Thursday, April 22, 2010

Lady who lunches: midday meals in downtown Jacksonville

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to do a project for a major corporation in downtown Jacksonville. Even though I live in Riverside, which is at most a five-minute drive from the urban core, I am embarrassed to say that before taking on the project I had only eaten at one restaurant in the downtown area: Chew. Riverside had hogged my dining attention up to that point, so I decided to branch out and eat at as many lunch spots in the urban core as I could during the term of the project. Here is my take on a few of Jacksonville’s downtown lunch options.

The Burrito Gallery really has that urban-chic-hipster vibe down pat. From what I’ve seen, everyone working there is young and fly, and the urban scene on the outdoor wall is one of the coolest murals I’ve seen.

On my first visit I got to the BG right at noon, which is prime time for the eatery during the weekdays. I waited in line and ordered a small carnitas burrito and shared a basket of chips and salsa with Phil. The chips were handed to me right away so I could munch on them while I waited for my burrito. They were generously portioned, fresh, and appropriately seasoned with good, flaky salt – not showered with harsh Morton’s. The salsa was also fresh and extra lime-y, and I happily crunched away while waiting for my burrito. Good thing I had the chips to keep me company; it took about half an hour for my burrito to make the journey from the kitchen to my belly. When it did make it to my table and I took my first big bite, I was immediately disappointed. I knew I had asked for guacamole and sour cream, which both cost extra, and I remembered requesting pinto beans instead of black. Turns out my order was switched with another diner’s. Too late! I was hungry and I’d already left my mark on the burrito. It contained pork, black beans, romaine, rice, and salsa… but was missing guacamole and sour cream. I could tell the ingredients were of a good quality, but I must admit that I was underwhelmed with this first experience. I made a mental note to call ahead or come early next time to avoid another wait and another mix-up.

A week or so later I went back to try the highly acclaimed fish tacos. I followed my own advice and arrived before the noontime rush; this time my order came out quickly and with a smile, and I scored a seat at a window counter overlooking the outdoor seating area and sidewalk. Not only was the service much improved, but my meal was a memorable winner. The grilled fish was blackened and had a spicy kick; a squeeze of fresh lime really tied the flavors together. Tucked into the flour tortilla alongside the fish were cheese, lettuce, chopped tomato, and what the menu calls a chimichurri sauce (which it wasn’t, really… but it was tasty, so I don’t care what they call it).

The first time I lunched at Burrito Gallery I was a bit confused by the side of coleslaw served with my burrito. I secretively peered around to see if anyone else was eating it and in general found myself thinking, Why bother? For my second lunch I was happy the coleslaw was included with my meal – the cumin in the coleslaw was overkill when eaten on its own, but when tossed into the fish taco the cumin complemented the blackening seasoning on the fish. The cabbage and red onion in the coleslaw also contributed a nice crunchy textural element.

I ordered two tacos but found myself hungry again before the end of the workday. If you’re extra hungry or have a big appetite in general, order three tacos, or two plus an order of chips and salsa. (Tip #1: The website suggests hanging in the bar or back patio for table service if the line at the front of the eatery seems too long. Tip #2: Keep your receipt and take it to Uptown Market for 10% off your total bill.) 21 East Adams Street, Jacksonville. (904)598-2922. Burrito Gallery on Urbanspoon

Café NOLA is a bright, clean, high-windowed space overlooking Hemming Plaza on the ground level of the MOCA. If I wanted to impress guests to Jacksonville with lunch in an impressive setting, Café NOLA would be at the top of my list. I liked the shrimp and grits when I sampled them at the Best of Jacksonville event and had since been looking forward to a full meal here. Lunch started with a bottle of sparkling water and a plate of sweet, dense, chewy rolls served with a mini bowl of vanilla pistachio butter. The high quality of the bread and the creative compound butter made the rolls seem more like an actual first course than an afterthought. The waitress informed me that the chef invents new flavorings for the butter every few days. Good start to the meal!

Following the “bread course,” Phil ordered the lobster mac & cheese with smoked gouda, steamed Maine lobster, tomato, applewood bacon, coral butter crostini, and a petite salad. The pasta was served in a mini cast iron skillet and arrived to our table hot and bubbly. The spiral-shaped cavatappi pasta allowed the creamy, melty gouda to penetrate every possible pasta nook and cranny. After a few bites, Phil had the audacity to suggest that the mac & cheese might be too cheesy and rich. When you’re ordering mac & cheese with bacon and lobster, my friend, you can’t expect to skip away from lunch feeling light on your feet. It was indeed very rich and the side salad was an absolute necessity for cutting through all that fat.

Our waitress said the salmon soba salad is a popular item, so I decided to try it out. The menu describes it as having soba-style noodles, spicy Asian vegetables, cilantro, peanuts, and a lemongrass vinaigrette. From the menu description, I expected a piece of salmon served over a light, lemony vegetable and soba salad. However, the noodles were dressed with a vinaigrette that I found to be more peanut-y than lemongrass-y and a bit too heavy for the delicate soba. Along with the salmon and vegetables, the noodles were placed on a bed of mixed greens that I also felt were weighed down by the dressing. Construction issues aside, I enjoyed the Asian influence in the dish.

With sandwiches starting at $10, and salads and lunch entrees reaching $15, it’s the most expensive downtown option I visited. I look forward to returning and trying one of the appealing-sounding sandwiches on the lower end of their price range, like the smoked salmon BLT, Indian chicken salad sandwich, jerk chicken or tofu wrap, or chicken and asparagus sandwich with brie, grilled onions, and horseradish aioli. 333 North Laura Street, Jacksonville. (904) 366-6911. Cafe Nola on Urbanspoon

The Magnificat Café is modeled after Parisian eateries and is located in a beautiful setting. Phil and I sat outdoors in the atmospheric courtyard and looked over the prettiest corner in downtown Jacksonville: Hemming Plaza to one side and an old stone church to the other. The view is the closest thing to the City of Light you’re going to get in Jacksonville.

With a black and white checkerboard tile floor and paintings evoking Paris and the French countryside, the indoor space recalls a Parisian café. Diners order at a counter from a very friendly staff, wait for their name to be called, then pick up their meal at the counter. The counter service coupled with the fact that the food is served in paper-lined plastic baskets with plastic cutlery makes for a decidedly casual lunch. These elements also make for a quick (and well-priced) meal, which a lot of downtown lunch establishments seem to lack. Because the café is only open for lunch, it predictably attracts a business crowd.

Chef/owner Benois Francois Desclefs grew up in the outskirts of Paris and was educated as a chef in Bourdeaux; most of the menu items are handmade by him. My asparagus and goat cheese quiche was appropriately trembly and wiggly, with a crumbly, buttery crust. It was a great hunk of quiche, although it was a bit difficult to eat out of the basket with a plastic fork. The quiche came with a satisfying carrot and ginger soup that certainly was made with a base of homemade stock. I could have gone for a bit more seasoning and maybe even some cream in the soup, but maybe you think I’m a glutton and cream is just unnecessary. I’m not saying you would be wrong if you thought that.

Phil got a blackened chicken and fresh mozzarella melt on a baguette with pesto mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato. The sandwich confirmed the stereotype that the French really know their baguettes. It was simultaneously crisp and crackly and soft and chewy and the surface was bedecked with tiny microscopic bubbles. I really trusted that baguette, and it made the sandwich for Phil and me. Phil asked for a side of uber-French Lay’s potato chips, but he also could have chosen potato salad or pasta salad, or paid a bit extra for a cup of soup, green salad, or fruit salad.

Magnificat Café has a good variety of salads, wraps, sandwiches, and quiches, and claims to offer the best burger in downtown Jacksonville. I’ll just have to see for myself! 231 North Laura Street, Jacksonville. (904) 353-3588. Magnificat Cafe on Urbanspoon

Phil and I rushed over to Justin’s City Place Café the first week they opened. I read about them in Jacksonville Magazine, and a visit to the café’s website sold me with promises of soul food like fried chicken, meatloaf, and collards, AND Caribbean fare such as curry goat, jerk chicken and plantains. Justin’s sounded like my kind of spot!

We were both in more of a soul food mood than a Caribbean mood; specifically, we were both in a fried chicken kinda mood, which shouldn’t be surprising because every day could be a fried chicken kinda day in my world. We placed our orders at the counter and snagged a table. Unfortunately our timing was perfectly awful and we found ourselves at the end of the lunch-rush line. I can’t stress it enough – when lunching out in downtown Jacksonville, go early or late to avoid the crowds. Never show up right at noon and expect to fit your meal into an hour’s time span! The staff at Justin’s checked up on us a number of times while we waited for our food, giving us status updates and making sure my glass of sweet tea was always full. When our fried chicken wings arrived, they were hot and fresh and crisp and moist and just plain wonderful.

We went with sides of perfectly cooked collard greens and perfectly Southern mac and cheese, and our meals each came with a crumbly cornbread muffin. This is why I love living in the South. We instantly forgot about the wait as we dug in.

Justin’s is the kind of place where you truly feel welcome, where the staff cares about you as not only a customer but also a person, and the friendly guy working the counter offers you a piece of strawberry pie for dessert and asks you what church you go to. If the Caribbean fare is as spot-on as the soul food, then Justin’s might just be my favorite casual downtown joint. 311 West Ashley Street, Jacksonville. (904) 355-2255. Justin's City Place Cafe on Urbanspoon

The Skyline Dining and Conference Center, located on the forty-second floor of the Bank of America building, offers extremely affordable cafeteria food paired with a priceless view.The Skyline is an Aramark cafeteria, so the food isn’t going to win any awards, but you can get a hefty, meaty panino for $5. Phil’s ham panino was pressed, with the usual fixin’s.

My lunch of French onion soup and steamed broccoli with herbed breadcrumbs and parmesan was less appealing, and even less photogenic. The menu changes daily but they’ll always have sandwiches, panini, salads, and a soup option along with daily entrée specials. When we went they were serving “Korean” lettuce wraps filled with lo-mein noodles with some sort of roasted meat. There was also Thai chicken curry and a sad, dry baked mahi mahi. The food isn’t the star of the show. Come for the view. 42nd floor of Bank of America building, 50 North Laura Street, Jacksonville. The Skyline Dining & Conference Center on Urbanspoon

On sunny days when I had the foresight to bring lunch from home, I often sat at one of the tables surrounding the outdoor fountain at The Landing. The eateries in The Landing, however, leave much to be desired: a mediocre Mexican place, a pizza and sports grill, Hooters, a fast-food court, etc. You can happily get good burgers and sandwiches and soups and salads at good prices - in big portions - at the American Café.

The Village Bread Café is another good option in The Landing.

Again, be sure to avoid the noontime lunch rush or you’re guaranteed a sizeable wait. The café offers a large variety of sandwiches served on your choice of freshly-baked bread. While you’re waiting for your lunch, you can salivate over a handsome assortment of pastries displayed in a tempting dessert case. Phil and I shared a ham, applewood-smoked bacon, and Swiss cheese panino with spicy honey mustard. It came with a choice of green salad, fruit salad, coleslaw, mac ‘n’ cheese, or bread pudding. We’ve also purchased bags of mini-ciabatta loaves to bring home. Each bag contains six loaves, and they freeze well. 2 Independent Drive, Jacksonville. (904) 683-7244. Village Bread Cafe on Urbanspoon

For my money, Chew offers the best price to quality ratio in downtown Jacksonville. I wrote a full review of the restaurant here, and have since returned for lunch many times.

Ingredients are top quality, preparation and presentation are thoughtful and articulate, the ambiance is urban and modern yet relaxed and welcoming… and interesting salads and exceptional sandwiches are fairly priced between $8 and $11. Recently I tried the tuna tartine: seared tuna, thinly sliced potatoes, hard boiled eggs and tomato petals on a toasted baguette slice accented with olive tapenade and served with arugula dressed in a red wine herb vinaigrette. I love that the tapenade was on the side of the dish and not layered with the other toppings. This allowed the baguette to remain crisp and I was able to choose the amount of salty tapenade I wanted with each bite. This isn’t a sandwich that you pick up and eat with your hands, lest the heaped toppings topple all over your lap. The salad of spicy arugula (instead of the usual mixed greens) was a perfect choice to accompany this full-flavored sandwich.

On this particular dining occasion one of my companions ordered a roasted chicken and prosciutto open-faced sandwich with basil aioli covered with melted fresh mozzarella. It was hearty and homey and came with a mixed greens salad.

My other dining mate had the Black Forest ham and brie pressed sandwich. This might sound ordinary, but instead of using regular bread the ingredients were sandwiched between two slices of French toast slathered with vanilla-apricot preserves.

This is what Chew is all about – reinterpreting classic pairings and dishes, and making elevated, sophisticated, and comforting food that everyone can understand and enjoy. 117 West Adams Street, Jacksonville. (904) 355-3793. Chew Restaurant on Urbanspoon


Anonymous said...

Hi, I enjoy reading your blog and the nice pictures that accompany them... Would love to see a review by you of my favorite place for lunch, the French Pantry.

virginia bed and breakfast said...

There's a variety of soups, salads and cold sandwiches. Last week's special offerings included Shrimp Bisque, Jerk Shrimp Ranch Salad, Baked Catfish, Shepherd's Pie, Roasted Zucchini with Feta and many more options.