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Northeast Florida is home to quite a few authentic Indian restaurants, so there's no shortage of places you can try.

Indian cuisine varies regionally due to a reliance on locally available spices, herbs, meat, vegetables and fruits.

In early India, the typical diet rarely included meat, instead relying heavily upon fruit, vegetables, grains, eggs, dairy and honey. Consumption of beef was taboo, as cows are considered sacred in Hinduism. Even today, beef is rare within Indian cuisine. However, chicken, followed by mutton (goat), sheep and buffalo, are frequently part of area menus. Common vegetables include cabbage, cauliflower, potato, tomato, onion, bell peppers and eggplant.

Traditional Indian flavors combine a variety of ingredients, including powdered chili pepper, black mustard seed, cardamom, cumin, turmeric, ginger, tamarind, curry leaves, bay leaves, coriander, garlic and cloves. In sweeter dishes, cardamom, saffron, nutmeg and rose petal essences are used.

Dipping sauces, called chutneys, are present at almost every Indian meal and can be spicy, sweet or sour. The dominant flavor or ingredient gives the chutney its name — coconut, tamarind, mint, coriander, peanut, cumin, tomato or ginger.

Some dishes are cooked at high temperatures in an earthenware oven called a tandoor. These include tandoori chicken, which is marinated in yogurt that's been seasoned with garam masala, garlic, cumin, cayenne pepper and ginger. Another dish, called chicken tikka, is made from small pieces of boneless chicken marinated in yogurt and spices and then grilled on skewers in a tandoor. It is then typically served with green coriander chutney.

In some regions, samosas, a popular triangular-shaped snack stuffed with spiced potatoes, peas, onions, coriander and lentils, or ground lamb or chicken, are cooked in a tandoor. In other regions, they're fried.

Just like American cuisine, menus in Northern India are quite different from the food served in …   More

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Forks. Knives. Spoons. You won't find any of these familiar items at an Ethiopian restaurant. Unlike at most dining experiences, you're encouraged to eat with your fingers. And take note: It's culturally preferred to use your right hand for eating, as the left hand is traditionally considered the appendage used for cleaning the body.

Food at an Ethiopian restaurant arrives tableside on a large family-style platter with an oversized spongy, thin, crepe-like flatbread called injera. Made with flour from a gluten-free grain called teff that's native to Northeastern Africa, injera has a slightly tangy flavor reminiscent of sourdough bread. A basketful of injera may also accompany the meal. Unroll it, rip off a piece, and use it to pinch up a scoop of food from the shared platter. Injera's porous surface is perfect for soaking up the stews and mixed vegetables.

You may notice while dining that Ethiopian cuisine closely resembles Indian cuisine. Both cultures expect food to be eaten with your fingers (Ethiopian's injera and Indian's naan), with items presented on a shared plate. Both cultures use clarified butter for cooking (niter kibbeh and ghee), which lends a complexity to dishes that regular butter or oil can't. The similarities are also apparent in spice blends — Ethiopia's berbere is much like India's garam masala. And alicha, a mild Ethiopian split pea curry with ginger, garlic and onions, bears a resemblance to some Indian curries. But the two cuisines reflect their distinct cultural heritages.

Berbere is common in many dishes. A ground powder combining chili peppers, garlic, ginger, basil, koramina and fenugreek, it has a noticeably reddish-orange hue and is mildly spicy with a hint of smokiness. Several Ethiopian stew-like sauces known as "wots" or "wats" gain their flavor from this ground powder.

Doro wat, a thick spicy chicken stew, is one of the most common foods in Ethiopia. Chicken legs are simmered in kibae, a blend of niter kibbeh, …   More

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Just over the Intracoastal Waterway bridge lies a hidden gem specializing in Eastern Shore seafood. The popular former TacoLu spot (complete with valet parking) has been redone and the coastal vibe is casual yet slightly upscale, perfect for a date night or appetizers and cocktails with co-workers.

Owner and executive chef Gary Beach brought Marlin Moon Grille of Ocean City, Md., to Northeast Florida less than a year ago. The recipes are his. He credits his Cajun grandmother for his informal culinary training, in addition to practical experience he picked up along the way in restaurants from Maryland to Florida.

Beach describes his restaurant as a "happy-go-lucky, sport-fishing themed bar with no pretense that serves simple, fresh eclectic fare at a fair price." I couldn't agree more.

Start with tuna nachos. Crunchy fried wontons are nicely plated and piled with tangy seaweed salad, a spicy cucumber wasabi mayo, vibrant sesame-crusted ahi tuna, finished with a sprinkling of scallions and a drizzle of sweet teriyaki.

The Greek kadaif-wrapped jumbo Mayport shrimp appetizer (served with a sweet red chile dipping sauce) was a delightful blend of crunchy, spicy and sweet. Kadaif is shredded phyllo dough that's light and crunchy, with a unique texture.

Everything is noticeably fresh. Even the basket of bread was perfection. Marlin Moon's daily fish specials are created from the fresh catch from nearby Safe Harbor Seafood in Mayport. And if you're a crabcake snob, do yourself a favor and order them. Definitely some of the best in town I've found. Plump, juicy and hardly any fillers in these jumbo lump crab cakes, paired with a homemade island aioli.

My entrée, the Eggplant Boat, earned an A+ for creativity. Oversized slabs of breaded and lightly fried eggplant cradle perfectly cooked scallops, shrimp and crawfish tails. A savory shiitake crab butter sauce tops the dish.

The baked mixed-berry bumbleberry pie was a tad too sweet for my liking, …   More

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Much lighter on your wallet than a trip to Latin America and much closer, Puerto Plata Restaurant serves up tasty Latin American comfort food at its location near San Juan Avenue and Blanding Boulevard.

The freestanding yellow building with ample parking and a covered front patio might not look like much, but once inside, you'll find all the staples.

Start with the chicharones de pollo, Dominican-style chunks of bite-sized fried chicken. Crisp, and slightly crunchy on the outside and extremely juicy inside, these don't need a dipping sauce — they're that good. Proceed with caution: There are still a few bones.

To complement the chicharones, try an order of plátanos maduros, or sweet fried plantains, a staple of Latin American cuisine similar to bananas. These are made with very ripe plantains cut into two-inch pieces then pan-fried, forming a slightly sticky and sweet caramelized crust.

We ordered an empanada de pollo — a crescent-shaped stuffed pastry filled with seasoned chicken and then fried. Ours wasn't very full, but the handheld golden brown snack was still good and served alongside a ramekin of a spicy green jalapeño salsa.

A traditional entrée, the pernil, or roasted pork shoulder, is topped with onions and served with a heaping mound of yellow rice and a cup of black beans. The pork was tender and moist, and I could really taste the garlic and adobo seasoning.

The star of the evening was the ceviche con tostones — shrimp ceviche with mashed fried green plantains and a creamy garlicky dipping sauce. The shrimp were marinated in citrus juices with minced onion, diced tomatoes, lots of cilantro, ground black pepper and salt, resulting in a tangy dish that was served chilled. The shrimp "cook" without any heat thanks to the acid in the fresh citrus juice.

For dessert we opted for the flan, a square of creamy baked custard draped in a sweet caramel glaze.

The restaurant has a noticeably clean, …   More

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Ever get that yearning for pizza and need to tame your hunger ASAP? Look no further than Your Pie, a fast-casual chain with a new Fleming Island location. Custom pizzas piled high (no skimping here!) with your favorite toppings are ready in a mere five minutes, thanks to a 600-degree pizza oven and nimble staff.

It's often difficult to get a group to agree on pizza toppings: Some begrudgingly pick off mushrooms and pepperoni, while others secretly wish for garlic and pineapple. Good news, picky pizza fans: Your Pie offers personal-size 10-inch pie.

While casual, the interior feels much nicer than similar assembly-line style spots like Chipotle, Moe's and Subway. Seating is abundant, and I foresee many families stopping in after Little League games or swim practices. Grownups will appreciate beer, wine, sangria and free Wi-Fi.

With more than 40 toppings (add as many non-meat toppings as you'd like without additional cost), eight sauces and nine different kinds of cheese, Your Pie caters to the tastes of all pizza lovers. Even food allergies are given serious consideration: Gluten-free pies are cooked in their own pans, and there's an option for dairy-free vegan cheese.

The crust is light and chewy without being too thin or too thick, and the edges maintain a perfect crispness. I had trouble choosing from eight sauces, but I enjoyed the flavorful sun-dried tomato pesto. On another recent visit, I tried the pizza sauce, then added shredded mozzarella, sliced tomatoes, jalapeños for kick and bacon (because, well, it's bacon).

Not in the mood for pizza? Several paninis and bread bowl salads await. I enjoyed the caprese: slices of fresh mozzarella, leafy spinach, tomatoes and shredded basil with extra virgin olive oil and a side of balsamic dressing, served in a baked pizza dough bowl.

Your Pie touts a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine, allowing for several clever soda flavor combinations, like orange vanilla Diet Coke or raspberry Sprite.

For …   More

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In the heart of Riverside lies a casual yet 
 borderline hip café, complete with free WiFi and a self-service bottomless coffee station.

Breakfast is available even at lunchtime, which is a bonus. Sometimes you just want (OK, need) an omelet, eggs Benedict or French toast in your life after a hectic morning has passed.

In addition to a clever build-your-own omelet selection, Cool Moose's menu boasts four Benedicts — traditional, smoked bacon and tomato, smoked salmon, and veggie.

Daily specials are scrawled across a blackboard, including the homemade soup selection. A recent offering, the Desayuno de Costa Rica, caught my eye: a breakfast platter with scrambled eggs, chorizo and cheddar on a grilled corn tortilla, topped with tomatillo salsa and accompanied by sweet plantains, black beans and rice.

The lunch sandwich options run the gamut — Cuban, chicken salad croissant, ham and brie panini with maple mustard, half-pound Angus burger with sharp cheddar, a gyro with tatziki, and a classic Reuben, to name a few. The chicken salad croissant, made with all white meat, is tossed with crunchy celery, red onion, walnuts and a slightly sweet honey mayo. Complement the sweetness with a side of garlicky truffle fries.

For vegetarians, options include a veggie burger on herbed focaccia bun, a marinated grilled portobello panini with roasted red pepper, provolone and sweet basil pesto (which pairs nicely with a side of crisp sweet potato fries dusted with sugar), and a grilled cheese sandwich.

Cool Moose's buttery Texas-style toast makes for a simple yet satisfying grilled cheese. You can add slices of tomato or crisp bacon if the mood strikes. Or pair your 'wich with a cup of soup for dunking.

Open 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday, Cool Moose can be counted on for an inexpensive, laidback bite. On the weekends, the outside tables fill up fast with patrons — mimosas in hand and pups …   More

BITE-SIZED

For 17 years, Chef Andrew Ferenc has found comfort in the kitchen. For the past two-and-a-half years, that kitchen has been one he happily calls his own — and it's on wheels.

Ferenc's popular food truck, On The Fly Sandwiches & Stuff, recently claimed three awards at the June 15 Jax Truckies Food Truck Championships in Downtown Jacksonville. Competing against 13 other trucks, Ferenc offered smaller portions of his bestselling items. (Full disclosure: I am one of the founders of Jax Truckies.)

After a blind tasting of nearly three dozen items from the competing trucks, a panel of six judges named On The Fly, or "OTF" as regulars call it, the 2013 Overall Champion.

OTF also snagged two more awards — the Sweet Tooth, for its addictive sweet-and-salty chocolate caramel peanut butter pretzel bars, and the People's Choice, as determined by fans at the event via ballot. OTF won the Overall and People's Choice awards in the 2012 inaugural competition.

OTF's bestsellers include the overloaded sweet potato planks (with melted blue cheese, braised pulled pork, sliced scallions and the signature On the Fly sauce, a sweet chili and cilantro aioli) and firecracker sesame-seared ahi tuna (over crunchy wasabi napa cabbage that's drizzled with sweet-chile-and-soy glaze and pickled ginger).

Weekdays, you can enjoy these items near the new Duval County Courthouse in a lot at the corner of Adams and Jefferson streets, where OTF parks. The area is outfitted with covered tables and chairs. When the weather's right, a line can form quickly. But be aware: It moves fast.

"Don't be intimidated by the long lunch line," Ferenc said. "We pump out orders in less than 10 minutes!" "On the fly" is restaurant lingo for creating an order fast.

Aside from a recent batch of Butterfinger crème brûlée cups, his latest hit is a sweet-and-spicy avocado tostada with shredded lettuce, sweet corn, scallions, black beans, OTF sauce and a dash of …   More

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Bagel Love has proved to be a popular go-to for carb-lovers. Seven days a week, the crew rises early to prepare breakfast and lunch items.

Early in the day, there are upwards of 20 varieties of bagels in both savory and sweet options like whole-grain everything, asiago, jalapeno, sun-dried tomato, poppy, salt, cinnamon crunch, blueberry and sesame. Dense and chewy, the bagels are best enjoyed fresh. Popular flavors sell out quickly, especially on the weekend.

No matter which of the 12 cream cheese flavors you pick, Bagel Love slathers it on generously. Personal favorites include the slightly spicy jalapeño, horseradish bacon and garden veggie, which is loaded with chopped vegetables.

Not into cream cheese? The bagel sandwiches are piled high. I'm full until mid-afternoon after downing a Cali Love (bagel or bread, choice of cream cheese, egg, avocado, tomato and sprouts) for breakfast. And the Spinshroomagus (say that five times fast), complete with egg, spinach, mushroom, asparagus and melted Swiss on a bagel, bread or wrap, is a tasty, veggie-packed way to start your day. There's even a pizza bagel, which I think is an acceptable way to sneak pizza into your morning routine. Or you can concoct your own sandwich.

While I'm not usually a sweets-for-breakfast type, the fluffy baked muffins in mouthwatering flavors like blueberry with 
a sugar-crumb topping, strawberry cheesecake, banana and chocolate chip, tempt me every visit.

If you enjoy iced coffee, the ice cubes here are made from coffee, so no watered-down java drinks. Also tasty is the dessert-like java chip blended iced coffee beverage, flecked with chocolate chips. There's fresh-squeezed orange juice and lemonade, too.

Bagel Love offers creative specials, like a red velvet bagel with honey vanilla cream cheese, fried bologna sandwich with lettuce and tomato, wedges of calamondin cake and an Asian ginger chicken wrap. Also gracing the menu daily (for those carb-conscious diners) are …   More

BITE-SIZED

After three years as a civil engineer, Grace Kernan found office life to be mundane — except when someone was celebrating a birthday. She eagerly baked everyone's cakes, tailoring the theme and flavor of the cake to the lucky birthday boy or girl.

Fast-forward to 2013: Kernan is now following her passion, recently opening Liberty Bakery in an old Skinner's Dairy Store at the corner of Bowden and Parental Home roads. She keeps busy five days a week whipping up everything from scratch: bread, cupcakes, cookies, cakes and pastries (get the croissant-like, flaky sticky buns with cinnamon and sugar). Every carb, even the English muffins and biscuits, is prepared fresh from scratch.

"Making food for someone really is a nice way to share how much you care about their well-being — even strangers!" Kernan said.

Strangers-turned-regulars scarf up warm cinnamon rolls, vanilla bean scones, seasonal berry streusel muffins and savory breakfast sandwiches (the bacon, egg and cheese on sour cream biscuit is my kind of morning starter!).

Six sandwiches are available at lunchtime and tout witty names like Abra-Ham Lincoln, Red, White & BBQ, Johnny Apple-Cheese, We the Pesto, and Two If by Brie. We the Pesto won over my tastebuds — homemade bread toasted and topped with shaved chicken, pesto aioli, vine-ripened tomatoes and a tangy balsamic glaze. In addition to these patriotic choices, there are salads and soups. Favorites include French onion, sherried tomato and creamy tortilla.

Kernan's father was in the Navy, so patriotism has always been important to her family. And while she can't pinpoint when her love affair for baking began, she quickly recalls her first specialty cake. It was in the shape of a rock, and Kernan iced the words "Mom Rocks!" on it for Mother's Day about nine years ago. And the rest is history.

As for sweets, there are abundant offerings. Cake is available by the slice (the fluffy carrot cake will change your life), and …   More

BITE-SIZED

When a restaurant deems the first day of the week "Moonshine Monday," it makes a favorable impression.

Riverside's Southern-style gastropub, The Salty Fig, is celebrating six months in business as a brick-and-mortar restaurant. It began amassing a following about a year ago as an upscale food truck serving Southern favorites like creole shrimp and cheese grits, ratatouille sliders and cochon de lait.

It's obvious that owners (and brothers) Jeff and John Stanford have put a lot of thought into the interior. The softly lit bar area features a long community table crafted from the restaurant's rafter wood. Exposed brick walls and high ceilings are found throughout, and there are some spots near the kitchen to watch the chefs in action.

While simple, the edamame tossed with hickory-smoked sea salt is oddly addictive, as are the crunchy homemade chips topped with a rich gorgonzola fondue, balsamic glaze and chives.

My go-to lunch is The Melt: basil pesto, artichoke hearts, grape tomatoes, peppery arugula and melted provolone pressed between two slices of buttered toast, accompanied by your choice of salad or fries.

Another favorite is blue pear salad: mixed greens, sweet d'anjou pear slices, juicy blueberries, Maytag blue cheese crumbles and slivered red onions, tossed in a tangy lemon thyme vinaigrette.

For dinner, start with a cup of the signature gumbo — it's thick, slightly spicy and full of okra, shrimp and Andouille sausage, then topped with rice and scallions.

Mayport shrimp, creamy stoneground goat cheese grits, Creole trinity (onions, peppers and celery) and New Orleans barbecue sauce make for a flavorful dish — and one of the best versions of this Southern specialty in town.

Consider ordering one of the daily specials Chef Jeff whips up. The recent lamb wontons were unforgettable: braised lamb shank with parsnip puree, butternut squash, shiitake mushrooms, arugula and a slightly sweet pear-port gastrique.

The …   More

 
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