Recently showered with national cable audience attention, 13 Gypsies is one of those little places that has found itself part of the growing foodie community in Jacksonville. Along with the likeminded artisans and their enthusiastic patrons at Orsay, Chew, and Taverna, they are at the center of a tight social group of discriminating and experimentally titillated movement in dining. Join Cari Sanchez Potter, the indefatigable gastronomist and riverside resident for her excursion to the tiny but mighty cafe of 13 Gypsies.
My new neighborhood holds a number of dining gems, and so far I havent needed to venture outside of the borders of Riverside/Avondale in order to find memorable, top-notch restaurants. Lucky for me, one of these gems 13 Gypsies is literally around the corner from my place and caters to local Riversiders like me.
Clicking through the 13 Gypsies website is like flipping through a friends old family photo album. A nostalgia for the peasant food remembered from a childhood in Spain combined with a desire to provide a high-quality neighborhood restaurant in his Jacksonville home has allowed Chef Howard to create a restaurant with a clear vision. With only seven tables seating a maximum of 18 diners, 13G is true to the model of a European neighborhood bistro and allows the Chef to maintain total control over each dish that is put out. He even prepares many items like breads, sausages, and cheeses in-house and shares his techniques on the 13G blog. The focused menu looks back to classic flavors and traditionally prepared dishes that stay true to their origins, as opposed to a modern trend that Chef Howard believes often unnecessarily melds different styles and culinary histories. As diners, we are led on a gastronomic ramble through the gypsy migratory trail: out of India and through central Europe, Italy, France, Spain, and northern Africa. All this, right in our own backyard.
13 Gypsies is open for both lunch and dinner, and the diverse menu affords a variety of meal arrangements. For lunch, any diner could find something that suits him from the pressed sandwich or salad options, such as the double cow sandwich with angus roast beef, caramelized onions, and fontina cheese or the Cordoba salad of mixed greens, queso blanco, sautéed mushrooms, oranges, and sliced almonds dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette. At a recent dinner, I sampled the 13G grilled three-cheese sandwich. It came with a simple side salad of mixed greens and would make a very substantial (and deliciously gooey!) lunch.
But the star of the menu really is the selection of exotic and creative tapas. With more than twenty choices, many of them vegetarian and many changing daily based on market availability or the chefs inspiration, 13 Gypsies can easily satisfy any diner, including repeat customers (of which I will certainly become!).
The other day my dining party ordered the honey garlic hummus as we chatted away and decided on the rest of our dishes. The hummus was blended with garlic, generously drizzled with honey, and served in a clay cazuela with warm flatbread. Who knew that honey and hummus go together like peas and carrots?! A brilliant combination.
For those who have never tried Roman gnocchi, the ones at 13G will come as a revelation. You dont see many eateries in the States offering this simple yet substantial crowd-pleaser. Instead of being formed from potato dough into little lumpy boiled carb dumplings, gnocchi made in the Roman style begin with a loose, runny dough of semolina flour, milk, parmesan, and sometimes butter its a mixture that resembles very smooth and buttery grits or polenta. The dough is then spread out flat to cool, then cut into circles or squares and baked or broiled in a creamy sauce. The result is a paradox: light-as-a-cloud texture yet impossibly luscious and rich taste. (You can read about the Roman gnocchi I ate in Rome here.) The version at 13G was prepared a bit differently than what I make at home. It seemed that the chef had griddled or pan-fried the gnocchi, caramelizing the butter and parmesan and forming a crisp and salty outer layer that resulted in sturdy gnocchi fingers. They were served with a perfectly complementary mushroom sauce. You must try this dish!
Another must-try is the octopus, blackened with the chefs own spicy spice blend.
Octopus can sometimes end up chewy, but these tender little morsels easily yielded to my knife.
We also tried the coconut mango curry chicken bite-sized pieces of chicken breast cooked in a coconut milk and mango sauce, flavored with curry and raisins. The dish was perfectly spiced and the raisins provided a welcome sweet note.
A fellow diner ordered the angry bull - pan seared beef in a pool of paprika sauce, topped with crushed raw garlic and tiny peppercorns. The beef was well cooked and happily rested and stood up well to the pungent garlic and heat-packed peppercorns. It certainly didnt make us angry, although we did think there may have been just a tad too much paprika in the sauce.
Out of the generosity of his soul, Chef Howard graced our table with a complimentary plate of the risotto of the day. It was flavored with bacon and parmesan and finished with cream, and if that doesnt make your mouth water then you have no business reading a food review.
This truly was one of the best risottos I have ever eaten (even better than the risotta alla Milanese I had in Milan!) creamy and smooth and well-seasoned with perfectly al dente grains of rice. The risotto offering changes daily, and our server said no matter what the ingredients, its usually her favorite item on the menu. Chef promised he would do a post on the 13G blog on his risotto technique so we can try to replicate this at home. But you really must stop by the restaurant and have the real deal.
All wines on the well-chosen list hail from Spain, and many are offered by the glass. My go-to Spanish choice is a Rioja (creative, I know), and they were out of the one I wanted to try. The knowledgeable server recommended the Dehesa de Rubiales Alaia, a blend of prieto picudo, tempranillo, and merlot grapes (if I remember correctly, it was a 2005 vintage).
Even though the food might be considered fancy by some, there are no big egos at 13G and the dining experience is utterly accessible. Chef Howard is excited about the food he puts out, and wants you to be excited about it, too. One of the less adventurous diners in our party initially expressed a fear to try the scary-looking octopus, but one bite and she was sold. 1 visit to 13 Gypsies and you too will be swept away.
887 Stockton Street, Jacksonville, FL
904-389-0330 (Reservations essential, especially on weekends)
Cari Sánchez-Potter is an American with a Masters degree in Gastronomy from the University of Adelaide/ Le Cordon Bleu in South Australia. She grew up in the small town of Salem, Ohio and since 2000 has lived in Argentina, Spanish Basque Country, Japan, Australia, Switzerland, Boston, and Florida. Learning about people and cultures through their foodways is her passion, and She has been fortunate to live in places with some of the best food cultures in the world. Currently eating my way through Jacksonville, Florida and the American South.
She also has a brilliant blog which you can follow here: http://www.cari-vicarious.com/