I drove three hours to Jacksonville on Sunday to see the Jaguars play my Cincinnati Bengals (and you Bucs fans think you've suffered) and was pleasantly surprised to find that the city was not the armpit I remembered from my only previous visit, nearly 30 years ago.
The infamous paper mill stench, which on that long-ago visit hit me at exactly the same time as the first sight of the skyline, has been thoroughly eradicated. And from the cheap seats (cheaper and easier to come by because the Jags, like a lot of teams these days, are having a hard time selling out) we could look out and see a vast bend in the St. Johns River. Also got to see a Bengals win, another unexpectedly nice view.
On the other hand, the stretch of U.S. 301 between Ocala and Interstate 10 is every bit as unpleasant as I remembered — easily the most charmless stretch of rural highway in the state.
Thought we'd stop at a small, independently owned barbecue place in Waldo to soak up little local color, and, unfortunately, we did. The place was nasty and soulless. The ribs my son ordered were gray, the restaurant's walls were bare, and the waitress arrived at our table after sucking down too much cigarette on too short a break; smoke practically oozed out of her pores.
A question for Brooksville to think about as it mines the easy money of red-light cameras: Do towns sell a bit of their soul when they turn to shortcuts like turning speeding tickets into a revenue-generating machine, as Waldo has reputedly done?
Kind of seems that way.
If Sunday was a bad food day, Saturday was a great one, as I hit the best of Brooksville and Tampa in a time span of just more than six hours.
Lunch at Farmer John's Key West Cafe was the shrimp omelet with avocado. It's tricky loading omelets full of good stuff and still getting them to turn out eggy and moist — like an omelet, in other words, and not a dried-up, flavorless ingredient delivery system. Farmer John's pulled it off, as usual, and served it up with great sides: home fries, a biscuit that itself was a perfect ingredient delivery system for honey and butter and french fries that lived up to their name. Their outsides were actually glossy, as though they'd been covered with some delicious enamel Farmer John's invented.
People tell me this is what happens in France: So much care and thought goes into cranking out ordinary food that it comes off as unself-conscious art.
Nothing was unself-conscious about our dinner at Edison: Food + Drink Lab, the highly touted new restaurant on Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa.
Our server, Cody, referred to the chef as a "genius, literally," and started listing all sorts ingredients I'd never heard of, getting me all prepared to hate every pretentious, overpriced bite.
But she let me down in a way, the famous chef did, because everything placed before us was amazing and impossible to hate or even not to love. There was standard stuff, such as caprese salad, reinvented to the point that it was a revelation. My plate (along with some perfectly cooked, gorgeous and plump sea scallops) included what I previously thought of as dog food: the marrow of a beef bone.
I felt like a sucker, thinking about how little the place had paid for it and how much they were charging, but I don't think I've ever tasted anything that blended quite so lusciously with a forkful of mashed potato. (So, yeah, there were a couple of ordinary ingredients.)
The one issue I have with the reviews I've read: praise for the supposedly reasonable prices.
Maybe by Tampa standards. But this was the first time in my life I passed the unwelcome milestone of paying $200 for a meal for two, with tip. It was my wife's birthday present, a once-a-year deal. And at these prices, that's all it can be.
But, it sure would be nice to have a little pretentiousness (and competence) in restaurants, open at night, in downtown Brooksville — to be able to have two great meals in one day right here in town.
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