BoVine, an upscale steakhouse that opened last year amid pandemic strictures and limitations, occupies the space that for many years had been the jewel of Winter Park’s poshest boulevard when it might have been considered the area’s first Restaurant Row: Park Plaza Gardens.
It would be difficult to come up with a more venerable and iconic restaurant than Park Plaza Gardens. It was a jewel of fine dining in an era when few special occasion restaurants existed in the area, back when its menu was described as continental cuisine (a term that has thankfully been eighty-sixed). Over the past several decades, its menu and ownership changed (Robert Earl had it at one time; Manny Garcia was on a management team) and at one point even the name was tweaked, known briefly as Chef Justin’s Park Plaza Gardens for Justin Plank, now the executive chef at Terralina Crafted Italian in Disney Springs.
But through it all, the decor and design of the restaurant remained, with the signature element of a main dining room under a glass ceiling with brick floor and lots of green plants. It had the effect of dining outside but without the vagaries of Florida’s weather.
All of that is gone. It had to go. The building had fallen into disrepair – it became harder to keep those Florida elements out – and a dispute between the last owner of the restaurant and the building’s landlord involving accusations of infestation had damaged any brand goodwill that might have remained.
But don’t lament the loss. The restaurant that has taken its place is arguably better than any iteration that preceded it.
BoVine is owned by Joanne McMahon of JM Hospitality, which also operates the 310 restaurants and blu on the avenue, directly across the street. And it’s nothing like those restaurants.
Beef is definitely the star here, and one of my guests and I stayed on the bovine side of the menu, choosing the bone-in ribeye and prime rib, the latter available only on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Another guest went ovine, selecting the lamb rack. (The menu is under the direction of executive chef Tony Kreuger, who has been overseeing the other JM restaurants for several years.)
But we started with an appetizer of crab cake, a sizable disk of lump crabmeat and finely diced vegetables with a cornbread crust, seared and topped with a spicy red pepper jam.
We also had the applewood smoked bacon slab, an unusual appetizer that may have been inspired by a similar dish served at Peter Luger Steak House in Brooklyn. It was a super thick rasher with a sugary maple glaze served with B1 sauce (the kitchen’s take on A.1. Sauce) and accompanied by charred tomatoes, just because. It was a treat to eat bacon with a knife and fork – a different sensation than, say, pork belly – and we all loved it.
A Caesar salad featured chopped lettuce and a classic Caesar dressing plus a dusting of parmesan cheese and several large bread croutons. At my guest’s request the anchovies that would have been draped over the salad were served on the side (though I could detect a bit of anchovy in the dressing, too, as Caesar so decreed).
Onion soup had a rich beefy broth with a nice mouthfeel. A large crouton with melted gruyere (not a gloppy mess, thank you) floated within.
My steak was a very nice piece of meat, cooked to the requested medium rare and with a buttery, peppercorny exterior. You’ll have to decide if it’s worth the $64 fee but I enjoyed it.
The prime rib was a beautiful cut, too, especially with the stack of shaved horseradish that not only served as a garnish but as a cover for a glob of fat. (Nothing wrong with fat; it’s one of the reasons prime rib is so good.) The meat was tender and the herbed crust added myriad notes of seasoning, but I must say I’ve never seen a jus quite as cloudy as what accompanied here.
The rack of lamb was lovely and the meat a beautiful consistent red. I couldn’t taste any of the anchovy that was supposed to be in the herb crust, but I loved the tomato mint jam that came with it. (Back in the day, if lamb was served at PPG it would come with a sad dish of mint jelly – you know, in the continental manner.)
For a side dish we shared the salt brined fries. They were nongreasy, had a nice crisp exterior but with plenty of potato in the bite. It’s possible I’ve had better fries but I can’t recall when that was.
Service rose to the level of the surroundings. Beyond the red brick and mortar walls, few vestiges of the old Park Plaza Gardens remain. The floor is a polished surface and the ceiling is white coffered tiles. It appears to be lower that the glass atrium it replaced but I was told it’s the same height. There are stylish chandeliers and light fixtures, tables are covered with crisp white cloths and seating is at leather chairs or comfy banquettes. All of it quite elegant. Plateware is by Villeroy & Boch, but of a modern design.
Speaking of Villeroy & Boch, the bathrooms are another welcome improvement (V&B also makes porcelain bathroom fixtures). There are now four individual bathrooms near the restaurant’s back door – no more going next door to the hotel’s lobby and squeezing into the cramped quarters.
Even the bar and lounge at the front of the restaurant have been redesigned and are more spacious and no longer dank.
All of the improvements are well-thought-out and welcome. The only people who might be disappointed are those who lament the passing of Park Plaza Gardens.
To which I say, Park Plaza Gardens who?
BoVine is at 319 S. Park Ave., Winter Park (map). It is open for lunch Saturday and Sunday and dinner daily. The phone number is 407-794-1850.