FORK ON THE ROAD: Evans Prairie Country Club

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PHOTOS: Matthew Gaulin

There are many country club dining options in The Villages, but Evans Prairie Country Club is one of the best.

The Villages is no stranger to good restaurants. Worthy dining spots abound, both in and around Florida’s Friendliest Hometown.

But only a few really stand out in terms of food and service.

I’ll admit I wasn’t sure what to expect when I learned I’d be visiting Evans Prairie County Club, the newest country club addition to The Villages. “Stuffy and predictable,” part of me automatically thought. Country club dining usually doesn’t do it for me, because while most tout “exquisite cuisine” and an “excellent dining experience,” the truth is sometimes it’s floating somewhere around run-of-the-mill.

Nevertheless, keeping an open mind is part of the job. And from the time I stepped inside Evans Prairie, the staff, under the direction of general manager Jon McNeely, showed me why their establishment is fast becoming a favorite among astute Villagers.

I was immediately shown to my table, nestled in the corner of the far-left dining room. It was perfect for observing not only the steady lunch bunch, but also the wait staff, which remained hopping and attentive the entire two hours I was there.

FITR_1114-003I fell in the love with the interior of Evans Prairie. It’s rustic with Old West panache. The wood-like floors give a weathered yet stylish feel that continues through the neutral-colored walls, windowed dining rooms and coffered ceilings.

A walkway leads to a large bar area that stays busy during Happy Hour, which is every day from 11a.m. to 5p.m. Beyond the bar, diners can choose to eat alfresco on the spacious patio area that overlooks the “prairie.” And on Saturdays, there’s the  bonus of live entertainment.

During the day, much of the crowd consists of golfers who finished a morning on the links or girlfriends out for a causal lunch. My server for the afternoon, Jennifer, quickly secured my drink order and informed me my appetizers would soon be out.

To start, I sampled the jumbo ‘shrooms and hot crab and cheese dip. Jumbo may be an understatement. These herbed cream cheese stuffed portobellos are massive, both in size and flavor. It was a welcomed departure from the rubbery, excessively buttery mushroom appetizers served at most restaurants. Instead, this dish had nice balance between the high-fat, mild-tasting cream cheese and the earthy tang of the mushrooms.

With a nicely deep-fried panko breadcrumb crust, the mushrooms also had good crunch, and the accompanying horseradish dip was a nice touch. You may want to share, because you’ll receive six as an appetizer and you won’t be able to eat more than two.

FITR_1114-002The hot crab and cheese dip also was delightful. The lump blue crab was mild and allowed the three-cheese blend and assortment of spices to take center stage. Served with grilled pita bread, it is a nice way to start out a meal if you’re harboring a slight craving for seafood.

For my main dishes, it was all about protein. I first tried the highly regarded petite filet abruzzo. The hand-trimmed filet mignon, topped with a lovely tomato salad and fresh mozzarella, is intoxicating. It was extremely tender and had a subtle smokiness from being charcoal grilled.

Furthermore, the sides of grilled asparagus and Yukon Gold mashed potatoes were prepared excellently and tasted extremely fresh.

Next, I tried the popular pork shank. Slow-cooked for 14 hours and covered in a caramel reduction sauce, this dish is solid. The shank alone was juicy and fall-off-the-bone tender, and I enjoyed the caramel reduction, which wasn’t too sugary.

With only two years under its belt, Evans Prairie proves being the new kid on the block doesn’t necessarily mean mediocrity.

“We’re really pleased with how the community has embraced us, and now we get quite a few regulars who come dine with us,” said McNeely. “Groups are starting to schedule more engagements with us. Anniversaries, birthdays — people are choosing to celebrate milestones with us, too.”

FITR_1114-005From its Southwestern-inspired fare to its legendary service, there’s good reason for McNeely to be proud of Evans Prairie. The most refreshing moments of my visit involved the staff. My server Jennifer was not only courteous but very personable and knowledgeable about the menu. And one employee even happily volunteered to carry my bags stuffed with leftovers to my car.

Villager Ron Taylou, dining with his wife and a cousin, said it was his second trip to Evans Prairie in a week.

“The food was so good I had to come back,” he said. “My wife had the petite filet and I had a basic hamburger when we first came here. Today, I had the albatross sandwich and she had the shrimp and grits. It was all very good.

“I’ll be sure to bring more people here to try it out.”

Before I left, I needed to try just one more dish.

And what’s more Western (and American) than a slice of warm, delicious apple pie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream for dessert?

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1825 Evans Prairie Trail, The Villages 32162 • 352.750.2225

Hours of Operation:
Monday–Thursday, 11a.m.–9p.m.; Friday–Saturday, 11a.m.—10p.m.; Sunday, 10a.m.–9p.m.

Popular Dishes:
Hot crab & cheese dip: $9.95
Jumbo ‘shrooms: $9.95
Lobster mac & cheese: $15.95
The shank: $16.95
Petite filet abruzzo: $13.95
Bourbon pecan pie: $6.95

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