The weekly Riverside Arts farmers market is clearly the place to be on Saturday mornings. In the shade of the Fuller Warren Bridge structure and tucked at the edge of the St. Johns River, the market — like so many across the country — is a magnet for those tethered by stroller or leash, their handlers carrying heavy produce bags and paper cups of coffee.
A quick perusal of the goods — artisan breads, local veggies and honey, ethnic food — reveals that Jacksonville has been bitten by the foodie bug.
There's corroborating evidence: In Florida Trend's 2012 Golden Spoon awards, three awards went to new restaurants in Jacksonville (bested only by Miami, which got four), with six other veterans making the list, including one "hall of famer." Earlier this month, a wide-open weekend and a tank of gas provided the necessary incentive for an investigative dine-around in Florida's most populous city.
Often a city's food scene blossoms as a result of just a few anchor restaurants, their kitchens functioning as proving grounds for ambitious young chefs who eventually peel off to open their own places. To get oriented, we begin our search with two veteran fine-dining outposts in the neighborhood of San Marco, just south across the river from downtown. An area that predates downtown, with wide-set Mediterranean Revival homes and a commercial zone called San Marco Square, it has been the locus of the city's high-end dining for the past decade.
Matthew's Restaurant is the mainstay, the city's most decorated restaurant practically since its opening in 1997. It has received AAA Four-Diamond, Mobil Four-Star restaurant, Wine Spectator's award of excellence and so forth, based on chef Matthew Medure's sophisticated New American aesthetic and a crackerjack service team. Located in a restored 1920s bank building, the dining room is positively demure, a quiet study in wood grain and beige and sand, a central monochromatic flower arrangement and subtle wall art providing the only fillips of razzle-dazzle. Despite an open kitchen and a sleek adjacent lounge, it's a restful room where quiet conversation is possible.
In a daily-changing, single-page a la carte menu and a six-course tasting menu ($70, $115 with wines and $140 with super-fancy wines), it's easy to see what Jacksonville has been gaga about. Mayport shrimp (a local delicacy from the coastal village east of Jacksonville where about 20 shrimp boats congregate) arrived atop sweet and sour cubes of eggplant, with a delicate swath of green curry sauce as a capper. An exciting marriage of flavors, it was equaled by a length of unctuous slow-braised pork belly skating aboard stewed white acre peas (really a bean, they're smaller and more tender than black-eyed peas) accented by a dollop of bacon-onion compote. Hearty and gutsy in flavor, none of the dishes we sampled ever strayed from restrained sophistication in presentation, with a wine list that meets it all measure for measure. (Matthew's Restaurant, 2107 Hendricks Ave.; (904) 396-9922, matthewsrestaurant.com; entrees $27-$38)
Like Medure, Tom Gray is another of Jacksonville's fabled veterans. The next night we stop at his Bistro Aix (say "Bistro X"), San Marco's other heavy-hitter. The interior is dramatically different: Bustling and lived-in, with French antiques, exposed 1920s brickwork and a romantic courtyard with climbing vines and a tinkling fountain, it has a more casual glamor. Opened in 1999, it purveyed Mediterranean cuisine before much of Jacksonville knew what Mediterranean cuisine was.
"It was very difficult. When you're the only one doing something, no one really knows what it is. It took us close to three years to get our footing," Gray remembers. In the past few years, though, he has seen an explosion of culinary curiosity and sophistication in his hometown, with a bevy of new independent restaurants in the San Marco, but also in emerging neighborhoods like Avondale and Riverside.
Despite the influx of newcomers, Bistro Aix's ONYX Lounge seems to be the place to be during the summer, especially Thursday nights when a DJ gets spinning and drinks are discounted. In the dining room, we enjoy a passel of Spanish-inflected treats such as roasted local pepper stuffed with cod brandade and draped with a plush white anchovy, and a date stuffed with manchego and wrapped in Hobbs bacon. The kitchen crew sources as much locally as it can, from arugula and eggplant to other summer veggies from nearby Twinn Bridges. Add a 250-selection wine list and seriously ambitious pastry program, and Aix marks the spot. (Bistro Aix, 1440 San Marco Blvd.; (904) 398-1949, bistrox.com; entrees $14-$36)
Taverna opened in 2009 just a few blocks away, another hip Mediterranean draw overseen by husband-and-wife team Sam and Kiley Wynne Efron. Sam, a Culinary Institute of America grad who spent years cooking in New York and California, returned home with dreams of having his own place. Since opening, he and a small group of peers, including Bistro Aix, have formed an official San Marco dining district, as well as a quarterly underground dinner series called the Legend Series (thelegendseriesjax.com), where the location and themes of the events are kept secret until the day of the dinners.
Meanwhile, day to day, the Efrons turn out brunch, lunch and dinner in a rustic Mediterranean style that leans heavily on Greece and Spain. We start one brunch with a salad of olive oil-poached artichoke hearts with shaved fennel, marcona almonds, oranges, arugula and picholine olives before settling in with the Taverna hash, a melding of fingerling potatoes and housemade sausage and peppers, capped with a duo of sunny-side-uppers. Pizzas are also notable, and an order of cinnamon-sugar zeppole (Italian doughnuts) served with a chocolate-espresso dipping sauce can't help but linger in your memory. (Taverna, 1986 San Marco Blvd.; (904) 398-3005, tavernasanmarco.com; entrees $16-$28)
Riverside and Avondale
About 2 miles southwest of downtown you'll run into the adjacent residential neighborhoods of Riverside and Avondale snugged against the west bank of the St. Johns River. Not far from the Riverside Arts Market you'll find the Five Points Shopping District, south of that is the King Street District and farther south still, along St. Johns Avenue between Talbot and Dancy streets, you'll run into the shopping district of Avondale. All plantation land prior to the Civil War, this area has drawn young families in recent years, as well as a concentration of notable new restaurants.
Restaurant Orsay is among the shining stars, begun in 2008 by Jonathan Insetta, Brian Siebenschuh and Crystal Vessels. It's a warm and inviting space, with wood floors and exposed wood beams, waiters whisking platters of oysters, snails and moules frites (mussels and fries) across the room to casually clad diners. The foundation is unmistakably French, but not the snooty, buttoned-up kind.
You'll find classic Parisian bistro staples, but with subtle nods to the American South, with a great number of local and artisanal products taking center stage. A charcuterie sampler made a decadent prelude to a pan-roasted fish with Nicoise olive, artichokes and carrots, before we wrap things up with a plush classic creme brulee or a heady selection of housemade ice creams. Oh, and the wine list features some spectacularly good deals. (Restaurant Orsay, 3630 Park St.; (904) 381-0909, restaurantorsay.com; entrees $14-$38)
To see the ebb and flow of foot traffic in Avondale, Sunday brunch at the Brick, seated on the broad sidewalk patio, is an inspired vantage point. An established go-to spot for affordable American cuisine, it showcases a habanero Bloody Mary that hurts so good, especially when paired with huevos rancheros or a luxuriously hollandaise-capped caprese Benedict. (The Brick, 3585 St. Johns Ave.; (904) 387-0606, brickofavondale.com; entrees $10-$28)
Linger over coffee and watch Jacksonville residents zip into nearby Peterbrooke Chocolatier for a bag of chocolate-covered almonds or into Biscottis for a thick wedge of carrot cake, smug in the knowledge that their city has quietly crept into the culinary big league.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293.