2000s. Eventually he and his wife, Helene, a horse trainer, made the decision to come to the States earlier this year.
It was only natural that Max would open a bakery here. He completely renovated the old Water Spots building on College Road, turning it into a modern, airy eatery where fresh breads, pastries and more are available six days a week.
Max uses imported French flour to bake his breads, some of which are made from generations-old family recipes. There are usually six (or more) different breads every day, each displayed in rustic baskets, just as they would be in Paris, tempting you with both fragrance and visuals as soon as you walk in.
Bread lover that I am, I couldn’t get past the fanciful array of creations in the glass display case. The tarts, pastries, éclairs and verrines are so artistic and beautiful, they look almost unreal. But take my word, they’re definitely real and oh-so-edible!
When Dakota and I stopped in for lunch, we had to try a little of everything.
Dakota went for the ham and Swiss croissant sandwich.
“This ham is robust, not that thin ‘deli stuff,’” she declared, happily polishing off the last bite.
I, on the other hand, was more than satisfied with the quiche of the day, a hearty tomato/bacon/asiago cheese number that was quite filling. If you’re looking for a vegetarian option, the tartine is like a French pizza and the tomato/basil is a tasty choice.
We both raved over the fruit tarts, truly delicious inventions with a delicate crust reminiscent of a fine sugar cookie topped with a variety of perfectly ripe fruits over pastry cream and finished with an apricot glaze. Yummm…
There are breakfast and lunch combo specials every day, plus fresh coffee. We enjoyed our meal at one of the tables inside, but many customers just pop in and take their items to go. Breadilicious does special-order pastries, breads and appetizer trays, perfect for any event. If the next one I attend has a big platter of nothing but those fabulous fruit tarts, I will be one happy girl!
I’d heard good things about Chicken Time Cuban Restaurant and knew they’d made numerous appearances at Taste of Ocala, so we headed to Belleview to see for ourselves. Former owners and now managers Wady and Maria Sedan have operated this popular establishment for over 17 years, and their long-standing business is a testament to their devoted following of customers who frequent the restaurant known for its authentic Cuban and Puerto Rican dishes.
Snuggly situated in a strip mall, the store front exterior doesn’t do justice to the warm, charmingly decorated interior that welcomes you (complete with heavenly aromas) as you enter. We settled into a booth, and it was immediately apparent that most of the customers were regulars judging by the friendly and familiar chatter between each table’s occupants and our server, Susana.
As we perused the menu, we devoured a basket of thin, crispy Cuban bread warm from the oven. Cuban restaurants often feature tropical fruit smoothies, and Chicken Time does theirs up just right. We tried the passion fruit and piña colada, but there are numerous options, including mango, papaya and more.
For starters, Susana recommended the croquetas de jamon (fried ham croquettes) and fried yucca. The special mojito sauce was excellent with the yucca, which had the consistency of thick fried potatoes but with its own unique taste.
One of their best sellers is the combination platter, so we ordered that and were astounded at the amount of food. Included were fried pork chops, tender roast pork, rotisserie chicken, Cuban tamales, along with fried plantains, yellow rice and black beans.
We also ordered the Ropa Vieja and absolutely loved the incredibly tender and perfectly seasoned beef simmered in a red wine sauce with green peppers and onions. Anyone in search of an authentic Cuban sandwich must try Chicken Time’s version.
“The Cuban is the best,” says Susana, a self-identified Cuban transplant from Miami who assures us this is the real deal.I don’t know how anyone could possibly have room for dessert after finishing off that combination platter, but you might manage if you follow our lead and box up some of it for leftovers. That way, you can enjoy a serving of cool, creamy flan, the traditional Cuban custard dessert, with its signature caramelized sugar glaze.
Next time you’re craving a “taste of the islands,” head east on Highway 40 out of Ocala. Once you hit “downtown” Lynne (don’t blink or you’ll miss it), slow down and look for Kick N’ Back Café and Grille on the right.
The cheerful little building with the beach volleyball court and horseshoe pits out back has come a long way from its early incarnations as various biker bars. Today, it’s known as “the island in the forest.”
After retiring to Ocala in 2007, owners Ken and Sandi Kloza purchased the former saloon, renovated it and created a menu featuring the memorable flavors of the Florida Keys and Caribbean. The bright, tropical colors and playful, beachy décor offer a laid-back vibe, but the food is the star of the show here.
Our visit on a recent Friday evening made us immediate fans, starting with an appetizer of conch fritters. Another excellent starter is the Cuban nachos, crunchy tortilla chips loaded with tender mojo pork and all the fixings. The accompanying salsa is probably the best I’ve ever eaten.
You’ll find plenty of seafood, chicken, beef, sandwiches, wraps and even gator tail on the menu, many with Caribbean influences. The coconut shrimp is lightly coated with a coconut batter and fried just until golden brown; the crispy crunch is just right with the secret recipe pineapple salsa, making this one of my absolute favorites.
Jamaican flavor abounds in the jerk-seasoned Kingston chicken, which comes with fried plantains, their edges delicately browned. I was happy to realize plantains can be ordered as an appetizer or side.
We also tried the Cuban mix, a classic pressed Cuban sandwich, which is as good as it gets.
“We’ve had people tell us, ‘My mom is from Cuba and this is as good as hers,’” Sandi says.
Kenny makes the desserts, two fabulous pies: peanut butter and Key lime, and some customers have driven over two hours just to secure a piece of that tangy lime delight.
The café celebrated its one-year anniversary in July, and with food like this, I hope the Klozas forego their retirement plans for a long time to come.
“There are so many different tastes and cooking styles from the different parts of India, and we want to show them all,” says Neal Patel, manager of Tantra Indian Fusion. “Spices are meant to bring out the natural flavors of food, not to overpower them.”
Since opening in May, Tantra has been serving up authentic Indian dishes for lunch and dinner, offering an extensive menu with plenty of vegetarian items, as well as meat-based entrées.
The décor is modern and edgy with a sleek, candlelit ambiance, and the menu is broken down into the expected categories of appetizers, soups and salads, and entrées, but beyond that, it’s separated into several other useful categories, and our server, Naomi, answered any questions we had about the menu items.
There’s a whole section devoted to freshly baked breads, which you won’t want to miss. The Nan is fragrant and cooked just right; my favorite was the garlic nan, topped with fresh chopped garlic and bits of cilantro.
If you’d like to add soup to your meal (and we did!), try the Mulligatawny, a hearty bowl of the classic lentil soup.
Most people immediately associate Indian food with curry, but there are so many other flavors. Yes, you’ll find dishes with curry (we liked the Goa Shrimp Curry, which is cooked in a hot coconut gravy), but don’t be afraid to try something totally different.
We enjoyed Sofiyaki Chicken Biryani (stir-fried rice), which is chicken breast marinated with yogurt, spices and herbs and baked with saffron basmati rice. The flavors are intense but not overpowering or too spicy.
Our favorite dish was the Chili Chicken, featuring chicken stir-fried with roasted onions and bell peppers and seasoned with spices and herbs. Although it’s in the appetizer section, we decided this—and a basket of Nan—would be an excellent lunch choice.
There are a half dozen desserts to pick from, and we chose the Ice Cream Kulfi, petite-sized servings of rich, creamy homemade ice cream lightly flavored with pistachio and saffron.
Tantra is adding a hookah bar, and Neal envisions a busy, yet relaxing, lounge where Ocala’s professionals come to unwind after work. One thing is for sure, they’ll find all the flavors of India just waiting to be enjoyed.
Tucked into the same plaza that houses Tony’s Sushi, this family-owned and -operated eatery has a casual, friendly atmosphere.
Nick Angelidakis, 28, who co-owns the restaurant with his mother, Maria, also serves as chef. Of the 11 employees on staff, six are family. Although they’ve been in this location since 2002, Laki’s has been a fixture in Ocala since 1986 and is known for both its Greek and Italian dishes.
Their pizza is a huge seller, and I was sorely tempted to go that route when I saw (and smelled!) it delivered to a neighboring table, but we came specifically for Greek, so I stuck with the plan. Our server, Dina, recommended the Tour of Greece platter, and we took her advice, but first, we had to try a couple of the most popular appetizers.
“Opa!” (“Hurray!”) Dina announced as she presented us with an order of Flaming Saganaki. Vlahortiri cheese is dusted with a light breading and pan fried, then served flaming with pita bread. That pita is also great with the homemade hummus, which has just the right amount of tang.
Instead of a traditional Greek salad, we ordered Horiatiki, the Village Salad, a heaping plate of freshly cut cucumbers, tomatoes, pepperoncini, green peppers, onions, chunks of feta cheese and a dash of pure olive oil. There’s no lettuce, just the perfect combination of summer-fresh flavor.
The Tour of Greece platter features four entrée favorites: Moussaka (a lasagna-like dish with layers of eggplant, potato, cheese and ground beef covered with creamy Bechamel sauce), Souvlaki (marinated pork tenderloin), Spanakopita (spinach and feta wrapped in filo dough) and Tyropita (feta cheese pie in filo dough). Our favorite was the tender, savory Souvlaki.
We ended on a classic Greek note, saving just enough room for a piece of rich, buttery Baklava. The perfect finish!