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BITE-SIZED

Tucked right inside the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, Café Nola is a delightful modern bistro situated next to the Main Library and across the street from Hemming Plaza.

Executive Chef Kathy Collins takes great pride in sourcing fresh ingredients — even using herbs grown on the building's rooftop garden.

Café Nola, outfitted in clean white and green hues, boasts an open kitchen and a modern interior with extra high ceilings and natural light. I suggest snagging a seat by the windows facing Hemming Plaza.

On a recent dinner visit during the One Spark festival, we started with sweet potato nachos, which proved to be a unique twist on traditional nachos. The base was a generous heap of thinly cut, crispy sweet potato chips topped with a creamy and rich bleu cheese sauce, sliced scallions, salty applewood-smoked bacon and sweet and tangy balsamic reduction. I stopped short of licking the plate.

The spring lobster gnocchi was lighter than I would have imagined, but still filling. The homemade potato gnocchi were soft and delicate, paired with crisp sautéed haricot verts and halved grape tomatoes, steamed Maine lobster pieces swimming peacefully together in a corn jus — a perfect spring dish.

The varied menu includes popular entrées such as a mac 'n' cheese with black truffle shavings, goat cheese, wild mushrooms and roasted chicken — served in a cast-iron pan. Another favorite, shrimp and grits, features plump shrimp in a creamy white wine and mushroom sauce with applewood bacon atop firm smoked cheddar grit cakes. It's served with a sun-dried tomato crostini, but I'm always too full to indulge.

For lighter fare, try one of the flavorful salads. There's a Caesar with a black truffle butter-basted local fried egg (say that three times fast); a Cobb with fresh steamed Maine lobster, asparagus and blueberries; and a warm calamari and artichoke salad with roasted pepper vinaigrette over fresh baby …   More

BITE-SIZED

Vitamin-rich calcium. Strong bones. 
 Hunger-busting protein. That's why I 
 eat cheese — right? Of course not. I eat cheese because it's absolutely delicious, and because there are so many varieties. We're not talking Velveeta or slices of that fluorescent Kraft-processed-whatever-it-is or the shakers of grocery-store Parmesan you dumped on your spaghetti as a kid. There are so many kinds of cheese to choose from — luxurious creamy cheeses, hardy firm aged cheeses, stinky blues — all begging to join your plate.

Because of that versatility, constructing your own winning cheese plate may be daunting. It's not; in fact, it's surprisingly simple.

Start by limiting the varieties. Stick with a trio. Since contrast is important, include one of each: soft, firm and blue, which will provide a nice assortment of flavors (salty, nutty, buttery, sweet, earthy, smoky, fruity) and textures. If you want four kinds, consider making one of your soft selections a goat cheese (soft and spreadable,) and another brie.

Cheeses with different textures — take that soft, creamy brie, for example — can be used to offset a firmer Gouda or Gruyere. Try a triple cream (so smooth!) called St. Andre. If you're in the mood to go blue, opt for maximum flavor by grabbing a Stilton, Maytag Blue or Roquefort. Be open. Experiment.

You really can't screw this up. There are no rules. Just be sure that you have several flavors and textures, and keep in mind that each cheese should have a separate spreader so you don't mix discordant flavors.

Once your trio is picked, label your selections. (Think chalk on a blackboard cheese tray or insert small toothpick flags with your selections' names on them into the cheeses.) If your guests fall in love with one of your choices — and why wouldn't they? — they'll easily be able to learn its name, origin and type.

Remember that most cheeses are at their best when served at room temperature. Set them out about 45 minutes prior …   More

BITE-SIZED

You can get dinner and a movie in one stop at the eclectic Five Points theater Sun-Ray Cinema. Two years ago, Tim Massett and his wife, Shana, reopened the historic 1927 theater and ramped up the menu.

For movie theater food, Sun-Ray's snack bar earns top-notch ratings. There's an emphasis on local ingredients, such as the use of freshly baked bread and hot dog buns from Bakery Moderne, beers from Bold City Brewing on tap, Bold Bean Coffee Roasters coffee, Twinn Bridges kombucha on draft and popcorn toppings from Blue Buddha Exotic Foods in Riverside.

The popcorn bar is a moviegoer's dream: more than a dozen mix-and-match, shake-it-yourself toppings like thyme, dill, hot Chinese mustard, cinnamon, nutritional yeast, zhatar and a truffle oil mist. Shana Massett stresses that you won't find any artificial ingredients. All the popcorn is popped with Himalayan sea salt, black pepper, garlic powder and annatto (for color).

The 9-inch pizzas and specialty pies are a must. Craving something sweet and spicy? Go for the Pagan Love Song: housemade crust topped with mozzarella or rinotta (vegan dairy-free cheese: instead of "ricotta," ), ham, pineapple, jalapeños and spicy sriracha. The Zaat, with salty and crunchy Korean-style kimchi and a fried egg, is equally delicious. And Shana Massett swears that the Bold New Pizza of the South — rinotta, roasted tomatoes, roasted garlic, mushrooms, hummus and olives — is so good that non-vegans order it regularly. For meat lovers, there's the aptly named Uncle Meat with salami, pepperoni, ham and sausage.

In addition, Sun-Ray offers hot dogs with your choice of toppings, nachos, hummus, breadsticks and a handful of sandwiches. The Wildly Inauthentic Cuban caught my eye: pulled pork, ham, sweet pickles and Swiss cheese on fresh-pressed bread. It's tasty, but I'm still a pizza girl at heart.

Come thirsty. In addition to pitchers of soda and beer, you can order wine by the glass or bottle, bottled natural …   More

BITE-SIZED

Sub Cultured is the latest mobile vendor to open a permanent location. Situated in a quaint, unassuming building off Mayport Road in Atlantic Beach, Sub Cultured has been open for six months.

Starting as a mobile stand specializing in cheesesteaks and sausages, and parked in front of a home improvement store, the eatery serves an assortment of freshly made sandwiches, soups and salads. Nothing on the menu rings up at more than $9, and Cinotti's Bakery, just up Penman Road in Jax Beach, supplies the sub rolls.

The menu lays claim to the best Philly cheesesteak in town ($8.49). While that sandwich is quite good, I found several sandwiches and salads on the menu to be far more impressive — like the popular Miami Cuban ($8.99), with the traditional roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese and pickles. Sub Cultured's version is enhanced by slight twist: the addition of capicola and mostaza aioli – a blend of yellow mustard and mayo with a hint of garlic, improving the standard Cuban with a tangy overtone.

The Grilled Montreal sandwich started as an experiment in grilled cheese that produced remarkable results. Thick slices of Boar's Head pastrami are paired with white cheddar cheese curds and yellow mustard and pressed between two slices of sourdough bread. If the Montreal is offered, the only acceptable answer is "Oui!"

Another item that caught my eye: Gypsy Fries ($4.99). Sub Cultured takes a Philly cheesesteak sandwich — minus the sub roll — and layers hefty portions of grilled steak, sautéed peppers, mushrooms and onions and melted provolone cheese on a bed of crispy fries. This creation would be the perfect sportsbar fare; unfortunately, big-screen TVs and cold beer were nowhere to be found.

Craving something specific? Concoct your own sandwich ($6.99-$8.99) by selecting a choice of meat, bread, cheese, sauce (mayo, mustard, spicy mustard, honey mustard, garlic aioli or creamy Italian) and toppings — ranging from sprouts and jalapenos to the …   More

ULTIMATE SUMMER GUIDE

SHRIMP BOIL

Sunday afternoon (live music on the deck 4-8 p.m.)

Whitey’s Fish Camp, 2032 C.R. 220, Orange Park

Price: $15.99

269-4198, whiteysfishcamp.com

Nothing quite says summer like a low-country boil on the water. With live music wafting through the air, a breeze blowing through your hair and a frosty beverage in your hand, Whitey’s is the perfect spot to unwind. Shrimp are served with pieces of potatoes, spicy sausage and corn on the cob — a finger-licking-good spread, bebe.

 

DIPPED SOFT-SERVE VANILLA ICE CREAM CONE

Dreamette, 3646 Post St., Murray Hill

Price: $2.40 for a small cone

379-4343, facebook.com/dreamette

Cones, shakes and banana splits, oh my! This neighborhood spot is perfect for cooling off on a hot summer day — good thing the cones have a little plastic drip-guard. The soft-serve vanilla is dipped in your choice of flavored coatings (butterscotch, cake batter, chocolate, etc.). For 65 years, Dreamette has doled out sweet delights to adults and children alike. Portions are generous, prices are reasonable, it’s all delicious — and because of that, you’ll usually find yourself waiting in line. Bring a wad of dollar bills: Dreamette only takes cash.

 

THE JACK DEL RIO GRANDE SUB AND LARGE SWEET TEA

Tuesdays-Saturdays

Angie’s Subs, 1436 Beach Blvd., Jacksonville Beach

Price: $6.45 for a 10-inch sub

246-2519, facebook.com/angiessubs

Warm turkey, roast beef, crispy bacon, melted provolone, sautéed mushrooms, crunchy barbecue Frito chips and spicy ranch dressing on a toasted white or wheat hoagie roll (your choice) make for a perfect pre- or post-beach lunch. Douse it with one of the squeeze bottles of tangy Peruvian sauce and pair it with a bag of chips. Fill up your cup from an oversized vat of award-winning sweet iced tea. The atmosphere’s laid-back with mismatched tables and chairs and an authentic, casual, easy-going …   More

BITE-SIZED

It can be a daunting task to pick a lunch spot 
in bustling historic St. Augustine when so many great options abound. I love a nice al fresco meal, so Casa Maya always comes to mind, with its sprawling open-air courtyard charm and eclectic menu.

In late 2012, the restaurant relocated from 17 Hypolita to 22 Hypolita — a much roomier space, complete with outside second-story patio seating and the aforementioned courtyard.

On one visit, we started with homemade-style salsa and organic blue corn chips ($3.50), which proved unremarkable; on another visit, we chose gooey queso fundido ($7.50) — baked Mexican cheese, salsa and chips aplenty. Black bean soup with rice ($3.95 for a cup) is also a satisfying choice, but obviously not as sharable.

Now, the dilemma: The marinated shrimp tacos (3 for $10.95) are satisfying, but the fish tacos are an absolute must. Savor these three tortilla-wrapped treasures (your choice of soft corn or flour) with flaky, flavorful grilled chunks of mahi, crisp slivers of romaine, refreshing diced pico de gallo and a heavy-handed drizzle of homemade chipotle mayo. Accompaniments aside, it's the freshness of the fish that makes this dish shine.

Another go-to is the huinic sandwich ($8.95) — ropa vieja with sweet plantains and creamy avocado slices on freshly baked bread, served with chips and salsa. The flavors and textures work fabulously with one another. If you've never had ropa vieja, a traditional Cuban-style dish, definitely experience this one: shredded slow-cooked brisket with onions, bell pepper, tomatoes and a touch of chipotle. Because it's slow-roasted, the meat is extraordinarily tender.

Casa Maya is open Wednesday through Monday, and it's a treat to dine outside and relax. Grab an adult beverage and unwind. The Sunday breakfast menu looks great, too — crunchy deconstructed enchilada-like chilaquiles, pillowy sweet potato pancakes, huevos rancheros and more. Did I mention homemade sangria? Oh, and save room …   More

BITE-SIZED

What's 31 days long, full of health benefits and colorful vegetables, and has local community and restaurant support? If you guessed No Meat March, you win. (I probably shouldn't proclaim "winner, winner, chicken dinner!")

Foregoing meat is gaining momentum for a number of reasons, and while many already honor Meatless Monday — dedicating one day a week to conscientious vegetarianism — No Meat March (nomeatmarch.com) encourages Northeast Floridians to take a 31-day pledge to give up meat and seafood. As a participant for the past two years, I found my energy increased and I began craving leafy greens and juicy fruits. Honestly, tempeh and tofu (which, when cooked properly, is quite versatile) are delicious and enabled me to experience one of the best Reuben sandwiches of my life, made with tempeh, sauerkraut and avocado on pressed ciabatta bread.

Local meteorologist Julie Watkins, a vegan all the time (not just Mondays, and not just March), helped found Girls Gone Green in 2007 to bring awareness to the environment, animal welfare and health. "Everything is connected," she says, "and how we look at one greatly impacts the others."

Meat-free for nearly 20 years, Watkins has several favorite places around the area with menu items she recommends. "Happy Cup in Atlantic Beach has the yummiest wraps — the strawberry with hazelnut, almonds and agave is the best," she raves. "And Tapa That [in 5 Points] has mushroom quesadillas that are amazing!"

Looking for easy meat-free options? Hit these spots: any Mellow Mushroom, any Tropical Smoothie (which carries Beyond Meat, chicken-free strips you can substitute in any menu item), Buddha Thai Bistro and any European Street Café.

"No Meat March is a short-term commitment and challenge that will take you out of your box," says Jessica Campbell, co-founder of Jax Vegan Love. "It will inspire you to explore new recipes at home and try new menu items you may have previously overlooked when dining …   More

BITE-SIZED

Looking for some tasty, inexpensive, low-frills, diner-style fare served in a chill atmosphere? Check out 5 Points' Derby on Park, near the landmark flashing light roundabout.

Start with the supremely simple yet savory Derby Fries ($5.95): A pile of crisp house-cut potatoes topped with a rich, flavorful beef gravy. If you're dining with a group, the diced chicken and spinach nachos ($9.50) with tomatoes and a runny white cheese sauce are ridiculously large and should more than hold you over until your meal arrives.

As far as burgers go, you can't go wrong with the popular 3B — a perfect trifecta of smoked bacon, crumbled bleu cheese and balsamic spring mix ($10.95). Or try the Jack & Tom, complete with fried green tomato, onion, jack cheese and ranch dressing.

Perhaps the most interesting menu item is a 12-inch, hand-dipped, cornmeal battered corn dog that brilliantly recalls carnival food. The batter is delicious and slightly sweet. Order it with a hearty helping of fries; you won't be hungry again for days (or weeks).

The Van Fletcher Reuben ($9.95) is a traditional offering done right. Think two grilled slabs of marble rye bread smothered with sambal aioli then loaded with a half-pound of corned beef and pastrami, as well as the requisite tangy sauerkraut and melted Swiss cheese.

Derby uses local Intuition Ale Works' Jon Boat Coastal Ale to batter the flaky redfish on the Intuition Fish 'n' Chips ($12.50) platter, which includes fries, cole slaw and a cup of smoky chipotle aioli for dipping — comfort food at its finest.

For vegetarians, the meatless, crêpe-like Tuck & Roll ($10.50) touts creamed spinach, sautéed portabella, mixed peppers and onions rolled up in an oversized lasagna noodle and topped with mozzarella and marinara. The corners of the noodles were overcooked, resulting in oddly (though not undesirable) crunchy edges.

One complaint: The service was prompt, but it took way too long for our lunch to get to our table. …   More

BITE-SIZED

Is it considered an obsession if you've eaten at a place five times the first two weeks it's open for business? If so, consider me obsessed with Hawkers.

First, the menu. Part infographic (so that's how I hold my chopsticks!), part design masterpiece, there's an abundance of mouthwatering options, and that's because Hawkers serves up street food from China, Vietnam, Thailand, Korea, Japan and Malaysia. (The food is so good, I temporarily forget I'm in 5 Points.)

I can't say enough about the atmosphere: Huge windows open to unveil an entirely open façade. Large upside-down wok-like pans serve as light fixtures and hang from an exposed wood beam ceiling. An old upcycled wooden palette with chalkboard paint serves as the craft beer list.

Hawkers is thoroughly modern, comfortable and hip.

The food speaks for itself. I can't think of any comparable places in town that have such a culturally diverse menu with such reasonable prices.

Start with the roti canai, a Malaysian flat bread ($3) that I can best describe as fluffy Indian naan meets the airiness of a French crêpe. It's served with a cup of delightfully spicy curry dipping sauce. Another standout is the crispy roasted pork "siu yoke" ($6), or pork belly, served with a thick hoisin dipping sauce and garnished with scallions.

Items are intended to be shared, even the soups. You'll receive a large bowl, two smaller cups and a giant ladle. The tom yum soup ($8.50) touts a spicy lemongrass broth that's loaded with flat rice noodles, shrimp, bean sprouts, basil, straw mushrooms, tomatoes and cucumbers. It's great on a chilly day and leaves you feeling warm inside.

I preferred the stir-fry noodle dishes to the rice bowls. Hawkers' stir-fry udon noodles ($8), with eggs, scallions, onions, bean sprouts and carrots, and chicken pad Thai ($8) earn my top honors. Runner-up? The Zha Jiang Mian ($7.50), a traditional Chinese dish with blanched noodles, ground chicken, yow chow (a leafy green similar to bok …   More

BITE-SIZED

Though it's not on the main drag — Centre Street — in Fernandina Beach, Arte Pizza is a hip, well-decorated, comfortable spot for lunch on the weekend or dinner anytime (except Tuesdays, because it's closed). As I was walking by, the space itself sold me: open kitchen with a view of the pizza oven, high ceilings, modern lighting, windows that let in a fresh breeze, and an arty, decorative wall adorned with random mirrors and frames.

On the lunch menu, we eyed crispy French fries tossed in rosemary sea salt ($3.50) to start, and I ordered a half-portion of the Special salad ($9.95 full size), with roasted red beets, corn, diced tomato, roasted red peppers, cucumbers, crumbled feta and a white balsamic dressing.

The portion was nice-sized, and the fries were accompanied by a cup of ketchup, though I would have preferred an aioli to complement the rosemary.

My half salad was gigantic. I loved the uniqueness of having beets, roasted peppers, corn and feta. But if this were a creation of mine, I'd add avocado. And the menu says "mixed greens," but it was actually hearts of Romaine, which is fine but slightly misleading.

Eager to try the wood-fired, brick-oven pizza (it cooks at temperatures higher than 700 degrees!), we pondered the selections of Arte's self-proclaimed artisanal pizzas.

We narrowed it down to the Paesana ($10.95), with tomato sauce, mozzarella, sausage and pepperoni, and the Caprina ($10.95), with tomato sauce, roasted tomato, mushrooms, fresh basil, goat cheese and extra virgin olive oil. The Caprina should really be renamed the Goat, for the overabundance of goat cheese. It overshadowed everything else. The crust on both pizzas was crisp — and slightly thicker than a typical wood-fired crust — and held up to the load of toppings and sauce, but the sauce's flavor was lacking. Maybe more salt or spices? It was a Sunday, and we arrived at noon, when Arte opened, so maybe it was a fresh batch and needed to simmer …   More