I have just enough time to induct the Catfish Place of Apopka into our list of Orlando Classics before it goes away forever. After 38 years, the restaurant has been sold and will soon change its name to Nauti Lobstah.
Michael Rumplik and his wife, Cara, along with Christine Gonzalez purchased the landmark eatery from Bob Johnson last month. Rumplik’s name should be familiar to longtime readers as the executive chef at Rosen Centre, where he oversaw Everglades restaurant. So he knows seafood (though one of my favorite Rumplik dishes is his focaccia-crusted lamb).
But devoted Catfish Placers should take heart: Rumplik says that although he’s adding to the menu – a live lobster tank is now on premises and he’s featuring more oysters and clams – he has no intention of deleting the erstwhile eponymous items. Translation: Catfish will still be available. “I kept many of Bob’s recipes and favorites on the menu,” Rumplik told me by phone. “I want to keep everybody happy and content.”
And in fact when I visited the Catfish Place a couple of weeks ago, my guest and I were presented with a menu that had the original Catfish Place fare on one side and the new Nauti Lobstah offerings on the other. I’ll go back and focus on the new menu eventually. But for this visit I wanted to focus on the fish that I first had back in the ‘90s (according to a yellowed framed Chow Hound column on the wall, anyway).
My friend called dibs on the fresh boneless catfish lunch item (the catfish is also available as fingerlings, including the bones, for masochists). The fish, which manages to be both sweet and earthy, was coated in a cornmeal jacket and deep fried to that legendary golden brown. It was served with the hush puppies that are also a longtime CP favorite – and also will be staying on the new menu – and more mundane fries. The platter was accompanied by both tartar and cocktail sauces, though why anyone would put anything other than tartar sauce on catfish is beyond me.
I started with a cup of clam chowder, which was actually bowl-sized. And if you have to ask if it was New England or Manhattan style I can only guess that you put cocktail sauce on your catfish. The chowder was thick but not floury and had plenty of chewy bits of clams mixed in with potatoes.
I chose the grouper sandwich for my main course and was pleased with my decision. The filet was grilled and served on a toasted baguette with crispy lettuce and fresh tomato slices. I loved my coleslaw side, deliciously creamy, but the sweet potato casserole seemed out of place two weeks before Thanksgiving.
Service was friendly and attentive. And the surroundings – knotty pine paneling, wood floors, requisite wharferie, a model train overhead – had a freshness that belied the building’s age.
The awning out front will be replaced soon, along with other signage with the restaurant’s new name. But it’s nice to know there will still be good catfish inside.
By the way, The Catfish Place in St. Cloud, which actually predates the Apopka restaurant, remains. Although both restaurants were owned by members of the same family, the two businesses were separate entities.