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CLUED-IN TO FUSION

In dining, as in casino gambling, it helps to have a man on the inside. That's certainly the case at Hot Olives – the comfortably stylish Hannibal Square eatery that's been wending its way toward upscale fusion since taking over the site of the old Winter Park Grill in 2001. On a recent visit, our waitress welcomed us into her confidence by volunteering a couple of invaluable tidbits about the newly expanded menu: 1) the "spicy pecan salad" isn't really very spicy at all; and 2) even folks who think they don't like olives go crazy for the house-specialty appetizer, the "spicy fried olives."

She was right on both counts. The fried olives ($7) were simply mouth-watering, their breaded exterior and Asiago cheese-infused innards enough to tempt the most olive-wary martini-phobe. Dunking one of the delicious nuggets in the attendant dip – a swirl of blue cheese and three-chili sauce – brought the experience up yet another notch of memorability. It's easy to see why these namesake noshes are such a popular choice.

As promised, nothing about the "spicy pecan salad" ($9) had us crying hoarsely for water, though the placement of toasted pecans, gorgonzola cheese and Granny Smith apple slices atop field greens produced a taste of its own pleasant distinction. For a more daring palate, there's the "Anjou pear and Cajun walnut salad" ($9), with the sprinkle of piquant nuts adding quite a kick to the assemblage of pears, greens and crumbled feta cheese.

As an entree, we opted for the herb-crusted grouper ($18), which reveled in a positively buttery texture that placed it among the finest specimens of this favorite fish we've yet encountered. The dish's sole failing – and it's our only strong criticism of the entire meal – was the topping of onions, which struck us as idling uncomfortably between the raw and the sautéed. Don't you hate it when a vegetable can't make up its mind?

The sesame-seared ahi tuna ($17) went down smooth and tender, another standout in a crowded field – but be careful with the Szechuan sauce, which if not applied sparingly can overwhelm the bed of orzo and stir-fried vegetables.

Ordering from the dessert tray yielded two more success stories: The Snickers cheesecake ($6) had a terrifically gooey cohesion. Just as delectable was the macadamia nut pie ($6), overflowing with nuts and ending in a thin, soft crust that could have been a meal-finishing sweet in its own right.

With menu assets like these, you could forgive a restaurant for being light on ambience, but Hot Olives has it in spades. Outside patio seating is available, with blazing torches in place to make al fresco dining comfortable no matter the season. On the inside, faux-marble tabletops and rattan-backed chairs are laid out in an airy configuration; the effect is high-toned, yet just cozy enough to keep sterility at bay. Segregating interior from exterior are glass panels that mist up winsomely on rainy nights, imparting a feeling of pampered isolation from the outlying neighborhood. Acoustically, the room can be a bit loud, which poses a problem when all the tables are full. You should be whispering, anyway – how better to pick up that priceless insider knowledge the waitstaff is so eager to share with you?

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