I wanted to like Fresh a lot more than I did. I have a soft spot for small, intimate cafes with rustic decor. I appreciate the restaurant’s resolve to serve locally sourced and organically raised ingredients. And I’m always glad when I can champion independent business owners who rail against the massive chains. Fresh meets all those criteria, quite nicely.
But ultimately there were too many issues, mainly with the execution of the food, on my two visits that I cannot offer more than a tepid recommendation.
Fresh occupies a slip of a space in Winter Park’s Hannibal Square district. This particular address has been home to many other food ventures over the years, most recently a bakery. There are few seats available at the small tables and banquettes or food bar. The occupancy is supplemented with outdoor seating, but still, we’re talking a small number of potential guests.
On my first visit, a lunch, I had the place all to myself until a couple walked in just before I placed my order. I had allowed myself 45 minutes for lunch because I had a 1 p.m. appointment that was less than a five minute drive away. I was late for my meeting.
I also didn’t have a chance to taste the sandwich I had ordered while still at Fresh. Instead, I had to ask the server to immediately box it up so I could eat it later. Why a french dip style sandwich would take over half an hour to make it out of the kitchen in a restaurant that was all but empty is a mystery.
At least I had the chance to sip the lentil soup of the day. I only wish the soup, which was topped by bright red tomatoes, had had some sort of seasoning that would have given it some flavor. I also wish that there hadn’t been an ant marching around the liner plate, or that I had had to smash it with my napkin.
Even though the sandwich, called the Fresh dip, was a couple of hours old before I had a chance to taste it, I found it to be much more enjoyable. It was made with braised lamb and topped with gruyere cheese and caramelized shallots on a crusty baguette.
It was good bread, so I wondered why none was offered to any of the guests when I returned for a dinner visit. This time I sat on one of the decidedly uncomfortable backless stools at the food bar. Behind the bar, in front of the block wall decorated with delicate, spidery bromeliads, was a basket filled with the French bread. But at no time during my dinner did anyone reach for a loaf. I guess they’re reserved strictly for sandwiches, though I questioned how, um, fresh they would be the following day.
On this visit I selected the pork belly appetizer and an entree that again featured lamb, the ragu. For $11, the pork belly starter featured two cubes sitting in a puddle of polenta that was drizzled with balsamic glaze. Pork belly, of course, is what is most commonly sliced to become bacon. And like bacon, it features thick strata of fat between thinner layers of meat. It’s the fat that provides that melting-in-the-mouth sensation. There was no melting with these cubes. The outside was crusty, which is desirable for properly prepared pork belly, but these were too hard. And in the mouth, the cubes were tough and chewy.
Here again the lamb saved the dinner. The ragu featured braised and shredded meat that was well seasoned and flavorful, tossed with al dente rigatoni that was garnished with a bright green mint sprig. It was most satisfying.
Servers were sincere, but didn’t display a lot of menu knowledge, especially regarding the wines. The wine list is a thoughtful collection of lesser-known global wineries.
What fun it would be to sit and sip and nosh in the coziness of this cafe. But the kitchen will need to step up its consistency before I can recommend it as a must-visit destination.
Fresh is at 535 W. New England Ave., Winter Park. It is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday and for brunch on Sunday. Here is a link to freshcafe-wp.com, where you’d expect to find the restaurant’s hours to be listed but won’t The phone number is 321-295-7837.