Southern accent

Apopka's Highland Manor blends gourmet and down-home flair

I always enjoy a good road trip, more so if the ultimate destination is a much-ballyhooed restaurant operated by a chef with an impressive résumé. And so I drove past the city limits to the rural suburb of Apopka, where Highland Manor, nestled on a manicured estate that once housed Townsend's Plantation and the oddly named Captain & the Cowboy, beckoned. The restaurant itself is housed in a Victorian mansion, and the soaring room, while neatly appointed, is somewhat imposing and can get loud with diners' chatter and the piano man's cloying ballads. But the view through the French windows steals the show ' towering oaks hold sentry over lush green lawns and the estate's bucolic landscaping. Friendly service adds a human touch to Apopka's most formal dining experience, an affair that promises gourmet fare with Southern flair.

Chef-owner John Mooney caters to both conservative diners and those looking for something a little different. But there are faults, albeit fixable ones, that prevent this restaurant from fulfilling its potential. Outstanding pistachio-mint pesto is the grace note on unevenly cooked grilled lambchop lollipops ($12). One of the meaty chops was overdone and a tad chewy; the other soft, tender and succulent. We continued the nutty theme with rustic asparagus and pistachio soup ($8), a simply outstanding starter, green and white in color and ever so subtly crunchy. Enhancing the lovely tartness of baked local goat cheese ($10) from Mount Dora was a piquant tomato- basil sauce which, I found, was enhanced even further by the spicy notes of a Shooting Star zinfandel ($8).

Having heard so much about the buttermilk fried quail ($23), we were disappointed to hear they were all out ' somewhat surprising given it was early evening. So we settled for a roasted bird instead, thyme-roasted organic chicken breast ($15) to be specific, and it exceeded any and all expectations. Salty skin and nicely textured mashed potatoes offered a Southern accent to the plump moist breast. A trio of perfectly cooked asparagus stalks rounded out the dish. Also perfectly cooked was the 8-ounce filet, served with wild mushrooms and mashed potatoes, and glazed with an interesting steak sauce that I grew to appreciate. Comprising such seemingly disparate ingredients as apple cider, chipotle peppers, orange juice, fennel and cinnamon, the sauce's essence seemed, at first, to upstage the steak, but then harmonized with each ensuing bite.

A seasonal dessert menu was offered, which was a bit of a downer as we were so looking forward to sampling the sunset sandwich (banana ice cream, graham crackers, passionfruit and mango sauces). The pumpkin soufflé ($7) certainly didn't lift our spirits. More eggy than airy, the soufflé had deflated by the time it arrived. Even the side of pie-crust gelato had half-melted. A sticky dollop of pear-liqueur sugar highlighted the pear-manchego crostata ($7), an otherwise so-so ending, but the spoonful of stout gelato sharing the plate of puff pastry left us longing for more.

The restaurant's name may evoke images of a Scottish inn or a South Florida rehab center, but the appellation, I was told, was a reaction to the casual/silly implication of 'The Captain & The Cowboy.â?� Name aside, it's the kitchen that's doing its part to distance itself from the past, and with a little work, it'll leave a lasting legacy.

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