Guest Gastronomist Cari Sanchez-Potter reviews Restaurant Orsay, the glittering dining jewel of Avondale, created by Jonathan Insetta. Says Cari: One initial observation is that Jax-ites are self-conscious about their dining scene. When they hear that I've lived in and traveled to a bunch of places, they feel obliged to apologetically explain that I won't find anything in Jax that compares to bigger cities. They especially refer to an alleged lack of authentic ethnic options and quality high-end dining experiences. Well, I am wholeheartedly determined to prove them wrong and seek out the best, most authentic eating Jacksonville has to offer.
Phil and I live in a cozy neighborhood by the side of the river called Riverside (go figure). True to form, Ive been compiling lists of restaurants and bars to try, chatting up any local who willingly offers dining advice, and scoping out my neighborhood grocers and markets for hard-to-find ingredients and general inspiration. Expect lots of future posts on these topics.
Im already scoring an A+, and I havent had to look far. I cant wait to tell you about the farmers markets offering local produce, gastropubs with mind-boggling arrays of brews, ethnic grocers, happy hours, and more. But first, lets start with the star of my first month as a Jacksonville resident: Restaurant Orsay.
I had heard great things about Orsay through the grapevine. Orsay offers dinner Tuesday through Saturday. The Lounge is open for drinks and food the same nights and also serves brunch on Sunday afternoons. Phil and I made reservations for Christmas Eve dinner and have since returned for Happy Hour drinks on a Friday night and a lazy Sunday brunch.
The main dining area is cozy, with intimate bistro seating, subdued lighting, warm colors and rich woods. There is a handsome bar and you can take a peek at the chefs preparing your meal through the window of the open kitchen.
The dinner menu offers a number of options for beginning your meal. Theres a raw bar section that includes oysters from the Gulf, East, and West coasts and sharing platters with oysters, calamari, mussels, and shrimp. You can also choose from a selection of house-made charcuterie such as pate, mousse, and rillettes or from an excellent array of soups and salads, such as the bistro staple onion soup. We ordered two stellar dishes from the appetizer section and Im so disappointed in myself that I didnt snap photos of them. We had a plate of oysters roasted with Eden Farms bacon, spinach, and Parmigiano Reggiano. Bacon and oysters is my personal favorite surf n turf combination, and this take on oysters Rockefeller was juicy, smoky, and salty. You would think that would be difficult to top, but Orsay really hit the nail on the head with their buttery escargots on a bed of garlicky wild mushrooms, topped with a good squeeze of lemon juice. (photo from restaurantorsay.com)
I swiped this photo from their website so you could get an idea of what were dealing with here the rich mushrooms echoed the tender, earthy meat of the escargot. They were delicious as well as being fun to eat with the special slippery snail-holder contraption made famous in a certain classic dining scene in Pretty Woman.
For my main, I chose the Maple Leaf Farms duck breast served with honey sage cornbread and root vegetables, all sitting in a shallow bath of roasted duck jus. The duck was a perfect medium rare throughout, with a crisp and well-seasoned skin. The cornbread was tasty and provided a sweet note that cut the richness of the duck, but ultimately it was a bit too dense and unwieldy for me. As I was nearing the end of my plate I found that the honey and sage flavors overpowered the rich and elegant duck jus. I would have preferred a more neutral starch, probably some sort of potato, to soak up the sauce.
And then we come to the steak frites. I dont think I can gush long and hard enough about the steak frites! Oftentimes the preparation of the simplest, most classic dishes speaks the most about the quality of a restaurant. With their steak frites Orsay proved to me that they can hang with any restaurant Ive ever dined in, big fancy city or not. The flavorful hanger steak had a seared, salty, buttery crust and was pink and tender throughout, and the house-made pommes frites were as far from frozen as they come. They were the perfect thickness, crisp and evenly golden on the outside and mealy and soft on the inside, leading me to believe they were double-fried in expertly temperature-controlled oil.
A side of glazed haricot verts rounded out our excellent meal.
About a week later, we met friends on a Friday evening for Happy Hour drinks in the Lounge. The lounge is a hip and funky urban space, with strings of lights hanging from the ceiling and exposed wooden beams that lend a comfy vibe to the room. Drinks are 1/2 price until 7pm and the Lounge was comfortably full by the time we arrived at 5:45 (our friends said they usually try to arrive by 5 so they can score a seat or a table). It was a happy, mixed crowd, with a good number of twenty-to-thirty somethings but also a few families and even a woman with a baby in tow.
If you enjoy a good cocktail, Orsay is your place. For our Christmas Eve dinner I kicked off the night with one of their well-regarded drinks, a pear jalapeño margarita with Sauza Gold tequila, Cointreau, muddled jalapeños, pear puree, fresh pressed sour, and a salted rim. The ingredients worked together perfectly to make a balanced sweet/sour, spicy/salty drink. I thought the rim was too heavily salted, so when I returned with a friend for Happy Hour, I suggested he order it with a half-salted rim. It was just right. (Again, photo stolen from restaurantorsay.com hope they dont mind, its such a beautiful shot!)
Phil started the dinner with a beautifully amber-toned Cigar City Jai Alai IPA from Tampa. Orsay had just tapped this winner a few days before and it was fresh and citrusy and hoppy. I like a restaurant that focuses as much on its beer as it does on wine, and judging from a comment on their Facebook page, this Cigar City brew was the first offering in a new draft beer program at Orsay. Good choice, and keep em coming! (Image from cigarcitybeer.com)
For Happy Hour, I figured why not order the most expensive cocktail on the menu it is half off, after all! So I went with the $ 13 blood orange martini, made with Kettle One vodka, Campari, simple syrup, fresh pressed lemon and blood orange juice. It was tasty and well-balanced not too sweet but as the most expensive drink on the cocktail menu, I expected to be able to feel it at the end, know what I mean, really kick off the night and get my blood pumping. So next time Id just order a straight up dirty vodka martini for this purpose, which I am sure would be excellent at Orsay.
Phil ordered a Unibroue Maudite Strong Red Ale from Quebec. I love Unibroue beers and their fantastical labels, and had only had the Maudite and La Fin du Monde in bottles, so I was pumped to see Orsay had Maudite on tap. (image from unibroue.com)
Brunch is offered in the Lounge on Sunday. It is rare that I look over a menu and realize I cant decide between five or six different dishes, but the brunch menu at Orsay had me drooling over each description and anticipating my next visit so I could try each and every item on the perfectly planned menu.
When we were seated the server brought baguette slices with butter and what I believe was a red currant jam. I ordered a mimosa made with Florida orange juice. It was a bit skimpy, but only $5 so I wasnt complaining. The diners on either side of our table ordered omelettes, and they came out looking tender and generous. I took the advice of our server and ordered the duck confit hash with soft fried eggs served over roasted fingerling potatoes with fresh sage and Tabasco beurre rouge. Im not sure it was so much of a hash, which I think of as finely chopped meat mixed with potatoes and maybe some onions and then skillet-fried, but it did have all of the elements of a hash so I guess it was going for that deconstructed thing. Anyway, it didnt matter what the dish was called, the duck was luscious and richly flavored and tender, and the eggs were running through the dish in all the right ways. I was glad we ordered a side of pommes lyonnaise, potatoes cooked in butter with onions, so I could sop up every last bit of sauce in the petite cast iron serving dish. The duck was incredibly rich so I was also glad Phils dish came with a salad with a vinegary dressing a few bites of that really helped cleanse my palate.
Phils croque madame was again a deconstructed version of the classic, with layers of pork shoulder, Gruyere-topped baguette slices, and a soft fried egg atop a roasted garlic cream sauce. Delicious and filling.
Orsay understands that at the best restaurants, its the details that really set them apart from the rest. From the cozy atmosphere to the attentive yet not overwhelming service, to the cool bottle of house water on your table, to the fair and reasonable prices, generous portion sizes, and affordable house wines, Orsay is the neighborhood place Ive always dreamed of having just down the street. Boy am I glad I live in Jacksonville just down the street from Orsay.
3630 Park Street, Jacksonville, FL
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/