Dinner of Champions

Written by R. Jill Fink, Food Editor | Photography by Chris Redd

If you head west, away from the hustle and bustle of Downtown Ocala, it doesn’t take long to notice the city dissolving into what is known far and wide as “Horse Country.” Sprawling oaks cast dotted shade over rolling, lush hills and pastures enclosed by well-kept wooden fences. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of a few magnificent stallions, mares, or even fillies peacefully grazing in fields of green grass.

Marion County is one of only four major thoroughbred centers in the entire world, and it’s not hard to understand why. It contains over 600 spectacular horse farms, providing the reason for our claim as the “horse capital of the world.” We deserve this honor; our farms have produced 45 national champions, 6 Kentucky Derby winners, 20 Breeders’ Cup champions and 6 Horses of the Year.

So, where do the horse farm owners, breeders and trainers go to have a great meal or relax with a cocktail? Many of them frequent the Horse & Hounds Restaurant and Pub, located at 6998 U.S. Highway 27, just 8 miles west of Ocala’s Downtown Square. The best part is that you don’t have to know a thing about horses to be welcomed into this long-standing eatery.

Part of Ocala’s rich equine history is embedded in the Horse & Hounds Restaurant and Pub. Tucked into the corner of the Golden Hill Centre Plaza under ancient oak trees, it was opened in 1998 by Hugh and Beth Rose. In 2004, the Rose family sold Horse & Hounds to Wendell Landry. Eleven years later, Landry still owns the restaurant, which is under the direction of co-owner and Vice President Carlos Sanchez along with his brother, General Manager Ruben Sanchez.

For those who enjoy outdoor dining, Horse & Hounds offers abundant seating at umbrella-covered tables in an area that runs the length of the front patio of the restaurant. Upon entering, I was immediately greeted by smiling faces and a laid-back atmosphere. The main dining room of the restaurant houses a lengthy bar and a bright, roomy sitting area. Tasteful, “horse-themed” décor, wrought-iron sculptures and bronze framed mirrors hang on walls painted in calm sea-green. Plenty of half-booth, half-table seating along the outside edges of the room offers a casual and comfortable way to dine, perfect for a relaxing lunch or dinner.

The unpretentious, yet nicely appointed rear dining room was softly lit, enhancing the rich ambiance of dark, mustard-colored walls decorated with original paintings. Antique furniture serves as stations for the staff, giving the space a feeling of something established and solid. A bit more formal, this room could easily serve as a great choice for a semi-private business lunch for an office team or even a romantic meal for two.

Both the lunch and dinner menus here are uncomplicated, yet full of tasty options that are sure to please. From their savory Beef and Guinness® Stew to their flavor-packed Blue Cheese Stuffed Burger, Conch Fritters and Tomato Bacon Dill soup, everything sounded delicious. I recommend taking a little bit of extra time trying to decide what to order.

Ruben Sanchez sat with me and answered questions while the kitchen prepared some of the long-time favorites of customers and a new dish that recently hit the dinner menu. He explained that the Rose family was known for offering more exotic dishes like ostrich at this family-owned eatery. Now, they concentrate on providing pub-style basics, elevated to Sanchez’s high standards. One can enjoy Pub-Style Mussels, steaks, their ever-popular Spinach Salad with poppy seed dressing, or seafood dishes like Pecan Basa, a mild freshwater fish, or their tempting Garlic Shrimp Tilapia.

First delivered to my table was a plump and gorgeous slab of Prime Rib, complete with a perfectly baked potato and side of grilled vegetables. I could cut the meat with my fork. The juicy steak was encrusted in just the right amount of salt and coarse pepper and slow-roasted for six and a half hours to perfection. I can’t say enough about the veggies that completed the ensemble. The light char on the yellow squash, broccoli, sugar snap peas and carrots was a masterful and savory complement to the sweet and succulent prime rib. The Aus Jus that came with the meal was bold and steeped in flavor with the perfect level of salt, but for a prime rib purist like myself, I found I didn’t need to use it to enhance the wonderful flavor already on my plate.

Next up was my task to sample the Braised Lamb. My heart sank. If you read my article last month, you know how brave I was to try the tuna melt. I feel the same way about lamb. I’ve tried it a couple of times, but my experience has not been pleasant. Stepping out of my comfort zone is a self-imposed requirement for thorough reporting, so I did it. The massive lamb shank Ruben brought was a sight to behold. Set high upon a massive mound of mashed potatoes that had been drizzled with oven-roasted vegetables cooked right along with the meat, I found it to be fall-off-the-bone tender. Braised for over five hours in red and white wine along with carrots and celery, it had the consistency of a great cut of pork. It was absolutely scrumptious.

Last, and leaving a lasting impression, was their new addition to the menu: their Beef Short Ribs. This meal is a Fred Flintstone-sized plate of braised hunks of Black Angus tenderness piled high on mashed potatoes and made even more delectable with carrots and celery cooked right along with the meat. It was unctuous, perfectly seasoned and cooked until fork-tender.

Ruben informed me that they go through ten to twelve enormous logs of Prime Rib on Mondays because they feature a 2 for $22 Prime Rib Special. You get two 8-oz cuts with all the trimmings. Another great offering on Mondays is their $3 martini deal. Tuesdays are buy-one-get-one Fish & Chips and Friday is “Seafood Day.” Horse & Hounds has a “Chef’s Choice” option on Wednesdays and Thursdays and all weekend where one can enjoy great creations like Tequila-Lime Shrimp or Almond-Crusted Salmon. Kids eat free on Sundays and everyone can enjoy live music on Fridays.

In the near future, Ruben hopes to enclose the front patio to make it more accessible during colder months and inclement weather. He stated that they love to be involved with the community and frequently donate to local groups like the Cancer Society and the VFW. They also sponsor baseball teams in Ocala and Dunnellon, and they’re always prepared for the HITS, short for “Horse Shows in the Sun,” which began in Gainesville in the 80’s and relocated to Ocala in the mid-90’s due to the increase in popularity. “I’m all about giving back,” he said, and Horse & Hounds gives more than great food and community support. They supply a comfortable place to celebrate the history of equine greatness, right here in our own backyard.

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