I recently spotted Howard Kirk, the chef at Riverside's 13 Gypsies, dining at 5 Points' Corner Taco, which prompted a question: Where do local chefs choose to eat when they're not at work devouring their own culinary creations? After all, these guys know food, so maybe their choices can inform ours.
I put the question — four questions, actually: 1.) What three restaurants do you frequent the most in Northeast Florida? 2.) What's your go-to dish at these places? 3.) Why do you eat most often at your favorite spot? 4.) What's your guilty culinary pleasure? — to four high-profile local chefs. Their answers were illuminating.
Scott Schwartz, 29 South Restaurant (Fernandina Beach), chef for 23 years
1. Taverna, Black Sheep, Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails.
2. Taverna's pasta with pork Ragu, Black Sheep's pastrami sandwich topped with chicken liver mousse, and Moxie's fried chicken livers or the short rib.
3. The restaurant I eat at most often in Northeast Florida is Taverna because I love the simple approach to classic Italian cooking.
4. Good old-school soul food at the Soul Food Bistro. My wife only lets me eat there a couple times a year, but sometimes I sneak in a lunch with the boys. Always finish the meal with a slice of hummingbird cake.
Chris Dickerson, Corner Taco (5 Points), chef for 8 years
1. Orsay, 13 Gypsies, Pom's.
2. Steak frites at Orsay, duck shu mai at Pom's, chorizo at 13 Gypsies.
3. The restaurant I eat at most often in Northeast Florida is Orsay because it's so solid.
4. Chocolate soufflé at Roy's.
Tom Gray, Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails (St. Johns Town Center), chef for 18 years
1. I have many favorites — too many to mention! When I'm with my family, we try to hit spots my son enjoys, so that usually means Sakura for sushi and Picasso's for the pizza.
2. Sakura's tuna salad, octopus salad and the sushi rolls. At Picasso's, Chef Chris knows I'm in the house when "The Gift" is ordered with the …
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 …
I love pizza. And you do, too. I mean, who doesn't? There's something intrinsically comforting and magical about the harmony of that scalding-hot gooey cheese, a proper smear of flavorful sauce, a mishmash of crazy toppings and the crisp, chewy crust.
We all have lists of our favorite pizza joints in town, but there's something to be said about a place around the corner that's good, cheap and easy. And sometimes I just like the laidback vibe, fun décor, wafting music and oversized comfortable booths at Moon River.
It's low frills: walk in, peruse the chalkboard menu, place your order, pay. You'll receive a framed postcard that's totally random (think Mr. Rogers or My Little Pony on roller skates), which will help your server know who ordered what. Grab a seat and they'll bring it to you.
Feeling healthy? Begin with a salad. I enjoy the Greek, because it's fresh and simple but not wimpy — leafy Romaine topped with sliced tomatoes, strips of green pepper, both green and black olives (olive lovers, rejoice!), fresh mushrooms, slices of onion and crumbles of feta cheese. And the accompanying creamy Caesar dressing is dreamy. (I dunk my pizza crust in it, too.)
If you're not counting calories (lucky you), start with the pesto stix ($4.75) or bread stix ($4.50), which are generously portioned and perfect for sharing.
Moon River's pizza is best when ordered as an entire pie rather than just a slice or two. My favorite is the white (large $16.50, slice $2), which is sauce-less and topped with a blend of mozzarella, feta and Parmesan, extra virgin olive oil, fresh garlic, oregano and a sprinkle of black pepper.
On other occasions, I'll grab a slice of the vegetarian just because it's so stacked with veggies. Like, there's literally a pile, and many of them are raw (tomatoes, onions, peppers). More cheese is then added on top and re-melted.
You can, of course, create your own pies from the list of two dozen toppings, and there's options for …
In a back corner of The Lemon Bar, a popular Neptune Beach watering hole, is where Chris Dickerson's Corner Taco got its start three years ago. After succeeding in that oceanfront spot, he took the leap into the food truck scene, buying a 1965 Airstream trailer to peddle his self-proclaimed "semi-swanky tacos."
That's all history now. Dickerson's dream of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant came true in February. Occupying the former Gina's Deli location, his 5 Points eatery touts fare made of fresh ingredients, local craft beers on draft, plenty of indoor and outdoor seating, and decorative strings of globe lights to replicate that singular food truck experience.
Every morning, the staff cranks up a tortilla maker, one of only two in the state (the other is at EPCOT), sending through a mound of fresh dough; moments later, a pile of fresh corn tortillas is born. No preservatives here, folks.
As the name suggests, get the tacos: $3.45 nabs you a carnitas (cooked for 24 hours!), crispy Dijon buttermilk-fried chicken, jerk chicken or local Artie's tempeh taco. For another buck, you can snag a semi-swanktacular taco — brisket, seared asparagus with flaked Maldon sea salt, mahi or a vegan hummus-and-tabouli taco aptly dubbed The 5 Points. Tacos come atop shredded red cabbage, sweet chile-lemon sauce and sprigs of cilantro, with lime wedges to squeeze. The portions are modest, but Corner Taco aims to leave you satisfied, not stuffed. There's also no cheese, shredded iceberg lettuce or diced pico de gallo like you find at other taco joints around town.
The Dyno-Mite ($9.95, plus $3.45 for added protein) is a hefty mound of crispy Dijon buttermilk fried chicken, marinated chicken or carnitas atop tortilla chips smothered with a homemade creamy white cheddar and brie fondue, chopped piquillo peppers, halved grape tomatoes, lime wedges and fresh cilantro. It's smart to share.
Sides clock in from $2.95 to $4.95. The Carolina rice pilaf, quinoa, and black …
Vitamin-rich calcium. Strong bones. Hunger-busting protein. That's why I eat cheese — right? Of course not. I eat cheese because it's absolutely delicious, and because there are so many varieties. We're not talking Velveeta or slices of that fluorescent Kraft-processed-whatever-it-is or the shakers of grocery-store Parmesan you dumped on your spaghetti as a kid. There are so many kinds of cheese to choose from — luxurious creamy cheeses, hardy firm aged cheeses, stinky blues — all begging to join your plate.
Because of that versatility, constructing your own winning cheese plate may be daunting. It's not; in fact, it's surprisingly simple.
Start by limiting the varieties. Stick with a trio. Since contrast is important, include one of each: soft, firm and blue, which will provide a nice assortment of flavors (salty, nutty, buttery, sweet, earthy, smoky, fruity) and textures. If you want four kinds, consider making one of your soft selections a goat cheese (soft and spreadable,) and another brie.
Cheeses with different textures — take that soft, creamy brie, for example — can be used to offset a firmer Gouda or Gruyere. Try a triple cream (so smooth!) called St. Andre. If you're in the mood to go blue, opt for maximum flavor by grabbing a Stilton, Maytag Blue or Roquefort. Be open. Experiment.
You really can't screw this up. There are no rules. Just be sure that you have several flavors and textures, and keep in mind that each cheese should have a separate spreader so you don't mix discordant flavors.
Once your trio is picked, label your selections. (Think chalk on a blackboard cheese tray or insert small toothpick flags with your selections' names on them into the cheeses.) If your guests fall in love with one of your choices — and why wouldn't they? — they'll easily be able to learn its name, origin and type.
Remember that most cheeses are at their best when served at room temperature. Set them out about 45 minutes prior …
Ever thought about slowing down a bit?
If you have, you're in luck. On May 2, the fourth annual Slow Down event at Intuition Ale Works will feature at least 26 local restaurants and artisans. For $20, attendees can feast upon dishes crafted by these restaurants and artisans (see sidebar) that focus on locally grown and sourced ingredients. (One hundred percent of proceeds go to Slow Food First Coast.)
In addition to local nibbles, there will be cold craft beer, music and plenty of socializing — but perhaps most important is the awareness being raised.
"Slow Food is important because it is an educating organization," says Kurt D'Aurizio, director of events at Slow Food First Coast. "By spreading the word about foods, farmers, restaurants and artisans who are preserving our food heritage, Slow Food allows us all to learn, make educated choices and be part of the future of our food system. I began working with Slow Food years ago as a chef because my food philosophy matched their vision: local, quality, artisan and heritage — good, clean and fair food for all."
Slow Food First Coast is one of 255 Slow Food USA chapters. Each aims to strengthen the connection between the health of our planet and the food we see on our plates by celebrating foods that are local, seasonal and sustainably grown. The nonprofit touts nutritious food that is beneficial for both our bodies and the planet.
Slow Food USA was founded to counteract the prevailing fast-food lifestyle, and its adherents believe we should consciously embrace where our food comes from, who makes it, how it's made and how it's transported. We should also be aware of how our food is produced, and how it impacts the environment and animal welfare — as well as our own health.
"All of the participants are locally owned food businesses that make it a priority to support local artisans and farmers," says event producer Cari Sanchez-Potter. "The Slow Down celebrates their commitment to fostering our …
I would never, ever have driven by Health Zone but for the heads-up from a few friends. First, there's the poor signage and kinda-sorta misleading name: Is it a fitness center? A supplement shop? And then there's the fact that it's tucked away off Bowden Road and I-95 near Mr. Taco.
Nonetheless, Health Zone proved a pleasant find. I decided to check out the lunch menu. (Breakfast is served 6:30 to 10:30 a.m.; lunch until 2 p.m., Monday through Friday). As I walked in, I noticed a long line-up of freshly blended juices (12 oz.) and smoothies (16 and 32 oz.), all concocted with fresh fruit and juice — no pre-made mixes in sight. I tried the St. Augustine smoothie ($5.59) — spinach, kale, banana, mango and orange juice — and the Really Green ($5.59) juice. With its glowing green hue, the Really Green certainly lives up to its name, and with an über-healthy blend of cucumber, celery, kale, parsley, lemon and apple, each sip felt refreshing. Thumbs up.
Woman cannot live on green juice alone, so I next ordered a Zone Bowl ($5.99, with a $1 upcharge to add protein), which piqued my interest. Start with a starch like brown rice, jasmine rice or quinoa, and then pick a legume — black beans, black-eyed peas or pinto beans. Then choose from a slew of fresh vegetables and a list of both carnivore- and vegan-friendly proteins (grilled chicken breast, roast pork, roast beef, tofu, tempeh and seitan).
My Asian tempeh Zone Bowl, with quinoa, black beans, sautéed spinach, colorful carrots and zucchini, and a housemade chimichurri sauce, was easily enough for two meals. Also filling was the cleverly named H.A.M. ($7.99) — ham, apple slices and melted Monterey jack cheese with spicy mustard. Not in the mood for a sandwich? Health Zone also has salads, soups, hot dogs and an extensive dessert list.
If you're feeling adventurous, go for grilled beets ($1.99) or kale slaw ($1.99) as your side. The beets were especially juicy …
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 …
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 …
It's hard to top a great meal enjoyed in a modern space with a well-curated wine list in the center of bustling, historic San Marco Square. Taverna recently expanded after four years in the former Café Carmon spot. It's evident that Executive Chef Sam Efron and wine director/wife Kiley Wynne Efron are passionate about the new environment and wider-ranging menu.
So what's new? Taverna now boasts a quick-casual lunch service along with an option for lunch delivery, a classy private dining room and the addition of craft cocktails (they'd offered only beer and wine before) to the menu.
The menu remains European-inspired, drawing from both Spain and Italy. Start with the house-made caprese ($10) with prosciutto ($6), meatballs and peasant bread ($10), sautéed calamari ($12) or citrus-marinated beet salad ($9).
The caprese's house-made cheese is amazing in and of itself, but when paired with fresh basil, juicy tomato, balsamic and olive oil, it's a huge hit. (The upcharge to add prosciutto is worth every penny.) The meatballs were also good, and the calamari served with Israeli couscous, tomatoes, garlic, capers, niçoise olives and a touch of lemon zest was just the right amount of spicy.
Speaking of great cheese, Taverna's customizable cheese-and-charcuterie plates are another smart way to start your meal. And since the selections change frequently, be sure to partake in Sweet Grass Dairy's delightfully creamy Green Hill, from Thomasville, Ga. The meat selections include popular cured meats like jamon Serrano, prosciutto di parma, hot capocollo, soppressata, Genoa salami and chorizo.
Lately, it's been hard to pass up the Monday night special — any of Taverna's signature brick-oven pizzas paired with a pint of cold Intuition Ale Works beer for $12. The pizzas usually run up to $18, and another $5 for the beer. (That's 11 bucks you can put toward dessert.) I recommend the soppressata — topped with house-made mozzarella, juicy robust San Marzano …