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BITE-SIZED

At The Blind Rabbit, you'll find a bustling 
 dining room filled with the chatter of 
 bronzed beachgoers and families alike, an impressive two-page whiskey list and a menu to surely please the pickiest of eaters. The spot — in business now for six months — is the brainchild of local restaurateurs John and Jeff Stanford, who also own and operate The Blind Fig in Riverside. (The Rabbit's dining room is much larger than the Fig's, and the back wall touts a colorful mural by local artist Shaun Thurston, who also created the detailed mural on the Fig's exterior.)

We began with bacon and corn croquettes ($8), served atop a nicely presented bed of creamy diced avocado, corn, microgreens and jalapeño-tomato hot sauce. They were crisp on the outside and delightfully soft on the inside. With a portion serving of five, these larger-than-a-hushpuppy fried balls are an easily shared appetizer.

After perusing the multiple burger options, I landed on The Southern Burger ($12) — fried green tomato, Creole pimento cheese, peach habañero hot sauce, arugula, Georgia cane syrup and pickled okra spears — accompanied by sweet potato fries and several dipping sauces (curry mayo, bourbon-spiked Creole mustard and spicy ketchup), all of which were winners. So was the burger.

The shrimp rémoulade salad ($15) was another standout. Butter lettuce, grape tomatoes, long pieces of hearts of palm, fried green tomato, red bell pepper, celery and red onions tango with jumbo shrimp tossed in a creamy rémoulade dressing. The artful presentation and size of the shrimp were impressive.

The s'mores brownie ($6) was much too rich — layers of graham cracker crumbs, warm Belgian chocolate brownie and peanut butter mousse, topped with gooey brûléed marshmallow. Go for one of the milkshakes as a lighter treat. While the vanilla ($4) was perfectly creamy, for a few bucks more, aim high and get the maple bacon ($7), which, as the name suggests, is mixed with bacon-infused …   More

BITE-SIZED

For a finger-lickin' good barbecue experience that's off the beaten track, drive west on Interstate 10 and take the exit for Marietta — then follow your nose.

Gators BBQ owners John and Sandy Shepherd's smoker cooks the signature meats low and slow.

Located in an old house converted into a restaurant, Gators may be small and no-frills, but portions are generous, and the prices are right. Start by ordering at the counter then take a seat. With fewer than 10 tables inside and on the small front porch area, you may find yourself sharing a table with strangers — but it's worth it.

There are the requisite starters — corn nuggets, fried okra, onion rings and Brunswick stew. The menu's broken into plates (your choice of meat plus two sides and garlic bread), sandwiches (served with one side), fresh seafood (with two sides and hushpuppies), family meals, an Angus beef hamburger, a hot dog and BBQ salad. With more than eight varieties of meat, channel your inner carnivore.

The tender, moist brisket and chopped pork had a nice smoky flavor and hardly any fat, with pieces of flavorful bark mixed in. An assortment of sauces is available, but a special sweet thicker sauce is spot-on (request it from the counter). Our tablemates had the smoked pork ribs which looked — and smelled — amazing.

As for sides, I'd order the collard greens and baked beans again, but the mac 'n' cheese was nothing special. Other options include potato salad, cole slaw, macaroni salad, corn on the cob, green beans and crinkle-cut French fries. The bite-sized corn nuggets with ranch dressing were perfectly golden pockets of creamy sweet corn, and can be a side item for an upcharge.

An incredibly friendly and warm staff greeted us; one woman with a slight Southern drawl brought out complementary small cups of freshly made banana pudding for everyone. The creamy, sweet dessert was studded with chunks of banana and crisp Nilla Wafers.

Closed on Sundays, …   More

BITE-SIZED

Mandaloun offers an authentic Lebanese culinary experience in the 
Baymeadows neighborhood.

For the past five years, Mandaloun has opened seven days a week for lunch and dinner. Chef Pierre Barakat usually visits each table at lunch and dinner, flashing his warm smile and speaking with a thick accent that adds to the authenticity of the experience.

If you're new to Mediterranean food, check out the expansive lunch buffet ($12.99 weekdays, $19.99 on Sunday), which offers an impressive assortment of authentic hot and chilled Lebanese delicacies.

From the cold mezze (appetizers) selections, my go-to choices are baba ganoush ($5.95), a smoky tahini, garlic and eggplant dip, and the thick, creamy hummus ($5.95) topped with a swirl of olive oil and a scattering of chickpeas. Both are served with warm pita bread.

Another favorite is the vegetarian-friendly, lemony tabouli ($6.45), a mix of finely chopped parsley, diced tomatoes, bulgur wheat, onion, lemon juice and olive oil.

If you're craving a warm starter, share an order of falafel ($5.95) — four crisp balls of gently fried ground chickpeas, herbs and spices.

For a light lunch or side item at dinner, try the fatoush salad ($6.45) — a mix of lettuce, tomato, chopped cucumber, radish, onion, mint, sumac and crispy pieces of Lebanese flatbread tossed in a dressing of olive oil, pomegranate molasses and lemon.

Entrées include kebab skewers of shish taouk (cubed spiced chicken, $12.95), kafta meshwi (minced lamb with parsley and onion, $11.95) and kafta khosh-khash (charcoal-grilled minced beef, $11.95). Each is served with sautéed mixed vegetables and a side of warm rice or salad. Seafood and vegetarian items are also available.

With indoor and outdoor seating, the restaurant is spacious and comfortable with large windows lining the perimeter. A small bar area is good for a pre-meal beer, glass of wine or cocktail.

For dessert, indulge in a traditional favorite — baklava. These petite, …   More

BITE-SIZED

The marriage of food and beer is synergistic. It opens the door to creativity on the chopping block. Multicourse dinners featuring a single brewery's curated selection of beers have been popular nationwide for years; locally, these half-liquid collaborations are taking place about once a month at Whole Foods Market in Mandarin. (Pre-sale tickets, ranging from $35-$40, include all of your food and beer.)

At the most recent dinner, Kristine Day from Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and Whole Foods' Rachel Deremer hosted a five-course pairing that included diverse beer selections: Sierra's robust Bigfoot Barleywine, slightly tart Brux ale, wheat Kellerweis, hoppy Ruthless Rye IPA and a collaboration ale, Ovila Abbey Quad, as well as a welcoming simple pale ale served upon arrival. All were hearty pours, and you got a logo-emblazoned keepsake pint glass.

After we were seated, Day gave an overview of Sierra Nevada and the company's history, and explained the brewing process and various components that comprise beer. For show-and-tell, a jar of Cascade finishing hops was passed from table to table.

With a warm welcome and pair of manchego cheese-stuffed prosciutto-wrapped medjool dates that were all things savory, salty and sweet, the evening took off with a pour of the deeply hued Bigfoot Barleywine. Strong, and boldly flavored, it clocked in at a hefty 9.6 percent alcohol content.

Selecting the right beer to complement a dish is like winning the food lottery. Generally speaking, beer's carbonation helps to rid the tongue of fat, readying it for the next forkful. Hop-forward beers work well with fattier foods, helping to counterbalance rich sauces and lessening the dense feeling in your mouth. Malt-forward beers are better for spicy foods, as the malt's subtle sweetness tames the heat.

Following a bouillabaisse swimming with shrimp and mussels — paired with a copper-colored American wild ale called Brux — came a simple palate cleanser, a light mix of …   More

BITE-SIZED

It's hard to top a great meal enjoyed in a modern space with a well-curated wine list in the center of bustling, historic San Marco Square. Taverna recently expanded after four years in the former Café Carmon spot. It's evident that Executive Chef Sam Efron and wine director/wife Kiley Wynne Efron are passionate about the new environment and wider-ranging menu.

So what's new? Taverna now boasts a quick-casual lunch service along with an option for lunch delivery, a classy private dining room and the addition of craft cocktails (they'd offered only beer and wine before) to the menu.

The menu remains European-inspired, drawing from both Spain and Italy. Start with the house-made caprese ($10) with prosciutto ($6), meatballs and peasant bread ($10), sautéed calamari ($12) or citrus-marinated beet salad ($9).

The caprese's house-made cheese is amazing in and of itself, but when paired with fresh basil, juicy tomato, balsamic and olive oil, it's a huge hit. (The upcharge to add prosciutto is worth every penny.) The meatballs were also good, and the calamari served with Israeli couscous, tomatoes, garlic, capers, niçoise olives and a touch of lemon zest was just the right amount of spicy.

Speaking of great cheese, Taverna's customizable cheese-and-charcuterie plates are another smart way to start your meal. And since the selections change frequently, be sure to partake in Sweet Grass Dairy's delightfully creamy Green Hill, from Thomasville, Ga. The meat selections include popular cured meats like jamon Serrano, prosciutto di parma, hot capocollo, soppressata, Genoa salami and chorizo.

Lately, it's been hard to pass up the Monday night special — any of Taverna's signature brick-oven pizzas paired with a pint of cold Intuition Ale Works beer for $12. The pizzas usually run up to $18, and another $5 for the beer. (That's 11 bucks you can put toward dessert.) I recommend the soppressata — topped with house-made mozzarella, juicy robust San Marzano …   More

BITE-SIZED

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

BITE-SIZED

Love enjoying your breakfast or lunch while peering into an open kitchen, using free Wi-Fi and leaving with a full stomach due to generous portions made with fresh ingredients? Then look no further than Uptown Market.

Brought to you by the same owners as downtown hot spot Burrito Gallery, Uptown Market has created a name for itself in historic Springfield by serving breakfast and lunch daily and brunch on the weekends — in a clean, fresh, modern space. And the best news of all: Dinner service should be starting in May.

Peek into the open kitchen and watch as Chef Eddy Escriba whips up clever lunch specials that are posted to Facebook every morning. Lunch is 11 a.m.-2 p.m., and the specials change daily based on what’s fresh. One day you might find a bison burger with jalapeño havarti and bacon, while on another, you’ll see anything from Cajun catfish and sweet corn grits with Creole tomato sauce to Puerto Rican-style picadillo with ground beef, peppers, raisins, capers, potatoes and onions over rice.

The menu is solid without being overly complicated. For breakfast, there’s brioche French toast, buttermilk pancakes, omelets, frittatas, eggs, crêpes and traditional breakfast specials like huevos rancheros, lox and bagel, and eggs Benedict. Insider tip: You can order a single fluffy buttermilk pancake if you desire. Best idea ever. (Well, that and those vitamin-C-packed $10 bottomless mimosas on the weekends.) With butter and a side of maple syrup, these light, spongy pancakes are the stuff breakfast dreams are made of.

That one pancake comes in handy when ordering the big-as-your-head breakfast burrito — eggs, chorizo sausage, home fries, cheddar cheese and salsa stuffed in an oversized flour tortilla — because I can hardly finish the burrito <> an entire stack of pancakes. My pick is the “ranch eggs” or huevos rancheros. This traditional Latin American dish features crispy flour …   More

BITE-SIZED

A question I get asked regularly: "What are your three favorite restaurants in Jacksonville?" Without missing a beat, I rattle off my favorite, Avondale's very own Orsay. (The other two require a bit more thought.) I often take out-of-town guests, co-workers and friends for there drinks, dinner or special occasions.

From the moment I walk through the door, to the last morsel of homemade ice cream I devour, Orsay never fails to provide a fantastic experience. A tough day can quickly be forgotten upon entering Orsay, with its dim lights, flickering white candles, modern wallpaper, exposed rustic wood rafters and hip music wafting through the air. Creative cocktails and a ridiculously awesome happy hour don't hurt, either.

It's rare that I order an entrée (and I can't order lunch beacause the spot's only open for dinner and weekend brunch) because I crave so many of Orsay's appetizers. Evenings begin with a cheese plate and oysters. Sometimes I opt for raw oysters, other times I gravitate toward the roasted oysters with salty bacon, spinach and melted parmigiano-reggiano cheese — perfectly smooth and smoky.

The escargots (yes, that's French for snails), served in the shell, with a garlicky butter and thick, sautéed portobello mushroom slices, are a savory delicacy. They're served with crusty bread, perfect for sopping up the extra garlic butter.

The crunchy haricots vert (pronounced "airicovair," not "hair-ih-cots verts") are thin French green beans. Together with roasted hazelnuts, ripe halved grape tomatoes and a tangy crème fraiche vinaigrette, they make for a light salad too good to pass up.

In my opinion, the combo of chefs Jonathan Insetta (also of Black Sheep Restaurant) and Brian Siebenschuh creates "Top Chef" quality.

The steak frites — a perfectly cooked hangar steak with a salty, seared crust, served with a tower of thinly cut crisp frites fried in duck fat for extra flavor — are an Orsay dinner …   More

BITE-SIZED

It's 2013, and times are changing. To some, meat is out and vegetables are in. Hoping to cater to this growing demographic, Dig Foods opened its doors Downtown in mid-April.

Dig Food's first permanent spot is inside music venue Underbelly. Previously, Chef Sean Sigmon crafted his popular vegan fare on-the-go at already established venues like Intuition Ale Works, Bold Bean Coffee Roasters, CoRK Arts District and Downtown's First Wednesday Art Walk. For a while, it was rumored that Sigmon might start a food truck featuring his vegan offerings.

Sigmon's ever-changing menu focuses on organic and local ingredients. Even the bread is made locally by Community Loaves, and since everything is vegan, that means no meat, dairy or animal products are used.

At a noon Tuesday lunch, almost all of the tables were filled. You place your order, pay and seat yourself. Your food is brought out to you by a server, but it may not arrive at the same time as your companions' orders, as it's all made-to-order.

My lunch was surprisingly filling, despite being meatless. And for $13, I was able to try three different menu items. The first was a grilled kale and roasted carrot salad atop protein-packed fluffy quinoa and drizzled with a light parsley vinaigrette. I'd never had grilled kale and found it interesting in both texture and flavor. My second item was a generous portion of roasted balsamic cauliflower, which had a slight tanginess that I enjoyed. My third choice was the half-sized portion of potato gnocchi with a flavorful tomato sauce and strips of roasted butternut squash. It seemed more like a fall item than spring, but it worked.

I had a few bites of the colorful beet, grapefruit and basil side salad topped with a divine dollop of cashew cream that looked just like crème fraîche. The grapefruit segments were tart and complemented the earthy flavors of perfectly cooked red beets. Thin ribbons of fresh basil completed the dish that was simple but packed …   More

BITE-SIZED

For the past two months, Simply Sara's has settled into its new digs in a historic Colonial Revival building in Ortega, once home to The Village Store restaurant. After relocating from an unassuming Murray Hill strip center with no seating, the new spot offers seating for about 100 inside and outside.

Celebrating two years in business, Simply Sara's is family-owned-and-operated, and emphasizes simple Southern comfort food in a laid-back family-friendly atmosphere. Many neighborhood residents frequent the spot with kids in tow.

"We want to remember everyone's names," co-owner James Mangham said.

While you will find families, you won't find processed foods, anything dumped out of a can or anything that needs microwaving. Everything's created fresh, using Mangham's tried-and-true family recipes, like his great-aunt's barbecue sauce and his mother's pimento cheese spread. All of the salad dressings are made in-house. His wife, Sally, specializes in desserts like cookies, cakes and pies.

Intrigued by the eggplant "fries" with homemade ranch, I ordered a basket and received a heaping portion of thin, seasoned, cornmeal-dusted eggplant strips — I gobbled them in record time.

Pimento cheese sandwiches aren't an everyday menu item, so I had to have one. It was thick and flavorful, with noticeable shreds of sharp cheddar on toasted multigrain. I chose a side salad of chunks of cucumbers and tomatoes marinated in a slightly tangy yet sweet balsamic vinaigrette with honey.

The fried chicken sandwich with tomato, lettuce and mayonnaise featured a generously sized chicken breast, so juicy and tender, perched between a not-too-dense toasted Kaiser roll. For sides, we ordered crinkle-cut fries and knife-cut corn, though the fried corn on the cob and fresh pole beans were also tempting. (Note to self: Try on next visit.)

Dinner entrée offerings (complete with your choice of two side items) rotate each evening. The few bites I had of the barbecue …   More

 
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