Winter Parkers have been standing in lines lately to dine at new restaurants. First there was the previously reviewed Four Rivers Smokehouse, now they’re queuing out the front door of Winter Park Fish Company.
Part of the popularity is the newness, certainly. Over the past year we’ve seen fewer restaurants open due to the economic climate. Those that have gamely opened with a “damn the economy; full speed ahead” attitude tend to grab our attention.
But part of WPFishCo’s advance buzz isn’t so much its newness as it is its oldness, as it were. Longtime residents are lining up because the owner is Craig Tremblay, whose Bonefish Billy’s used to occupy a space roughly where Panera Bread stands now on Fairbanks Avenue near Park Avenue, and for a chance to taste the food of George Vogelbacher again.
Vogelbacher, along with his wife, Monique, owned Le Cordon Bleu, which shared a structure with Harper’s Tavern, until a fire, in 1996, forced a move. Those two institutions stood on Fairbanks at Orange Avenue where O’Boys is now. For more on the history, see a previous article.
Things are certainly different here than they were at Le Cordon Bleu, or Bonefish Billy’s, for that matter. Instead of a full-service restaurant, Winter Park Fish Company follows a fast-casual type of routine. You place your order at the counter just inside the door (that’s one of the reasons the line extends outside), get your beverage and a table stand with your name on it, then find a seat at one of the few seats inside or along the front and side of the building. When your order is ready one of the food runners — and that’s almost a literal description when things are busy — will bring the food to your table.
That food, you won’t be terribly surprised to learn, is almost exclusively sea. There is an item on the menu labeled Harper’s open-faced ribeye sandwich that I was tempted to try for nostalgia’s sake, but I stuck with the fish food.
And I liked just about everything I tried. The appetizer of fried oysters featured plump bivalves wearing crispy, golden jackets, not the least bit greasy. (The cocktail sauce was a bit of a stingy portion, not nearly enough for the big basket of oysters.)
Another appetizer is called Bob Morris conch fritters, which I pray to God doesn’t mean there’s any Bob Morris actually in the fritters. The composition of the fritters was good, but they had not been cooked enough and were still doughy inside. I blame Bob.
The best thing I sampled from the list of entrees was the cioppino, a veritable bargain at $11. It had shrimp, chunks of fish, hunks of carrots and mussels in a thick tomato broth. A plank of bread toasted with cheese stuck out of the bowl. The broth had just a tad too much garlic, but not enough to ruin it.
Grouper cheeks in parchment was another good item, one that reflected Vogelbacher’s cooking style from the Cordon Bleu days. It had the sweet meat of the cheeks (yes, fish have cheeks; lips, not so much) in a pouch so that all the moisture and flavor stays in. It was served with pearl couscous and slender green beans.
A special on one of my visits also featured grouper, or chunks of the fish anyway, coated in corn flakes and sesame seeds. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, but I found the corn flakes added a sweet note that I didn’t care for. However, I loved the risotto-like dish of rice with chopped shrimp that accompanied the grouper. Delicious.
On a lunch visit I had the fish and chips, which featured pure white fillets in a tasty batter, fried perfectly, served with thick steak fries with cole slaw and hush puppies. The slaw was a bit odd — sort of vinegary instead of creamy — but everything else was enjoyable.
WPFishCo features 11 wines, nine of them by the glass, and most of the bottles are priced at $20 or thereabouts. Here’s a tip: if you plan on having more than one glass of wine, ask to leave your tab open when you order and just ask one of the friendly staff members for your check when you’re finished.
The decor style is early dockside — Tremblay opened his storage vault from the old Bonefish Billy’s days — but it isn’t kitschy or overdone. It’s rustic, with picnic table style seating indoors and counters along a railing out, but comfortable. The kitchen area is open — Vogelbacher is probably the one wearing an old (old!) Harper’s Tavern t-shirt — and sets the noise level for the rest of the eatery.
There is a display case with fresh fish, which is not just for show — you can buy seafood to take home and cook yourself. But why would you want to do that?
Winter Park Fish Company is at 761 Orange Ave., Winter Park. It’s open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. The phone number is 407-622-6112. Here’s a look at the menu , and this link will take you to the restaurant’s Web site (which doesn’t have a lot of information on it, to be honest).