flavors speak

by erin thursby
There’s a new food movement here in Jacksonville. Orsay, 13 Gypsies and now Taverna in San Marco are part of that movement. All three restaurants strive to recreate rustic artisan European fare, the sort of food Americans imagine is served in family bistros somewhere in rural France/Spain/Italy/Greece.
While they all work towards this type of ideal, they’ve all got their own niche.
Taverna, I’ve found, is the most accessible of the three. 13 Gypsies is terrific, but they are small. I don’t fault them for that because it means that the Chef and owner fixes everything, but it also means that it’s tough to just walk in without a reservation. Orsay, though it has awesome drink specials and fantastic French fare, just isn’t casual. Oh, it’s got a hip vibe and it’s not stuffy, but people tend to want to dress up to go there and they have to be in a fancy mood. For most people, it is not the kind of place you would go to on the spur of the moment with your friends whilst wearing slightly ragged jeans. Taverna hits a good middle ground. It’s a got little swank, but not on the level of Orsay, and it’s got enough tables that you can probably get in without a reservation.
Like Chew and Orsay, Taverna was designed by a firm called Design House. (The contractor for Taverna was Steve Shaw). The walls are white with weathered wood accents, which were reclaimed from a New Hampshire barn. A large tilted mirror over the bar connects the two upstairs and down stairs spaces–from the lower level you can see the diners in the upper level and vice versa.
There’s a lightness to Taverna’s fare. Nothing in it seems to weigh the stomach or the taste buds down. Chef Sam Efron understands subtlety. His flavors speak; they have conversations you can taste, sometimes they whisper to each other or speak boldly–but they don’t shout. This is most apparent in his Florida snapper dish, each herb softly chiming in with distinction, with a pop of lemon zest adding well-timed zingers to the conversation.
I enjoyed their gourmet mushroom and truffle pie, but since tasting Bistro Aix’s version, I’ve yet to find a version of it I’ve liked better. Taverna’s sandwiches are heaven (fried egg and Gruyere BLT anyone?) and I adored my salad of olive oil poached artichokes, shaved fennel, baby arugula, Marcona almonds, oranges, picholine olives and Parmigiano-Reggiano. I also added shrimp, which were perfectly cooked and came from Mayport.
With about 30 wines available by the glass, you can have your pick. It’s great not having to choose from the paltry three or four wines by the glass that are generally the norm. Bottles range in price from about the $20s and up. They have splendid little cheeses (I loved the creamy Brillat Savarin, a triple cream brie from France, something I’d never had before) and paper thin Serrano ham to nosh on with your wine.
They’re new, so they’re working out some kinks with the waitstaff here and there, but on the whole I’ve enjoyed their servers. (I’ll take this time to give a shout out to Megan, who was knowledgeable and attentive.)
All three desserts I tried there were outstanding. None of them were heavy or overwhelming. The strawberry balsamic gelato remains my favorite, if only for its complexity and interplay flavors. The chocolate gelato was definitely for dark chocolate fans. The mint chocolate dessert, small scoops of mint chocolate sandwiched by chocolate cookies wasn’t something I would have normally ordered. The fact that I enjoyed it immensely it is a testament to the dessert Chef, Christina Lango.
Taverna can be found where Cafe Carmon used to be in San Marco Square.
Hours: Tue-Thur 11:30 am – 10 pm, Fri & Sat 11:30 am – 11 pm
1986 San Marco Blvd. / 398-3005 / tavernasanmarco.com