I drove out to Ocoee the other day and found myself back in 1988.
Well, not really, but as I had dinner at Bates New England Seafood & Steakhouse, I couldn’t help thinking of when Boston’s Fish House opened in Winter Park. That was when good seafood restaurants were hard to come by in Central Florida, which is odd to think of today considering we’re essentially surrounded by seawater.
It’s even odder that one of the best new seafood restaurants in town was flying its fish in from New England.
So does Bates. And just like Boston’s before it, it features New England specialities like Ipswich or whole belly clams and seafood platters of breaded and deep-fried fish, shrimp, scallops and other things from the sea.
And it’s all done very well.
I couldn’t resist choosing the whole belly clams as part of my Fisherman’s Catch entree. You can get clam strips instead, and that might be a more appealing choice for some. As you can probably guess, whole belly clams have a rather, how shall we say, earthy taste. It will either have you savoring the pungency or asking yourself, “What the heck did those clams eat.” I’m actually not much of a fan, but they’re offered so rarely on local menus that I felt compelled to give them a try. And while it’s a taste I don’t crave — similar to the tomale from lobsters — I can recognize ones that are well prepared, and these were.
So was everything else on the platter, which included sea scallops (cut in half before breading, for some reason), tender-firm shrimp (thank you for removing the tails), and a choice of cod or haddock (I chose the latter). Most people consider the two fish to be interchangeable, and they are quite similar. But they do have differences, and the fact that Bates gives a choice between the two is an indicator of how meticulous they are about their seafood.
Also, the platter, which also included a stack of fries and onion rings, is only available fried — none of that healthful broiled nonsense here. The presentation is a study of golden brownishness. The breading is delicate and non heavy, and it is deftly fried so that it is crisp instead of oily.
I also had a cup of chowder, or, as it is listed on the menu, Mighty Joe’s Clam Chowder. It was light and unfloury, the way a good chowder should be, with chewy bits of clam throughout. A delicious chowder, even if the $6 charge for the cup size raised an eyebrow. (The Fisherman’s Catch was $25.99.)
Bates features a full bar but the wine list was disappointing. No, let me amend that: there is no wine list. When I asked my server about wine, she said there’s cabernet, chardonnay, merlot. But that’s about your only choice.
I did like my server. She fit right into the casual mien of the place and she was friendly and genuine.
Even better was the young woman at the host stand. She greeted newcomers with a smile, graciously led them to their table and thanked them when they left. Not once did she say “no problem” or “how are you guys?” but rather “you’re welcome” and “good evening.” Restaurateurs would do well to send their hosts out to Bates just to see how this young woman — did she say her name was Morgan? — comports herself.
Bates New England Seafood & Steakhouse (why even bother with the steak when you do seafood so well?) is at 9467 W. Colonial Drive, Ocoee. It is open for lunch Friday through Sunday and for dinner daily. The phone number is 407-930-1136.