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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

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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

A question I get asked regularly: "What are your three favorite restaurants in Jacksonville?" Without missing a beat, I rattle off my favorite, Avondale's very own Orsay. (The other two require a bit more thought.) I often take out-of-town guests, co-workers and friends for there drinks, dinner or special occasions.

From the moment I walk through the door, to the last morsel of homemade ice cream I devour, Orsay never fails to provide a fantastic experience. A tough day can quickly be forgotten upon entering Orsay, with its dim lights, flickering white candles, modern wallpaper, exposed rustic wood rafters and hip music wafting through the air. Creative cocktails and a ridiculously awesome happy hour don't hurt, either.

It's rare that I order an entrée (and I can't order lunch beacause the spot's only open for dinner and weekend brunch) because I crave so many of Orsay's appetizers. Evenings begin with a cheese plate and oysters. Sometimes I opt for raw oysters, other times I gravitate toward the roasted oysters with salty bacon, spinach and melted parmigiano-reggiano cheese — perfectly smooth and smoky.

The escargots (yes, that's French for snails), served in the shell, with a garlicky butter and thick, sautéed portobello mushroom slices, are a savory delicacy. They're served with crusty bread, perfect for sopping up the extra garlic butter.

The crunchy haricots vert (pronounced "airicovair," not "hair-ih-cots verts") are thin French green beans. Together with roasted hazelnuts, ripe halved grape tomatoes and a tangy crème fraiche vinaigrette, they make for a light salad too good to pass up.

In my opinion, the combo of chefs Jonathan Insetta (also of Black Sheep Restaurant) and Brian Siebenschuh creates "Top Chef" quality.

The steak frites — a perfectly cooked hangar steak with a salty, seared crust, served with a tower of thinly cut crisp frites fried in duck fat for extra flavor — are an Orsay dinner …   More

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With spring in the air and summer close behind, now is the prime time to roll down the windows and head down picture-perfect Highway A1A to this casual hideaway on the Intracoastal Waterway.

Cap’s doesn’t take reservations and — like most amazing beachfront spots — the nicer the weather, the longer you may wait for a seat. Unarguably, the biggest selling point is the sprawling wooden deck under a canopy of shady trees. (The outside oyster bar’s a close second.) The deck provides views of breathtaking sunsets, flocks of seagulls and tranquil waters.

The menu is lengthy, so go with a group so you can share and experiment. It’s also kid-friendly.

Of the more than 25 appetizers, I have some recommendations. If you’re into soups, Cap’s creamy signature she-crab soup or spicy roux-based gumbo, with freshly made cornbread, will fill you up. The generously portioned, tenderized fried gator tail with a light citrus sauce is a staple. A platter with hot smoked salmon, caper cream cheese, chopped egg and diced onion is simple but nicely done. For creative presentation and texture, I recommend the flaky phyllo dough cups filled with chopped sesame soy tuna tartare. The Belgian fries are fried twice — thick, golden and beyond crisp. The best parts are the dipping sauces: curry mayo, datil and peanut sauces get my vote.

The vanilla grouper, with sweet vanilla rum sauce, is flaky, horseradish-crusted, flash-fried grouper atop mashed potatoes and fried crisp spinach. Your taste buds will dance. And you can’t go wrong with Cap’s jambalaya — shrimp, crawfish, sausage, chicken, onions and peppers meet jasmine rice.

There’s plenty of other fresh seafood, and I made a dozen oysters my entrée (I ordered an extra half-dozen). You can go raw or steamed and select from East, West or Gulf coasts. Snow crab legs, peel-and-eat Mayport shrimp and steamed clams round out the “surf” …   More

BITE-SIZED

Love enjoying your breakfast or lunch while peering into an open kitchen, using free Wi-Fi and leaving with a full stomach due to generous portions made with fresh ingredients? Then look no further than Uptown Market.

Brought to you by the same owners as downtown hot spot Burrito Gallery, Uptown Market has created a name for itself in historic Springfield by serving breakfast and lunch daily and brunch on the weekends — in a clean, fresh, modern space. And the best news of all: Dinner service should be starting in May.

Peek into the open kitchen and watch as Chef Eddy Escriba whips up clever lunch specials that are posted to Facebook every morning. Lunch is 11 a.m.-2 p.m., and the specials change daily based on what’s fresh. One day you might find a bison burger with jalapeño havarti and bacon, while on another, you’ll see anything from Cajun catfish and sweet corn grits with Creole tomato sauce to Puerto Rican-style picadillo with ground beef, peppers, raisins, capers, potatoes and onions over rice.

The menu is solid without being overly complicated. For breakfast, there’s brioche French toast, buttermilk pancakes, omelets, frittatas, eggs, crêpes and traditional breakfast specials like huevos rancheros, lox and bagel, and eggs Benedict. Insider tip: You can order a single fluffy buttermilk pancake if you desire. Best idea ever. (Well, that and those vitamin-C-packed $10 bottomless mimosas on the weekends.) With butter and a side of maple syrup, these light, spongy pancakes are the stuff breakfast dreams are made of.

That one pancake comes in handy when ordering the big-as-your-head breakfast burrito — eggs, chorizo sausage, home fries, cheddar cheese and salsa stuffed in an oversized flour tortilla — because I can hardly finish the burrito <> an entire stack of pancakes. My pick is the “ranch eggs” or huevos rancheros. This traditional Latin American dish features crispy flour …   More

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Olio Chef Greg DeSanto has carved out a culinary niche nestled in a hip space within the historic J.H. Churchwell building in Jacksonville’s urban core.

DeSanto’s kitchen creativity places emphasis on fresh, local ingredients, offering seasonal items in addition to Olio’s popular static menu.

For spring, several new, hunger-inducing items have appeared: cold gazpacho soup, duck wonton soup, tuna steak sandwich with carrot and fennel salad on ciabatta, housemade chicken and foie gras boudin blanc, a skirt steak bahn mi with spicy Sriracha aioli; a Monte Cristo with blackberry jam, pork belly and fried egg on ciabatta and a ground lamb burger. May I just have one of everything?

New items aside, I have some tried-and-true favorites. I’ll let you in on a secret: Olio’s fish tacos are some of the best in town. Two soft flour tortillas are piled with thick slabs of moist, blackened fish topped with a mandarin orange fruit salsa, crunchy cabbage and a cilantro-lime crème drizzle. If fish doesn’t strike your fancy, you can swap it with chicken, shrimp or carnitas instead.

Don’t eat meat? The popular falafel wrap features housemade pickles, crisp Romaine lettuce, creamy red pepper coulis and chickpea patties snuggled in a warm naan blanket.

All of Olio’s side items are a la carte. Regulars enjoy the homemade French fries and thick-cut potato chips, both served with a creamy basil aioli. Rotating sides include crispy dill potatoes, mushroom risotto, orzo salad, zucchini fries, Mediterranean couscous, mac ‘n’ cheese, three-grain salad and hummus with pita chips.

Olio also offers a wide range of deep-dish quiches: steak and bleu cheese, quiche Lorraine, chicken and bacon, mushroom, three-cheese, ham and Swiss, and smoked chicken with asparagus.

DeSanto’s popularity index shot up last year when The Travel Channel’s Adam Richman from “Man vs. Food” stopped in. …   More

BITE-SIZED

Jacksonville restaurateur Michael Thomas, of Sterling’s and 24 Miramar, opened Terra in late February. Touted as “a deceptively simple, innovative dining experience,” Terra’s menu is intentionally limited out of the gate. Dishes are created with an emphasis on local, sustainable ingredients, resulting in frequent menu changes to feature the freshest of ingredients. Terra will soon add an organic vegetable and herb garden near its outdoor patio space.

While relatively small, the seating area is spacious with plenty of windows and a soon-to-be-completed patio area, just in time for spring. Formerly the Patio at Pastiche, Terra received a minor facelift — including an awning and new interior paint in an earthy terracotta color. The bar area seats about 15, where a few local brews are featured on draft.

We arrived in time for happy hour (3-6 p.m. weeknights) and scored half-priced glasses of wine. Our table of four started with three small plates: French fries with freshly grated parmesan, truffle oil and creamy garlicky aioli, a cheese plate and charcuterie. The fries were delightfully crisp — not one was burned or soggy. The hint of truffle oil was detectable, the parmesan and aioli finished the savory treat.

Our charcuterie (a plate with small mounds of prepared meats) featured toasted crostini, perfect for piling the thin slices of dry-cured Serrano ham, soppressata and Genoa salami. Tangy homemade pickled green beans and onions, along with a spicy French Maille whole grain mustard, rounded out the dish. Our cheese plate included an extremely pungent (but surprisingly delicious) bleu cheese, a slightly smoky, spicy chipotle cheddar and a spreadable brie. Colorful strawberries, thinly sliced apples, crisp crostini, sweet honey, pecans, figs and a fig jam share the plate — begging to be paired with the cheeses.

One star of the evening arrived next: the wilted frisée salad. Tossed with shallots, cubes of …   More

BITE-SIZED

There’s good pizza, and there’s bad pizza. Brewer’s Pizza is a gem, tucked away just off I-10 in Orange Park. Home of the Florida Smacker, a “Lip-smack’n Southern style pizza,” it's Brewer’s signature 8-inch square, deep-dish pizza with melted cheese that extends to the crispy edges of the beer-dough crust. Dipped in ranch or a side of marinara, it's a pizza-lover’s dream and some of Northeast Florida’s best. The corners are crunchy, but the center of the crust is light and chewy.

If you’re not in the mood for a deep-dish pizza, opt for the hand-tossed pizza. Both are excellent. Regular topping choices include green peppers, banana peppers, pepperoncini, jalapeños, mushrooms, black or green olives, tomatoes, white or red onions, pepperoni, ham, bacon, Italian sausage, ground sirloin, mozzarella, garlic and pineapple. Specialty toppings are gyro meat, meatball, chicken, ricotta, Romano, feta and cheddar.

Can’t decide? Remove the guesswork and order one of Brewer’s specialty pies. Available in Florida Smacker style or round, there’s Buffalo Chicken (mozzarella, chicken, bacon, green pepper and buffalo sauce), Swamp Chicken (mozzarella, homemade swamp sauce — not pizza sauce — plus gator tail, chicken, tomato and Cajun crust), and the clever Seafaring Pig (mozzarella, homemade seafood sauce, shrimp, crab, bacon, mushroom, tomato and chives).

In addition to salads, soup and a calzone, there are several Boar’s Head sandwiches available on Mamaw’s 8-inch toasted sub roll or a wrap — with Brewer’s world-famous Pinglehead sandwich spread.

We also ordered Guido Spoonpipe’s wings — available in plain, BBQ, sweet BBQ, mild and hot — which are lightly breaded and brushed with buffalo sauce then baked in a pizza convection oven, instead of being fried. We ordered them mild, and a pile of 10 plump wings arrived accompanied by a …   More

BITE-SIZED

Plan for lunch or dinner at The Floridian (39 Cordova St., 829-0655) across from Flagler College. The cozy restaurant serves generous Southern-inspired portions featuring locally sourced ingredients. Popular menu items include homemade pimento cheese, fried green tomato hoagie and shrimp with triangular polenta cakes. Some of the salads use unexpected ingredients, like black-eyed pea relish, sweet potato, quinoa and apples — and all salad dressings are made in-house. Wash it down with sweet tea served in a Mason jar.

Near the hub of the historic district tourist scene, you’ll discover Columbia Restaurant (98 St. George St., 824-3341) for a glass of red or white sangria and plates of Spanish tapas. Among the outdoor fountains and colorful Spanish tiles are Cuban and Spanish favorites like paella, empanadas, bacalla, pollo riojana and flan. The signature 1905 Salad, named for the year when the original restaurant opened in Ybor City, is prepared tableside with iceberg lettuce, Swiss cheese, baked ham, tomato, red onion, manzanilla (green) olives, garlic, lemon, Worcestershire sauce and white wine vinaigrette, and topped with Romano cheese. Make a reservation — this family-owned restaurant gets crowded quickly due to its tourist appeal and central location.

Don’t miss The Hyppo (48 Charlotte St., 217-7853) for a gourmet frozen popstick or “paleta” in its vibrant, expanded location. These pops are handcrafted onsite using fresh ingredients to create the treats ranging from the sweet and spicy datil strawberry to the refreshing, summery pineapple cilantro. The texture is not icy, like you’d expect from traditional boxed pops. Try to pick just one of the countless concoctions like horchata, pumpkin cheesecake, lavender lemonade, sangria pear, Key lime pie and creamy pistachio coconut. If you’re a “chocophile,” have your paleta dipped in chocolate for an extra dollar. And look for the adorable little …   More

BITE-SIZED

For breakfast, there’s the hip Cool Moose Café (2708 Park St., 381-4242), a laid-back spot serving inexpensive coffee, breakfast sandwiches (opt for the scrambled egg, apple chutney and melted cheese on croissant), omelets, eggs Benedict, pancakes and two-for-one mimosas on Sundays. When the weather’s just right, grab one of several outdoor tables.

Nearby, you’ll stumble upon Whiteway Delicatessen (1237 King St., 389-0355), a long-standing weekday breakfast and lunch locale. Owner Sam Salem likely will commit your name and order to memory if you become a regular. The no-frills spot has been around since 1927, earning it the honor of being Jacksonville’s oldest deli. The menu, crowded with quirky sandwich names, is posted on individually printed sheets of paper hung on the wall. Some are named for area professionals (Dr. Stone, Dr. Long, Tom Bishop and Anne Beard). The rider sandwiches, with the fillings spilling out of a pita, are a popular choice. Try the Late Bloomer: a pressed pita stuffed with shaved turkey, provolone, tabouli, avocado spread, banana peppers and crispy bacon. It’s named after Bloomers, a legendary lingerie store at Park and King streets. The honor system governs the Whiteway coffers: Pay at the register when you leave, and Sam will eagerly snap your picture and upload it to the deli’s Facebook page. Before the popularity of digital cameras, he’d snap your picture, develop it and post it on the wall or add it to one of many shoebox archives full of regulars.

Newbie neighbor Sweet Theory Baking Co. (1243 King St., 387-1001) creates organic and vegan — no eggs or dairy — baked treats that are also soy- and peanut-free. There are warm doughnuts in drool-worthy flavors like salted caramel, chai, strawberry, pineapple and root beer. Hand-crafted whoopie pies, cookies, frosted cupcakes, biscuits, Brooklyn egg cream sodas and local Bold Bean coffee are also on the menu.

Food …   More

 
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