When the owners of the Ravenous Pig announced, in October, that they would be moving the popular restaurant up the road, the original space was immediately snatched up by Fred Thimm for a new concept, Reel Fish Coastal Kitchen + Bar. That restaurant opened in February.
Thimm, former vice president and chief operating officer of Hard Rock International, said when we spoke in October that he had always been in love with coastal cuisine and that his intention was to create a coastal kitchen in an inland setting.
The idea was to create “a contemporary version of a classic fish camp,” which, the restaurant’s website explains, were simple, rustic eateries established during the Depression to provide workers and families “fuss-free fresh fish” (a phrase I will not attempt to utter when this review airs on WMFE-90.7).
The servers at Reel Fish have apparently been instructed to explain to new guests that it is “a contemporary version of a classic fish camp,” but they’ve not been told how to respond when someone asks, “What does that mean?”
So I can only assume that it means taking tastefully casual decor of the previous tenant, gluing some weathered planks to some walls and stenciling the words Fish Camp on a brick wall.
One will never confuse Reel Fish with, say, JB’s Fish Camp in New Smyrna Beach or Owen’s in Sarasota, which Thimm cited as a favorite. In fact there’s very little that’s campy about it.
But fish? Yes, there is fish.
But here, too, the menu, which is under the direction of Michael Zajac and Michael Huffler, isn’t so much a reflection of fish camp cuisine as it is of simply a nice selection of seafood offerings.
The Ale-battered Fried Fish Sandwich, served with a side of fries, was more like a classic fish and chips on a bun. (I don’t think they have fish camps in Britain.) The cod was nice and flakey and the batter crispy and fried just right. It was served on a well-toasted bun with a leaf of lettuce, a slathering of tartar sauce, and a thick slice of tomato. It was a good sandwich, though the kitchen might want to step up its game with the fries.
Mike's All-Day Fish Chowder (menu doesn't specify which Mike) was a tomatoey bowl of stew with chunks of potatoes. Very Manhattan-esque.
On another visit my companion and I started with House-smoked Fish Dip, a lovely bowl of lightly dressed fish served with packets of Lance Saltines (now there’s fish camp touch). I don’t know why it was thought that blending in matchsticks of green apples would make the dish better. I just found them annoying as I tried to spread the dip on a cracker.
For my entree I chose the Broiled Seafood Platter because it’s a classic fish camp type of offering and I wanted to see what a contemporary version would look and taste like. But nothing was done to modernize it or elevate it from its overall mundanity. The cod fillet and scallops had a dusting of buttery bread crumbs and both were just fine. The shrimp were just OK. The kitchen prep team might want to try a little harder to remove the shrimp’s sand vein. (It’s not a vein and that’s not sand.) The platter came with parsleyed potatoes and a dish of tomatoes and okra that just might have been the best thing I had here.
My dinner guest chose the Amberjack, one of the specials of the day. A lovely piece of fish with a bit of a barbecuelike glaze, served on a corn and squash succotash and topped with crisp rings of fried onions.
The young serving staff worked efficiently and smoothly.
Given Thimm’s background, I have to assume that it’s his intention to have more than one Reel Fish location. That’s fine, and if anyone has the chops to pull it off it’s him. But first the concept needs to have a little more focus. I like the idea of “a contemporary version of a classic fish camp.” I’d love to see what that looks like. I’m pretty sure it will look like something more than any other seafood restaurant, even a good one like Reel Fish.
Reel Fish Coastal Kitchen + Bar is at 1234 N. Orange Ave., Winter Park. it is open for lunch Tuesday through Friday, brunch on Saturday and Sunday, and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. The phone number is 407-543-3474.