Lombardi’s Seafood Cafe

Lombardi’s Seafood, located on Fairbanks Avenue on the Winter Park side of I-4, has been the premier place to purchase fresh seafood in the Orlando area since opening in 1961.  That’s a 50-year culinary tradition, which is in itself rare in our young city.  Rarer still, the seafood market remains a family business, now owned by a third generation of Lombardis.  That’s a special thing, worthy of recognition and support.  Lombardi’s Seafood relocated to its current location in 2015 and opened a casual restaurant inside the nicer-than-ever surroundings, Lombardi’s Seafood Cafe (https://lombardis.com/#cafe).  I ate there once, shortly after it opened, but hadn’t been back for a while.

Well, my wife and I had both been craving seafood the entire month we spent in the hospital, so within the first four weeks we were back home this summer, I ate at Lombardi’s Seafood Cafe a whopping three times, including twice with her.  And despite finding a flawless favorite fish early on, I made sure to order something different every time, for the purpose of constructing a more compelling and comprehensive composition of comparisons and contrasts.  You’re welcome, constant readers!  Just keep in mind that even though you can always buy fine fresh fish for festively feeding family and friends, the cafe is closed on Sundays, even though the market is open.

On my first recent visit, I was alone, and I was hungry.  Figuring I would have leftovers, I started out with the smoked fish dip as an appetizer ($8).  It arrived with a beautiful presentation: a substantial scoop of the smoky stuff surrounded by a refreshing rainbow of various vegetables: crunchy carrot and celery sticks, cool cucumber slices, piquant pickled jalapeños, and my absolute favorites, crunchy pickled onions in a shade I can only describe as “Barbie Dream House pink.”  These things are so tangy and sweet and delicious, I make them at home in massive quantities and put them on everything.  The smoked fish dip was good, but the pickled onions, adding that vinegary tang and crunch to the smoky, creamy, melt-in-your-mouth coolness, elevated it to a next-level app.

As much as I love my cured, smoked, and pickled fish, as well as raw fish in sushi and poke and canned fish like sardines, I don’t eat nearly enough cooked fish.  I’ve never dared to buy or cook my favorite fish, grouper, but I jumped at the opportunity to try Lombardi’s grouper sandwich ($18), served simply with lettuce, tomato, and tartar sauce on the side on an excellent brioche bun.  I ordered it blackened (the other options were grilled and fried), and it was perfect in every way.  Easily in the Top Two grouper sandwiches I’ve eaten in my life, and the other was at a place we love in Clearwater Beach that I plan to return to and review in February 2022.  (Let’s all try to make it that far!)Sandwiches and baskets come with two sides, so I chose the collard greens (stewed with slices of sausage; allegedly andouille) and sweet corn fritters that I forgot to photograph, but you’ll see them a little later.  Anyway, I can’t recommend this sandwich highly enough.  It was everything a fish sandwich should be, and the blackened seasoning imparted terrific flavor without overpowering the taste of the fish, and didn’t make it too spicy either.  Apparently a lot of restaurants sneakily sell other, lesser fish that they label as grouper and price accordingly, but this is the real deal, and you don’t see it on many menus around Orlando.

Flash forward a week, and after my regular raves and habitual hype, I brought my wife to Lombardi’s to give it another try, years after our first visit.  She surmised the Saboscrivner wouldn’t steer her askew and settled on the same sandwich for herself, this time with hush puppies (she didn’t care for these, but I sure did) and sweet corn fritters (I can’t imagine anyone wouldn’t like these).  She was a blackened grouper sandwich convert too — another grouper groupie, if you will.

As much as I could eat that grouper sandwich all the time, I was feeling shellfish, so I ordered a dozen oysters for myself at a very reasonable $1 each.  For too many years, I trusted in the antiquated advice that you can’t safely eat oysters during months that don’t have an “R” in their names — namely, the sweltering summer.  But I’ve been researching that rebop (dig my day job), and oyster harvesting methods have changed so much in modern times, it is quite safe.   These briny beauties were plump, cool, luxurious, and perfectly shucked, unlike some other restaurants that don’t completely separate the oyster from the half-shell, those shuckers.  No ill effects or stomach wrecks, I’m relieved to report.

I also got a sandwich with the fish of the day ($10), which happened to be black tip shark!  I’ve never had shark before, so of course I had to try it, to report back to my stalwart Saboscrivnerinos about what it was like to devour the most dangerous, deadliest denizen of the deep.  As a result, I ordered the shark grilled rather than blackened, to fully savor the flavor.  I thought it was blander than the grouper (ordering it blackened would have probably helped), and it was a firmer fish — less buttery than the grouper, but not flaky either, like most white fish.  I’d equate it to swordfish, as a point of comparison, although I think swordfish is more flavorful.  I’m glad I  wrapped my jaws around this shark sandwich, but I don’t know if I’d attack the apex predator again, as long as there are other fish in the sea.     Note the hush puppies and collard greens as my two sides here.  Still good!

I wrote this review on the eve of my third recent visit to Lombardi’s, again with my wondrous, winsome wife.  You thought we were done?  No, son, we’re just getting started!

Instead of raw oysters, this time we started out with an app we could both enjoy: a platter of fried clam strips ($10), served in a very light and crispy batter, not greasy at all.  My wife preferred these clam strips to the ones at her family’s old seafood standard, another Winter Park landmark, Boston’s Fish House.

Since the clam strips were a platter, we chose fries (pretty standard fries) and cole slaw (nice and crunchy and cool, and not too much mayo) as the two sides.  The hush puppies and corn fritters are the superior sides, for certain.

My wife’s first choice, the whole fried snapper, wasn’t available, so she opted for a platter of her own, with fried mahi ($13) and a double order of the corn fritters.  These heat up remarkably well in the toaster oven, so fear not — we didn’t eat all the fried stuff in one sitting.  Now I’m not a big mahi fan, but she likes it well enough, or thought she did.  This mahi would probably have been better blackened or grilled, given that flaky texture that is kind of dry.  It’s a generous portion of fish, that’s for sure, but it just isn’t the fish for me. 

And me, despite the grouper’s gravitational pull, I opted to order the fried oyster po’boy ($15), with a handful of huge fried oysters on an excellent Cuban roll with lettuce, tomato, and remoulade sauce.  I remembered to request a ramekin of those perfectly pink pickled onions to place on the po’boy.  It was a sensational sandwich, with such a breathtaking blend of flavors, textures, and colors.  Fried oysters are always good, and remoulade sauce is an ace accompaniment for them.  But Lombardi’s sandwich game is so strong, right down to the radical rolls.  The breathtaking brioche rolls from the other sandwiches really complete them, and so did this Cuban roll — so soft, yet lightly grilled for an ideal texture.  It wasn’t just some tasteless white bread for pointless extra carbs, but a crucial component of this peerless po’boy.

So as you can see, 30 days in the hospital necessitated my wife and I go on seafood diets for a little while: when we see food, we eat it… as long as it’s seafood.  I was saddened that we stayed away from Lombardi’s Seafood Cafe as long as we had, especially because it wasn’t for any real reason.  Three for three, these were excellent meals, and so reasonably priced by seafood standards.  It is worth noting that the cafe menu proudly proclaims that almost all seafood is caught locally, and even off their own boat, the F/V Bottom Line, out of sunny St. Petersburg on Florida’s west coast (y’all know it’s the best coast).

Also, for a $4 upcharge, you can purchase any of the fresh fish and shellfish available in the glass display cases and ask the friendly fishmongers to have the Seafood Cafe prepare it for you — even things that aren’t on the menu!  How cool is that?

Orlando may be nestled inland, which may afford us some protection from  hurricanes and flooding, but we don’t have immediate access to our state’s beaches and warm waters here.  Luckily for us we have Lombardi’s, with their 50 years of seafood experience, a true mom-and-pop shop where you can buy the freshest Florida fish and cook it yourself, or seat yourself in the Seafood Cafe and leave the grilling, blackening, and frying to the experts.  The Lombardi family runs a tight ship, so mullet over and give them a try, just for the halibut.

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