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BITE-SIZED

Named for Vernon Kelly, a real estate developer who helped design the TPC Sawgrass golf course, Vernon’s offers an impressive menu and friendly service in a relaxed, sophisticated atmosphere perfect for commemorating a special occasion or just grabbing appetizers and a glass of wine.

On the way to our table, we walked by an enticing display of fresh fish and lobster. Our Vernon’s dining experience began with a trip to the complementary self-serve chowder bar. Grab a three-compartment (genius!) bowl and ladle at your leisure. I loaded up with spicy Minorcan, a delightful crawfish-and-lobster bisque, and gator tail gumbo, which I topped with crunchy homemade oyster crackers. Each was a comfy, innovative way to start our meal.

From the raw bar, I ordered a half-dozen raw Blue Point oysters ($13, or $6.50 from 5-7 p.m.). These plump beauties went down easy, accompanied by a tangy champagne mignonette and juicy lemon wedges.

All of the appetizers were tempting, but the lobster strudel ($15), with boursin, lemon butter, chervil and truffles, stood out. With chunks of fresh lobster meat and a buttery, flaky crust, it wasn’t too rich or filling. There are no words to describe just how amazing it was; go experience it for yourself.

Craving something fresh and green, we noted four salad choices on the menu. Our waiter recommended Vernon’s Salad ($9); great choice. It was a nice portion of Bibb lettuce topped with candied pecans, heirloom tomatoes, Asher blue cheese and dried cherries, tossed in a flavorful roasted shallot vinaigrette and topped with a tangle of shoestring carrots.

There’s an extensive selection of fresh fish and several steaks (filet mignon, T-bone, New York strip, rib eye) from which to choose; we opted for two fresh catches: snapper with mashed potatoes (market price) and the signature pan-seared salmon ($28), atop fingerling potatoes and julienned sautéed squash with blueberry gastrique. I’d …   More

BITE-SIZED

Named for Vernon Kelly, a real estate 
 developer who helped design the TPC 
 Sawgrass golf course, Vernon's offers an impressive menu and friendly service in a relaxed, sophisticated atmosphere perfect for commemorating a special occasion or just grabbing appetizers and a glass of wine.

On the way to our table, we walked by an enticing display of fresh fish and lobster. Our Vernon's dining experience began with a trip to the complementary self-serve chowder bar. Grab a three-compartment (genius!) bowl and ladle at your leisure. I loaded up with spicy Minorcan, a delightful crawfish-and-lobster bisque, and gator tail gumbo, which I topped with crunchy homemade oyster crackers. Each was a comfy, innovative way to start our meal.

From the raw bar, I ordered a half-dozen raw Blue Point oysters ($13, or $6.50 from 5-7 p.m.). These plump beauties went down easy, accompanied by a tangy champagne mignonette and juicy lemon wedges.

All of the appetizers were tempting, but the lobster strudel ($15), with boursin, lemon butter, chervil and truffles, stood out. With chunks of fresh lobster meat and a buttery, flaky crust, it wasn't too rich or filling. There are no words to describe just how amazing it was; go experience it for yourself.

Craving something fresh and green, we noted four salad choices on the menu. Our waiter recommended Vernon's Salad ($9); great choice. It was a nice portion of Bibb lettuce topped with candied pecans, heirloom tomatoes, Asher blue cheese and dried cherries, tossed in a flavorful roasted shallot vinaigrette and topped with a tangle of shoestring carrots.

There's an extensive selection of fresh fish and several steaks (filet mignon, T-bone, New York strip, rib eye) from which to choose; we opted for two fresh catches: snapper with mashed potatoes (market price) and the signature pan-seared salmon ($28), atop fingerling potatoes and julienned sautéed squash with blueberry gastrique. I'd never thought about marrying blueberries …   More

BITE-SIZED

For the 15 years I've lived in Jacksonville and eaten my way across town, I've somehow missed El Ranchito, which I learned has been here since 2000.

Perhaps that's because it's not easy to spot, given its tucked-away location in a plaza at the intersection at Beach and San Pablo. Nonetheless, it's well worth stopping there.

The menu is sectioned into three cuisines: traditional Colombian, Cuban and Mexican.

With rumbling stomachs, we started with café con leche ($2.50) and the empanadas Columbiana (six for $4.99), corn pockets filled with a mix of ground beef and spices and served with a light but flavorful, finely minced salsa. Bypassing other favorites like assorted arepas, shrimp ceviche with tostones and fried yucca with mojo sauce, we instead went with the sopa del dia, which on Sundays is sancocho de gallina ($10 with white rice, plantains and salad), a traditional Columbian chicken-and-vegetable soup that I'd never seen around this area. It was a tasty medley of chicken broth, corn, green plantains, potatoes and cilantro.

We shared the Columbian bandeja paisa ($13.99) — an almost-unwieldy platter loaded with flank sirloin steak, a plump pork sausage, crispy pork belly, egg, sweet plantains, corn cake, avocado, rice (yellow or white) and beans (black or red). It was great for sharing, and gave us a little taste of a lot of items.

We were eager to also try some of the many Cuban offerings on the menu, but we were torn between the picadillo and the ropa vieja, so we flipped a coin. The vieja won — and it turned out to be a winner, with shredded flank steak, a peppery sauce, garlic, onion, tomatoes and bell peppers, and a side of vibrant yellow rice.

I can't wait to return for happy hour ($1.80 domestic beers, $2.25 imports) and try all the items I was too full to order on my inaugural visit — the Cuban sandwich, lechon asado, traditional Cuban empanadas, tres leches, and perhaps something (or everything) from the …   More

BITE-SIZED

In the heart of scenic Avondale lies a middle-of-the-road eatery that offers modern American fare, a place that has a familiar bit of everything and appeals to the masses, but in the process sometimes compromises 
on quality.

Salad aficionados will be thrilled: There are more than a dozen leafy creations on the menu. On a recent visit, I tried seared ahi tuna salad ($16) over mixed greens with alternating thick slices of ripe avocado and colorful mango. It was light yet satisfying. My favorite is the kale salad — but instead of the maple-glazed salmon ($15) it accompanies, I substituted the house-made veggie burger (sans melted provolone) and added artichoke hearts. The finely chopped kale is tossed with a tangy blend of olive oil, lemon juice and parmesan, then decorated with pine nuts. The pink-hued veggie patty is a hearty concoction of hearty brown rice, black beans, milled flax seed, quinoa, barley, beets and mushrooms. There are even charred grill marks on it, so don't knock it 'til you've tried it.

Sandwiches abound, and there's something for all palates: burgers, lump crab cake, barbecue pulled pork, mahi mahi. The bacon burger ($12) was OK for lunch — not massive, but not dainty, either — and topped with melted cheddar, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion and crispy strips of crisscrossed bacon. Sides include a chilled couscous salad, cole slaw, fries, sweet potato fries (yes!), kale salad, loaded baked potato or the featured side of the day.

The corn-crusted tilapia fish tacos ($10) with a chipotle tartar sauce, soy ginger and shredded napa cabbage, weren't memorable. Skip these and get a sandwich.

Entrées, served with the same selection of side items, truly run the gamut — grilled salmon, shrimp and grits, sea scallops, rack of lamb (go big or go home?), filet mignon and a 16-ounce roasted prime rib. Most will reward you with leftovers.

In addition to a lengthy wine list, Brick offers a handful of desserts, along with cappuccino and …   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

A former Subway 
sandwich shop turned
 short-lived crêperie has
recently re-emerged as an inviting family-owned-and-operated bakery and bistro.

While still evolving, Corrado's Bakery 'n Bistro's menu is straightforward; a signboard in front of the restaurant entices passersby with daily specials. Inside, it's casual, comfortable, clean and well-designed.

My order of Pat's gourmet chicken salad ($8.95) arrived on a bed of arugula and crisp romaine; juicy white meat pieces were tossed with a light mayonnaise-type dressing and an assortment of diced grapes, crunchy apple pieces and colorful crisp bell peppers. A cluster of red grapes, a cantaloupe wedge, strawberries and simple slice of bread and butter accompanied the salad.

Drawn to the summer salad ($8.95; $2 more to add meat) by the combination of salty, sweet, crunchy and tangy, I began by swapping the raspberry vinaigrette dressing for balsamic, which was tangy and thin, perfect for this salad of greens topped with feta cubes, slices of strawberries, pears, cucumbers and a generous sprinkling of walnuts.

The ham, bacon and broccoli quiche ($8.95) served with a muffin and side of fruit was also a contender. Speaking of sides, the homemade broccoli salad, with bacon, golden raisins, red onion slivers and a sweet dressing, was delicious.

Offerings from the dessert case change daily; the Key lime coconut squares, chocolate raspberry brownie bites and freshly baked peach cobbler should get you started. With self-control not on the menu, I picked three: a frosted brownie, Oreo pudding cupcake and a red velvet mini-cupcake because — let's face it — lunch is better with dessert. The brownie won me over; it's magically soft in the center and slightly crispy around the edges with a not-too-sweet chocolaty frosting on top.

Currently serving lunch Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Corrado's plans to open for dinner service and in the near future, add espresso, cappuccino and latte …   More

BITE-SIZED

I don't get out to Mandarin often, but a recent 
 find, Thai Cuisine & Noodle House, in a strip 
 mall set off the road, gives me reason to return.

We began with a few appetizers. The dumpling-like pan-fried chicken and vegetable pot stickers ($5.95) were adequate, but the standout starter was skewered chicken satay ($6.95 for 4) served with a creamy peanut dipping sauce and a fiery-red sweet Thai chili sauce. Each bite of chicken was delightfully moist, and the marinade made it both tender and flavorful.

Despite the steadily climbing mercury outside, it felt like a soup night, so I secured a cup of Thai-style hot-and-sour tom-yum soup ($2.95), and added seafood for $1.30, a savvy move, I thought. The broth had just the right amount of spice, and the fragrant herbs — lemongrass and cilantro — really boosted the flavor (as did the scallions and lime juice).

From the noodles and rice section, I landed on the pad kee mao with shrimp ($12.95), which translates to "drunken noodles." Items from these sections are available with vegetables, tofu, chicken, pork, beef, krab meat, shrimp or calamari. There were ample shrimp tossed among the vegetable pieces and an abundance of thin, flat noodles. Easy enough for leftovers or sharing, these noodle dishes are massive. Next time, I'm trying the pad Thai with tofu.

Of the many chef's specials, we sampled jungle steak ($12.95) with rice. Unsure of what to expect, we were pleased with the marinated and grilled pieces of bite-sized steak that mingled with sautéed onions, scallions and chili peppers.

Prices are reasonable, and the menu has lots of options, from Thai curries with steamed jasmine rice to a crispy fried whole fish.

When we ate dinner, there was only one other patron seated in a booth behind us, and the owner, who was busy fielding take-out orders. It was eerily quiet — no music playing, just the occasional clink and clack of pans from neighboring Papa John's. It made for a slightly awkward …   More

BITE-SIZED

In a former McAlister's Deli in bustling Tinseltown sits a spacious pho-friendly 
Vietnamese restaurant. The menu may be a 
bit overwhelming, so ask for recommendations if you're feeling adventurous — or stick to a standard broth-based pho soup that's loaded with noodles.

We bypassed the standard starters — edamame, dumplings and spring rolls — and went big. The thin pancake special (also known as banh uot dat biet) with minced shrimp, charbroiled pork and Vietnamese ham ($9.25) called our names. Our waitress warned us it wouldn't be like an "American pancake," and it certainly wasn't. The 
dish arrived unassembled, reminiscent of lettuce 
wraps — an interesting assortment of squishy, 
translucent "pancakes," pickled julienned 
vegetables, bean sprouts, scallions, shredded 
lettuce and the aforementioned meats, all 
accompanied by a thin, tangy fish dipping sauce. It was a fun start to the meal, and good for sharing.

With such a large menu, it can be difficult to narrow your choices. At nearby Bowl of Pho (my personal gold standard for local pho), I love the wonton egg noodle soup with pork, so I ordered the same ($8) at Pho Today. When my colorful oversized bowl arrived, there were noticeably more pork pieces in it than at Bowl of Pho, but after a few generous slurps, it was apparent the broth was lacking — more salt, perhaps? Otherwise, it had plenty of thin noodles, baby bok choy and plump pork-filled wontons.

From the house specialties, we selected Vietnamese shaking beef ($12.95), served with a mound of rice, slices of cucumber and tomatoes, and a cup of soup. The pieces of tender beef were cut into small pieces and cooked in a sauce rich in flavor, then shaken in a wok with cooked onions and garlic. Order this.

By the time our waitress informed us that they'd run out of their two Asian desserts — a three- and five-flavored bean dessert — we were already full. I'd usually go for an iced taro boba drink, but I was …   More

BITE-SIZED

The New York Times may have declared the camel rider as Jacksonville’s primary contribution to the dining world; however, another curious culinary invention was created here, too, equally deserving of your attention. Let me regale you with a story of my recent visit to the forgotten enclave of Lubi’s.

The Southside location (11633 Beach Blvd.) is a well-preserved time capsule maintained so that one can study the sort of mad gastronomic science once practiced in Jacksonville’s commercial kitchens. The menu boasts six versions of a hot sub aptly called The Lubi. The base is made up of browned ground sirloin, American cheese, onions and your choice of mayo, mustard, and hot or sweet peppers. The bread is a mix between a giant hot dog bun and hoagie roll. Variants include the Mozzarella Lubi (with sour cream, mozzarella cheese and marinara), Mean Machine (with lettuce, tomato, mozzarella cheese and Italian dressing) and Stroganoff Lubi (with sour cream, mushrooms, gravy and mozzarella cheese).

I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of tequila-filled night inspired someone to bake an oversized hot dog bun, stuff it full of condiments, onions and ground beef, and top it with a Hamburger Helper-inspired stroganoff. My invitation to that party must have gotten lost in the mail, sadly.

I decided to dip my toe in the water by ordering the comparatively tame Our Famous Lubi (topped with Kraft American cheese) with mayo, mustard and hot peppers. My Lubi artist began to construct this meaty delight on a sheet of aluminum foil, and suddenly things became quite interesting when she whisked my meal toward a microwave in order to “steam the bun.” Is she really going to put that aluminum foil-wrapped meat dog in the microwave? Oh my God, she’s going to burn this place to the ground!

Is this how it ends? Everything I thought I knew about modern science flew out the window as 30 mesmerizing seconds ticked by without that microwave (and the surrounding kitchen) …   More

BITE-SIZED

Behind an unassuming little Murray Hill
 storefront emblazoned with "Bread" and 
 "Community Loaves" are two passionate 20-somethings crafting upward of 500 loaves of organic, hearth-baked bread each week.

In 2011, Sarah Bogdanovitch founded Community Loaves as a bread-delivery-via-bicycle service. Two years ago, she connected with fellow bread enthusiast Meredith Corey-Disch. Just two months ago, the duo opened the Community Loaves storefront.

How is the bread they bake different? First, it's organic. Second, it's sourdough, created using a process unlike that used for most other breads. No commercial yeast is used; instead, it's produced through a long fermentation of dough (hence the slightly sour taste, and the name). Sourdough stays fresher longer, retains more nutrients and has a lower glycemic index. Each day, six or so varieties are available at Community Loaves — whole wheat, country white, baguettes, rosemary and garlic, among others.

In addition to the no-frills loaves (ranging from $5-$6), there are assorted muffins, pastries and cookies, as well as various teas and Sweetwater (out of Gainesville) French press and pour-over coffee. I sipped the nettle peppermint rose hip-fermented iced tea ($2.50), which was summery and refreshing. The banana bread almond muffin ($3.20) was a winner, too. On my most recent visit, I noticed a sign for salted dark chocolate rye cookies ($1.75), but I was too late — they'd sold out already.

Once a month, Community Loaves hosts a pizza night in the garden behind the storefront. It's BYOB, and there's live music. The best part, of course, is the hearth-baked sourdough pizza crust, topped with Wainwright Dairy cheese and whatever fresh vegetables arrive from local KYV Farm and Down to Earth Farm.

Outside the Murray Hill location (which offers casual seating for about 10), Community Loaves' breads can be found all over town. Ever notice the delicious bread served at Black Sheep in 5 Points? That's …   More

 
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