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BITE-SIZED

For the past eight years, every Friday from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., historic St. Johns Episcopal Cathedral's Taliaferro Hall has been transformed into a busy lunch venue. The twist: The meal is orchestrated by students from the Clara White Mission's culinary training program.

Given the Mission's decades-old track record for helping serve the poor and homeless in Jacksonville, I was thrilled to learn that more than 700 aspiring students have graduated from the program – which teaches lessons from food preparation to commercial cooking to menu development and catering, over the course of 20 weeks.

These talented students prepare and serve a Southern-style buffet lunch. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that the menu changes weekly and is posted on the mission's website each Wednesday. The previous week's offerings included baked vegetable spaghetti, brown-sugar-glazed baked ham, Southern fried chicken, creamed skillet corn, collard greens and sweet potato soufflé – yum!

The cost for the buffet lunch was $10, collected on our way in the door (parties of six or more can make a reservation, but fewer than that and you may be seated with others – which only adds to the experience). After being seated, we were greeted by a student with a warm smile offering us our choice of sweetened, unsweetened or tropical iced tea, or coffee. We then headed to the selections on the self-service buffet.

First was a salad bar with chopped fresh spring mix, diced hardboiled eggs, peppers, bacon bits, crumbled blue cheese, grated carrots, cucumber, tomatoes and beyond.

Our two soup choices were ham-and-split-pea or Italian minestrone. I went with a cup of the minestrone and enjoyed an abundance of kidney beans, pasta and chopped vegetables.

And now we beheld the feast. Bypassing the rice pilaf and rolls, I went straight for the fried Cajun turkey (a winner!), meatloaf (moist and flavorful), grilled-cheese-and-tomato sandwich, boiled red potatoes, sautéed cabbage …   More

BITE-SIZED

Ever-curious, I've yearned to try the chef's tasting menu at five-diamond Salt for years. Recently, my wish became a reality when my handsome fiancée and I got all dressed up, made a reservation and eagerly awaited our culinary fine-dining future.

As we serenely waltzed through the entrance, we took in a colorful display of salts from around the world. The restaurant has large windows, but the sun had already set by dinner time. The interior was dimly lit, and buzzed with diners' chatter.

The four-course chef's "adventure" menu ($225 per person, or $325 paired with wine) as The Ritz-Carlton calls it, offered four brilliantly presented surprises. The server began by asking if there was anything we detested (I answered "maraschino cherries," because I couldn't think of any ingredient I truly hate). The accommodating server shared that useful information to the chef. And then we sat back and let the magic unfold.

After an amuse bouche (a one-bite hors d'oeuvre) medley of tomato gel, rocchetta cheese, pinenut and balsamic topped with micro-arugula, our first course arrived. It was a beautifully plated tuna tartar with pineapple espuma (an airy mousse-like foam), quail egg puffed rice, purple radish, baby romanesco, fennel and a sprinkle of micro-cilantro. I wouldn't have thought to pair tuna and pineapple but it worked – the chefs are geniuses!

We noshed on warm breads with soft butter, and a compartmentalized serving dish of various salts, each one carefully explained.

The second course was solid: cobia with a black garlic mushroom stuffed ravioli, shiitake mushrooms, clams, and rainbow Swiss chard atop sunchoke purée. Delightfully complex, the fish was flaky and paired perfectly with the savory ravioli.

Up next were the most flavorful, tender veal cheeks atop a tower of bean cassoulet, with a swirl of vibrantly colored carrot ginger purée, spiced walnuts and cranberry jam. I adored this dish; it featured several …   More

BITE-SIZED

For more than 30 years now, The Loop Pizza Grill has been a regional mainstay for burgers, fries and milkshakes. The original location debuted in 1981, and now the franchise touts nine Northeast Florida locations. The St. Johns Town Center restaurant (near Total Wine & More), however, exhibits a newer concept. While still fast-casual, it's more modern, trendy and art-focused.

It maintains the same process as its predecessors: You order and pay, take a buzzer, fill your drink cup and grab a table or booth. On this trip, we were ravenous, so we ordered some bleu cheese chips ($3.99) to hold off the screamin' hungries. The chips were thick-cut and topped with ample melted cheesiness. The pile disappeared quickly.

We also ordered a Great American Cheeseburger with fries ($7.89). Burgers here have a thin, pink center, which makes for a juicy hunk of meat. The sesame-seed bun was a bit on the dry side, but the moisture from the lettuce, tomato, onion and mayo helped make up for what it lacked. The fries left something to be desired.

No Meat March! The Loop's got a veggie melt on ciabatta bread ($8.49) and a portabella mushroom melt ($8.99) complete with creamy garlic mayo, melted jack cheese and a smattering of grilled onions. Who needs a pink center?

Our eight-inch buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil pizza (8.49) was surprisingly good. It was easy to share, but I can picture getting it for a satisfying solo lunch option. Whether you build your own or choose from the dozen offerings (some pesto-based, others with a traditional red sauce), a 12-inch size is also available.

There's beer (some local – hooray!) and wine, and a whole line of Coca-Cola products.

Yes, there are hand-dipped shakes and malts, too, but who can resist an old-fashioned root beer float – dubbed the Brown Cow ($4.25)?

Now, about that new look: Founder Terry Schneider partnered with daughter Hillary Tuttle, who owns Stellers Gallery Ponte Vedra, to create a place reflecting …   More

BITE-SIZED

No, it's not a food truck. Yes, Garden Truck is vegan (happy No Meat March!), on the Northside (only 15 minutes from Downtown), and worth the trek when you're looking for something healthful, local and fresh.

Order and pay at the counter, then seat (and treat) yourself. The space, in a small strip mall in the middle of seemingly nowhere somewhere off the East Beltway, is extra-inviting: strings of globe lights shine on the brightly painted walls, vibrant fresh-cut flowers adorn the wooden tables and an oversized chalkboard tells you what's available.

To quench your thirst, choose from a dozen smoothies ($6.95) and juices ($5.95) to try. I found My Daily Fruit juice, a coral-colored concoction with apple, pineapple, kiwi, orange and strawberry — delightfully refreshing. Coffee and tea are also available.

The majority of items on the menu are sandwiches, paninis and salads, and there are daily soups and specials. Recent favorites include rigatoni with "sausage," red peppers and mushrooms in a light white wine sauce, roasted squash curry bisque, coconut milk crème brûlée and a "crab" cake panini.

I started with the Caesar ($5.95) — hearts of romaine, chopped artichoke hearts, roasted sweet red peppers and avocado in a light Dijon mustard dressing. Pro tip: Ask for the housemade croutons on top. They're magically crunchy and seasoned.

My two to-go sandwiches (all sandwiches are $6.95 and include one side) are smoked tempeh (a high-protein meat substitute made from fermented soy beans), lettuce, tomato and veganaise (an eggless mayo spread) and smoky sea salt, and the roasted vegetable and artichoke panini with spicy aioli and roasted garlic spread. The bread is freshly baked, and I picked multigrain for both sandwiches.

And don't knock the "sausage and peppers" sandwich until you try it. It's created with caramelized onions, green and red peppers, and a spicy mustard sauce on warm ciabatta bread — you'll hardly notice that the fennel-spiced …   More

BITE-SIZED

If you're hungry and cruising Downtown in search of something different, head straight down Main Street into historic Springfield and look for the brightly colored Wafaa & Mike's Café. (I hear the adjacent auto shop, which shares an owner, is excellent, too.)

Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner, the Mediterranean (their sign says "Mid-Eastern") restaurant has been in town for five years. It's a decidedly casual spot, so don't come expecting pressed linens and silver. But it's solid for what it is.

We started with baba ghanoush ($4.99). It was delightfully smoky and creamy, topped with a drizzle of olive oil and paprika, and served with a basket of pita triangles for dipping. The pita was stiff and room temperature, so we asked for fresh, warm pita. Moments later, we were given a new batch.

Platters seemed to be the way to go. Each of the dozen or so platters includes a choice of two side items. I went with the falafel ($10.99), and it was fantastic – freshly crafted chickpea orbs of delight you can dip in the accompanying nutty tahini sauce. My side items were traditional favorites, hummus and tabouli. Both were fresh and excellent. Also on the platter were slices of colorful crunchy pickled turnip, cucumbers and a small bed of iceberg lettuce and tomato. The falafel is also available in wrap form.

Another success was the kibbe – croquette-like football-shaped nuggets of ground meat mixed with minced onions and bulgur wheat.

I didn't care for the grape leaves, which were served cold and had an off-putting spice that I couldn't pinpoint. Skip these.

I wanted to try the Turkish (read: strong) coffee ($1.99), but it was late in the afternoon and our waitress politely steered me away, explaining I probably wouldn't get a good night's rest.

A dollar scores you a crisp, sweet square of happiness – also known as baklava – so keep dessert on your agenda. Wafaa & Mike's does this pastry treat just …   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

BITE-SIZED

Ever get a hankering for grilled meat on a skewer? Oddly enough, I occasionally do.

After recently learning about Café Kabob, tucked behind a McDonald's on a busy stretch of Baymeadows Road between Philips Highway and I-95, I knew I wanted to put their titular treats to the test.

We started with a fresh herbed hummus platter ($4), which arrived with thin, warm pita bread squares (I preferred these to the standard thick, triangular pitas most places serve). So far, so good. On to the main event.

You can choose from five kabob entrée selections, or you can order à la carte. I decided on the bone-in joojeh kabob ($12), with grilled Cornish hen marinated in saffron, then skewered, and accompanied by a generous portion of saffron basmati rice and two juicy grilled tomato wedges. It was solid.

The khoresht gheymeh bademjoon ($8) — say that three times fast — which is a Persian eggplant stew, caught my eye. It too was served with rice and arrived in a bowl: Thick pieces of sautéed eggplant, beef, yellow peas and onion mingled in a tomato-based 
sauce. I spooned it over the rice and didn't want to share.

There was also a mayo-based mixture of chicken, potato and egg salad, called Salad Olivie ($8), that I had to try. Studded with capers and green peas, and served atop organic spinach and finely sliced red peppers, it was surprisingly good. You get a little bit of the best of all three worlds, assuming you like chicken, potato and egg salad.

For dessert, we shared a triangle of traditional baklava ($2), and though it was good, 
it was a bit too sweet for my liking.

Lunch and dinner are available Monday through Saturday. When you're in the Baymeadows area, check it out. The décor is minimal and it's the type of spot where you can hear conversations from the next table over, but the service is equal parts friendly and attentive, and the menu items are reasonably priced and fresh.   More

BITE-SIZED

Disclosure: The Jaxsons Night Market was founded and is run by the writer's fiancé, Mike Field, who will be turning the market over to Friends of Hemming Park in April.

As the sun starts to set, Downtown's Hemming Park transforms from blank canvas to a bustling artisan food market featuring dozens of local vendors. There's everything from live music, fashion trucks (like food trucks but with clothes; who knew?) and fresh produce to spice mixes, cheese curds, all-natural soaps and award-winning small-batch granola.

The every-third-Thursday market, which relocated to Hemming from a smaller, grassy lot at the corner of Adams and Laura streets, has spread its wings and morphed into a larger, unique foodie affair.

The beer enthusiast in me quickly detours to Intuition Ale Works' tent for a cold can of my favorite hoppy local brew, I-10 IPA. 
As I peruse the other booths, my stomach squeals with delight: Pistachio macarons? Check. Local honey? Check. Freshly baked organic sourdough bread loaves? Check. Handheld cherry-lime pies with buttery 
crust? Win.

The aroma wafting from a nearby row of food trucks is enticing. The options are seemingly endless: Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, Cuban. There's also an impressive selection of vegan options.

Fusion Food Truck's banana curry is up first — a perfectly savory and sweet dish served atop rice. Next up: shrimp spring rolls from Vietnamese cuisine truck Tado Street. Don't forget the pulled-pork sliders with chili lime sauce, mac 'n' cheese and homemade pickles from the Smoke It Up Barbecue truck. And Humble Pie's crisp, cooked-onsite, wood-fired pizza, complete with blue cheese, pear, walnuts and honey drizzle, is a must.

Black Hog Farm, out of East Palatka, offers an assortment of fresh seasonal produce; I snag a few cucumbers and a bundle of mixed greens. From Murray Hill's Community Loaves, I score a hearty loaf of rosemary garlic sourdough, and from Southside's Liberty Bakery, two chocolate …   More

BITE-SIZED

After learning that Let Them Eat Cake not only creates a multitude of sugary 
 confections, but also serves five styles of grilled cheese sandwich, I knew I'd be in there for lunch.

A chalkboard wall with sprawling hand-lettering (excellent penmanship, by the way) proclaiming "TREAT YOURSELF!" lists the five cleverly named offerings: Frenchy, La'Merican, Brit, Cuban-ish and Suth'ner. Each is $8 and accompanied by potato salad or tomato bisque.

We picked the Brit (cheddar, blue cheese, chutney and fried egg, on pumpernickel) and the Suth'ner (goat cheese, tomato marmalade and bacon, on wheat). Local bakery The Village Bread Company supplies the bread, and it's your choice of white, wheat or pumpernickel (they were out of rye).

After waiting a considerable amount of time for our two sandwiches, the woman behind the counter came up to our table and said that — and I quote — there was "an issue with the blue cheese." (I'm guessing moldy.) Equal parts sad and baffled, we subbed goat cheese in its place. I'll admit: I was worried. I love blue cheese. But the substitution worked! The egg was perfectly cooked, complete with an oozy yolk, and the goat cheese melted and played nice with the cheddar. And the Suth'ner's contrast of the sweet homemade tomato marmalade and crisp, salty bacon was a hit, too. The bread was nicely buttered and toasted, and it was just the right amount of food for lunch. Not a morsel remained 
of either.

And our sides? The tomato bisque was piping hot and flavorful, and I was pleasantly surprised to find cubed red potatoes mixed with mayo, rosemary and diced celery for potato salad.

I couldn't decide what I wanted from the dessert case, and ended up with both the salted caramel and Fat Elvis cupcakes ($3.50 each). I favored the salted caramel frosting over Elvis' thick, rich peanut butter frosting. The cake on both was good, but could have been a bit more moist.

For good measure, I grabbed a gluten-free chocolate …   More

BITE-SIZED

I happened upon Southern Roots while 
running lunchtime errands. It's nestled 
 between a pizzeria and a Laundromat on Riverside's bustling King Street, and is open six days a week, from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. The menu is limited but surprisingly solid, and there are coffee and espresso drinks available, all crafted from Miami's Panther coffee. Oh, and almost everything is organic, vegan and gluten-free.

Southern Roots, which got its start selling products at area farmers markets about four years ago, is run by husband-and-wife duo Mariah and JP Salvat. The storefront serves as a coffee-shop-turned-casual-lunch-stop, and features a variety of bulk items for sale and packaged edibles like granola, quinoa salad and housemade pumpkin pesto.

Specials change daily, as does the selection of baked goods. Sometimes there are lavender shortbread cookies, oat bran muffins and crumb cake. On a recent Thursday, I scored a coconut cornbread muffin with maple cardamom Earth Balance spread ($4), and was in carb heaven. It was delightfully moist and flecked with coconut, like if cornbread and coconuts had a love child and slathered it with a tasty spread.

Like deals? A thick slice of toast and a café con leche is $5. Topped with Earth Balance spread and cinnamon sugar, the toast-plus-a-coffee-with-milk-served-in-a-mason-jar was a light breakfast. I also enjoyed the sweet potato coconut butter and cinnamon sugar toast with a cortado ($6 deal) — coffee cut with steamed milk or almond milk.

After seeing a post on Facebook, I made another stop in for the portabella "philly" with greens and garlic cheese sauce ($6), atop a slice of bread or bed of greens. I opted for the greens, and I chose well — I loved it. I paired it with a spicy chai latte ($4), perfect for a chilly January day. I hope Southern Roots offers its chipotle butternut squash and bean dip with greens and sunflower "feta" crumbles ($6) again soon, because it intrigues my taste buds.

On weekends, …   More