No. You cannot eat your words.
I hate a liar. Untruth is a serious trigger for me – I’m far more willing to forgive a thief. But I am willing to forgive. Jesus, sorry, this is kicking off harsh and heavy. How ‘bout that Donald Glover? He’s fantastic, right? Childish Gambino? There’s some good vibes. You seen Atlanta?
So, liars. For those of you who don’t live and breathe food, you may be unaware that Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley penned a tremendous piece of culinary investigative journalism back in 2016 that lifted the lid on the increasingly murky world of restaurant food sourcing claims. Entitled “Farm to Fable,” it called out many restaurants by name, including Boca Kitchen Bar Market (or “Boca” as we know it here in Orlando). These were restaurants who marketed non-existent relationships with farms and other purveyors of foodstuff to sucker you into swapping your hard-earned cash for food fantasy. Aside from poisoning your patrons, misleading them about what they’re eating may be the most unforgivable of unforgivables.
- You can get up to speed by giving it a read HERE.
- Or, just skip right to the nasty bits about Boca HERE.
Boca still proudly promotes itself as “FRESH. LOCAL. SEASONAL. SUSTAINABLE” (caps theirs), with a “strong farm-to-table focus,” and a menu “based on the local food movement” that “sources ingredients from nearby farmers and specialty food purveyors wherever possible” (italics ours). Yes, the gobbledygook is thick. Judging by the weekend queues at Boca our guess is that many customers accept the shtick at face value. Why wouldn’t they? You want to trust the people that feed you.
The “Farm to Fable” thing went down nearly three years ago and everyone deserves a second chance. Hell, we only started going to Boca after we read Reiley’s piece. It’s not like we took some principled stand. The catalyst for this review was a desire to give Boca a fair shake and get its perspective on how things may have changed. After all, it isn’t the only restaurant in town that thrusts a suspect farm-to-table ethos in your face while Sysco trucks idle in the alley out back.
There are currently four Boca restaurants in Florida, including one in Orlando, all of them owned by Tampa-based BE1Concepts. As mentioned, the Winter Park location has long winked and nodded about the local character of its food without any real specificity. A colorful, large chalkboard lords over its back dining room, highlighting smallish farms, fisheries, and ranches throughout Florida. The insinuation is that these places are where the food on your plate has been grown, caught, raised or foraged. However, until recently, few of these places seemed to make their way into menu item write-ups. It’s an omission that has always raised eyebrows on our end.
Advance warning: Most of our reviews are long winded. This is the long windiest. If you want to skip to ratings and pics, scroll down. Way down. For you word-happy masochists, buckle up (or just wait for the six-part miniseries).
Straight from the Source
Let’s start with provenance and then move on to plates. Orlando Eats contacted BE1Concepts’ Marketing Director, Katie Martin-Felman, to get more clarity on the marketing and sourcing claims currently being made at Boca Winter Park, and to learn how the poor press of the past impacted its business.
Martin-Felman was friendly and forthcoming, letting us know that the Tampa Bay Times piece was a bit of a kick in the pants: “It was an opportunity to review all internal procedures to make sure exactly what was being purchased directly from farms, fishermen, etc., was exactly what was being displayed on our menus. As a result, and due to our continued growth, we decided to centralize the purchasing process, where all purchases are controlled and then delivered from one location directly to the stores with all relevant information to display and discuss with guests. “
BE1Concepts is parent to nine restaurants. Managing them must be no small undertaking. But leaving sourcing to its offspring was not only a dumb move by momma bear, it was also fertile ground for fuck ups. After all, kids want to please their folks – particularly when money’s involved. And although it doesn’t absolve BE1 of past sins, taking concrete steps to safeguard against future fibbing goes a long way toward restoring trust, as does the very specific sourcing info they shared with Orlando Eats.
Regarding the chalkboard chock full o’ Florida goodness? Martin-Kelman provided the details we’ve been craving;
- Glendower Farms: All of the pork used on Boca’s menu is from this family farm near Tallahassee which raises purebred Iberian (Iberico) pigs on pasture. Its meat is found on Boca menu staples like Barbacoa Pork, Heritage + Swine flatbread, and its Cuban Sandwich.
- Webb’s Seafood outside of Panama City provides all of the oysters at all Boca locations as well as to Park Avenue’s Atlantic Beer & Oyster (ABO), which is also owned by BE1Concepts.
- Dakin Dairy east of Sarasota provides Boca with all of its dairy, milk, and heavy cream. Boca’s Buffalo Cauliflower Flatbread, Try This Burger, and Sweet Potato Gnocchi all use dairy from Dakin.
- 2 Docks is a family-run clam farming operation near Bradenton that provides Boca with clams.
- Jamison B. Breadhouse in Ybor City supplies Boca with Hawaiian rolls, pita rolls and pretzel baguettes.
- Boca uses a large amount of organic produce from Punta Gorda’s Worden Farm when it’s in season (like now).
- Fresh cold-pressed juices are purchased from the small Sarasota-based juicing company, SaraFresh
- Finally, all beef on Boca’s menu – and this is genuinely cool – is sourced from a local cattle herd that is managed for them.
The cattle program is worth delving into as BE1Concepts takes extreme pride in it, having partnered with Providence Cattle and Double C Bar Ranch. The farmers at Double C Bar raise Boca’s cattle under a pasture plus program that BE1Concepts jointly developed and own the exclusive rights to (called the Steelbach herd). Once the cattle reach an appropriate age and weight, Providence Cattle are in charge of moving the meat, butchering and then sending the meat back to BE1Concepts/Boca. Martin-Kelman felt it’s important to note that the cattle never actually leave the state of Florida. This is rare in the resto world.
All of the above? Fantastico. A hearty and sincere hurrah. Boca should be commended for cleaning up its act and going far beyond what most of its corporate-resto brethren could even imagine in terms of reinforcing style with substance. One of its menu items is actually entirely locally-sourced: The Try This Burger is 100% Florida from beef to bun. As a side note, for this review Orlando Eats directly confirmed with both Urban Canning in St. Pete and Jamison B. Breadhouse in Ybor City that they do indeed supply Boca. Hey, fool us once…
But it all begs the question; Why only hint? Why not clarify on the menu? For a restaurant that is as much marketing-machine as kitchen, not fully promoting its above-and-beyond sourcing efforts seems counter-intuitive, especially when serving a generation of diners more attuned than ever to the where and what of their food. For instance, if I knew Boca was using fresh organic produce from Worden Farm in a salad, I’d be far more stoked about ordering it (Stoked \ ˈstōkt \ adjective: being in an enthusiastic or exhilarated state.)
OK. I’ve beaten this dead horse to a messy pulp. In sum, I think it’s safe to take Boca’s word at this point that a good deal of its menu has Florida origins. They appear to be doing a bang-up job.
Food & Drink
Questions of sourcing aside, is the food any good? Some of it. We’ve now eaten at Boca nine or ten times. Most of what we’ve swallowed is a waste of brain space and belly real estate, but the restaurant does occasionally turn out a solid dish. Don’t tell this to the folks queued at the door on weekends. Boca seems to be doing just fine. Granted, many of the would-be-diners that trawl Park Avenue seem as if they’d be easily mesmerized by the jangling of keys. Against the snake oily charm of big-restaurant-group sparkle they don’t stand a chance.
Boca has a fantastic location – perhaps the best on swanky Park Ave – anchoring a beautiful corner on the quiet northern end directly across from Our Lady of Conspicuous Consumption Catholic Thunderdome (in divitiis speramus). It’s definitely a magnet. Hungry crowds seem drawn to Boca’s blend of open-air come hitherness and safe, contrived rustic chic. It’s appealing in a way that Restoration Hardware is appealing. Not necessarily a knock – we enjoy kicking around a RH from time to time. It’s just that Boca feels more like a product than a place. A varnished formula rather than an eatery. But it’s a well-designed product. A comfortable formula.
If weather permits, opt to sit outside. It’ll make everything taste better. The al fresco tables on contiguous East Canton Ave are lovely on the right day. I find the inside a little cluster-fuckish, but I’m in the minority. Munch, Go-Kart Romeo, and Pretty Bird prefer the bar side high-tops in the interior.
The menu evolves seasonally (if not more frequently) and changes are largely based on the dynamics of supply. You know, peach season brings peach dishes. Common sense stuff. BE1Concepts also gives some creative license to its individual Boca locations. Kitchens can leverage a featured Staff Meal, Flatbread of the Day, and Daily Special to flex their muscles. Boca gets an additional point or two for dabbling in some unorthodox fun; Its brunch menu includes The Sunday Morning Comedown (a 16 oz. PBR in a brown bag and house bacon for $7) and if you’re feeling magnanimous you can always buy a beer for the kitchen ($3). Because beer good. Zero sarcasm. We like this. Humanizes the joint a bit.
For us, meals begin with drinks, end with drinks, and end-end with drinks. They’re kinda important to us. I’m far from crazy about Boca’s wine list. It stinks. Sure, there’s big-ticket Silver Oak and Joseph Phelps cabs for cigar munching mid-life-crisers, and I imagine its mediocre California chardonnays and Kiwi sav blancs satisfyingly slake the thirst of undiscerning tourists and boorish blueblood day-drunks, but it all feels tired. Munch can confirm that most of it tastes tired (or worse). Hell, I’m falling asleep writing this. Boca’s ho-hum selection of big distributor vino steered me to beer during the last several meals.
Despite having a large, central bar and several local craft beers by the bottle/can, there are no taps. Never fear. BE1Concepts also owns adjacent Atlantic Beer & Oyster (ABO). Servers simply slip out the back to grab drafts from ABO where they found me a pretty-OK Orange Blossom Brewing Pilsner. Besides beer, cocktails have also been solid – Munch had an excellent Paloma on our last visit.
For teetotalers (bless your hearts) and recovering alcoholics, there’s basil lemonade made to order, organic cold pressed juice, the increasingly ever-present kombucha and, of course, water. On water, a word. Boca will pitch you on Vero water at $5.00 per bottle. Sorry, I meant Vero Water®. Vero Water is a Miami-based company that sells water filtration systems to restaurants along with its branded bottles for filling and refilling. Other restaurants in town also serve Vero Water, but many (Sushi Pop down the street, for example), don’t charge diners for it. A Miami New Times article several years back found that most Miami restaurants weren’t charging for it either and when they were it was no more than $2 or so a pop. Skip the Vero. Have an iced tea.
Food! Food! Food! Yep, it took you this long to get here. Congrats. When pondering the menu at Boca, you’ll need to first skim away some smoke and mirrors; it’s awash in trendy-wendiness. Bibimbap. 62-degree egg. Modelo Sofrito. Fattoush. Air-chilled chicken. None of this unusual. Most restaurants seek to dazzle with buzzwords, techniques and ingredients du jour, but in Boca’s case some of the words fail to make it from menu to plate. In addition, the quality of the plates themselves is beyond helter skelter, running the gamut from good to meh to bad to ugly. There is no excellent.
I typically avoid salads that allow fruit on the plate, but the Heritage Tomato Caprese Salad at Boca was solid. Hand stretched mozzarella cheese, strawberries, candied beets, pine nuts, basil pistou, and lemon oil. The quality of cheese is top notch and ingredients combine well. Serving suggestion? Warm day. Cold wine. There’s a bog-standard pinot grigio or two on the menu that won’t make you wince.
A flatbread special of scratch meatloaf, manchego, hot sauce, olives, and roasted peppers was fine and dandy. Cook this correctly and you can’t really go wrong. Actually, many of the flat bread offerings at Boca fall safely in the ‘good’ category. We’re suckers for a cracker crust and, well, this fits the bill.
We also enjoyed a sirloin special ordered med-rare, served medium and sliced against the grain atop roasted veg. Although the quality of the steak was evident, it was lacking a bit of flavor either from insufficient seasoning or aging. Who knows. It went down a treat, just without a lot of meaty oomph.
Smoked Fish Dip incorporates amberjack which is always a red flag for us. Although trash fish is en vogue, Amberjack is a trash fish that can be wormy and off-putting if not prepped correctly when caught (bled out). We found bites of the dip strong but enjoyed it overall. Pickled goodies on the plate (onions, okra, etc.) come courtesy of Illene Sofranko’s Urban Canning in St. Pete and sort of make the dish. Biggest knock is that half of the accompanying toasts on the last visit were beyond stale. We’ve had this dip on multiple occasions and it swings back and forth across the entire spectrum of average. Almost blah to almost yeah.
The quality of beef in Boca’s OMG Burger is good, but, like the sirloin, it lacked smack. It carried a bit too much oil/fat from the grill/flat top/pan resulting in mouthfuls of flavor-masking greasiness. The burger features 100% pasture raised beef (from what we now know is Boca’s managed herd), bibb lettuce, aged white cheddar, pickled onions, tomato, sweet relish aïoli, and parmesan truffle fries which have been relegated to the ‘bad’ category below. We really wanted to like this burger – it was cooked to a perfect medium temp and looked great on the plate.
Fattoush is basically a middle eastern panzanella often tartened with sumac and given some soul with crisped pieces of za’atar spiced pita. Classically, it includes fresh greens and coarse cut vegetables like cucumbers, radishes, and tomatoes. I’ve eaten this salad in Istanbul, in restaurants along London’s Edgeware Road, in Lebanese restaurants far and wide. Trust me when I tell you there was nothing vaguely fattoushy about the Fattoush Salad at Boca. They are both salads, I suppose. Like Lincoln and Trump are both American presidents. A spackle-like almond hummus was haphazardly finger painted to the bottom of the plate, there were some crispy beet chips tossed amongst what was lovely kale. Is that parmesan? Who knows. We threw shrimp on top because why not; might as well go full Frankenstein. Was it good? Average. Was it fattoush? Nope.
On two occasions, Fried Green Tomatoes with pimento cheese, tomato jam, and bacon were dense and heavy as hockey pucks. Overly breaded and lifeless. The tomato jam looked and tasted like sweetened canned tomato, the pimento cheese vaguely pimento cheese-like. With a good green tomato, it’s best not to fuss it into oblivion, but Boca hits them with a heavy hand. The end result is something that feels like it was dumped from a freezer bag into a fryer and from the fryer on to a plate.
Smoked Chimichurri Chicken Quarters is a menu staple served with Jupiter rice middlins, modelo sofrito, black eye peas, burnt mango salsa, arugula and cilantro salad. There’s no real sign of the promised chimichurri or sofrito. We’re guessing the chicken might be marinated in chimi, the sofrito worked into the rice? Guessing. Flavors weren’t providing clues. Shame, as it was dying for fresh chimichurri. Didn’t catch any smoke, but there was definitely fire; the chicken was as dry and lifeless as scorched earth. Arugula was a droopy afterthought, burnt mango salsa had a strange synthetic aftertaste, and we didn’t find any black-eyed peas or cilantro salad. Skip this dish unless you hunger for disappointment.
The menu informed us we were ordering parmesan truffle fries with the above OMG burger (see above pic). Not sure what we received. There was zero truffle or parmesan flavor, although a few sad, scattered slivers of parm teased. The fries themselves also weren’t cooked properly – flaccid and moist from soaking up too much oil. Missed opportunity here. When restaurants commit to doing potatoes right, customers notice. Case in point? The truffle fries at Ravenous Pig. The kettle chips at Swine and Sons. I could go on. Point is there’s no real excuse.
Ahi Tuna Bibimbap (buzz, buzz) was plain bad. A fattoush déjà vu; more psycho finger-painting. We’re certain whoever was running the pass was asleep, blind or both. Seriously. It looked like someone had sneezed sauce on to the plate. We half expected to find REDЯUM spelled in spicy mayo. OK. OK. We’re busting balls. On top of the gloop was a dry, flavorless jumble of limp ingredients; chopped ahi tuna, avocado, cucumber, edamame, tomatoes, scallion, kimchi, and purple rice. Not sure what made it Bibimbap other than that’s what Boca decided to call it. Maybe the kimchi and the fact that you get to mix the ingredients yourself.
PEI mussels: We sent these back on the one occasion we ordered them, but we’ve also sent them back at far better Orlando restaurants. Boca’s not alone. Yes, every restaurant shares in the blame for serving them and for continuing to use whoever supplies this city with shitty mollusks. I swear, it’s Russian roulette ordering mussels in this town.
This reaches back a bit, but our first meal featured a tuna wonton thingie that was largely inedible due to the quality of the tuna. It’s not necessarily uncommon for tuna to glimmer an iridescent green nor is it a sure sign of lack of freshness, but in our case it was. It’s no longer on the menu, so you’re safe.
You’re almost there…
Before we tie a bow on this novella, there’s more good to report. Interactions with staff at Boca have been consistently pleasant. Servers were friendly and engaging during every meal, although most seemed unschooled on where Boca’s food actually comes from (we were given confused responses on more than one occasion). Regarding this, Martin-Felman states that Boca will be placing a renewed focus on telling its story. They seem to be making strides. Menus now feature a small section highlighting Florida-based food partners, there’s a mention of Double C Ranch on a (one) menu item, strawberries are from Plant City, and a Jamison B. Breadhouse Hawaiian roll makes it to the Try This Burger description. It’s definitely progress. However, sourcing and storytelling are one thing. Ensuring that what comes out of the kitchen is well prepared is another.
Words and deeds. Words and deeds. When it comes to food, we only care about the latter. The menu is not the meal. If you could eat the words on Boca’s menu, they’d be tip top. And, in fairness, behind its gauntlet of semantic gymnastics, there is a renewed foundation of truth and a passable plate or two. But this isn’t a resto we can recommend. With its sourcing, Boca could be very good. It’s far from it. It has the kitchen to be reliably decent. It’s not there. For now, Boca is just another run-of-the-mill restaurant on Park Avenue kept afloat by a charming location and steady stream of indiscriminate diners.
UPDATE 07/01/19: We were pulled back to Boca recently at the request of a friend and actually quite enjoyed the Buffalo Cauliflower Flatbread and a Kale Caesar with Shrimp and a Poached Egg. We would easily order both again. We’ve inched Boca’s food rating up ever-so-slightly to reflect what was a solid meal even though several folks at our table were letdown by their dishes. Remains hit or miss with many menu items to avoid.