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Ocala restaurants take it up a notch

Stella's pastries
Stella's in Ocala boasts an array of pastries.

Not so long ago, diners in Ocala were thrilled when the town added an Indian restaurant and sushi to a menu long on chains and fast food. The town's formerly limited palate is hard to remember walking off the old downtown square into Stella's Modern Pantry, with modern steel racks packed with sleek cookware, aged balsamic vinegars and the latest Joseph Joseph accessories. The coolers are filled with vacuum-packed steaks, rare salamis and artisan cheeses: Cotija from Oaxaca, Mexico; Cowgirl from California; and Sweetgrass from Georgia. Plus a rainbow of jewel-shaped pastries from Albert Barrett. And, of course, very cool cupcakes.

Stella's is not just for shopping. You can grab a modernist seat and dine on artichoke flatbreads and French cheese plates, prosciutto and serrano ham, fig bread and peppadew peppers.

Ocala now boasts three Indian restaurants, two wine bars, a Brazilian steakhouse, two farmers markets each week, sushi galore and home-grown Great American Coffee Roasters. And a thoroughly authentic French restaurant, La Cuisine, with the farmhouse tarte tatin, chocolate mousse and daring combinations like foie gras on gingerbread.

Stella's in Ocala

A Wagyu Oasis

Greg Mullen
Rancher Greg Mullen raises Wagyu cattle for his Artisinal Dish. [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

A mile west of town, in a red brick strip center with a Churchill Downs cupola, Artisinal Dish sits proudly beside the Horse & Hounds pub and equestrian shops, a thoroughbred in its own right.

Dish is stocked with wine, herbal teas and spices, gourmet grills, mung beans, sprouted quinoa and an array of exotic salts sold in bulk. The kitchen is wide open, exhibition-style, with a daily menu that starts with salads, sandwiches and burgers and adds pizzas at night.

But the star is the luscious Wagyu beef, more precious and fashionable than the organic chicken, goat cheeses, rapini and cremini elsewhere on the menu. Wagyu is the same breed as in Kobe, only these animals are raised on Ocala grass. And in this case the rancher is chef Greg Mullen, who owns Dish with Mary Gary.

You can sample the prime Wagyu ground in 8-ounce burgers on buns baked in-house or in a trio of sliders trimmed with the likes of crispy leeks and hot siracha (surprisingly good with a cucumber water). The big treat is bigger cuts to take home: Among prepared foods, Dish can rustle up cooked entrees like fire-roasted tri-tip, the favorite of California; on the fresh side, there's everything from short ribs to whole tenderloin. The latter is for big spenders only, $48 per pound, yet there's enough appetite for gourmet beef that Mullen is looking for more grazing land.