Counter Surveillance

Emily Post probably wouldn't have enjoyed dining with me. Oh, I can etiquettize with the best of them, elbows off the table, napkin on my lap, spine stiff as a carving board. I know which fork to use when, on what side of the place setting my bread plate appears, and how to angle the water and wine glasses in relation to my knife. I even follow rules such as "serve from the left and pick up from the right" and "what goes in by the hand comes out by the hand" (this generally refers to the removal of seeds, pits, and fish bones from the mouth). Yet I can't seem to get through a meal without dropping something on my lap, dipping my bread in the sauce, or, most commonly, eating a tidbit from someone else's plate -- or worse, from his or her fork.

We all have our quirks. My husband licks his knife, an action he undertakes to drive me crazy (it works). Others speak with their mouths full, or wipe their fingers on the tablecloths. And this is in public. Observe us in our homes, where we shake the newspaper at each other or blast the television while we dine. A bad habit I refuse to correct is eating straight from the container, leaning on the counter with a book propped in front of me, a predilection not designed to annoy my husband (it works, though). Unfortunately, because I eat out so often, I rarely get the chance to indulge myself this way. But I have learned how to compromise by munching at Orlando Seafood Restaurant & Fish Market, a three-month-old eatery that stands a comfortable 25 at the winding, chest-high counter.

That's right, this "charbroiled-fish house" (Orlando has an obvious fondness for slogans) contains no tables to interfere with your dining pleasure, not even a stool to cushion your butt while you stuff your face. What it does offer is a clean, open space; a mural of boats, blue sea, and tropical fish; paper place mats that double as menus; plastic utensils and Styrofoam dinnerware; and "the best from Key West" -- expertly prepared, inexpensive seafood. (For those who prefer to prepare their own, Orlando also sells fish retail, at similarly low prices.)

Hand-rolled fish croquetas are 50 cents each, heavy with seasoned cod and a bread-crumb coating. While the croquetas didn't suffer from their stint under the restaurant's moisture-robbing heat lamp, the bacalao fritters did; stringy and greasy, these cod cakes were barely tolerable, and even at 35 cents apiece were no bargain. Rings of squid, battered and fried to order, were pleasantly chewy and jolted to life by a dash from one of the bottles of Louisiana-style hot sauce on the counter. Squeeze containers of ketchup and tartar sauce round out the condiments. Not even hot sauce, however, could resurrect the bowl of grouper soup. Bland and unstimulating, tinted rather than spiced with saffron and annatto, the broth was thickened with rice (noodles are another option) but very little fish.

Although billed as an appetizer, escabeche, a delicious, tangy fillet of pickled kingfish, can be quite large, owing to the size of the kingfish that come into the market. Ours was certainly meal-size, served cold in a garlicky oil-and-vinegar marinade and layered with tangy green olives, sliced onions, and red and green peppers. Traditionally escabeche is prepared like ceviche, with the marinade actually "cooking" the fish, preventing it from spoiling. At Orlando the kingfish is cooked before being doused with dressing, a common shortcut that subtracts nothing from the flavor. (The longer the fish soaks, however, the better it tastes.) One minor hazard: Watch out for the bones.

Less oily fish such as dolphin, snapper, and grouper are available fried or "barbecued" (grilled with salt and lemon pepper), served with shredded iceberg lettuce and tomato rounds on fresh, Cuban-style buns. Orlando has every reason to be proud of these outstanding "house specialty" ten-napkin fishwiches, whose seasonings enhanced the delicate, unassertive flavor of the white fishes. Both grouper and dolphin were tender, breaking into juicy, meaty flakes at the touch of a finger.

A pair of shrimp dishes are among the pricier items on the menu (which ranges from ten cents for a fried bean ball to twelve bucks for lobster in Creole sauce). Arroz con camarones was a soupy rice mixture topped with shrimp, pimientos, and the canned peas that dot so many Cuban dishes. Flecks of tomato and red pepper turned the rice a deep orange; while the flavor was good, an overdose of oil was a detraction. Camarones al ajillo, a scampilike creation, benefited from olive oil. Six sweet, tightly curled shrimp floated in a potent oil-and-garlic sauce, with a scoop of white rice providing a sturdy base.

A creamy flan doused with a syrupy caramel sauce and a shot of freshly brewed cafe cubano was a delightful way to end a meal that, come to think of it, even Emily Post probably would have enjoyed. I am pleased to report that nothing landed on my lap as I ate. Then again, in order to form a lap, a person must sit.

 
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