Food & Drink » Restaurant Review

The Smiling Bison is causing a stir in Sanford, and Orlandoans are migrating north

Making itself herd

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Get over it, Orlando. Sanford has the Smiling Bison all to itself and there ain't no use crying over spilt milk or screeching over dropped dung. Just oil the wheels on your wagon and head on up to the fertile plains of the Bokey, where there's some mighty fine grazing to be had, courtesy of Josh Oakley. The native Buffaloan (no joke) closed his Bennett Road operation last December to give full attention to his Sanford gastropub, and it's easy to see why: The building, built in 1910 and featuring many throwback fixtures (oh, those tiered crystal chandeliers!) and details (oh, that tile ceiling!), is an absolute beauty.

Needless to say, the restaurant is ready for its close-up. Had Mr. DeMille been a bleeding-heart Canajun like myself, he too would've set his sights on Oakley's poutine ($9). I was somewhat critical of the Bennett Road version when I reviewed Smiling Bison back in September 2013, so I was happy to see those potato wedges replaced with thin-cut fries. I wasn't thrilled to see a thick, earthy mushroom gravy instead of a lighter, beefier one, and the cheddar cheese curds had more of a congealed feel than a squeaky one, but there's plenty of comfort to be had in this poutine – even more so during happy hour, when it costs just $6. On this most recent visit, the cool night air had us craving more comfort, and the chicken pot pie ($14) was like a grandmother's embrace – a warm, meaty, peppery, onion-forward embrace. The cheddar pie crust with bison-shaped cutout was a nice touch, too.

The burger ($16), duck-lovers pizza ($17) and any of Oakley's house-made sausages are consistent can't-miss choices, yet the Cincinnati 5-Way ($25), a "garbage plate" of drunk food originating in the Queen City, seemed a fitting choice. It comprises five ingredients: Clear Creek Ranch beef chili, house-made spaghetti, cheddar, onions and beans. A dollop of richness in the form of crème fraîche gave it a sixth "way," but there's no way you're going away hungry after this dish. I just wish the beans had been cooked a bit longer; their very firm texture was a bit distracting. Not so with the grouper cheeks – they're just-right firm, and cornmeal-fried before being stuffed in a buttery New England roll ($15) with lettuce, tomato and tartar sauce. The sandwich was served with a pickled red cabbage slaw that's not for the faint of mouth, remarkably bold and zippy.

Playing into Sanford's rep as a refined cocktail town, the Bison's creative quaffs are truly crafted – the outstanding Pisco Manhattan ($9) with sherry and elderflower, for example, and the "Peach & Chong" ($9) with peach-infused bourbon, thyme simple syrup, sour mix, egg whites and black sea salt. A lush, Nilla-wafered banana pudding ($6) is dotted with black sea salt as well, and it all works in utterly delightful fashion.

There were some who questioned Oakley's ability to make a success of it in Sanford, but it's clear he's proved those naysayers wrong. He even lives in Sanford, but it's in the kitchen where Oakley feels at home, and it's usually on the range.

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