I popped into Sanford for dinner the other evening.
That's not quite true. One doesn’t just “pop” into Sanford. For most of Greater Central Florida, visiting Sanford requires determined planning, especially the downtown historic district, several miles off of Interstate 4.
But with apologies to the businesses in an around the city’s mall, and despite the naming of that facility as Seminole Towne Center, the preponderance of restaurants, such as a preponderance exists, is in the historic downtown (not downtowne).
Joining the ever growing list of independent restaurants is a second location of the Smiling Bison, the funky little cafe and bar on the near east side of Orlando. Anyone familiar with the original may not recognize the new place. Whereas the Orlando Bison is divey with a fun and grungy vibe that suggests a pop-up venue, Sanford’s seems more adult and established — like a real restaurant. Part of that is due to the age of the building and its old time-y mien. It feels as though it has been there for generations. If this were a new Disney restaurant, they’d slap a sign on the front of the place that reads “ Est. 1910” and include a backstory detailing its provenance and just exactly what first caused the bison’s grin.
What will be familiar to the already loyal Bisonians is the food, which has always been creative, full of integrity, and with a promise of brilliance at times.
The menus are not identical. Presumably, Sanford has a larger kitchen and so chef (and co-owner) Josh Oakley is able to stretch more, both physically and culinarily. Yes, the Bison Burger, which has become and accidental signature item (the restaurant didn’t originally intend to serve its namesake) is available here. So are a few other items. But you’ll find such things as the Chicken Pot Pie that caught my eye when I made my quick stop.
As I expected, this was not to be anything like your basic Swanson’s thawed entree that so many of us grew up on in the ‘60s, thank God. There was the familiar looking gravy with its iconic golden-yellow hue, but here it is a rich and velvety veloute with more thoughtful seasoning than the unpronounceable ingredients of the tv dinner version. Dark meat from Joyce Farms chickens was blended with celery root, the necessary diced carrots and cippolini onions, whose purple layers at first caused me to think that grapes had somehow invaded the mix. Instead of a conventional pie crust, SB’s pot pie was topped with a crackerlike crouton dotted with smoked salt.
I also had the Chorizo Scotch Egg, a duded up interpretation of the British pub snack. Instead of your basic bulk sausage, Oakley makes his own using spicy chorizo to encase the egg. Not unsurprisingly, the chorizo, with less fat, is drier and more crumbly. The quartered egg, which was perfectly not-too-hard boiled, was served atop pureed avocado and garnished with pea tendrils. It was a nice snack, but when you look at the $12 cost of the pot pie entree next to the $9 one-egg snack, a bit out or whack in terms of price.
There’s another difference between the Orlando and Sanford Bisons: a liquor license. Here you can have cocktails made with real live booze instead of the wine- and beer-based drinks in Orlando. That might not make any difference from the longtime fans because craft beers have been a big draw, so to speak.
Smiling Bison occupies the space that was previously Marco Dino and, before that, Stone’s Throw Bistro (both from chef Richard Lendino). The wood tabletops and bright chandeliers give the place a stark presence, but the old fashioned architectural touches give it charm.
It’s nice to see the Smiling Bison grow into a more sophisticated restaurant, and it’s even nicer to see that it has kept some of its edginess.
The Smiling Bison is at 107 S. Magnolia Ave., Sanford. It is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. The phone number is 407-915-6086.