EatDrinkJax.com shares their interview with restaurateur Jonathan Insetta of Black Sheep Restaurant.
Charcuterie and cheese plate. Photo courtesy Jensen Hande Photography.
11. You've put a lot of effort into sourcing your food locally. Why is that important to you?
It's important to a lot of things. It's important from the standpoint of environmental impact and the carbon footprint involved when you're shipping food from long distances. It's also important to support those people who are doing great things locally. We've had a very mono-cropping agricultural community for a long time, which is very traditional. But now we're starting to see a lot of boutique farms that are growing some really great heirloom products. We get our chicken and eggs from Black Hog Farms, our bacon and charcuterie from Pine Street Market, and our ground beef from Cowboy Meats. We get our lettuce for both Orsay and Black Sheep from a place called Bacon Farms which is up near the airport in Jacksonville. They do beautiful artisanal greens. When you get things in season you know where its coming from, you know the process it's going through. You just have more knowledge about the food. The cool part about local is that when you develop these relationships with your farmers you can also have a dialog with them and they can grow what you're looking for specifically. That relationship with the farmer is extremely, extremely important.
12. What does buying locally do for the taste of the food you're preparing?
Well, eggs, for example, are important. We do a lot of things with eggs. We use local, farm fresh eggs. Commercial eggs may take 3 or 4 weeks to get to you. The whole time they're in storage they're also aging. It's just what happens. When you get a farm fresh egg you can see the difference in the color, the texture and the taste. A lot of people will say that our eggs taste better. They may not know why, but it's usually because it's a much fresher egg and a much better product. From the vegetable perspective you get to see a lot of stuff that may not be grown for broad line distribution. With broad line distribution you're getting things that are engineered to last a long time and to hold up while traveling and then being stored. With locally grown produce you're getting a much more natural product. For our Hamburger and Cheeseburger we only use grass fed beef. They're the only grass fed products on our menu right now just due to the cost. We do that at Orsay as well.
Philosophically we have to pick our battles from a pricing standpoint. We can't price ourselves out of the market but we also have to find those moments when we can shine. I think our Cheeseburger is one of those examples. Grass fed beef has a little game flavor to it and a much, much cleaner flavor overall. It's what beef is intended to taste like. It's not going to have that greasy fattiness that you'll get from a corn fed burger - which a lot of people really enjoy - as I sometimes do as well. But grass fed beef is a much cleaner taste and our burger is the best way of showing an example of this. With a burger you can quickly and directly see the difference in the two products. If you have a corn fed burger one day and then come over and have a grass fed burger you'll inherently know the difference immediately. Then it's up to the consumer to decide which they like better.
Grassfed burger with egg. Photo courtesy Jensen Hande Photography.
13. For a first time visitor who wants to get a sense of what Black Sheep is all about, what would you recommend to show off what you do?
The Cheeseburger is a great example. We use bacon from a guy out of Atlanta who was originally born and raised in Jacksonville. He makes all of our charcuterie and salami that we use. If you're coming for lunch I'd definitely recommend the Burger. The Fried Green Tomato BLT is something that is really, really cool that we do and that I'm really proud of. For dinner, I really love the Short Rib dish and I love the Salmon dish. The Short Rib is braised and shows off our technique while being really warm and comforting as a dish. With the Salmon we do a crispy skin over some local shrimp with home made Parisienne gnocchi. It's a really, really gorgeous dish. We also make our pastrami in house. We showcase that on our Reuben at lunch and in a Pastrami Hash during brunch. We're one of the few places that makes pastrami from the brisket through to the end product. We've been doing that since Chew.
Crispy Skin Salmon. Photo courtesy Jensen Hande Photography.
14. If someone's been to Black Sheep a few times and is looking to try something a little different, what would you recommend?
The Pork Belly appetizer is something I really, really believe in. It's an outgrowth of the pork belly we were doing at Chew. At the beginning when we opened Chew we were doing pork belly but people wouldn't try it just because it had the word "pork" and the word "belly." I think people were afraid of it. A friend of mine in New York said that when he changed his "Pork Belly" to "Fresh Bacon" it started selling like crazy. So we changed the name to "Fresh Bacon" at Chew and it started selling.
But the rad part about the Jacksonville community now is that they're asking for pork belly, so there's no need to put the "Fresh Bacon" there anymore. We're definitely growing as a foodie scene as people are learning more and more. Other than the Pork Belly appetizer we're also doing Pork Rinds at dinner, which are really awesome. We also do a Chicken Liver Mousse. I call it the gateway mousse at Black Sheep. It's really creamy and elegant. It's not minerality up front. It's not an intense liver taste. It's just smooth and elegant. People who may have tried liver once, or even never before, will be surprised because it's a really different world when you handle the product properly and hit those notes that really make sense. I've had so many people who've never had liver before or tried it and hated it, then they try our Liver Mousse and really enjoy it.
Mac and Cheese. Photo courtesy Jensen Hande Photography.
15. What's the most popular item on the menu?
I'd say the Cheeseburger, Salmon and Short Ribs are our big sellers for dinner. Our Bar-B-Q Duck Sandwich and Mac and Cheese are also very popular. The Mac and Cheese is the same recipe we used at Chew, which is a really traditional, Southern style. For lunch, favorites change around more often. The Cheeseburger, Fried Green Tomato BLT, and Black Sheep Club are very popular, as are the salads, especially the Beet Salad. One item I have to mention for lunch is our Duck Banh Mi, which is very, very popular. It's not a traditional Banh Mi, but is our particular take on it. We do duck meat balls, but in the shape of a terrine, which is a paté. Paté is a traditional element of Duck Banh Mi. But we make an Asian spice which has ginger, garlic and lemongrass, and use that in a duck meat ball that's made from a duck breast. It's got a really nice mouth feel. The meat ball is also in the shape of a terrine and has a spicy mayo that is very approachable. The rest is pretty traditional. We make our pickled vegetables in-house. We use a lot of cilantro. When I was going to school in New York and had never had a Banh Mi before, I went to a small restaurant in Chinatown, just at the time Banh Mi was taking off and becoming a real foodie item. For a person who's never had a Banh Mi before, when they finally try it they realize why it's so awesome. It's unexpected, with things you wouldn't think to put together, but once you get it it just makes sense.
At lunch we get a lot of first time diners who are often attracted to something that's comfortable and familiar. They're just checking us out and want to stay on the safer side of the menu. I think that's really good. It gets them in our door and gets them to trust us. Hopefully they'll find that what they're trying is really good and they'll want to see what else we can do. Sometimes you need to build that relationship with your customers before you get them to try some of the things they might not have considered early on.