Story By Claudia O’Brien o Photos by Steve Floethe
A mid-day visit to Woodlea at The Veranda is a kindness you can give yourself without feeling one bit guilty. Not only is the food fresh, delicious and plentiful – and the atmosphere warm and welcoming – the prices are quite reasonable for such inspired lunchtime fare.
Proprietress Martha Jane Davis and Chef Dale Harvell are a winning team that has brought their considerable talents together to make lunch in Ocala’s Downtown Historic District a very special occasion indeed.
Martha Jane Davis (née Edwards) has always had a special knack for Southern hospitality. Growing up in a local family that entertained frequently, she’s always enjoyed making special occasions beautiful, delicious and memorable.
As Martha Jane and her husband Doug were raising their three daughters, her own entertaining efforts were mostly for family and close friends. “Then,” she says, “a few years ago, Darlene Snyder at the Jockey Club asked me to do flowers for the club. Meanwhile, I was also freelancing on my own time, doing flowers for weddings and parties. It was very interesting and I was enjoying it.”
One day, a friend asked Martha Jane if she would “do” her son’s wedding.
“I thought she was asking me to do the flowers,” she explains with a smile, “but she was asking me to take care of the whole wedding, including the food. At first I thought she was a little crazy, then I thought about it and decided, ‘I can do that.’”
That successful event led to others, and soon Martha Jane realized she was creating a full-time business. She opened her commercial kitchen on College Road in 1997, naming it Woodlea Gardens after her family’s century-old home in Irvine. She recruited Dale Harvell, the former chef at the Jockey Club, to work with her.
“Dale is a natural,” marvels Martha Jane. “He was trained locally in Lake Weir High School’s Culinary Arts Program by Palma Snyder. He just keeps getting better and better.”
As one of Woodlea’s clients told me recently, “Soon, more and more hostesses were asking Martha Jane to cater their parties. From rehearsal dinners and wedding receptions to cocktail parties and dinner extravaganzas, people were saying, ‘If you want something really special, call Martha Jane.’”
She blushes modestly when you mention this comment.
“We’ve been so fortunate,” she explains. “We’ve had lovely people working with us – Vivian Edwards, Judy Hills, Lauretta Smith, Laura Sanchez, Rusty Bryden, and many others – who have worked hard to keep our standards very high and our clients happy.”
Woodlea is snuggled into a roomy corner of The Veranda Gallery on Fort King Street, a block east of Ocala City Hall.
Some months before The Veranda opened last year, as owner Paulette Millhorn was nearing the end of restoration on the Queen Anne-style home, she brought together a group of women with eclectic interests and complementary tastes to be part of the Gallery. The colorful shops present an array of lovely gifts and decorative accents, as well as distinctive women’s clothing, garden accessories and unique imports, such as Mexican pewter, among many other offerings.
Paulette also wanted a tearoom to be part of the mix, and she knew just whom she wanted to do it: Martha Jane.
When Paulette asked her to be a part of The Veranda, it was right in the midst of Ocala’s busiest social season.
“The Veranda opened early in the year,” remembers Martha Jane. “It took us a few months to get through the season and get everything ready. We finally opened at the beginning of July. It was perfect timing for us because the summer is generally a slow time for the catering business.”
Woodlea’s dining room has a gracious simplicity, and if you detest paper tablecloths and napkins, as I do, you’ll be pleased to know that there are none to be found here. The tables are covered with linen cloths and complemented with immaculate white linen napkins.
Most days, the 40 seats in the main and adjacent dining areas are occupied, several times over, with an interesting mix of guests. There are downtown professionals, of course, who come in groups of two, three, four or more, and shoppers who have spent a busy morning in the historic district. There are also out-of-town people who are drawn to the area and overhear someone talking about Woodlea or see the sign and decide to give it a try.
When the weather is as nice as it has been lately, some opt to enjoy lunch al fresco on The Veranda’s lovely porch, which accommodates another 15-18 guests.
Martha Jane says she is delighted that more and more men are coming in with their wives or co-workers and discovering that this is not a cucumber-sandwich kind of place, but one that offers a “real” lunch without a long wait.
Woodlea guests have a number of favorites that stay on the menu all year long. We sampled two of those perennial entrees the day we visited — the Shrimp Salad on Avocado Wedges, with green salad and a fresh fruit garnish ($10.50) and the Salad Trio, a pastiche of chicken salad, pasta salad and green salad, with a fresh fruit garnish ($8.50).
They were both excellent, with just enough distinctive flavor and crunch to make them both interesting and delicious.
On a subsequent lunchtime visit (OK, I was addicted), I ordered the Quiche of the Day (ham and cheese on that particular Friday) with the garden salad ($8.50). It was melt-in-your-mouth light, as a proper quiche should be, and the generous green salad, dressed with Chef Dale’s renowned vinaigrette was a perfect accompaniment.
The menu always includes a freshly made Soup of the Day, such as broccoli cheddar, chicken and rice, or acorn squash. (The soup or the pasta salad may always be substituted for the green salad.)
On many days, there is also a Chef’s Special. We glimpsed the Chicken Waldorf Salad ($9.50) that looked too good to eat, but would be hard to resist.
We’re looking forward to trying all of Woodlea’s offerings, including the Chicken Marjorie Casserole, served with green salad and fruit ($8.50) and the Florida Greek Salad with red potato salad and feta cheese ($9.00).
Then there are the desserts.
We chose to share a slice of the Specialty Cake of the Day: Chocolate Turtle Cake with Raspberry Puree ($3.50). Delicious! There’s also Spanish Flan de Leche ($3.00), Lemon Chess Pie ($3.00), and a Brownie Sundae ($2.50).
Woodlea is open Monday through Saturday, 11am-2pm. Special groups of up to 14 can be accommodated in one of the rooms off the main dining area, and up to 30 in the bigger room.
Just save a table for me.
Woodlea on the Way
Many of Woodlea Gardens’ homemade gourmet foods are available for take out as well. Stop by The Veranda for a menu of oven-ready homemade entrees, as well as side dishes and desserts. The “Comfort Foods at Their Best” menu, which includes oven-ready frozen gourmet foods, from Chicken Tetrazzini to Shrimp Creole in “small” (serves 2-3) and “medium” (serves 3-4) sizes range from $8 to $22. Large portions, which serve up to 12 or more people, are available through special order. Holiday Family Dinners will be offered for the upcoming holidays. Delivery is also available. Call (352) 690-9699 or fax (352) 690-6807.
Claudia O’Brien has written for diverse publications for more than 25 years. She and her husband, photographer Steve Floethe, have been married “a very long time” and delight in their two grown children and three grandchildren who are “smart, good looking and way above average.” She can be reached at email@example.com