THE SMILING BISON

LEON KONIECZNY

One of the charms of the Smiling Bison menu is that you know there’ll be something new on the menu almost every time you visit, another culinary adventure awaits you every time.

The Bison on the front window isn’t the only one smiling at Sanford’s Smiling Bison Restaurant—patrons eating and drinking there are smiling as well, and for good reason. Chef Josh Oakley and business partner Ron Thomas started o—f a few years back with a food cart, then quickly moved on to a dive place in Orlando—it quickly became popular for its quirkiness and good food. Bringing their food cart to a Sanford Art Festival a few years back, they were quickly taken by Sanford’s charm and promise. So, in the fall of 2015, they opened their Sanford location and a star was born.

The best thing I put in my mouth in a long time was the Bison’s Carrot Beet Salad, but don’t rush out to get it—their menu changes frequently as the seasons for fresh ingredients change. One of the charms of the Smiling Bison menu is that you know there’ll be something new on the menu almost every time you visit, another culinary adventure awaits you every time. You’ll quickly overcome your disappointment of a favorite leaving the menu, trust me, I have. Each time I eat there, it’s a new culinary adventure waiting to happen. We do occasionally return to a few old favorites—the burger, the routine—but are always tempted to branch out and try something new.

Sanford’s Smiling Bison features a full liquor bar featuring craft cocktails made the old- fashioned way with quality ingredients and expert care. Even their drink menu changes with the seasons, though you can get your favorite old standbys as well. They also rotate craft beers on tap with a sele

But the main reason I keep returning to The Smiling Bison is the food. The first bite I ever had there was the Poutine—thick cut French fries with mushroom gravy and fresh cheese curds. Served with homemade ketchup and/ or homemade mushroom ketchup, Poutine has been an anchor of the menu since they opened, one of the few items that is not rotated off.

The Carrot Beet Salad deserves special mention since it is still the best thing I put in my mouth anywhere in the past year, maybe longer—maybe even ever! Perhaps it was the surprise of the fresh ™lavors. Perhaps it was the appeal of the colors–red and golden beets, yellow and orange carrots, green and red lettuce, all placed on the plate with exquisite care—the dish itself a beauty to behold. Then there was the taste. Besides fresh crispy vegetables, the goat cheese lent a creaminess

the walnuts some crunch, and the house-smoked bacon gave the dish a hint of smoky-savory goodness. Perhaps it was the balance of the dish—mandolins of sweet-tangy citrus gave the perfect acid to balance the dish. I would say that every dish I’ve had has been carefully crafted, both in clavor and presentation, and the Carrot Beet Salad is a prime example of a perfect dish in presentation, clavor, and freshness.

Though reservations are recommended if you want to guaranteed a table, I’ve never made a reservation—we prefer to sit at the narrow, long, high-tops in the bar area where we often squeeze in among strangers and leave as friends. We’ve made many new friends there late in the evening when we stopped by for a bite or a cocktail. The small-town friendliness of Sanford is evident in the ambience here and we often run into friends, new and old. Hometown atmosphere rules here.

Over the top service is also a hallmark of The Smiling Bison. The wait staff know the menu and can describe each item in detail—no small feat with a menu that is constantly evolving. The service is superior with each staff person helping the other. Need a refill? No problem. Done with that plate? Of it goes. Need another drink? On the way. Service is never lacking, always friendly, always fast.

Last to mention is the quality, though that’s been the theme at The Smiling Bison from the first bite of Poutine to the last thing I ate there (we shared the burger)—quality is always there. It’s part of the reason for the changing menu as fresh ingredients go in and out of season. There is no reheat, no pouring a sauce out of a pan, no off the shelf ingredients in use here. The􀅱 make and smoke their own sausage for the sausage pizza. They make the pepperoni for the pepperoni pizza. Smoked bacon bits on a salad? They are also house made and smoked. Attention to detail is paramount. If you’re lucky, you can grab one of the 4 or 5 seats at the chef’s table and watch as the finishing touched are put on dishes—and interact with the chef. Executive Chef Josh himself is often there, and I know he’ll spill his secrets, he is proud of his food, and rightly so.

Sanford has a burgeoning local dining scene that features many local restaurants (and bars) with good quality, popular prices, friendly service, and outstanding ambience. The Smiling Bison, in the short year it’s been open, has rocketed to the top as one of the best restaurants in Sanford and was voted the My Sanford Magazine 2016 Best New Restaurant award. They continue to deliver QSV—Quality, Service, Value—each day. The November 2016 news that they are closing their Orlando location and expanding their Sanford hours is exciting news to all central Florida. Sanford has a real food gem here, check it out!

Leon Konieczny is a local Central Florida foodie and food blogger who’s been writing about Sanford And Seminole County area “good eats” restaurants for the past 7 years. He’s big into eating at local mom ‘n’ pop shops (small businesses) where high quality ingredients, love, and a dose of home cooking make all the difference. While he occasionally (rarely) eats at the big chains, he claims it’s only to remind him where a real quality dining experience lurks—in the small restaurants which are the heart and soul of every neighborhood and community.

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