Sean Kelley showed remarkable poise and patience in renovating and refurbishing a 140-year-old former railroad depot into a food hall. It took about two years and a fair amount of drawing, designing, digging and demolishing before Henry's Depot, named after railroad tycoon Henry Plant, opened to the delight of food-conscious Bokey folk.
It's a gorgeous restoration – wraparound porch, cupola, spacious back patio and all – and a testament to Kelley's determination to see his vision through. Part of that vision: a cocktail bar in the caboose of the hall called the Basin. And in case all you diehard tipplers are wondering, its Art Nouveau–meets–Florida Cracker aesthetic gives Sanford yet another reason to gloat in the face of Orlando. The bar is an instant classic, and its potables – like the Sazerac – are properly potent.
Beyond the confines of the bar is your average-looking food hall with some not-so-average eats. I had a remarkably fresh blackened mahi-mahi sandwich ($15) at the Current Seafood Counter run by Mike Smith. Smith sources from Ocean Fresh in Winter Springs, including the shrimp ($13) that he butterflies, batters and fries like a champ. He hopes to offer oysters at his modest bar in the near future but, like so many others, he's in survival mode. "Right now, I'm barely hanging on," he says, so it was nice to see a slew of customers walk up after I placed my order.
On another visit to the depot, I met up with some friends and we all dove into a pie from Oak Flame Pizza, which offers New York-ish style numbers "with Southern roots." We opted for red sauce, sausage (procured from Hopkins Meat in Sanford) and shredded collards for some Southern flair; it took all of three minutes to cook, thanks to a Forno Bravo oven firing at 600-700 degrees. Overall, a great thin-crust pizza, even if my dining comrades felt the crust was a smidge underdone. BTW: The red sauce is vegan, as are two cheese options – the lemon ricotta and shredded mozz.
But if it's vegan fare you crave, head next door to Dixie Dharma and get the DFC, or "Dharma Fried Chick'n," bowl ($15) like we did. The Buffalo'ed flappers fashioned from soy protein are worth clucking about, but the garlic mac and cheese (it's cashew cheese), the rosemary mashed potatoes and the roasted Florida corn add considerable heft to the bowl. It might be the most substantially filling meal offered in the food hall, especially when sided with an order of cornbread ($3). Just as gratifying was the "Hillbilly Chili" dog ($6), served on a pretzel bun with a little curry-spiced chili, fried onions and za'atar sauce.
Directly across from Dixie Dharma is Salvatore's, which won't be featured on HappyCow anytime soon. Boar's Head meats and cheeses go into their sandwiches, with rolls coming from JJ Cassone Bakery in Port Chester, New York. While the roast beef ($10.85) and a build-your-own sub stuffed with Cajun turkey and tavern ham ($10.85) were a meat-eater's delight, I took issue with the bread being cold. Like cold-cold.
I suppose it prepped our mouths for the ice cream – cake and tea, mint stracciatella and purple sticky rice – we scooped up at Greenery Creamery. I got mine on a black ash cone made from activated charcoal, then I got even more activated charcoal into my system (no, I wasn't poisoned) with a twist on a lavender latte from Mahogany Coffee. It's called "Ghost" and came topped with house-made whipped cream and black sugar. I appreciated owner-barista Devon Ally's precision and care in crafting the beverage for me.
It won't be too difficult railroading me into returning to the food hall when What the Chuck, a craft burger joint from Tennessee Truffle's Nat Russell, opens. Kelley tells me he hopes to have a soft opening before the end of the month. I'm sure it'll be right on track.