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ANTEBELLUM BLUES

If your trip to Captain and the Cowboy originates in Orlando, expect to spend mile after mile crawling north on U.S. Highway 441 through some of the worst scenery Central Florida has to offer: strip malls, billboards, shopping centers, gas stations, blah, blah, blah. Then suddenly, when 441 merges with State Road 436, you'll pass a dark spot that stands out exactly because there are no strip malls, gas stations or billboards. That's the place.

Whip a U-turn a quarter-mile up the road, turn right, and you've happened onto a stately antebellum plantation, set back from the road so far you can't hear the traffic. The grass is lush, the sprawling oak trees are wrapped with white lights, the fence is white picket. But the building is the belle of the ball, from its broad verandas to its tin roof. You've died and gone to Tara, and – wonder of wonders – dinner is served!

There is such a thing as being too good-looking, however, and in the case of Captain and the Cowboy, the setting writes a check the food and service can't cash. Judging the book by its cover, which you should never do, I was all set for some down-home Southern cooking. What I got was standard-issue surf and turf.

The first disappointment is the restaurant's interior. Given the lineage of the place (it used to be Townsend's Plantation restaurant and was a private residence at another location before it was laboriously moved to this juncture in Apopka), it's natural to assume that the evening will be one of cozy dining in what was once somebody's bedroom or study. And there are a few such rooms up front, as well as seating on the patios. Make a reservation and I might get such a spot next time, the hostess said.

This time I was assigned to the cavernous, noisy dining room, an intimate nook that can probably seat 300. Add a stage, a side bar with TVs (sigh) and a few "Western" touches like mounted bull horns on the wall, and you've got an upscale Ponderosa. Hey, weren't we in the Deep South a minute ago?

The second disappointment is the less-than-ambitious menu, which is standard-issue steak and seafood, with a couple of surprises thrown in. We started with a "new style vegetable tempura" appetizer ($7) that turned out to be fried veggie patties topped with a dollop of wasabi sauce; tasty, but calling the dish tempura is charitable. We also had a bowl of thick, rich beef barley soup ($5) packed with chunks of meat, carrots and potatoes, which was savory and delicious. The lesson so far: Stick to the basics.

For entrees we ordered a Niman Farms pork chop ($15), shrimp Portofino ($18) and a veggie-tofu skewer ($8) that fell somewhere between an appetizer and an entree, but contained nothing that at one time had a face and was therefore acceptable to the 11-year-old vegetarian at the table. Except there was no tofu on the premises, our server informed us 10 minutes after we placed the order. After a discussion regarding whether or not scallops have a central nervous system (conclusion: probably, but no face), the vegetarian decided to go with the "citrus diver scallops skewer" ($11), a choice that proved just plain weird when the dish finally came out. I've never had a grilled orange slice before, and I'm not sure I want one ever again.

A note about the service: It was slow and disorganized. We were charged for the more expensive scallop skewer even though it was a substitution, one entree came out missing a baked potato, another landed on the table sans side salad. To be fair, the restaurant was busy and the servers were hopping. But this is an establishment that puts a premium on appearance, and it isn't cheap. Service should live up to the standard.

My pork chop, according to the menu, was the "Cadillac" of pork chops. Personally, I'd call it more of a Pontiac chop, maybe a Buick. It was thick and smoky, but overcooked and bit tough; a dependable, utilitarian pork chop. The mashed potatoes on the side, however, were the Rolls-Royce of mashed potatoes: creamy, garlicky, just a tad chunky and absolutely perfect.

The shrimp Portofino could have used more salt, but it was chockablock with giant tiger shrimp, heavy on the garlic (a good thing) and anchored by a tangy wine/lemon sauce; it was easily the most satisfying dish of the evening.

Dessert was a Jack Daniel's pecan pie topped with white-chocolate shavings and a New York-style cheesecake, both of which were unremarkable examples of their respective delicacies. Notice a trend here?

Perhaps I was a victim of my own admittedly high expectations of what was in store after laying eyes on the place. But I know I wasn't the only one who felt let down; I listened in as the people at the next table complained about their meal to the waitress. They too, it seems, had been enchanted by a pretty face.

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