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BITE-SIZED

Tired of yearning for some of their favorite foods from their hometown of St. Louis, Chris Evans and Don Brindley created Picasso's to offer specialties from the Gateway to the West, like warm, toasted ravioli, gooey butter cake and square-cut, thin-crust
St. Louis-style pizza.

Chef Evans grew up in St. Louis and brings his favorite hard-to-find items to Jacksonville while his pastry-chef mother whips up the post-meal treats. (Don't miss the orange crunch cake available Tuesdays and Thursdays or the sinfully good gooey butter cake.)

To start, I ordered the hearts of palm frites and the meat-filled St. Louis toasted ravioli with homemade marinara. The fry-shaped hearts of palm were served with a thick roasted garlic aioli and sprinkle of parsley — yum! The pile of warm ravioli was perfectly toasted and seasoned, then covered in freshly grated parmesan cheese. The accompanying marinara was pleasantly simple and
fresh-tasting.

Although St. Louis and New York style pizzas are on the menu, the St. Louis, with cracker-thin crust and crisp edges, is a must. After devouring my first few bites topped with pancetta bacon and pepperoni discs, I put Picasso's pie on my coveted "best pizzas in town" list.

While the menu is expansive, I'd heard that the ramen noodle bowls are legit. I know what you're thinking: ramen — at a pizza place? Trust me; Picasso's has much more than pizza. The korubuta pork belly ramen bowl overflowed with color, flavor and texture: tangled noodles, savory broth, flavorful cooked mushrooms and broccoli, soft-boiled egg and crisp pickled cabbage in one bowl.

Stuffed but not stopping, I managed a few forkfuls (breakfast tomorrow?) of orange crunch cake. Again, points for uniqueness: Layers of moist, rich cake met thick swirls of orange icing and thin layers of crushed, crunchy wafers for a winning dessert experience.

The interior is open and clear, with replicas of bright Pablo Picasso paintings on the walls. In its …   More

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Pining for a sense of nostalgia coupled with simple diner food that satisfies? Head to the Shoppes of Avondale and straight to The Fox Restaurant, a diner that exudes 1950s charm coupled with a modern hipster twist. The interior is plastered with photos, art and figurines — my favorite is a Steve Urkel doll (queue the "Did I do thaaaaat?").

Though table seating is fairly limited at The Fox, there are plenty of swivel seats at the counter with a view of the open kitchen. Watch as your eggs are scrambled or your bacon is crisped. The entire right side of the restaurant is lined with comfortable booths, but keep in mind that that no one table can seat a party larger than five.

I'm a Southern girl raised on diner-style comfort food, so the corned beef hash with egg (cooked any way you like it), homefries (or grits, or fresh fruit) and biscuit or buttered toast were calling my name. The homemade hash was flavorful and crispy — perfect for sopping up my runny egg yolk. I drizzled honey and a bit of butter on the light and fluffy biscuit that came with the dish.

Another option guaranteed to warrant a late afternoon nap is an order of biscuits and gravy, with a side of fluffy pancakes. The gravy was thick, with plenty of sausage bits throughout.

The menu touts traditional breakfast items, like pancakes, waffles, French toast and an array of omelets, along with an assortment of lunch items including salads, sandwiches and cooked-to-order burgers. The aptly named Pittsburgher comes piled high with French fries and a mound of creamy cole slaw on top. Pair it with your choice of side item for a reasonably priced and filling lunch.

The diner is open daily, but if you're headed to The Fox on a weekend, prepare to wait — parking can be tricky and the line is often out the door. There's free coffee to pacify hungry guests as they wait, so sip some Joe and strike up a conversation with a potential new friend or two.   More

BITE-SIZED

Sometimes a casual lunch calls for fine china, dainty doilies, gold-rimmed teacups and floral-print linens.

Located across the street from historic Sun-Ray Cinema, Cozy Tea's family-owned-and-operated tea room feels like it could be your grandmother's parlor: charming, familiar and cozy.

They serve several varieties of tea sandwiches including shrimp salad, smoked turkey, egg salad, cheese spread and cucumber; I enjoy the curried chicken salad on wheat with golden raisins and almonds and the vegetarian sandwich of cheese spread, organic mixed greens, English seedless cucumber, tomato and carrots. Side items are available for an additional charge.

Other lunch offerings include warm quiches, a savory lentil and vegetable pie, vegetable samosas (an Indian pastry stuffed with spiced potatoes and peas), salads and an assortment of soups — tomato herb, roasted corn with butternut squash, sour cream baked potato and spring vegetable with fresh ginger. A hot cup of soup pairs nicely with a salad or sandwich.

Portions are relatively small yet satisfying and reasonably priced. Everything is made in-house, down to the handmade gourmet truffles. Peruse the case dedicated solely to truffles, scones and dessert offerings like fluffy vanilla cake over a creamy English custard with berry compote, bread pudding with vanilla bean ice cream, carrot cake with caramelized pineapple and white chocolate frosting — and several other drool-worthy choices.

The warm lemon-glazed cookie, with pieces of white chocolate and almonds, drizzled with the most perfectly citrusy lemon sauce, is sure to please. Craving something more? Try sour cream blueberry butter cake studded with blueberries throughout and dusted with powdered sugar.

Scone varieties include blueberry, pineapple lemon, cherry coconut, apricot cream, vanilla sugar and cranberry orange. Heighten your experience by asking for sides of freshly whipped cream and jam.

If you're into tea, study the …   More

BITE-SIZED

The "M" in MShack is for Medure — the last name of brothers Matthew and David, who own high-end restaurants Matthews in San Marco and Medure in Ponte Vedra. In 2011, the siblings opened the fast-casual boutique burger spot in Atlantic Beach; a second MShack will open in St. Johns Town Center by the end of the year.

For minimalists there's the simple but tasty M Burger topped with melted American cheese, crisp lettuce, tomato, pickles and Shack Sauce. At $5.50, it is small but fresh — the Black Angus beef is 100 percent all-natural and ground in-house. For the uber-fancy, the specialty Medurable burger boasts savory foie gras and caramelized onions, carrying a hefty $18.95 price tag.

Even if you're not a burger lover, MShack's menu has an assortment of topped hot dogs, a grilled cheese sandwich (add applewood smoked bacon for an extra dollar), a fish sandwich, a marinated chicken breast sandwich and homemade Italian sausage topped with sautéed onions, peppers, mushrooms and melted provolone cheese.

Craving something healthy and pleasantly filling? Try the ginger-sesame dressed Super Kale Salad chock full of crisp diced apples, creamy cubes of avocado, shreds of carrots, onion, pecans and raisins. A fresh roasted beet salad comes with creamy goat cheese and raisins atop peppery arugula.

From the carb column, the house fries, queso-topped fries, sweet potato tots, truffle parmesean fries and even onion rings beg to be paired with your meaty burger or hot dog.

To complete the experience, a thick hand-spun milkshake is an absolute must. Available in small and large sizes, the pecan pie shake with chopped pecans reminded me of fall in a cup. Go simple — strawberry, vanilla or chocolate — or step it up with funky flavors like bananas foster, marshmallow brulee or peanut butter.

The separate relaxed bar area hosts happy hour 3:30-5:30 p.m. weekdays with $1 Pabst Blue Ribbon beers, $2 drafts or $3 glasses of house wine. …   More

BITE-SIZED

Riverside newcomer Café Freda delivers 
 a diverse menu in a comfortable, casual setting. Prices are reasonable and Chef Brian Freda and Sous Chef Kyle Cobb's "global comfort food" draws inspiration from Asian, Indian and Mediterranean cuisine.

Creative entrées, sandwiches and salads, along with a small (but sufficient) beer and wine selection, make it a good fit for brunch or lunch with friends or a quiet date night.

On a recent lunch visit, I ordered the veggie curry ($9) — chock full of potatoes, carrots, peas and cauliflower simmered in a yellow curry sauce ladled over fluffy basmati rice and topped with toasted almonds, mango chutney and a sprinkle of scallions. Not overly spicy, the crunch of the almonds and the sweetness from the chutney added complexity to the vegetables and rice.

The Asian pork bahn mi ($8) with house pâté, pickled daikon, carrot and cucumber, Sriracha mayo spread and fresh cilantro was tasty but felt inauthentic on a soft roll instead of a traditional crunchy baguette. Since it came with no side item, I ordered the mac 'n' cheese ($3). Next time I'll try green pasta salad or maybe black beans and rice.

For dinner, Café Freda had run out of a few items, so options were somewhat limited. The slow-roasted (in local beer, mind you) Cornish hen ($16) was a solid choice. Accompanied by a slab of moist, savory bread pudding and crisp, fresh green beans, it was quite filling.

Wanting to end on a sweet note, I ordered the fruit crisp ($5), but was tempted by the ginger snap banana pudding. The top layer in the small ramekin was not crisp or crumbly as I'd expected, but hard like a very thick cookie. After forcing my spoon through this crust, I uncovered a few bites of unimpressive chopped cinnamon apples.

Café Freda is open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sunday for brunch. It's easily accessible by foot or bike for locals, but ample parking spots exist in …   More

BITE-SIZED

Step up to The Swedish Bistro Food Truck and fall into Scandinavian culinary nirvana.

Swedish Chef Karen Asmus Herke and her husband, Andre, teamed up with former Taverna Sous Chef Johnny Lee Weeks. The Herkes have worked in restaurants in Sweden, Germany and France, and Karen owned her own eatery, Sorgardens Gastgiveri in Linkoping, Sweden.

"Even though Sweden is recognized as one of the best culinary countries in the world, the most difficult part is getting people to try Swedish food, since it is not very well known in the U.S.," Andre Herke said. "The response has been great so far. We have only been in business for a couple of months, and we have many returning customers, which is a positive sign."

Like many, I'd never experienced Swedish meatballs or gravlax outside of an IKEA store's cafeteria, but once Swedish Bistro arrived, I was ready to sample offerings not available anywhere else in Jacksonville.

The Swedish meatballs ($8) — the truck's best-selling item — are served with a flavorful brown cream sauce, a mound of mashed potatoes, tangy pickled cucumber slices and a dollop of lingonberry jam. The contrast of ingredients makes a highly satisfying dish.

Also popular is the cold salmon wrap ($8): a tortilla stuffed with cold-cured salmon called gravlax, a Swedish honey mustard dill sauce, lettuce, tomatoes and red onion served with a side of potato wedges.

The Viking dog ($7) rolls up a beef hot dog, creamy dill shrimp salad and mashed potatoes in a wrap.

Vegetarians can try the black bean veggie burger ($8) with beet slaw, lettuce, red onion, pickled cucumbers, tomatoes and a side of potato wedges. The truck recently debuted veggie rolls ($8) — a colorful ratatouille of eggplant, squash, tomatoes, onion, garlic and red peppers fried in crisp eggroll-like skins and served with a mint and cumin yogurt dipping sauce. A heap of shredded-cabbage-and-carrot salad is served alongside two rolls.

Swedish chocolate balls …   More

BITE-SIZED

Surrounded by art and culture inside and out, The Café at The Cummer offers a relaxing escape from a busy day — and with the addition of an outdoor deck, dining beneath an oversized oak tree has never been easier.

The Café's menu features fare from several local purveyors, such as bread from The French Pantry, coffee from Bold Bean Coffee Roasters and vegetables from Blue Buddha.

Start with the tomato bisque ($5) with boursin cheese crouton. Also warm and comforting is mac 'n' cheese ($8), a hearty portion of elbow noodles mixed with a creamy blend of cheddar and gouda, then topped with a layer of crispy parmesan panko pieces. (For an additional $1, you can add bacon, caramelized onion or truffle.)

Use your bisque to dunk the Southern grilled cheese ($10) — a stack of thick green tomato slices and rich sheep's milk manchego cheese pressed between slices of buttery French Pantry bread.

Seafood fans will enjoy crab cakes ($10) served atop a sweet corn relish. With hardly any filler, the pair of plump cakes is drizzled with a sweet-and-spicy red pepper remoulade. (Tip: Crab cakes can be added to any salad.)

A chopped kale salad ($8) mixed with slivered Marcona almonds, red onion, golden raisins, diced bacon and goat cheese crumbles makes a colorful, tasty impression tossed in a citrusy housemade lemon-thyme vinaigrette and topped with two oversized pieces of crisp flatbread.

The massive quinoa and black bean chef's garden veggie burger ($9.50) arrives on a soft French Pantry bun, piled with sweet caramelized onions, a juicy slab of tomato, lettuce and roasted red pepper aioli. The combination of quinoa, a fluffy grain high in protein and fiber, and black beans provides a filling meal.

Sandwiches are served with orzo salad, napa cabbage slaw, house salad, chips or fruit.

Dessert options include homemade cookies ($2), a rich molten lava cake ($5) and my personal favorite, rosemary lemon squares ($4).

Perhaps most …   More

BITE-SIZED

In a spot locals mobbed for two decades as the former Sun Dog Diner in the bustling Beaches Town Center now sits a hip, 
beachy taqueria.

Owner Al Mansur, of Al's Pizza area restaurants fame, opened Flying Iguana's doors Oct. 28, after spending more than a $1 million in renovations.

In the kitchen is Chef Josh Agan, a New England Culinary Institute graduate, who concocts an ambitious menu of Latin American-inspired dishes.

Upon being seated, we were quickly supplied with complimentary chips and two homemade salsas; I favored the spicy verde to the milder roja. Shortly after we ordered tableside guacamole ($9) and chips, a cart containing all the requisite ingredients to concoct the creamy avocado goodness was wheeled up.

We tried the sweet corn tamale cakes ($10), topped with smoked salmon, crema and ancho chile sauce, and chorizo-and-potato empanadas ($8). Portions were generous — three tamale cakes and four empanada halves. The sweet, moist tamale cakes proved more flavorful than the somewhat dense empanadas.

With 11 tacos from which to choose, I opted for three: crispy pork belly ($4), Dirty South ($3) and five spice shortribs ($4) with homemade kimchee. The pork belly was flavored with a sweet rum-and-Coke glaze and accompanied by chunks of watermelon, pickled onions and a sprinkle of cotija cheese, while the Dirty South (a thick, creamy pimento cheese sauce, black-eyed peas, fried green tomatoes and arugula) tasted like Southern comfort food wrapped in a flour tortilla.

I enjoyed the flavor and texture combinations of my tacos, even if they were a bit messy, as evidenced by many fallen bits strewn about the table.

The habanero mango glazed swordfish ($22) atop creamy sweet potato purée with fried green tomatoes and garlic spinach was tasty, and large enough for two meals.

For dessert, the sharable stuffed churros ($7) stood out. Crispy and cream-filled, these doughy sticks were generously dusted with cinnamon and sugar, …   More

BITE-SIZED

The large, open kitchen in the back of Moxie Kitchen + Cocktails bustles with activity — and energy. Chef Tom Gray, formerly of San Marco's Bistro Aix, opened this exquisite two-story spot in November with wife and business partner Sarah Marie Johnston.

You can see the thought put into Moxie's details, from rustic tree-stump-like salt and pepper shakers to steampunkesque light fixtures to ice cubes customized to the shapes of individual drink glasses.

The fried cheese curds starter ($7), accompanied by a slightly spicy ranch dip, paired well with pre-meal cocktails.

Moxie's oysters ($3 each) were the freshest I'd ever tasted, and I'm a self-proclaimed oyster fanatic. I ordered two from each coast — they arrived with lemon wedges, a flavorful pink peppercorn apple mignonette sauce and housemade cocktail sauce.

My favorite item of the evening was Dr Pepper-glazed short rib ($20) with buttermilk mashed potatoes and shaved vegetables. The beef was tender and juicy, and the sweet glaze contrasted nicely with the creamy mound 
of potatoes.

The chicken pot pie ($16) topped with fried sage leaves was loaded with chunks of chicken, asparagus, carrots and lima beans. The crust was melt-in-your-mouth good, yet not so flaky it fell apart.

From eight side item offerings ($5 each), the Brussels sprouts tossed in bacon vinaigrette were crisp and flavorful, and the mac 'n' cheese hit the right blend — neither too sharp nor too creamy.

The dessert menu includes whoopie pies (2 for $8), various malted milkshakes ($6) and traditional favorites with a twist, like chocolate mint-infused crème brûlée and pound cake with candied kumquat compote.

The pleasantly sweet apple hand pie ($8) was served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and salted custard with a brûlée top. The peanut butter mousse stack ($8) was ridiculously rich (even sharing, we couldn't finish it), with layers of peanut brittle, peanut butter mousse and silky chocolate accompanied by …   More

BITE-SIZED

Off the beaten path in Mayport Village lies a hidden gem with remarkably fresh seafood, reasonable prices, outdoor seating and speedy, friendly service.

Upon arriving, we found a sprawling counter with fresh fish and seafood galore. Looking to our left, we saw an oversized menu hanging above a smaller counter.

We ordered, then took our number and headed outside to a spacious covered deck overlooking the river. A nice breeze wafted through the air as we sat down to the sounds of Jimmy Buffett and seagulls cheerfully gawking in the near distance. Our lunch arrived minutes later.

I was impressed that, for $5.99, I could get a dozen steamed oysters with cocktail sauce, melted butter and a lemon wedge. After devouring all 12, I dug into my blackened scallop basket ($10.99), overflowing with crisp crinkle-cut French fries, a cup of coleslaw and two hushpuppies. Believe me when I say that these were some of the freshest, most perfectly cooked scallops — my plastic fork cut right through them! — I've eaten in a while. And the slightly sweet hushpuppies had nice crunchy exteriors and warm, moist centers, and were accompanied by a mild Thai chili dipping sauce. The coleslaw deserves praise, too, as it was lightly dressed instead of being slathered in mayo like at some restaurants.

If fries and coleslaw aren't your thing, there are other side items for $2.99, including fried okra and buttermilk ranch, a twice-baked potato, bacon black-eyed peas and green bean medley.

It was my first visit, so I was interested in exploring the menu further. The shrimp po'boy ($10.99) — available with grilled, blackened or fried shrimp — looked tempting. A soft, oversized hoagie roll was stuffed with shredded romaine, juicy tomato slices, rémoulade and freshly breaded shrimp (we ordered it fried). While messy, it was also bursting with flavor.

The shrimp tacos ($10.99) are also winners. Tossed in a datil pepper sauce, the shrimp were bite-sized, and the basket they …   More

 
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