Today we’re visiting the Old Jailhouse in Sanford, the area’s current hotbed of new and innovative restaurants and craft bars. But before we get started with the review, I want to make this pledge: I will not be making any puns about incarceration, and the only references to sentences will be the ones written here. Besides, most of the puns have already been made by the restaurant itself (see staff t-shirts that read “I serve more than thyme”).
Although I must say I’m surprised that, given the current craze for the Hawaiian dish of raw chopped fish, there isn’t an item on the menu called Pokey. And how could the bar not have a drink called the Hoosegow Hooch?
The Old Jailhouse is legitimately housed in a small building that was the Seminole County Jail from 1914 until 1959. Before that, it was a blacksmith and wagon shop from 1890, the year it was constructed, until 1895, and it was the E.E. Brady Livery Feed and Sales Stables from 1910 until it became the jail.
More recently it was home to Sanford Dry Cleaners and, here’s irony for you, the Seminole County Health Department.
Old Jailhouse’s opening represents the return of Bram Fowler to the local restaurant scene. Fowler made his mark at Journeys in the Longwood Village Shopping Center. Here, Fowler serves as the director of operations and executive chef.
The restaurant is owned by the Sirica family, husband and wife Tony and Maria and their son Alex.
The menu is still in flux as Fowler assesses what the Sanford dining public wants. He was befuddled that a special of Steak Tartare that he was offering on the evening I visited wasn’t selling very well. He offered my guest and me a taste of it and I have to agree — this tartare should have been flying out of the kitchen. Perfectly chopped and seasoned, topped with an oozing raw yolk, and served with toasted bread that still had some softness to it.
For my appetizer I chose the Crispy Brussels Sprouts and Okra, a teepee of buttery sprouts tented with whole okra, lightly dusted with cornmeal with a bit of mustard aioli. The two vegetables were perfect together.
My companion had the Pork Belly, served on tiny rafts of buttermilk cornmeal, topped with house-made pickles with a smear of tomato chutney. The cornmeal lifted this one above the ordinary braised pork belly.
The overexposed Shrimp & Grits was made anew in the Low Country Shrimp and Sausage entree. Here the shrimp, tender and firm, were alternated with coins of country sausage, circling a mound of cheese grits covered with sausage gravy. The collards, though tasty, seemed an extraneous addition to the plate.
The Creole Lamb featured a braised shank on a very large pile of diced sweet potatoes with a red bell pepper sauce. Good flavors. And what great restraint must have been exerted to refrain from naming this dish the Lambshank Redemption.
We eschewed desserts, but they all looked good, especially the bread pudding. And it was nice to see a dessert tray presentation again — haven’t seen that in a while.
All the staff showed good behavior. Well, except for a cook who had a noisy flareup and was sent from the show kitchen to the back (solitary confinement?).
The building doesn’t seem to have been redesigned as much as it has been deconstructed, removing whatever interiors made up the dry cleaner and health department facilities and exposing brick, mortar and wall scrawls underneath. Some semiprivate dining areas are enclosed with sliding bars, but crystal chandeliers take away any dankness of detention. It’s a very comfortable space. There is a barred window from a front dining room that looks into the bar area and main dining room that we’re told is where visitors spoke to inmates.
As I mentioned, Sanford’s culinary scene is burgeoning. But most of what we’ve seen has been casual, more along the lines of bars and tavernas. With the Old Jailhouse and Fowler’s food, there is now a more upscale option.
Old Jailhouse is at 113 S. Palmetto Ave., Sanford. It is open for lunch Thursday through Saturday and dinner Monday through Saturday. The phone number is 407-548-6964. The restaurant does not currently accept reservations.