Corner Brasserrie: Best Dining on the Southbank

July 11, 2007 14 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Despite its location amidst the highly refined and often snobby San Marco Monsters of Fine Dining, there is no comparison to the quality of food at the small, almost unnoticed little restaurant on San Marco Blvd.

The Corner Brasserie is without a doubt, the best dining experience that can be had on the south-bank.
Despite its location amidst the highly refined and often snobby San Marco Monsters of Fine Dining, there is no comparison to the quality of food at the small, almost unnoticed little restaurant on San Marco Blvd.
One of the hallmarks of a truly great restaurant is its ability to stand on the merits of its simplest dishes.  To do a few things and do them so well that no others can hope to compete with them.
While this diner also loves delicate, tricky dishes with unexpected ingredients and exotic elements, he is not impressed with gimmicky concoctions whose principal point seems to be to add syllables to the menu description---an all too common trick of many restaurants hoping to charge more than 12.95 for an entree.
The Corner Brasserie is exactly such a great restaurant.
 It sits athwart San Marco's most lumbering behemoth of charm and amber tinted lighting, the nearly liturgical Bistro Aix---the pampered and spoiled lovechild of the Loop Pizza creating Schneider duo and the inimitable Chef Tom Gray. And in contrast, it is a small and modest place, with more fabric treatment than art, and more carpeting than fantasy island style dining implements.
Its service is similarly modest.  On the Friday night we dined there were two servers on the entire floor, and we were greeted by a slightly surprised sous chef as we walked in the front door.
There were no teams of neighborhood youngsters struggling through thick mental fogs while attempting to penetrate the mysteries of water refills and bread deliveries.  No perky hostesses trying their best to be firm but polite, never showing even a trace of weakness in the faces of dining adversity.  No world weary but fulsome floor managers coming by to smile expansively and make sure that no one has botched the experience too badly.
Just us, our server, and the chef.
We were seated next to the Mayor and his indescribably beautiful San Franciscan wife and four of their friends--all trying to have fun on the incognito side.....merriment and excess on the DL ---and promptly given the specials by our delightfully saucy server, Jessica.
With little fanfare we ordered.
The menu is simple and limited to just a few items, all of which were able to fit onto the front of a small menu card placed onto the table, and I was delighted to notice that Jacksonville's Culinary community (or more accurately, the chefs of San Marco) also reads the New York Times, and apparently has picked up its flair for French Steak Frites.

     After perusing the menu and chatting up the waitress, hoping that the mayor would be able to keep a social sense of humor about certain printed quotes attributed to this reviewer, we ordered appetizers, and made special requests as to their preparation.  This is usually a true test of the establishment's dedication to Floridian service standards.  If the chef will fool around with special requests for lower priced items like an appetizer, it's generally a good indicator for the restaurant in general.---In the reviewer's own kitchen, he can attest sometimes this amounted to patience on loan from God. (and employees with nerves of steel)

First course: Appetizers.
Tomato & Mozzarella Napoleon "Layers of sliced tomato, mozzarella cheese and prosciutto ham with dressed Greens" / 9.25
Pan Fried Crab Cakes w/ marinated slaw and sweet corn remoulade /12.75
By the time the appetizers had arrived, we were 3/4 done with the icy beers that the brasserie keeps on hand.  Incidentally, in Paris, a brasserie is primarily a beer and food joint, and if you are going to dine in one properly, order the beer and skip any pretentious wine-snobbery.  There are very few occasions where an icy lager is tasteful, and one should take advantage of them.  (this is not a comment on the excellent wine list available, mind you.)
By this time the mayor, who had been dining with his back to our entrance turned and noticed us.  Calculating the wisdom of introducing us to the rest of his expectantly focused party and instantaneously considering all the possible lines of conversation, he quickly, warmly, charmingly and without any possibility of further conversational entree, bid both greetings and fond wishes for our dining experience, and without any noticeable gap returned with a bon mot to his own.
In all, well done and without any bruising of any-one's feelings.  However I couldn't help but notice little invisible antennas rising from his perfectly coiffed hair monitoring us on low alert.
The tomato Napoleon was exquisite in its perfectly chosen ingredients and simplicity.  Gorgeously plated, every element of the plate was explosive with flavor and quality.  The prosciutto was of the smoky rather than salty variety and its texture and flavor held up perfectly against the summer tomatoes and the lushly appointed salad dressing.  Far better than an antipasto, lighter, and with only a couple of ingredients, this dish would be proud on any table in the world.
The Crab Cakes were, in my mind, the testing of the waters however.  After all, the only skills involved in a fresh ingredient dish are those of selection and presentation.  It is incredibly easy however, to completely screw up a crab cake.  Some of the best cooks in the world have been driven to the very edge of suicide upon finding out that their best efforts have resulted in lifeless, doughy lumps of crab flavored crapola.  The Brasserie has already been duly noted for its curry twist on the time-proven classic, and having already read the Times Union review, I casually requested that the chef notch up the spice level a bit.
Obviously this tests the kitchen.  If they are selling pre-formed or frozen crab-cakes, then the only way to spice it up is to either dust it with additional spice (usually a bit of cayenne for the uninspired or time rushed) on the outside, or dousing it with a little hot sauce, or perhaps (for the more inspired) creating a spicier under-sauce.
I was delighted to be informed that the request would be executed as asked, and that the crab cakes were made to order from scratch.  Sure enough, the crab-cakes came to the table with a heavenly curry aroma wafting up from them and one bite into the delicately crusted, perfectly moist and hot interior verified the presence of additional freshly diced peppers in addition to the curry.  Further, the cook had improvised the side sauce, switching it from a corn remoulade to a tangy mustard based sauce to balance the new flavors of the cakes.  Brilliant.
For almost three full minutes, I was simply unable to concentrate on the opportunity to eavesdrop on the conversation of one of the most enigmatic couple in the city, all consciousness of the discussion cutting off abruptly right as the mayor was discussing details of the budget cutbacks being forced on the city by the state.  I simply could not hear another word of it as the flavors and aromas swirled around the table.  I managed to come back to reality exactly as one of his guests said, "Well I guess that's what you will just have to do then, John".
I almost cursed the chef and her skill for that bit, but I simply consoled myself by dredging another bite of the crab-cake across the perfectly executed sauce.
Jessica, our server, came by to clear away the appetizers just as I was getting the sense that the mayor's exquisitely beautiful wife is actually a true San Franciscan, by turns girlish and then hard nosed and intelligent.  I was too caught up in her comments about how best to convert the city to widespread recycling to respond much to our server, fortunately, Anthony, our dinner guest offered to stab her if she removed the Napoleon.
Presently she returned with our entrees.
Luckily the conversation at our neighbors table had switched to the purchase and value of discount shoes and the selection at second chance shops, specifically mimi's in san marco.  Since the men at the table seemed just as passionate about the subject this vein of conversation rolled on and on and I had no fear whatsoever of missing something important as had happened during the mouthwatering crab-cake debacle.
 Specially ordered Salmon Filet with a modified House Salad,
 Grilled New York Strip Steak Frites w/ a Forest Mushroom Jus / 27.00
 Blue Cheese & Roasted Shallot Crusted Angus Filet of Beef On Wilted Spinach with a Smokey Bacon au Jus 4oz. /27.00
The Steak Frites were a quick schooling in what sets apart corporate directed food dispensing units from a true kitchen commanded by an individual worthy of the title "Chef".  It is a simple dish (if you like you can see the NYTimes review linked above) It's just a grilled cut of beef with potato fries, but one that is remarkable easy to destroy as well.  An inferior cut of beef, anything less than an expert cut, or a lack of attention to the cooking temps and the result might as well be passed around by barbarians around a simple fire after a cannibalistic rout of a competing Neanderthal clan.  Its another test dish that will tell you much about the kitchen from whence it came.  The ingredients must be high quality, and the chef must know what they are doing if either isn't true, it is immediately apparent from the first bite.
The Corner Brasserie's Steak Frite blows every other restaurants attempt at this dish right out of the water and back to Jersey (we hope you are listening, Bistro Aix).  If you never make it to Paris, or even New York whilst the craze is in style, you could dine at the Corner Brasserie and feel completely uncheated on the subject of Steak Frites.  You could stand proudly before your maker and proclaim "I might not have done a lot in my life, but by God, Ive had good steak frites."
The Beef was cut and cooked perfectly (and I do mean perfectly) to order. Medium Rare, as tender as god intended for it to be despite its leanness, and packed with a delicious seasoned flavor that one might only imagine possible in a bugs bunny cartoon.  The aroma of the steak and the mushroom jus was sharp, rich and enough to provoke a Pavlovian response from Bridget Bardot or any other gothic vegetarian chick on the planet.  The frites were crisp and seasoned just enough to complement the beef and mushroom jus (which is an irritatingly upscale way of saying 'juice'--but I suppose that juice is too evocative of acne and a host of unsavory possibilities to be much used in conjunction with foods these days)
The beef itself was placed on top of a bed of seasoned country polenta, which soaked up aforementioned 'jus' and was packed with enough country flavor to stand all on its lonesome.  In all respects, the Corner Brasserie does a brilliant Steak Frite, and on the merits of the humble fare alone should rate amongst the best establishments in the city.  (especially in light of the shockingly unfair contest with the pathetic version of the dish served up scant yards away, across the street, with a great deal more expensive lighting)  Rapture.  just rapture.
The Blue Cheese Fillet, was similarly a combination of high quality selection, expert preparation and inspirational flavorings.  The beef itself was luscious, bursting with jus and flavor perfectly set off by the blue cheese that had been cooked on the surface of the fillet bonding the two flavors together.  The Bacon au jus was a happy addition and pulled the beef into a perfect smokey union with the superbly prepared spinach.
It lay across garlic cilantro mashed potatoes which served to give a fresh element to the already ecstatic combination.  Embarrassingly, it was our turn to be aware that the mayor's table had gone attentively silent as wholly unjustified moans of pleasure began emanating from our guest as he savored his meal.  It sounded as though we were replaying the scene where Sally proves to Harry that women can convincingly fake orgasms.  I nervously glanced over and confirmed my worst suspicion.  My quick survey was met instantly with two arched brows with looks of appalling amusement from the table.  Hoping it was merely the luck of the draw and not an actual response to the breathy exhalations coming from across the table, I smiled weakly back and decided to plunge into my salmon over the modified house salad.
It was Perfect.  Right down to my unreasonable request for 'lots of grapes in the salad, please.'  Since I am rather proud of my own abilities with Salmon, I have to admit a certain grudging admiration for both the preparation and presentation of the celebrated fish.  There aren't that many places in Jacksonville which can prepare it properly, and certainly not where I would think of making a special trip for it, but The Corner Brasserie is now on that very short list.
By this time the desserts were arriving at the Peyton table, among them a cruelly tempting chocolate mousse cake and a creme brulee whose caramelizing sugar on top was still sizzling and giving off great clouds of tantalizing aromas.  I was satisfied to hear that the mayors table could do convincing Sally imitations as well.
I couldn't help but pay attention to the reactions of the exquisite Mrs. Peyton.  As already noted, she is a classic well bred San Franciscan, and as such has obviously had first hand experience with the finest cuisine in the entire country.  San Francisco is a gourmand's town.  After two years in the Bay Area, it is quite easy to become a food snob (among many other things).  She was just as enthusiastic about the meal as we were.
In all, the service was charming and personal, a great counterpoint, but there are no superlatives strong enough to accurately describe the quality of the food that is served at the brasserie.
As it happened all of our meals were finished at the same time.  After another engaging bout of charm on the part of our young leader as he shepherded his party out without fear of introductions, we all spilled out onto the street at the same time.  Across the street, the much busier Bistro Aix was crowded and full.
Again, the Corner Brasserie is --- without a doubt --- the best restaurant on the south bank, We plan on returning again and again. for details.
Stephen Dare