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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

BITE-SIZED

I think of Three f(x) as a grownup's dessert wonderland — a kid-like setting with bright décor and Asian pop music. The ice cream, made to order on a cold circular slab, is whipped up right before your eyes — talk about fresh.

Three f(x) stands for Fresh Fun Fruit treats, or three "effects." I enjoy all three. Offerings include homemade ice cream, Asian-style fish-shaped waffles called taiyaki and an assortment of hot and cold coffee beverages. Everything is made-to-order. The unique ice cream flavors include red bean, coconut, espresso, green tea, blackberry and kiwi. The smooth, refreshing green tea is one of my favorites.

Two mix-ins are included in the price of your ice cream. I'm a mochi pieces and white chocolate chips type of girl, but you can choose sprinkles, gummy bears, Oreos, fruit toppings and more.

On my most recent visit, I ordered a small (I'd hate to see a large!): three generous scoops in a freshly made waffle bowl. You won't find any preservatives, powdered artificial flavors or chemicals; the owners take pride in offering natural ingredients and fresh fruit. (Watermelon ice cream didn't work out; the actual watermelon wasn't ice-creamable and they refused to use artificial watermelon flavoring.) The friendly young man who whipped up my honeydew ice cream showed me the chunks of just-cut honeydew before he began working his magic. I chose whole milk, but you can also opt for nonfat milk, lactose-free almond or soy, or yogurt. If you're with a group, share the elaborate patbingsu, a popular Korean dessert made from shaved ice, topped with an assortment of goodies.

The warm taiyaki waffles are often stuffed with sweet fillings, but there are other savory choices like ham, bacon, egg and cheese, or beef frank and string cheese. My filling of choice is Nutella … what's better than a piping- hot waffle, crispy around the edges but chewy in the center, in the shape of a fish, with a creamy hazelnut spread inside? …   More

BITE-SIZED

After three years as a civil engineer, Grace Kernan found office life to be mundane — except when someone was celebrating a birthday. She eagerly baked everyone's cakes, tailoring the theme and flavor of the cake to the lucky birthday boy or girl.

Fast-forward to 2013: Kernan is now following her passion, recently opening Liberty Bakery in an old Skinner's Dairy Store at the corner of Bowden and Parental Home roads. She keeps busy five days a week whipping up everything from scratch: bread, cupcakes, cookies, cakes and pastries (get the croissant-like, flaky sticky buns with cinnamon and sugar). Every carb, even the English muffins and biscuits, is prepared fresh from scratch.

"Making food for someone really is a nice way to share how much you care about their well-being — even strangers!" Kernan said.

Strangers-turned-regulars scarf up warm cinnamon rolls, vanilla bean scones, seasonal berry streusel muffins and savory breakfast sandwiches (the bacon, egg and cheese on sour cream biscuit is my kind of morning starter!).

Six sandwiches are available at lunchtime and tout witty names like Abra-Ham Lincoln, Red, White & BBQ, Johnny Apple-Cheese, We the Pesto, and Two If by Brie. We the Pesto won over my tastebuds — homemade bread toasted and topped with shaved chicken, pesto aioli, vine-ripened tomatoes and a tangy balsamic glaze. In addition to these patriotic choices, there are salads and soups. Favorites include French onion, sherried tomato and creamy tortilla.

Kernan's father was in the Navy, so patriotism has always been important to her family. And while she can't pinpoint when her love affair for baking began, she quickly recalls her first specialty cake. It was in the shape of a rock, and Kernan iced the words "Mom Rocks!" on it for Mother's Day about nine years ago. And the rest is history.

As for sweets, there are abundant offerings. Cake is available by the slice (the fluffy carrot cake will change your life), and …   More

BITE-SIZED

Bagel Love has proved to be a popular go-to for carb-lovers. Seven days a week, the crew rises early to prepare breakfast and lunch items.

Early in the day, there are upwards of 20 varieties of bagels in both savory and sweet options like whole-grain everything, asiago, jalapeno, sun-dried tomato, poppy, salt, cinnamon crunch, blueberry and sesame. Dense and chewy, the bagels are best enjoyed fresh. Popular flavors sell out quickly, especially on the weekend.

No matter which of the 12 cream cheese flavors you pick, Bagel Love slathers it on generously. Personal favorites include the slightly spicy jalapeño, horseradish bacon and garden veggie, which is loaded with chopped vegetables.

Not into cream cheese? The bagel sandwiches are piled high. I'm full until mid-afternoon after downing a Cali Love (bagel or bread, choice of cream cheese, egg, avocado, tomato and sprouts) for breakfast. And the Spinshroomagus (say that five times fast), complete with egg, spinach, mushroom, asparagus and melted Swiss on a bagel, bread or wrap, is a tasty, veggie-packed way to start your day. There's even a pizza bagel, which I think is an acceptable way to sneak pizza into your morning routine. Or you can concoct your own sandwich.

While I'm not usually a sweets-for-breakfast type, the fluffy baked muffins in mouthwatering flavors like blueberry with 
a sugar-crumb topping, strawberry cheesecake, banana and chocolate chip, tempt me every visit.

If you enjoy iced coffee, the ice cubes here are made from coffee, so no watered-down java drinks. Also tasty is the dessert-like java chip blended iced coffee beverage, flecked with chocolate chips. There's fresh-squeezed orange juice and lemonade, too.

Bagel Love offers creative specials, like a red velvet bagel with honey vanilla cream cheese, fried bologna sandwich with lettuce and tomato, wedges of calamondin cake and an Asian ginger chicken wrap. Also gracing the menu daily (for those carb-conscious diners) are …   More

BITE-SIZED

Next time you're considering international standbys for Chinese or Japanese, try branching out to Korean fare. With some subtle similarities to those other Asian cuisines, Korean food has its own flavor profiles. Go as a group, so everyone can pick an appetizer or entrée to share.

For an appetizer, start with haemul pajeon, a savory seafood pancake served with a tangy and spicy soy dipping sauce. Packed with scallions and an array of seafood — octopus, squid, shrimp, oysters and clams — folded into the batter, the slightly spongy haemul pajeon is lighter than an omelet but denser than a traditional American pancake. Savory, slightly sweet and salty combine for one flavorful dish.

Korean cuisine centers around the trifecta of rice, vegetables and meat. However, the rice and a wide range of vegetables take center stage. Veggies are often uncooked, in salads or pickled, or incorporated into soups, stews and stir-fried dishes.

Meals are served with a slew of side dishes called banchan, which arrive in small bowls intended for sharing and can be refilled upon request. Ingredients vary depending on the availability and seasonality of produce: pickled vegetables, cubed radishes, green onion salad, mung bean sprouts and mung bean jelly. Items may be raw, boiled, fried, sautéed, fermented, dried or steamed. The number of side dishes presented is based on the number of table guests and the importance of the occasion. For a casual table of four, roughly six items are served.

The traditional side dish kimchi — fermented cabbage mixed with Korean radish, and sometimes cucumber, along with ginger, scallions, garlic and chili pepper — mixes spicy, sweet, salty and sour sensations.

Originating almost 4,000 years ago in ancient Korea, kimchi is served in both Korea and Japan. Recipes vary by region and by seasonality of ingredients.

Originally, making kimchi was a community event, drawing families together for several days to …   More

BITE-SIZED

Northeast Florida is home to quite a few authentic Indian restaurants, so there's no shortage of places you can try.

Indian cuisine varies regionally due to a reliance on locally available spices, herbs, meat, vegetables and fruits.

In early India, the typical diet rarely included meat, instead relying heavily upon fruit, vegetables, grains, eggs, dairy and honey. Consumption of beef was taboo, as cows are considered sacred in Hinduism. Even today, beef is rare within Indian cuisine. However, chicken, followed by mutton (goat), sheep and buffalo, are frequently part of area menus. Common vegetables include cabbage, cauliflower, potato, tomato, onion, bell peppers and eggplant.

Traditional Indian flavors combine a variety of ingredients, including powdered chili pepper, black mustard seed, cardamom, cumin, turmeric, ginger, tamarind, curry leaves, bay leaves, coriander, garlic and cloves. In sweeter dishes, cardamom, saffron, nutmeg and rose petal essences are used.

Dipping sauces, called chutneys, are present at almost every Indian meal and can be spicy, sweet or sour. The dominant flavor or ingredient gives the chutney its name — coconut, tamarind, mint, coriander, peanut, cumin, tomato or ginger.

Some dishes are cooked at high temperatures in an earthenware oven called a tandoor. These include tandoori chicken, which is marinated in yogurt that's been seasoned with garam masala, garlic, cumin, cayenne pepper and ginger. Another dish, called chicken tikka, is made from small pieces of boneless chicken marinated in yogurt and spices and then grilled on skewers in a tandoor. It is then typically served with green coriander chutney.

In some regions, samosas, a popular triangular-shaped snack stuffed with spiced potatoes, peas, onions, coriander and lentils, or ground lamb or chicken, are cooked in a tandoor. In other regions, they're fried.

Just like American cuisine, menus in Northern India are quite different from the food served in …   More

BITE-SIZED

Forks. Knives. Spoons. You won't find any of these familiar items at an Ethiopian restaurant. Unlike at most dining experiences, you're encouraged to eat with your fingers. And take note: It's culturally preferred to use your right hand for eating, as the left hand is traditionally considered the appendage used for cleaning the body.

Food at an Ethiopian restaurant arrives tableside on a large family-style platter with an oversized spongy, thin, crepe-like flatbread called injera. Made with flour from a gluten-free grain called teff that's native to Northeastern Africa, injera has a slightly tangy flavor reminiscent of sourdough bread. A basketful of injera may also accompany the meal. Unroll it, rip off a piece, and use it to pinch up a scoop of food from the shared platter. Injera's porous surface is perfect for soaking up the stews and mixed vegetables.

You may notice while dining that Ethiopian cuisine closely resembles Indian cuisine. Both cultures expect food to be eaten with your fingers (Ethiopian's injera and Indian's naan), with items presented on a shared plate. Both cultures use clarified butter for cooking (niter kibbeh and ghee), which lends a complexity to dishes that regular butter or oil can't. The similarities are also apparent in spice blends — Ethiopia's berbere is much like India's garam masala. And alicha, a mild Ethiopian split pea curry with ginger, garlic and onions, bears a resemblance to some Indian curries. But the two cuisines reflect their distinct cultural heritages.

Berbere is common in many dishes. A ground powder combining chili peppers, garlic, ginger, basil, koramina and fenugreek, it has a noticeably reddish-orange hue and is mildly spicy with a hint of smokiness. Several Ethiopian stew-like sauces known as "wots" or "wats" gain their flavor from this ground powder.

Doro wat, a thick spicy chicken stew, is one of the most common foods in Ethiopia. Chicken legs are simmered in kibae, a blend of niter kibbeh, …   More

BITE-SIZED

Just minutes from Downtown, San Marco's Green Erth Bistro is a family-owned Persian restaurant that also provides healthful vegan and vegetarian-friendly options.

When you walk inside, you see the large community table that invites strangers to sit together. There are also several four-top tables along the perimeter, creating a cozy atmosphere as natural light streams in from the front windows.

A menu board touts daily specials. Our waitress brought us out a sample of the soup of the day — vegetarian barley ash, a thick bean, barley and herb soup-like stew — and the next thing we knew, we were staring at the bottom of the cups we ordered. It was warm and hearty, with parsley, cilantro, garlic and mint providing a lot of flavor.

We also ordered the herb tray, which featured a generous heap of fresh herbs including parsley, mint, dill and basil, a block of crumbly feta, onion and wedges of lavash bread. Drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, this was a refreshing treat.

On a recent lunch visit, I enjoyed the curry chicken salad. Chunks of white meat are tossed with a whipped mayo-less curry sauce, grapes, shallots and chives, then topped with chopped pecans. The concoction is served atop a mix of organic greens, bright red juicy tomato slices, crisp cucumbers and red onions.

Another hit was the assortment of flatbread pizzas, which were large enough for two meals. The California was topped with mozzarella, goat cheese, pressed garlic, fresh basil, balsamic glaze and sun-dried tomatoes (we subbed roasted red peppers). The crust is thin and crispy at the edges. Order a half-sized salad — I recommend the Green Erth Apple Salad with housemade sherry vinaigrette, chopped walnuts, cranberries, green onions and slices of crisp green apple — if you want to pair your pizza with something green.

You can choose from a number of kabobs, combination kabobs and skewers (along with sandwiches, wraps, salads, soups, chilis and …   More

BITE-SIZED

There's a quirky two-story bookstore nestled on Laura Street, and it's a bookworm's dream come true — and the food, drinks and atmosphere in the café are so enjoyable, you may never want to leave.

Walking by the store's outer façade, you might think it houses only piles of new and used books. Once you enter, you'll discover the café: exposed brick walls, lots of windows, free Wi-Fi, coffee and treats.

Everything on the menu is less than $10. There are wraps, salads, bagel sandwiches, homemade soups and breakfast items. While I haven't hit up Chamblin's for breakfast yet, it's quickly become one of my go-to spots for healthful weekday lunches.

With several piping-hot coffees (there are lattes and the like, too) to choose from, ask for a refillable mug if you plan to stay awhile, or you can opt for a cup to go. With almond milk, even vegans can get their caffeine fix.

A chalkboard out front advertises daily specials, which usually include a soup or two of the day. The folks behind the counter will probably offer you a sample if you can't decide. When's the last time you had spicy African peanut soup?

I go for one of several wraps. The jerk tempeh provides a bit of heat with a lot of flavor and can be ordered as a salad or wrap. And the Veggie No. 1 (how straightforward is that?) wrap is simple yet filling — a large tomato basil wrap stuffed with cucumbers, tomatoes, crisp chopped red pepper, sprouts, spring mix, creamy hummus, crunchy pumpkin seeds, almond slivers and vinaigrette dressing.

As for sandwiches, it's a toss-up: turkey croissant with brie and homemade cranberry chutney, which is pleasantly reminiscent of Thanksgiving but light enough for lunch, and the Bang Bang Bagel with melted cheddar cheese, garlicky house vinaigrette, red peppers, onions, roma tomatoes, cucumbers, sprouts and spring mix on a toasted, locally made bagel.

The iced Italian sodas are a must. Create your own flavor combo from a wide …   More

 
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