Gilbert’s Social greets the diner with fragrant plumes drifting from a large black smoker in the parking lot. This is chef and owner Kenny Gilbert’s second restaurant in Northeast Florida; his first spot, Gilbert’s Underground in Fernandina Beach, is known for delicious barbecue and gator. However, at Gilbert’s Social on the Southside, you won’t get a repeat of the same menu.
“We want you to eat,” says Chef Kenny, and it’s clear by the portions that he means it. Most entrées are shareable, so expect to take home some excellent leftovers. It’s like eating at Grandma’s house — except you skip the uncomfortable discussion about the recent election.
Sporting a “Food Over Fame” T-shirt that showcases how down-to-earth he is, especially for a celebrity chef, Chef Kenny is involved in every facet of the restaurant. Find him in the open concept kitchen, chatting with customers (while keeping an eye on the flame through the window) or serving his favorite dishes. His care and attention to detail is evident in the quality of the food.
I recommend starting off with something light, like the Baby Kale salad ($5/$9), because you’re gonna eat. You get the sense that whoever assembled it went through their own garden, pulling fresh baby greens; think mustard, kale and more. The thin slices of tart green apple, slightly creamy dressing and bite of red onion create a salad you actually want to eat.
Two specific dishes are perfect for the cooler months: Goat Curry Soup, and the Shrimp & Crab Perlot. Both fall into the category of things you don’t want to (or can’t) stop eating.
The Goat Curry Soup ($5/$10) is the most unassuming bowl of soup I’ve ever been served. It’s a more traditional Indian curry with a Moroccan spice kick. The textures are incredible — the variety of peas and beans so creamy, they complement the soft crunch — the nutty taste of crushed cashews sprinkled on top — the dollop of yogurt swirled into the base, cooling it down as the curry spices things up — the exploding sweetness of plump juicy raisins — the spicy finish of broth — the bone-in, fatty goat that is as tender as it gets, with a gamey flavor that pairs well with spices. Sigh. Everything works so well, you’ll crave it until you come back and enjoy it again.
Chef Kenny grew up in Ohio, but during the holidays his mother, who hails from St. Augustine, whipped up recipes she grew up on. Perlot, a low country rice dish, is a signature meal from his childhood, and his version is about to become a signature dish of my 20s. The Shrimp & Blue Crab Perlot ($25) is served in a bowl so large you might feel like you want to share. Quell that instinct. Each spoonful has chunks of crab and large shrimp (perfectly cooked, I might add) in a decadent tomato base. The sun-dried tomatoes create such a rich taste, your tongue will tingle happily.
Everything we tried had so many layers of its own distinct spice. Don’t mistake me — nothing was too spicy, it just had flavor. If you’re looking for Tabasco-esque blanket heat, it’s not here. One of my favorites was the Datil pepper hot sauce, made in-house. Hot damn, it was delicious on the fried catfish. I can’t decide if Datil peppers and fried food go together, or if it’s just the way Gilbert’s does it.
The Fried Fish & Shrimp entrée ($23) was an incredibly hefty portion with Jalapeno Cheddar Hushpuppies. You can also get it FB (Fernandina Beach) Hot. And don’t neglect the little cup of sauce on the side — it’s NOT tartar sauce. It’s a Datil Pepper Rémoulade made with excess mash from the hot sauce. Nothing gets wasted at Gilbert’s.
For dessert, the Kentucky Derby pie ($8) caught my eye, because A) it’s pie and B) it’s pie. At Gilbert’s Social, you don’t get just a slice. No. You get a whole freakin’ pie. A mini-pie, but a pie nonetheless. Said pie has a perfect flaky crust, with chocolate and pecan filling. It also has an intense flavor of blackstrap molasses. It was a little too much for this gal, but if you dig the taste of quality molasses, get yourself to Gilbert’s.
As you walk (waddle) out the door after your meal, a final whiff of that smoke follows. You may just find that you’re hungry again.