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Intimate café offers an antidote to Hannibal Square's trendy restaurant scene.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ROB BARTLETT
  • Photo by Rob Bartlett

I am not a fan of restaurants employing gimmicky grammar in their names (and neither are Orlando Weekly's copy editors), but maybe in the case of Fresh it's warranted. The restaurant – which disdains a capital letter and follows its name with a period, thus: "fresh." – promises "globally inspired, locally sourced" cuisine that would be right at home in the Milk District or College Park. But its place amid Hannibal Square's trendy, upwardly mobile eating establishments is arguably a better fit, precisely because it offers an antidote to the hegemony established by such eating houses as Dexter's, Armando's, Chez Vincent, Mi Tomatina and the like. Sure, there's range and variety in their bills of fare, but when it comes to vibe/atmo/mood – a weighty factor for many diners – Fresh is decidedly more approachable, laid-back, even bohemian.

That not a soul was seated in its intimate confines on an early Friday evening was hardly of concern to us. This assignment aside, the restaurant would've caught our attention regardless. For one thing, a pleasant hostess stands outside the front door politely beckoning prospective diners. But greeter or no greeter, the warm interior, with its simple, almost Scandinavian, design accents, is lure enough. The place quickly filled to capacity – not a particularly difficult endeavor considering there are only eight tables and a small bar. It's one of those places where you can't help but acknowledge, then chat with, your neighbor because of the close proximity of the tables, and that's just part of its charm. So is the complimentary cucumber-mint water, the nightly changing menu and, on this visit, an amuse-bouche of garlicky bruschetta.

Most ingredients are sourced from within 150 miles. While the Slovenian pinot grigio ($8) and the Sicilian nero d'avola ($8) we drank clearly weren't, the roasted red and yellow beet salad with toasted pumpkin seeds and hydroponic greens ($9) certainly was. Chunks of goat cheese – not feta, as stated on the menu – completed this enjoyable starter. Dry braised chicken marred the chicken adobo empanadas ($8), a nod to chef-owner Gina Bugayong's Filipino heritage – but a lighter sweet-and-spicy pepper sauce would've been better than the creamy, thick chipotle aioli served with the fritters. However, all was made right when the Lake-Meadows-sourced poussin ($22) arrived. The roasted young chicken had perfect skin and succulence, and skilled hands clearly fashioned the accompanying, texturally sound wild-mushroom-and-leek risotto. The lamb in the lamb ragù ($21), a special for the evening, was sourced from Rosas Farm in Ocala, and the only fault we found with the dish was the lack of flavor in those tender meaty shreds. Embolden the sauce and this dish is a winner.

The end to our meal couldn't have been any better: organic French press coffee ($3), seasonal pumpkin flan ($6) with toasted pumpkin seeds, and a delightful chocolate chip banana bread pudding ($6).

We chatted with our neighbors for a good long while and remarked at how conducive the space was to such impromptu conviviality. In a neighborhood that's undergone an extreme makeover over the past decade, it's nice to see Hannibal Square finally get a true neighborhood restaurant, and that's a welcome breath of fresh air.


535 W. New England Ave., Winter Park
$ $ $

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