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BITE-SIZED

Olio Chef Greg DeSanto has carved out a culinary niche nestled in a hip space within the historic J.H. Churchwell building in Jacksonville’s urban core.

DeSanto’s kitchen creativity places emphasis on fresh, local ingredients, offering seasonal items in addition to Olio’s popular static menu.

For spring, several new, hunger-inducing items have appeared: cold gazpacho soup, duck wonton soup, tuna steak sandwich with carrot and fennel salad on ciabatta, housemade chicken and foie gras boudin blanc, a skirt steak bahn mi with spicy Sriracha aioli; a Monte Cristo with blackberry jam, pork belly and fried egg on ciabatta and a ground lamb burger. May I just have one of everything?

New items aside, I have some tried-and-true favorites. I’ll let you in on a secret: Olio’s fish tacos are some of the best in town. Two soft flour tortillas are piled with thick slabs of moist, blackened fish topped with a mandarin orange fruit salsa, crunchy cabbage and a cilantro-lime crème drizzle. If fish doesn’t strike your fancy, you can swap it with chicken, shrimp or carnitas instead.

Don’t eat meat? The popular falafel wrap features housemade pickles, crisp Romaine lettuce, creamy red pepper coulis and chickpea patties snuggled in a warm naan blanket.

All of Olio’s side items are a la carte. Regulars enjoy the homemade French fries and thick-cut potato chips, both served with a creamy basil aioli. Rotating sides include crispy dill potatoes, mushroom risotto, orzo salad, zucchini fries, Mediterranean couscous, mac ‘n’ cheese, three-grain salad and hummus with pita chips.

Olio also offers a wide range of deep-dish quiches: steak and bleu cheese, quiche Lorraine, chicken and bacon, mushroom, three-cheese, ham and Swiss, and smoked chicken with asparagus.

DeSanto’s popularity index shot up last year when The Travel Channel’s Adam Richman from “Man vs. Food” stopped in. …   More

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Jacksonville restaurateur Michael Thomas, of Sterling’s and 24 Miramar, opened Terra in late February. Touted as “a deceptively simple, innovative dining experience,” Terra’s menu is intentionally limited out of the gate. Dishes are created with an emphasis on local, sustainable ingredients, resulting in frequent menu changes to feature the freshest of ingredients. Terra will soon add an organic vegetable and herb garden near its outdoor patio space.

While relatively small, the seating area is spacious with plenty of windows and a soon-to-be-completed patio area, just in time for spring. Formerly the Patio at Pastiche, Terra received a minor facelift — including an awning and new interior paint in an earthy terracotta color. The bar area seats about 15, where a few local brews are featured on draft.

We arrived in time for happy hour (3-6 p.m. weeknights) and scored half-priced glasses of wine. Our table of four started with three small plates: French fries with freshly grated parmesan, truffle oil and creamy garlicky aioli, a cheese plate and charcuterie. The fries were delightfully crisp — not one was burned or soggy. The hint of truffle oil was detectable, the parmesan and aioli finished the savory treat.

Our charcuterie (a plate with small mounds of prepared meats) featured toasted crostini, perfect for piling the thin slices of dry-cured Serrano ham, soppressata and Genoa salami. Tangy homemade pickled green beans and onions, along with a spicy French Maille whole grain mustard, rounded out the dish. Our cheese plate included an extremely pungent (but surprisingly delicious) bleu cheese, a slightly smoky, spicy chipotle cheddar and a spreadable brie. Colorful strawberries, thinly sliced apples, crisp crostini, sweet honey, pecans, figs and a fig jam share the plate — begging to be paired with the cheeses.

One star of the evening arrived next: the wilted frisée salad. Tossed with shallots, cubes of …   More

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There’s good pizza, and there’s bad pizza. Brewer’s Pizza is a gem, tucked away just off I-10 in Orange Park. Home of the Florida Smacker, a “Lip-smack’n Southern style pizza,” it's Brewer’s signature 8-inch square, deep-dish pizza with melted cheese that extends to the crispy edges of the beer-dough crust. Dipped in ranch or a side of marinara, it's a pizza-lover’s dream and some of Northeast Florida’s best. The corners are crunchy, but the center of the crust is light and chewy.

If you’re not in the mood for a deep-dish pizza, opt for the hand-tossed pizza. Both are excellent. Regular topping choices include green peppers, banana peppers, pepperoncini, jalapeños, mushrooms, black or green olives, tomatoes, white or red onions, pepperoni, ham, bacon, Italian sausage, ground sirloin, mozzarella, garlic and pineapple. Specialty toppings are gyro meat, meatball, chicken, ricotta, Romano, feta and cheddar.

Can’t decide? Remove the guesswork and order one of Brewer’s specialty pies. Available in Florida Smacker style or round, there’s Buffalo Chicken (mozzarella, chicken, bacon, green pepper and buffalo sauce), Swamp Chicken (mozzarella, homemade swamp sauce — not pizza sauce — plus gator tail, chicken, tomato and Cajun crust), and the clever Seafaring Pig (mozzarella, homemade seafood sauce, shrimp, crab, bacon, mushroom, tomato and chives).

In addition to salads, soup and a calzone, there are several Boar’s Head sandwiches available on Mamaw’s 8-inch toasted sub roll or a wrap — with Brewer’s world-famous Pinglehead sandwich spread.

We also ordered Guido Spoonpipe’s wings — available in plain, BBQ, sweet BBQ, mild and hot — which are lightly breaded and brushed with buffalo sauce then baked in a pizza convection oven, instead of being fried. We ordered them mild, and a pile of 10 plump wings arrived accompanied by a …   More

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Plan for lunch or dinner at The Floridian (39 Cordova St., 829-0655) across from Flagler College. The cozy restaurant serves generous Southern-inspired portions featuring locally sourced ingredients. Popular menu items include homemade pimento cheese, fried green tomato hoagie and shrimp with triangular polenta cakes. Some of the salads use unexpected ingredients, like black-eyed pea relish, sweet potato, quinoa and apples — and all salad dressings are made in-house. Wash it down with sweet tea served in a Mason jar.

Near the hub of the historic district tourist scene, you’ll discover Columbia Restaurant (98 St. George St., 824-3341) for a glass of red or white sangria and plates of Spanish tapas. Among the outdoor fountains and colorful Spanish tiles are Cuban and Spanish favorites like paella, empanadas, bacalla, pollo riojana and flan. The signature 1905 Salad, named for the year when the original restaurant opened in Ybor City, is prepared tableside with iceberg lettuce, Swiss cheese, baked ham, tomato, red onion, manzanilla (green) olives, garlic, lemon, Worcestershire sauce and white wine vinaigrette, and topped with Romano cheese. Make a reservation — this family-owned restaurant gets crowded quickly due to its tourist appeal and central location.

Don’t miss The Hyppo (48 Charlotte St., 217-7853) for a gourmet frozen popstick or “paleta” in its vibrant, expanded location. These pops are handcrafted onsite using fresh ingredients to create the treats ranging from the sweet and spicy datil strawberry to the refreshing, summery pineapple cilantro. The texture is not icy, like you’d expect from traditional boxed pops. Try to pick just one of the countless concoctions like horchata, pumpkin cheesecake, lavender lemonade, sangria pear, Key lime pie and creamy pistachio coconut. If you’re a “chocophile,” have your paleta dipped in chocolate for an extra dollar. And look for the adorable little …   More

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For breakfast, there’s the hip Cool Moose Café (2708 Park St., 381-4242), a laid-back spot serving inexpensive coffee, breakfast sandwiches (opt for the scrambled egg, apple chutney and melted cheese on croissant), omelets, eggs Benedict, pancakes and two-for-one mimosas on Sundays. When the weather’s just right, grab one of several outdoor tables.

Nearby, you’ll stumble upon Whiteway Delicatessen (1237 King St., 389-0355), a long-standing weekday breakfast and lunch locale. Owner Sam Salem likely will commit your name and order to memory if you become a regular. The no-frills spot has been around since 1927, earning it the honor of being Jacksonville’s oldest deli. The menu, crowded with quirky sandwich names, is posted on individually printed sheets of paper hung on the wall. Some are named for area professionals (Dr. Stone, Dr. Long, Tom Bishop and Anne Beard). The rider sandwiches, with the fillings spilling out of a pita, are a popular choice. Try the Late Bloomer: a pressed pita stuffed with shaved turkey, provolone, tabouli, avocado spread, banana peppers and crispy bacon. It’s named after Bloomers, a legendary lingerie store at Park and King streets. The honor system governs the Whiteway coffers: Pay at the register when you leave, and Sam will eagerly snap your picture and upload it to the deli’s Facebook page. Before the popularity of digital cameras, he’d snap your picture, develop it and post it on the wall or add it to one of many shoebox archives full of regulars.

Newbie neighbor Sweet Theory Baking Co. (1243 King St., 387-1001) creates organic and vegan — no eggs or dairy — baked treats that are also soy- and peanut-free. There are warm doughnuts in drool-worthy flavors like salted caramel, chai, strawberry, pineapple and root beer. Hand-crafted whoopie pies, cookies, frosted cupcakes, biscuits, Brooklyn egg cream sodas and local Bold Bean coffee are also on the menu.

Food …   More

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Stop at 5th Element (9485 Baymeadows Road, 448-8265) or India’s Restaurant (9802 Baymeadows Road, Ste. 8, 620-0777) for a bountiful Indian buffet lunch. With items ranging from vegetarian dishes to lamb and goat, and mild to extremely spicy, experiment with a small helping of everything. Scoop up your sag paneer or channa masala with a few wedges of warm Indian flatbread called naan. It’s cooked in a tandoor (clay oven). India’s, voted best Indian food in Jacksonville by Folio Weekly readers, has a more open, light, modern atmosphere than 5th Element (a former Village Inn), but the 5th's buffet is easily three, if not four, times larger and more diverse than India’s. Load up on India’s crispy vegetable pakora fritters if they have them. Delicious!

Authentic Vietnamese noodle house Bowl of Pho (9902 Old Baymeadows Road, 646-4455) is immaculate and cozy, and there’s always a good crowd, especially during the lunch hour. The portions are as large as the menu is long. Try the mi hoanh than, or BBQ pork and wonton egg noodle soup; add in a fistful of items served alongside it, like raw jalapeno slices, saw-leaf herb (flavor similar to cilantro but stronger), fragrant Thai basil, crunchy bean sprouts, chopped green onion and cilantro. Pronounced “fuh,” not “foe,” pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup that traditionally contains beef broth and rice noodles along with varieties of meat including rare beef, beef flank, brisket, tendon (connective tissue that’s cooked for a long time at a slow temperature, which becomes pliable and gelatinous like beef fat), tripe (stomach of a domesticated animal) and meatballs. If you’ve never had Vietnamese cuisine, try a boba milk smoothie, which has chewy black tapioca pearls in the bottom, to be slurped up in a thick, colorful straw. Taro, avocado and honeydew are popular flavors.

Less than a mile apart, Thai spots Pattaya Thai (9551 Baymeadows Road, Ste. 1, …   More

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A Beaches-must, Cinotti’s Bakery (1523 Penman Road, Jax Beach, 246-1728) is a fifth-generation bakery, dating back more than 65 years, arriving in Northeast Florida in 1964. Old-timers can recall its First Avenue North location, steps from the ocean. With über-popular seasonal pumpkin, maple bacon, coffee and key lime donuts, the "new" Penman Road spot serves other bakery confections and deli sandwiches on freshly baked bread. Cinotti’s cases are overflowing with trays of cookies, pastries, cupcakes and chocolate truffles. Grab a decadent donut or two and a cup of coffee — and a box of assorted goodies to keep your home team happy.

Minutes from the beach is the wildly popular TacoLu (1712 Beach Blvd., Jax Beach, 249-8226), which locals quickly dubbed “NuLu” after a recent relocation. The larger ’Lu, with additional parking and valet service, has an expanded bar area and an outdoor patio with seating for 40, complete with a colorful mural on the building's side, painted by local artist Jessica Becker. You can feel full after just looking at the menu of quesadillas, enchiladas, salads and tacos. The bangin’ shrimp taco is most popular, but the carne royale — carne asada with melted brie and grape salsa — is uniquely delicious. A relatively new weekend brunch service helps fans forgive that the ’Lu is closed on Mondays. Well, that and the impressive 120-plus choices of tequila. Even the sour mix is made in-house, with fresh-squeezed citrus and homemade simple syrup. Margarita, anyone?

For a healthful breakfast or lunch, look for the bee. At Delicomb (1131 Third St. N., Jax Beach, 372-4192), within walking distance from the beach, you’ll find menu standouts like strong iced coffee, antioxidant-packed acai bowls, vegan tempeh Reubens and spicy kim chi.

Often crowded with seafood lovers, Sliders Seafood Grille (218 First St., Neptune Beach, 246-0881) provides a relaxed atmosphere that's …   More

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Hold the steak, please — and the pulled pork sliders. And those spare ribs. Put down your forks and knives.

While not eating meat may sound borderline traumatic to many, some local carnivores have taken a pledge to say goodbye to meat for 31 days. Sponsored by The Girls Gone Green, No Meat March is celebrating its third year in Northeast Florida.

Start your day with a freshly roasted coffee from Sipper’s Coffeehouse (7643 Gate Parkway, Southside), which serves dairy-free alternatives to add to your java. The homemade chai and sugar-free chai are heavenly blended with creamy soy.

A drool-worthy brunch can be found at any of the area FirstWatch The Daytime Café locations (13470 Beach Blvd., at Hodges Boulevard; 11111 San Jose Blvd., Ste. 14, Mandarin; 5444 Marsh Landing Parkway, Ste. 4, Jacksonville Beach). Try the fresh fruit crêpes topped with low-fat organic strawberry yogurt and a dash of cinnamon and sugar. They’re served with homemade granola and the baked muffin of the day. FirstWatch’s omelets are made with cage-free eggs. The C’est la vie with roasted zucchini, onions, tomatoes and herbed goat cheese is a favorite.

For a lunch less than $10 and several veg options daily, head to Chomp Chomp (106 E. Adams St., Downtown). The tofu and pickled veggie bahn mi with a side of salad or thin-cut crispy curry potato chips are just what the doctor ordered. Or try the TMB — no bacon here — TMB stands for tomato, fresh mozzarella and basil. You can swap tofu for chicken or pork when you choose the curry of the day. One caveat – Chomp Chomp is closed Saturday through Monday for lunch.

Chamblin’s Uptown (215 N. Laura St., Downtown) offers delicious veg hot soups and wrapped specialties. They have two veggie wraps, a curry tempeh wrap and other specials that grace the chalkboard menu from time to time like vegan chili, Tofurkey and Swiss on a tomato basil wrap and VGBLT (lettuce and tomato …   More

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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

Bite-Sized

I’m a pizza snob. I’ve inhaled piping-hot slices of Grimaldi’s pizza from its coal-fired brick oven beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, and I’ve worked my way through the better part of deep-dish pies from both Giordano's and Lou Malnati’s in Chicago. I’ve polished off wedges from Marco’s Coal-Fired Pizza in Denver.

Tommy’s Brick Oven Pizza earns a top-five spot in my Northeast Florida list, which includes Brewer’s Pizza, Mellow Mushroom, Pele’s Wood Fire and Perard’s.

In 2006, Tommy d’Esterhazy opened the unassuming spot in a small strip mall on Southside Boulevard. The small, casual restaurant seats about 20, including a few barstools where you can gaze at your pizza being made in the central brick oven. You can catch a glimpse of d’Esterhazy (complete with an authentic New York attitude) hand-tossing the dough.

Tommy’s New York-style pizzas are available in 12, 14 or 16 inches. Quattro Stagione is my choice: The slightly crisp prosciutto’s saltiness complements the tender artichokes and creamy goat cheese along with roasted red peppers and tomato sauce. They’re meant to be together. Hand-tossed dough cooked in the brick oven results in a crust that’s not overly thick, keeping its shape and staying crisp at the edges.

Treat your taste buds with delicious toppings like pepperoni, sausage, bacon, pineapple, salami, rock shrimp, feta cheese and sun-dried tomatoes.

Salads are made-to-order. The caprese is traditional: Soft, fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, shreds of basil and a tangy balsamic reduction top a spring lettuce mix. The summery strawberry spinach salad with chevre or goat cheese is tossed with Tommy’s secret strawberry vinaigrette dressing. Tommy’s Caesar, with romaine and crunchy croutons, is also good. You can’t go wrong with any of these leafy concoctions.

I’ve yet to try one of the cold subs or hot sandwiches, but the warm roasted rosemary chicken with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes is right up my …   More

 
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