Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Restaurant Orsay

You probably don’t know that Phil and I moved to Jacksonville at the beginning of December. We live in a cozy neighborhood by the side of the river called Riverside (go figure). True to form, I’ve 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.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.

I’m already scoring an A+, and I haven’t had to look far. I can’t 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, let’s 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. There’s 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 I’m so disappointed in myself that I didn’t 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 we’re 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 don’t 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 I’ve 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 don’t mind, it’s 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 I’d 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 can’t 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 wasn’t 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. I’m 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 didn’t 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 Phil’s dish came with a salad with a vinegary dressing – a few bites of that really helped cleanse my palate.Phil’s 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, it’s 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 I’ve always dreamed of having just down the street. Boy am I glad I live in Jacksonville – just down the street from Orsay.

Restaurant Orsay


3630 Park Street, Jacksonville, FL


Orsay on Urbanspoon


PEH said...

you are a very talented communicator! you made me feel as if I shared the meal with you, well done! Sounds like i'll have to check that place out if i'm ever in Jacksonville

Frederick Wright said...

I agree with the previous comment - you are an excellent and detailed writer, and also take superb well-lit photographs.

My partner and I are both highly educated and well-traveled foodies, having lived and worked and eaten in Boston, Manhattan, London, Madrid, Munich, and Brussels (my favorite food city!) but have lived in Jacksonville for these past 5 years. We continue to spend 2-3 months in Europe every year, along with monthly trips to New York and Boston.

The dining scene is indeed pretty dire, with a few exceptional standouts. You are fortunate to be here in Riverside with places like Orsay and Brick, but when you get a chance you might try Chew which is downtown.

Simply Life said...

wow, all that food looks delicious!

Cari said...

Wow, thanks guys for all the praise!! It's easy to write about such a great experience.

PEH - thanks again for stopping by and you should def check out Orsay if you're in town - let me know and I'll join you, any excuse works!

Frederick - sounds like we have a lot in common (Brussels is also one of my fave food cities, as much for the food as for the beer!). I was worried about moving to Jax since everyone says the dining scene is so awful, but I've already found a few gems. We're just around the corner from 13 Gypsies and I went for the first time last night - very cozy and in the style of a Euro bistro, you would probably love it so check it out if you haven't been! I'm a pretty intense home cook so now I'm on a mission to find some groceries where I can pick up some non-traditional veg and dry goods... looking forward to trying Brick and Chew ASAP. If you ever see me around, please say hi, would love to connect with a fellow food-and-travel lover.

Simply Life - thanks for stopping by, it certainly was delicious!!!

Frederick Wright said...

@Cari -

13 Gypsies has been one of our very favorite places since it first opened. The new menu looks amazing and we cannot wait to try it, but we spent November in Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia, and December in Boston and Manhattan, so now we are keeping a low profile and nibbling gingerly on our metamucil biscuits to recover from this two month bacchanal.

The best local grocery for organic dry goods and cheese is Grassroots Market in Five Points (across from Wendy's naturally!) but for more ambitious shopping you will have to trek out to Whole Foods Market in Mandarin or else Native Sun off Baymeadows and 9a. All are excellent, friendly, and reasonably priced.

If you want to try some authentic local flavor, check out 29 South in Fernandina Beach. They do amazing work with southern heritage cooking.

Cari said...

Frederick - the new 13G menu has a little bit of everything. I particularly enjoyed the blackened octopus and the creamy bacon parm risotto but I think we can safely say it's not for anyone trying to recover from a an eating binge:)

Have you eaten at Toro in Boston? We lived in the South End for a couple of years and it was our favorite neighborhood spot.

Wow - Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia - hope to see photos on your blog as I haven't had a chance to visit that part of the world (yet)!

We're going to sign up for a CSA with Magnolia Farms, that should provide a good variety of local veg, and I hadn't heard of Native Sun so I'll put it on the list for the weekend. Thx so much for the reco. I just discovered Grassroots and am psyched that I can walk there in under 10!

Frederick Wright said...

@Cari -

I've been a big fan of the prickly Mr. Oringer at Toro since his explosion into Boston at Clio. We could walk to either place from my brownstone on Columbus, and other favorites from those days were Pho Republique (sadly declined!).

My partner and I are looking at a 2nd home back up in Boston, most likely a vast loft in the Leather District to compliment our loft here in Jacksonville. I miss the food scene up there, so much more accessible than London or New York! But also a bit provincial -- most places stop serving at 10pm, how cute is that?

Cari said...

Frederick I just discovered your page of reviews on Urbanspoon... a treasure trove of recommendations!!

Lisa (bakebikeblog) said...

What a great blog! They are some awesome looking dishes!

Anonymous said...

A word of warning about the CSA you are planning to join... myself and one of my staff (both in the restauraunt industry) joined the last one and we were greatly disapointed. I believe in eating local & supporting farms, but the woman who runs it is rude, the produce is hardly fresh picked and rots quickly by the time you get it and it was the same items over and over for the first 8 weeks. We never recieved anything the last few weeks because of the cold snap that apparently killed every single last thing they had. We received an email stating we would receive "no refund of any kind" due to the weather. Fine, but I do have a garden in my yard and several vegetables lived through that cold snap just fine, so I can't help be skeptical. Not bitter, just think you might consider asking around before you put out your $400. I sure won't be rejoining.

Unknown said...

Excellent blog; glad you've found a home in our neighborhood even if temporary. You hit two of my favorites right off: 13G and Orsay (the steak frites are wicked aren't they). Suggestions: Restaurant Pastiche where chef Eric Fritsche creates lovely flavor combinations, The Jenks House B&B for breakfast (call ahead) where Ila Mae and Tom have a fine garden and they can introduce you to Brian Lapinski who is a notable community farmer, New Fox for traditional southern breakfast, Biscottis for the Thai chicken salad + desserts, and Bold City Brewery on Thu, Fri, Sat evenings for some well crafted local brews.

Cari said...

@Anonymous - Thank you so very much for your advice about the CSA. My husband and I had been putting it off b/c of the price and I am so glad we waited. Since we're new to the neighborhood I hadn't been able to find anyone who had experience with the CSA so I very much value your comment! I'm guessing this is a one-horse town when it comes to CSAs? No competitors out there?

@Doug - thanks for your awesome suggestions! Pastiche is catering a friend's wedding in the spring but I hope to be able to eat at the restaurant beforehand. I've heard good things about Biscotti's, but Jenks House and New Fox weren't on my list so thank you for the recommendations. I'm actually embarrassed that I haven't made it over to Bold City yet, but I have tried their Brown Ale at Kickbacks and really enjoyed it. Thanks again!

Unknown said...

Cari, Glad to help. Here are two social suggestions for you; they are organized by Riverside Avondale Preservation to bring neighbors together to socialize and network.

Jan 21, Thur, 6:30-8:30pm Underbelly. Enter through the shop Anomaly in 5 Points. This is the RAP 180 group of young professionals.

Jan 31, Sun, 4:00 - 7:00pm. Orsay. Private party for RAP members, and residents. $2 house wine for members. You would be welcome.

Don't know how long you'll be living here, but it's always enriching to meet and make friends locally.

Cari said...

@Doug - THANKS again for bringing my attention to the RAP events! My husband Phil and I will almost certainly be able to make it to the RAP 180 event tomorrow, but our plans are up in the air for the 31st so we might not be able to make it to the social at Orsay. Hope to meet you at Underbelly? We do have plans to stay in the area indefinitely and I look forward to getting involved in the neighborhood!

Unknown said...

Missed you at Underbelly (it's a terrific hide-away for a glass of wine - open Thur-Sat evenings); but hope you can make Orsay on Jan 31.