The sprawling restaurant on the banks of Lake Shipp in Winter Haven has been known by successive variations of the name Harborside. The latest embodiment is an elegant, upscale restaurant specializing in an ever-evolving variety of fresh, creative dishes that tempt fish lovers to rediscover why they love seafood in the first place.
Its charm is in its details. From the ambiance to the food presentation itself, you note meticulous attention to the little things that make a meal a dining event rather than mere eating. Having undergone a total renovation in October 2014, the outside is bright and refreshing, with ample parking and submarine-style lighting. Its miniature marina is often filled with the boats, jet skis, and even seaplanes by which some customers arrive. The interior welcomes with its cool gray and white hues, slate floors, and ceiling of smartly rigged canvas triangles reminiscent of ship sails. Across the length of two seating levels is an expansive bank of floor to ceiling windows that makes the most of the gorgeous lakefront whose water literally shimmers in reflection on the ceiling.
Making customers feel welcomed is the priority of owner David Spinogatti, whose career in restaurant management brought him from his New York birthplace to Florida. David, who most recently owned Beluga in Winter Park, emphasizes good service. With an Italian heritage, David’s appreciation for the hospitality of the Southern, suburban lifestyle is evident in his overflowing, friendly demeanor. From the moment your feet cross the threshold, you feel cared for by thoughtful servers who know how to manage the service of a meal.
As lovely as the setting and the people are, the star of Harborside is its food. I asked to sample the most popular dish on the menu and found it isn’t on the menu! It’s a cedar plank grilled salmon. Fresh and fileted on site, the peach fish peeps out from under a lush creamy off-white sauce that had been gently baked. The salmon sits on a hand-cut cedar plank that accompanied the salmon onto the grill. The first thing to hit your taste buds is the diced red onions that give a slight kick to the otherwise sweet smoothness of the Parmesan cheese aioli topping. Harborside’s chef keeps it on the grill for the exact right amount of time because it flakes at the slightest touch of the fork. The cedar infuses the salmon with a subtle, smoky, aromatic flavor. Strikingly, there is no “fishy” taste or smell whatsoever and not a bit of the fish aftertaste evident in some seafood. There are two slices of lemon on the plate, but frankly I’d go light on application of lemon juice – this dish is so well balanced, there is no need to adjust its combination of flavors.
Not everyone likes oysters, but for those who do, Harborside’s gleaming, copper-topped oyster bar offers an opportunity to sample varieties not typically available. Most Florida restaurants offer one kind of oyster – Gulf – usually served boiled with the thought that the bigger the better. Yes, Harborside offers the large, East Bay version brought fresh from the Gulf, but many a customer has developed an appreciation for the Blue Point from Connecticut and the James River oyster from Virginia. Smaller, more uniform, and more firm in body than their Gulf counterparts, these oysters generally are less salty (more sweet) and leave a pleasant buttery seaweed “finish” — the impression that lingers after you have swallowed the oyster. The taste of an oyster is notoriously difficult to describe, but the French poet Léon-Paul Fargue said that eating one is “like kissing the sea on the lips.” So do what I did and ask the folks at Harborside to set up a private kissing booth for you. Line up all three varieties on their blue and gray rippled shells and sample these fresh delights which for eons have been known as “gifts of the sea.”
Who doesn’t love shrimp? Whether you want it sautéed, steamed, fried, on its own or paired with cod, Cajun chicken, or on a bed or linguine with white wine lemon butter sauce, Harborside provides ample choices. I sampled the broiled stuffed shrimp. Again, the presentation is beautiful, with the light pink shrimp paired with vividly orange sweet potato fries. This is no overcooked, mushy shrimp. When I bit into it, I got that satisfying bouncy texture of really good, sweet shrimp. My teeth sank right in for the juicy, tender, slightly firm bite that ends with a slight hint of crunch. The homemade stuffing of crab and seafood is a full-bodied splash of intense flavor, which provided a pleasant contrast to the milder flavors of the shrimp and the seasoned sweetness of the sweet potatoes.
Generally you don’t go to a seafood restaurant for steak, but Harborside’s 16 oz Angus ribeye met the needs of the carnivore in me. Harborside’s high quality, handcut ribeye has that robust aroma that sets your taste buds watering. I smelled it long before it reached my table. Thick and slightly crusty on the edges, the generous marbling provides a rich and tender taste. I found myself chewing extra long, savoring each extraction of the full flavor. The seasonal vegetables (which on this particular day were broccoli, cauliflower, and red bell pepper) are fresh and vivid in color. They are lightly seasoned and slightly al dente, having the slightest crunch.
As wonderful as the entrees are, Chef Erik Walter tells me that some of the things customers appreciate the most are sauces and side items. In addition to the standard New England tartar sauce, he makes his own blend of key lime fresh dill sauce. This savory option has become highly popular, as has Harborside’s salad dressing, made of fresh oregano, garlic, lemon, Worchester sauce, and a secret ingredient that cuts the acidity and leaves the dressing with a unique sweet taste. Customers routinely ask to purchase the dressing to take home, and so plans are in the works to bottle the dressing for availability next year.
Freshness is always emphasized, even in the smallest details, and customers are often shocked when their bartender picks herbs straight out of the restaurant’s garden to flavor mojitos. Owner David Spinogatti is eager to share what he calls “Polk County’s premiere waterfront location” with everyone.
This summer, weekly specials including Snow Crab Monday, Lobster Tuesday, and Super Grouper Fridays encourage people to try the new Harborside.
Freshness, variety, uniqueness, innovative cooking, and hospitality – Winter Haven’s HarborSide has all five and deserves its growing reputation as five star dining!
Harborside Seafood Steak Oyster Bar 2435 7th St. S.W. Winter Haven, FL. 33880 863.293.7070 HarborsideFL.com