So I did something I've never done before. After a couple of visits to Reel Fish Coastal Kitchen, I felt an overwhelming urge to email Fred Thimm, owner of this Winter Park contempo fish camp and veteran of the restaurant industry, just to let him know my initial thoughts. In those two visits, I saw Thimm (his LinkedIn profile gave him away) patrolling the room, soliciting feedback from patrons, attending to miscues from his waitstaff and snafus from the kitchen – and doing so quite coolly, I might add.
He appeared so eager, so determined, perhaps even a bit desperate to make a success of his new restaurant venture, that I found it all to be endearingly noble. Moving into the Ravenous Pig's hallowed halls had to have been daunting enough, and hearing the inevitable comparisons to the Winter Park Fish Co., situated just a line cast away (and, to a lesser degree, Lombardi's Seafood and Mitchell's Fish Market) must have added to Thimm's angst. So, in a show of altruistic benevolence, I emailed Thimm and proffered my two cents.
Fast-forward a couple of months and we found ourselves seated outside on an absolutely gorgeous evening, tended to by a delightful and well-informed server, relishing what would ultimately be quite an enjoyable meal. It started with a bracing and cheek-puckering ceviche of hogfish, snapper and shark ($11) mixed with avocado, peppers and tomato, served with house-made wontons, before moving onto a half-dozen roasted oysters ($15). The plump panko-breaded gems from Ware River, Virginia, were slurped down in mere seconds, leaving plenty of time to savor a quartet of fried green tomatoes ($9) nestled atop a zesty roasted pepper vinaigrette. Is this the same restaurant I visited two months ago, I wondered?
When a whole roasted yellowtail snapper ($29) was placed before me, I got my answer. I ordered a different fish (a $32 sheepshead) on a previous visit, and was taken aback at the piss-poor plating aesthetics and the dishwasher-stained plate itself; even the fish was overdone. Not so on this visit: Tearing into the snapper's superbly charred skin revealed perfectly luscious white flesh – the kind that willed me to eat it with my hands, even here in tony Winter Park. When I was through, my dining partner likened the bony remains to a Sylvester the Cat cartoon. Oh, and the accompanying thuccoutash of corn, sweet potato, squash and zucchini wasn't thuffering in the least.
From the selection of "Fish Camp Classics," a boffo combo of fried shrimp, scallops and cod ($21) with jalapeño hushpuppies, fries and slaw embodied Florida in a basket, albeit a very large basket. The thick batter may have negated the delicate essence of the scallops, but the fried cod was Notting Hill-good.
Key lime pie ($6) seemed like an appropriate ending to our fish-camp feast, but we found the dense neon-green custard somewhat unappealing, and that fine balance between sweet and tart certainly wasn't struck. Kudos on the crumbly graham-cracker crust, though. A bread pudding ($6) of strawberries and white chocolate wound up being cherries and dark chocolate instead. Either way, desserts were not terribly noteworthy, and that's the crux. Reel Fish needs to stick out among the crowd and raise its significance, 'cuz here in Winter Park, there are plenty of other fish in the sea.