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Ever-curious, I've yearned to try the chef's tasting menu at five-diamond Salt for years. Recently, my wish became a reality when my handsome fiancée and I got all dressed up, made a reservation and eagerly awaited our culinary fine-dining future.

As we serenely waltzed through the entrance, we took in a colorful display of salts from around the world. The restaurant has large windows, but the sun had already set by dinner time. The interior was dimly lit, and buzzed with diners' chatter.

The four-course chef's "adventure" menu ($225 per person, or $325 paired with wine) as The Ritz-Carlton calls it, offered four brilliantly presented surprises. The server began by asking if there was anything we detested (I answered "maraschino cherries," because I couldn't think of any ingredient I truly hate). The accommodating server shared that useful information to the chef. And then we sat back and let the magic unfold.

After an amuse bouche (a one-bite hors d'oeuvre) medley of tomato gel, rocchetta cheese, pinenut and balsamic topped with micro-arugula, our first course arrived. It was a beautifully plated tuna tartar with pineapple espuma (an airy mousse-like foam), quail egg puffed rice, purple radish, baby romanesco, fennel and a sprinkle of micro-cilantro. I wouldn't have thought to pair tuna and pineapple but it worked – the chefs are geniuses!

We noshed on warm breads with soft butter, and a compartmentalized serving dish of various salts, each one carefully explained.

The second course was solid: cobia with a black garlic mushroom stuffed ravioli, shiitake mushrooms, clams, and rainbow Swiss chard atop sunchoke purée. Delightfully complex, the fish was flaky and paired perfectly with the savory ravioli.

Up next were the most flavorful, tender veal cheeks atop a tower of bean cassoulet, with a swirl of vibrantly colored carrot ginger purée, spiced walnuts and cranberry jam. I adored this dish; it featured several …   More



What started as a taco stand in St. Augustine more than 10 years ago has transformed into a small, laid-back eatery in St. Augustine Shores. Since nothing on the menu is priced over $10, Nalu's is a great spot for dining in or grabbing a bite 
on the run.

A chalkboard outside the door displays specials, and I was immediately enticed by the Mermaid Wrap ($9): seared Cajun ahi tuna, sticky rice with cilantro pesto and soy sauce and diced cucumber, all happily tucked away in a toasted spinach wrap. It was a magical blend of ingredients and flavors, and I'd certainly order it again.

The Ahi Burger ($9) is a burger-shaped mound of fresh yellowfin tuna steak that's seasoned and served on a soft whole-wheat bun. Topped with a cilantro pesto, crisp pieces of red cabbage, shreds of cheddar and jack cheeses and homemade baja sauce, it was nicely portioned.

After observing the "Best Tacos in St. Augustine" embellishment on the menu, we also ordered two tacos — one shrimp, one blackened mahi. Both arrived on flour tortillas piled haphazardly with cabbage, shredded cheese, cilantro pesto and a drizzle of thick, creamy baja sauce. Of the two, the mahi was better; the fish was juicy, nicely seasoned and, perhaps most important, full of flavor.

Most tacos and burgers are served with your choice of side — beans and rice, corn tortilla chips and salsa (red or verde), or a simple salad tossed with light mango dressing, garnished with cucumber slices and a sprinkling of sunflower seeds.

Nalu's serves only wild-caught fish (no farm-raised nonsense here!), making for really flavorful tacos, burritos and sashimi. And fresh is the name of the game: The eatery's sauces, salsas, soups and pestos are crafted using fresh ingredients from a local farmers' market and various area produce stands.

Kids will go crazy for the assortment of cleverly named shaved Hawaiian ices ($2-$3), such as luau lime, big kahuna cherry and da cotton candy kine.

The original location …   More


When in France …

A plane trip to France may be too far away for lunch or dinner, but JJ’s Bistro, with two area locations, is a good way to get your French fix.

Upon entering the Gate Parkway location, JJ’s Bistro de Paris, my eyes grew wide as I noticed the huge dessert case. These tempting goodies, which include pastries, tarts, tortes, éclairs, cheesecakes and other sweets, are all created fresh. Breads are also baked in-house.

We were quickly greeted and seated, passing by a tall metal replica of Paris’ famous landmark Eiffel Tower. I’ve been in the real tower twice, so this was nostalgic for me. Despite being located in a strip mall, JJ’s puts great detail in its mood-setting décor: A large painted mural of a Paris city street scene spans the main wall, and high ceilings and striped awnings over the doorways further enhance the Parisian feel.

I started my lunch with a cup of JJ’s French onion soup, which didn't disappoint. Peeling back the melted cheese layer unveiled piping hot soup with thin caramelized onions and pieces of cheese-covered soaked baguette.

The menu boasts several French favorites like salad niçoise, croque-monsieur, bouillabaisse, escargot and moules provencales et frites (mussels and fries), so there’s truly something for your inner-Parisian.

Several daily specials are listed on a small chalkboard at the table. We went with two from the list: a warm turkey, brie and green apple sandwich on brioche with raspberry aioli and chicken Florentine crêpes tarragon, topped with sun-dried tomato cream sauce and almonds. Each comes with a side, so when our waiter explained that the French fries are hand-cut and made fresh, we ordered those and a side salad. The fries were thin and crispy, and we gobbled them up quickly.

The sandwich won us over: creamy brie melting over tart green apple slices on bread topped with sesame seeds and aromatic garlic. The two thinly rolled crêpes were good, but the almonds were inside (not outside as …   More



At The Blind Rabbit, you'll find a bustling 
 dining room filled with the chatter of 
 bronzed beachgoers and families alike, an impressive two-page whiskey list and a menu to surely please the pickiest of eaters. The spot — in business now for six months — is the brainchild of local restaurateurs John and Jeff Stanford, who also own and operate The Blind Fig in Riverside. (The Rabbit's dining room is much larger than the Fig's, and the back wall touts a colorful mural by local artist Shaun Thurston, who also created the detailed mural on the Fig's exterior.)

We began with bacon and corn croquettes ($8), served atop a nicely presented bed of creamy diced avocado, corn, microgreens and jalapeño-tomato hot sauce. They were crisp on the outside and delightfully soft on the inside. With a portion serving of five, these larger-than-a-hushpuppy fried balls are an easily shared appetizer.

After perusing the multiple burger options, I landed on The Southern Burger ($12) — fried green tomato, Creole pimento cheese, peach habañero hot sauce, arugula, Georgia cane syrup and pickled okra spears — accompanied by sweet potato fries and several dipping sauces (curry mayo, bourbon-spiked Creole mustard and spicy ketchup), all of which were winners. So was the burger.

The shrimp rémoulade salad ($15) was another standout. Butter lettuce, grape tomatoes, long pieces of hearts of palm, fried green tomato, red bell pepper, celery and red onions tango with jumbo shrimp tossed in a creamy rémoulade dressing. The artful presentation and size of the shrimp were impressive.

The s'mores brownie ($6) was much too rich — layers of graham cracker crumbs, warm Belgian chocolate brownie and peanut butter mousse, topped with gooey brûléed marshmallow. Go for one of the milkshakes as a lighter treat. While the vanilla ($4) was perfectly creamy, for a few bucks more, aim high and get the maple bacon ($7), which, as the name suggests, is mixed with bacon-infused …   More



I’m about to let you in on some secrets. One: Until last week, I’d never experienced dim sum. (I know, right?) Two: Inside a restaurant, inside a strip mall, lies a special room that serves up Cantonese-style small plates — dim sum — that will rock your world.

Since dim sum isn’t readily available across the area, it was exciting to order a range of dishes and embark on an exploration of these new-to-me items. Dim sum is essentially Chinese tapas, served on individual small plates or in a small steamer basket. You won’t find most of these versions on a standard Chinese menu.

We started with the chicken feet ($3.75), shark’s fin dumplings ($4.25), scallop dumpling ($4.25), fried shrimp balls ($4.25), shumai ($3.75), fried taro dumpling ($3.75), steamed taro bun ($3.75) and crispy pork belly ($9.95).

So, the chicken feet? Not for the faint of heart, or me — lots of small bones, odd texture (think of the fat that surrounds your rib-eye) and generally weird because they arrive looking like little feet that are waving (or high-fiving?) at you. Since they’re mostly skin, I found them to have an extremely gelatinous mouthfeel. My tablemates loved them, so maybe it’s just not my thing.

The piping-hot oversized shrimp balls had a super-crisp, crunchy exterior akin to fried noodles, which gave way to a chewy, shrimpy interior. Along with the shark’s fin dumplings, fried taro dumplings, steamed taro buns and crispy pork, I’d definitely order them again.

Our plate of perfectly crispy pork belly, served with a side of hoisin sauce, was gigantic — more than enough for three to share. Our waitress also presented us with a diluted Hong Kong red vinegar, tangy and acidic, which we preferred to the sweet hoisin.

The steamed taro buns were tennis-ball-sized rolls of goodness of a light purple hue, and soft and fluffy in texture, imparting a subtly sweet taro flavor.

The Dim Sum Room is open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and if your …   More



For the past eight years, every Friday from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., historic St. Johns Episcopal Cathedral's Taliaferro Hall has been transformed into a busy lunch venue. The twist: The meal is orchestrated by students from the Clara White Mission's culinary training program.

Given the Mission's decades-old track record for helping serve the poor and homeless in Jacksonville, I was thrilled to learn that more than 700 aspiring students have graduated from the program – which teaches lessons from food preparation to commercial cooking to menu development and catering, over the course of 20 weeks.

These talented students prepare and serve a Southern-style buffet lunch. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that the menu changes weekly and is posted on the mission's website each Wednesday. The previous week's offerings included baked vegetable spaghetti, brown-sugar-glazed baked ham, Southern fried chicken, creamed skillet corn, collard greens and sweet potato soufflé – yum!

The cost for the buffet lunch was $10, collected on our way in the door (parties of six or more can make a reservation, but fewer than that and you may be seated with others – which only adds to the experience). After being seated, we were greeted by a student with a warm smile offering us our choice of sweetened, unsweetened or tropical iced tea, or coffee. We then headed to the selections on the self-service buffet.

First was a salad bar with chopped fresh spring mix, diced hardboiled eggs, peppers, bacon bits, crumbled blue cheese, grated carrots, cucumber, tomatoes and beyond.

Our two soup choices were ham-and-split-pea or Italian minestrone. I went with a cup of the minestrone and enjoyed an abundance of kidney beans, pasta and chopped vegetables.

And now we beheld the feast. Bypassing the rice pilaf and rolls, I went straight for the fried Cajun turkey (a winner!), meatloaf (moist and flavorful), grilled-cheese-and-tomato sandwich, boiled red potatoes, …   More



Less than a year ago, Blake Burnett revved up the engine of his new food truck — and he hasn’t looked back. The owner and chef of Chew Chew describes his truck’s menu as “fresh and eclectic.”

“I try to be playful with our food, but use quality ingredients and make everything from scratch,” he says.

Offerings change about once a week, but lucky for you (and me!) several mainstays remain due to their popularity. Top-sellers include lobster corn dogs ($10), Korean BBQ short rib melt ($8) and a newer item, goat cheese polenta fries ($6).

I’ve had the massive Korean melt on toasted sourdough several times — its tangy, salty homemade kimchi coleslaw adds another dimension to the savory shredded barbecue short ribs and melty smoked Gouda. (It’s perfect paired with the accompanying crispy homemade potato chips.) But lately my weakness has been the polenta fries, artfully arranged rectangles of polenta goodness topped with goat cheese crumbles, crisp bacon pieces and a scattering of diced scallions. The way the cheese slightly melts but doesn’t get liquid-y is what makes these so fabulous. And I could drink the creamy basil aioli dipping sauce.

As for the Maine lobster corn dogs — where else in Northeast Florida can you get skewers of tender lobster pieces, battered and fried to a golden brown and served with a lemon Dijon honey mustard dipping sauce? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

If burgers are your thing, go for the trio of BBQ slider burgers ($8), which are nicely seasoned and then piled with bacon, white cheddar, fried jalapeños and homemade barbecue sauce.

And vegetarians, don’t fret: Caprese grilled cheese ($7) on parmesan-crusted sourdough is for you. The mozzarella is marinated in a basil pesto and topped with juicy sliced tomatoes. Yum.

Most items are served with a generous portion of Chew Chew’s homemade chips, which are just the right balance of crunchy and crispy, and perfectly salted (and ridiculously …   More



In a former McAlister's Deli in bustling Tinseltown sits a spacious pho-friendly 
Vietnamese restaurant. The menu may be a 
bit overwhelming, so ask for recommendations if you're feeling adventurous — or stick to a standard broth-based pho soup that's loaded with noodles.

We bypassed the standard starters — edamame, dumplings and spring rolls — and went big. The thin pancake special (also known as banh uot dat biet) with minced shrimp, charbroiled pork and Vietnamese ham ($9.25) called our names. Our waitress warned us it wouldn't be like an "American pancake," and it certainly wasn't. The 
dish arrived unassembled, reminiscent of lettuce 
wraps — an interesting assortment of squishy, 
translucent "pancakes," pickled julienned 
vegetables, bean sprouts, scallions, shredded 
lettuce and the aforementioned meats, all 
accompanied by a thin, tangy fish dipping sauce. It was a fun start to the meal, and good for sharing.

With such a large menu, it can be difficult to narrow your choices. At nearby Bowl of Pho (my personal gold standard for local pho), I love the wonton egg noodle soup with pork, so I ordered the same ($8) at Pho Today. When my colorful oversized bowl arrived, there were noticeably more pork pieces in it than at Bowl of Pho, but after a few generous slurps, it was apparent the broth was lacking — more salt, perhaps? Otherwise, it had plenty of thin noodles, baby bok choy and plump pork-filled wontons.

From the house specialties, we selected Vietnamese shaking beef ($12.95), served with a mound of rice, slices of cucumber and tomatoes, and a cup of soup. The pieces of tender beef were cut into small pieces and cooked in a sauce rich in flavor, then shaken in a wok with cooked onions and garlic. Order this.

By the time our waitress informed us that they'd run out of their two Asian desserts — a three- and five-flavored bean dessert — we were already full. I'd usually go for an iced taro boba drink, but I was …   More



Equal parts quirky and casual, Carmines Pie House fits perfectly into its hip Riverside
 location. Oh, and the weekday happy hour, from 2-6 p.m., is pretty sweet, too — $1.50 slices and half-priced local brews from Bold City and Intuition.

It's an inexpensive option for lunch or a laid-back dinner choice. And whoever came up with the menu descriptions and names is my hero. Reading items like "Devil Dog Frickles," "Jersey Shore Fried Calzone," "The Jerk," "The Bad Ass BLT" and "It's a Train Wreck Baby," you can't help but smile.

Speaking of train wrecks, order that one. There's more ham, beef, bacon, pepperoni, garlic (oh my!), spinach, tomato, onions, green peppers and pineapple than you could ever dream of atop this mozzarella-covered pie.

For apps, I like the shoestring zucchini fries ($7.27) with a creamy rémoulade for dipping, and the sour pot ($9.27), a tasty, though pricey, plate of sweet potato fries loaded with melted blue cheese crumbles, bacon pieces and a bourbon barbecue sauce. And don't forget those hand-breaded mozzarella planks ($7.27) — flat, rectangular slabs of cheesy goodness, served with marinara.

If you're craving an über-cheesy Chicago-style pizza ($11.57), Carmines nails it. Allow extra time, as this stuffed pie is thick and takes a while to cook, but it's so worth it.

Carmines touts 16 (!) varieties of wing sauces — take advantage and order the jumbo rooster wings ($9.37 for 11). For you herbivores, the Dy-no-myte tofu ($8.27) offers an interesting vegetarian alternative — seasoned cubes of fried tofu tossed in the sauce of your choice.

"Burning Down the House" hot lasagna ($15.57) is a towering stack of five thick, alternating layers of pasta, each topped with different deliciousness. If lasagna's your thing, this one's for you.

No matter what you choose, the portions are huge. But who am I to judge if you still have room for fried cheesecake bites ($6.77)?   More



For the past six years, 20something William Jonathan Morgan has yearned to open a business. To get up and running quickly, he created a mobile coffee shop, and last month Vagabond Coffee's caravan hit the streets.

Vagabond got its start in San Marco at Aardwolf Brewery, but Morgan's heart was in Downtown Jacksonville. After securing the Laura Street Trio lot at the corner of Laura and Adams, as of Oct. 1 (coincidentally, also Morgan's birthday), Vagabond has had a place to call home on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The menu features lattes, pour-overs, Chemex (a precision brew method) and drip coffee, and Vagabond's staff does its best to concoct your coffee drink of choice — cappuccino, macchiato, cortado and beyond.

Top sellers? Chemex and the vanilla latte. I've enjoyed both, but my personal Vagabond favorite is affogato ($4), a shot of freshly 
pulled espresso with a creamy scoop of 
vanilla ice cream.

The customer base runs the gamut — you'll stand in line with Downtown locals, investment bankers, artists and performers just passing through town.

Lattes are $4 (add 50 cents for soy milk). Syrups include vanilla, agave and mocha and, occasionally, a special offering. Cold brew coffee is $4, and a cup from the Chemex is $3.50. Don't need a pick-me-up? Vagabond's got decaf, too.

For espresso drinks, the crew at Vagabond uses only single-origin espresso that can be paired with organic or soy milk. Most selections are made with locally produced beans from Bold Bean Coffee Roasters.

"We focus on quality, care and craftsmanship," Morgan says. "Bold Bean undoubtedly puts these in each roast, so there was no question about using them as our main supplier. We love supporting local businesses."

Morgan's fiancée, Samantha Friedman, bakes the scrumptious treats available onboard. I love the slabs of moist, hazelnutty Nutella banana bread ($3) and chewy molasses cookies. Currently, the duo is working on expanding the menu to …   More