The Smiling Bison is where the gastronomes roam

A straightforward, food-focused ethic makes chef Josh Oakley’s new spot a winner


745 Bennett Road | 407-259-8036 | | $$

Many years ago, my Shaolin master posed the question, “Why does the bison smile?” Being a young disciple with hopes of one day becoming a veterinarian, I duly edified my master (or so I thought) with the following response: “Clearly, bacterial toxins have infected the bovine, thus causing an acute case of tetanus, and what you perceive to be a smile is in all likelihood lockjaw.” After three days of using a carrying pole to lug buckets of water up a hill, Shifu Po gave me the correct answer. “The bison smiles because he has a full belly.” My desire for martial arts soon waned, as did any longing for veterinary medicine, but the lasting power of his words was as enduring as the colorful welts on my deltoids.

Many years later, after dining at chef Josh Oakley’s Smiling Bison Restaurant & Bar, the full belly is mine, and indeed it made me smile. However, the Canadian in me had no choice but to take a hard look at this fine gentleman’s stab at poutine ($8). First off, kudos for serving it at all (Epcot’s Le Cellier is the only other place I know that has poutine on the menu) and kudos for making the cheese curds in-house. The dish seemed more like food art, though – a deconstruction of poutine rather than a comforting bowl of rich, saucy deliciousness. The fries were wedges, not thin-cut; the gravy dull, not dark; and the curds lacked the proper, and necessary, squeak (refrigeration and time – usually 24 hours – are the culprits). A valiant effort, to be sure, but I hope to see the kitchen execute a more authentic rendition next time.

Now, to the meat of the matter: meat. Shreds of braised pork cheek and a smoky tomato sofrito gave the tamale ($9) a luxuriant edge, though if you just want a pricey bar snack to enjoy with your glass of Cask & Larder Saison Ale ($5) or 7th Sun Red D’Or ($6), consider the Scotch egg ($7) – chicken sausage wrapped around a Lake Meadow Farm egg served atop apple slaw.

I’m sure the bison wasn’t smiling moments before it became my thick 6-ounce burger ($12), but what a burger it is – baconed, provoloned, wedged between Texas toast and speared with a gherkin. It comes with the choice of house-made salt-and-vinegar chips or surprisingly peppery watermelon salad. For a mere $13, the only fault I found with the juicy smoked kielbasa, served with house-cured sauerkraut and grain mustard, was the price. (It cost more than the bison burger, and the burger came with a side!) A dish we’d gladly order again is the deceptively substantial duck lovers’ pizza ($16) with duck confit, duck ham, rich Monterey cheese and garlic puree. Crowning the flat-crust pie with a duck egg takes an already indulgent dish to decadent heights.

Buttermilk beignets ($5) sprinkled with cinnamon (not powdered) sugar didn’t elevate the classic fritter in any way, but an accompanying gelée fashioned from Highland Mocha Stout made for an intriguing spread. The pretzel bread pudding ($5) with caramelized bananas and peanut butter mousse tasted like an extravagant PB&B sandwich.

While a few black-shirted waiters aren’t as well-versed on the menu as others, most appear immersed in food culture, making dining here a lot more enjoyable. Even the simple, unpretentious decor underscores the straightforward. food-focused ethic. Some diners may lament the cost of some dishes, but at a place called the Smiling Bison, I suppose roaming charges are to be expected.