A Chef's List for Dining in Jacksonville

Stephen Dare has 20 years of experience at Restaurant ownership and cafe development. 30 years of professional experience as a chef. In this article he provides a short and impolitic list of the best food and dining options in the city from a purely food based perspective. Join us after the jump and weigh in!

Published March 5, 2013 in Dining & Nightlife - MetroJacksonville.com

As a chef with a lot of experience (30 years) and training in a lot of different ethnic cuisines and a few restaurants under my belt I find that I judge restaurants with an internal double standard.  Its like I have two different sets of standards.  Im pretty sure that I have this in common with most other chefs.

The first one is how I publicly speak about restaurants.  I try and take into account something like a bell curve.  How many people really have access to what levels of food and service quality, vs the average experience in a corporate food production environment, and how do the quality and prices really stack up given the averages of the city its located in.  Its a kinder measure, obviously.  And certainly a lot more 'fair' to the restaurant owners, chefs, employees etc.

I've learned from experience how freaking difficult the city can make it to produce really great food for the public.  The expenses of the restaurant are sometimes crippling.  The availability of quality ingredients can be very sporadic and limited.  The level of training in food culture of your employee pool can be very shallow.

And if you can't afford to spend money on back end quality, or you can't physically get the best ingredients possible or your employees don't really know what the hell they are doing, then it can be almost impossible to execute the vision of the owner/chef.  So I try to be as flexible as possible and as understanding of every possible link along the way of delivering the food to my table.

Under this first 'standard', I recommend a whole lot of restaurants locally.  Many wonderful people with decent food and great concepts plus decent prices.  More often than not I will recommend a restaurant to friends based on the type of other diners that can be found there.  Jacksonville is such a chatty town that its hard for a friendly person to go to a restaurant or cafe and not meet at least one other person involved with it.  So under this first set of qualities, the social milieu can definitely come into play.  At least for me.

My second opinion, the more private one, however is a lot more selective, and probably a lot less 'fair' to the people and restaurants in which I dine.

Because you have to know food pretty intimately, menus don't have any mystery for a trained or experienced chef.  For example, I can taste the ingredients, and the flavor, intensity and texture tell me how they were cooked, and with what level of skill.  

The quality of the original ingredients is instantly obvious to a chef, and we can look at the cutting techniques to guess almost everything there is to know about the methods used to prepare the food.

We can tell where corners have been cut, when super premium ingredients have been used, and almost every mistake along the way from prep to execution to server mistakes in delivery (like leaving the food in the window for too long or garnishing with disastrous sauces or the like)  Most of us can taste when the sauces were rushed, or overcooked.  If there was a burnt bottom to them, whether or not real cream was used or just milk, or in some cases, cornstarch and water.

We also know how much the raw ingredients cost, and how difficult the prep was to make the food.   I would bet that a few other professionals here also have an automatic chef's algebra that is constantly working inside their heads to determine the price of ingredients vs the difficulty of the recipe and the skill of the chef's execution to calculate how much the dish should cost retail.  On top of that we also can gauge how trained the service staff is and whether or not service standards are being ignored or if the restaurant is simply overstaffed and temporarily overwhelmed..

Using this second set of standards, badly executed food can really put you off privately, and that ire is radically increased in the presence of two other factors:  pretentious bragging about the food quality and a smugness of expectation, or when the food is radically overpriced in comparison to what is actually being served.

Most of us will never share that second opinion with other people unless they are very close friends or family or other professionals.  The criticisms always sound like nit picking assholiness to people who don't have experience with food and you risk coming off as a pedantic, pretentious asshole yourself.

(It also makes one a very unwelcome dinner guest as the person who prepares the dinner is constantly on the defensive and worried that they are failing on some visceral level.  For the record, I think most professionals appreciate the ambiance and luxury of being invited to a private dinner provided by someone else far more than being in a commercial setting.  Usually I am fascinated and very much in love with the unexpected flavors and free form cooking that a person will lavish on home cooking that simply doesn't make sense from the point of view of time limits, efficiency or food cost.  Its usually like Water for Chocolate, and home cooked meals are often a really wonderful break for a commercial chef.)

Also, while the second set is more honest in terms of food quality and price, they can also be terribly unfair for the reasons given above.

I eat out a lot.  And I 'like' a lot of restaurants locally.  But there are really only a few places that I go to where the act of dining is an actual pleasure and I feel like I am getting the best quality food for a reasonable price.

In compiling this list, I realized that they don't really have a lot in common.  Some are a little pricey, some are a very inexpensive, some are diverse, and some are very narrowly focused menus.

Anyways, I don't want to talk about the reasons why restaurants haven't made this list, (If your favorite high profile restaurant isn't on here, the exclusion is probably not an oversight) but I did want to list the food products and environments that I think are the best in the city from a chef's point of view.  The places where I enjoy the food and think the price point accurately reflects what is getting to the diner.

Here goes.  Please, fellow chefs feel free to weigh in with your own lists.  Solely on the places that you personally enjoy eating, and lets go ahead and establish the rule that you don't have to mention the restaurants of the company that you work with.  Let us all assume that your individual establishments are brilliant.

Here are mine, in no particular order:

1. Moon River Pizza
1176 Edgewood Ave S #2  Jacksonville, FL 32205
(904) 389-4442

Provides the highest quality food made with the best possible techniques and enthusiasm of any pizza place in the city. Hands down. Their prices are fair -- even inexpensive -- and appropriate for the quality and skill and cost of ingredients.  I have never had a bad dining experience at Moon River, and I would list it easily amongst the top 10 similar restaurants in the US.

2.  Bold Bean Coffee.  
869 Stockton St #1  Jacksonville, FL 32204
(904) 855-1181

I would also stack Bold Bean up as one of the top 10 coffeehouses in the United States. By far they are the best coffeehouse available in the State of Florida, and in my pretty extensive experience they are also easily the best coffeehouse in the entire Southeast. There simply is no comparison to them. The coffee cost more than the other coffee joints in town, but it is appropriately priced for the supreme quality of the product and the natural excellence of all the choices of the proprietors.

3.  Peterbrookes Chocolates.  

To be honest, in most cases I prefer fresh Peterbrookes to most of the chocolates available in Ghirardelli in San Francisco. There are a few exceptions of course, but Peterbrookes is boss.

4.  Restaurant Orsay.  
3630 Park St  Jacksonville, FL 32205
(904) 381-0909

I love Jonathan Insetta's restaurant. For me its the duck cassoulet. I've never had a meal that I didn't spend thinking about the chef's expertise and I never resent the prices being charged.  

Image by Nancy White of nourishthebeast.com

5. Saigon Time.
622 Cassat Ave #1  Jacksonville, FL 32205
(904) 378-2348

Vietnamese restaurant on Cassat.  Pretty much everything is brilliant and authentic, (also Pho Ha Noi on Blanding.)

Image by Nancy White of nourishthebeast.com

6.  The French Pantry on Powers Avenue.  
6301 Powers Ave  Jacksonville, FL 32217
(904) 730-8696

Easily the best bakery in Florida. Food quality is extremely high, and the execution is both brilliant and flavorful.  No other lunch place in the city compares, even remotely to the tiny claustrophobic little dining room that they have in the bakery. Simply cannot have enough.

7.  Blue Boy Sandwich Shop.  
6514 Norwood Ave
(904) 768-9791

Their sandwiches are lowbrow southern works of art. The bread is memorably good and the dining is unlike anything to be found in most US cities. Very authentic food with high personal quality and perfectly priced.

8. Carrabas at Regency.  
904) 726-9000 carrabbas.com
9840 Atlantic Blvd, Jacksonville, FL 32225

I seriously do not care that this is a chain. Everything that they do at this location is premium.  Great quality, great food, great prices, premium service. It would be nice if the management style of this place were exported to our historic neighborhoods.

9  Florida Yacht Club.  This isn't a public restaurant, but consistently some of the best food, expertly prepared in the city.  Their treatment of Salmon should get them mitigatory points when trying to explain why anyone should be admitted to heaven.

10. BBs.  
1019 Hendricks Ave  Jacksonville, FL 32207
(904) 306-0100

11. Chomp Chomp.  
106 E. Adams st.
Jacksonville, FL
(904) 762-4667

Hipster guys passionate about food working in a tiny kitchen that looks like something straight off the linoleum and fluorescent circuit tour in San Francisco. Excellent, inventive perfectly priced food. Seating is a premium, but this is one of the true joys of Jacksonville

That's my list. For now. I will add to it. I didn't include any restaurants from the Beaches. That's another article and an entirely different class of food.

Any other chefs care to share your private list?

Article byStephen Dare
More Food Articles:

Jacksonville's Hole in the Wall Restaurants, Part I

Jacksonville's Hole in the Wall Restaurants, Part II

Jacksonville's Hole in the Wall Restaurants, Part III

Jacksonville's Hole in the Wall Restaurants, Part IV

Check out Stephen Dare's "A Chef's List for Dining In Jacksonville."

This article can be found at: http://www.metrojacksonville.com/article/2013-jan-a-chefs-list-for-dining-in-jacksonville

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