Dining: A Toast to the First Coast
The success of Matthew's Restaurant proves that Jacksonville has a taste for fine food.
Seared scallops at Matthew's in Jacksonville.
Outsiders may think they know what to expect in Jacksonville dining — datil peppers, Mayport shrimp, Minorcan chowder and steaks big enough to feed a Jaguar. But people who live and eat Jacksonville every day know better.
First, the city has a big appetite for fine cooking, and contemporary French at that, one of the best in Florida. Second, the city's chefs work as hard as any in the state to dig up local ingredients, use artisan techniques and celebrate the unique flavors that stretch from the Deep South to Eastern Europe.
Medure decided to bring his high-style, high-priced food to the picturesque San Marco Plaza because many of his Ritz diners were locals who drove from Jacksonville. The location near downtown saved them a 45-minute drive. "At first we were kind of a lone soldier here.'' After the eponymous San Marco restaurant, he expanded, first with the more casual Restaurant Medure at Ponte Vedra Beach then Take Away Gourmet.
Medure closed Restaurant Medure two years ago and then reopened with a less-expensive menu — but Matthew's remains his soul, a buzzing 50-seat room with many tables reserved a year ahead. You can sit in the bar, where foie gras has sneaked into the spring rolls and the barbecue sauce on the chicken wings, and try mandarin vodka martinis with strawberries and basil. In the dining room, classic sweetbreads, halibut and pheasant parade along with Kobe carpaccio and nouvelle fusions like seared scallops with chickpea puree and popcorn shoots.
River City Cuisine
The success of Matthew's has led more?French-inspired?spots to Jacksonville and a new crew of savvy chefs who reach beyond France and back to earthy peasant flavors of Spain, Greece and other Mediterranean locations:
Bistro Aix, San Marco
Terry Schneider and Tom Gray opened Bistro Aix in a sleek space not far from Matthew's. The dishes and principles were very French, too — onglet steak, warm lamb "French dip" and all-afternoon charcuterie and cheeses. At dinner, classic duck breast is updated with mushroom bread pudding. The prix fixe can be a classic onion soup, coq au vin and profiteroles or more nouvelle, smoked tomato bisque, risotto with duck confit and pumpkin seeds and a citrus bundt cake.
Avondale gets gastropub goodies like lamb ribs, tasso deviled eggs and truffled tater tots from Meghan Purcell, a veteran of Mario Batali's Spotted Pig, and Southern forager Scott Ostrander.
Just three years ago, the young owners of Chew, a rustic contemporary downtowner with a strong French bent, took their lust for high flavor and Old World recipes to create Orsay, an unabashedly French neighborhood bistro. The traditional menu of seafood plateaus, croque madame, cassoulet, mussels and frites is elevated with local ingredients and hand-made foie mousse and duck rillettes.
Most recently, the Brasserie has arrived on Jacksonville Beach with chandeliers, vintage lithographs, roasted beets, duck salad, Moroccan lamb and beefy daube stew with olives.
13 Gypsies, Riverside
Local legend Howard Kirk opened this bistro three years ago. He makes his own bread, chorizo, tasso ham and creme fraiche; then he seasons with saffron, mojo and Indian spices. Curried cauliflower, seafood salpicon and seven-way shrimp bar, all $10 or less.
Taverna, San Marco
Seasonal European with rustic warmth starts with tapas, finocchio, salami and pizza with fried egg and house mozzarella. Have a big dinner of pan-roasted chicken with walnuts, Brussels sprout and apricots. Brunch on rosemary prosciutto scones with tangerine foam mimosas.
Merge, Fernandina Beach
The new artisanal menu at Merge has a French accent with gruyere in the crab meat, truffle in the honey and haricots vert tossed with the shrimp. Rare dinner of roasted rabbit with root vegetables and juniper.
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