A Boatload of Delights
From flatbreads to chili cheeseburgers to crab cake sandwiches, the food served at The Boathouse seldom fails to please.
The Boathouse in Winter Park occupies the space that was formerly Harper’s Tavern & Grill.
The building on West Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park, where The Boathouse restaurant and Drake’s Bar signs now hang, began life in 1935 as Harper’s Tavern, a venerated drinking spot and eatery, owned by an ex-bootlegger. In the 1960s, it was joined by one of the area’s finest restaurants, Le Cordon Bleu.
Both were destroyed by fire in 1996, and after total restoration the space became home to a rebirthed Harper’s Tavern & Grill (which had no relation to the original), then Coyote Grill, then an O’Boys Bar-B-Q.
If you visited any of the last few restaurants to operate in this building, the new occupant may seem familiar. That’s because the rough-hewn log walls of the ski lodge-ish interior are holdovers from Harper’s Tavern redux, when elk and ostrich loomed as large on the menu as they do on the hoof (or whatever ostriches have). Old outboard motors and big aluminum canoes grace the walls, which explains The Boathouse name. Because the space had been so many different restaurants before, I didn’t know what to expect from the kitchen: casual bar dining, some kind of steak house/pub fusion or a larger version of the nearby Winter Park Fish Co., which is partly owned by the same owner of The Boathouse, Craig Tremblay.
What I got was a revelation.
Chef Rob Walker, educated at Orlando’s Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School (no connection at all to the old restaurant), was executive chef at the former Doc’s on Orange Avenue for four years, then learned the way of the slow food at Harmoni Market in College Park. Both places served pleasant food under Walker’s reign, but neither one prepared me for the remarkable dishes he’s turning out at Boathouse. He must be extraordinarily happy there.
Starting with starters: a gooey, creamy, fatty bowl of deliciousness, Boathouse’s smoked fish dip ($10), takes the tried and true (and tired) standard of smoked fish dip and reinvents it. Combining smoked salmon and white fish with roasted potato and tomato, then draping them in a super-rich sherry cream sauce, the “dip” is so good that I couldn’t wait for more toast points when my initial serving ran out, so I just dug in with a spoon. Breads, by the way, are from Olde Hearth, our local champion of artisan baking.
I hadn’t fallen for the flatbread fad—until now. The Southern shrimp version ($12) comes bubbling and charcoaled from the brick oven. Coated in a basil and pistachio pesto, and topped with two melted cheeses and spinach, the shrimp are so precisely cooked that they snap in your teeth.
The stuffed Statler chicken ($15) is a beautiful presentation of boneless oven-browned roasted chicken (Statler is a style of serving that includes a bit of drumstick), served over some of the finest black pepper and cheddar grits in the South and topped with a sauce made from charred tomatoes, dark and sweet from the heat.
Since my original visit, I’ve returned three times and have yet to find a flawed item coming out of this kitchen. For all you burger lovers, I heartily recommend the chili chesseburger ($10), a hefty layering of freshly ground beef, garlic and chipotle-laced red bean chili and cheddar, topped with tomatillo relish and sour cream. It’s sort of a mouth-watering reconstructed taco on a bun.
My culinary school instructors would have slapped me for putting so many flavors on one plate. It shouldn’t work because, theoretically, there are too many ingredients! And yet, each one does work, and brilliantly, resulting in combinations of complementary and clashing flavors that are exciting and alive.
I’ll toss in some negatives, just so you know I was paying attention. The deeply flavored crab cake sandwich ($14), two thick pan-seared discs of jumbo lump meat on a grilled ciabatta roll, slathered with a lemony stoneground mustard remoulade so good I licked the bread, was topped with a pale leaf of iceberg lettuce. Throw it away! And the creamed corn casserole ($3) had crisp fresh corn and a crunchy breadcrumb topping, but lacked the body to actually be a casserole.
A midweek visit is recommended for those looking to avoid the live band cacophony that reverberates from Drake’s Bar next door. But whenever you visit, prepare to be impressed by a new page in the history of this building.
ADDRESS 565 W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park