Thursday, September 30, 2010

Azurea at One Ocean Resort

Drive to Azurea.  You’ve reached the edge of the continent.  You can’t drive any further without sinking (unless you drive one of those land-and-sea duck tour tanks).  Step out of your car (did you tip the valet?), enter the beautifully appointed lobby of One Ocean Resort, and walk through an aqueous blue tunnel that officially symbolizes your passing from a terrestrial world to one ruled by the sea.

Now take a deep breath and enjoy the view.  The folks who decorated this restaurant at the water’s edge appropriately drew inspiration from the vasty deep.  Witness: lots of deep blues and greens and wavy lines and big white-edged picture windows that frame the ocean dunes and let in an abundance of natural light.  And the restaurant’s name, Azurea, which conjures images of a vivid blue underwater world. 

Azurea feels fancy, but not uptown-chic fancy.  It’s beachy fancy, which means I got away with wearing khakis, a sparkly shirt, and fancy sandals for a recent Friday dinner.  I like that the people who created the atmosphere at Azurea paid attention to potential local clientele and the vibe at the beach, where most folks don’t wear shirts or shoes for five months out of the year.  A lot of times these fancy hotel restaurants can get pretty prim and stodgy and dull.  Although the high-backed semi-circle booth we sat in was constructed of opulent and textural fabrics and the overall feel of the dining area is that of an upscale hotel, there’s not a white tablecloth in sight and the warm and friendly staff throw any potential stuffiness right out one of those dune-framing picture windows.    

Ah, the staff.  I can’t say enough good things about The TJ.  He attended to our table throughout the evening and by dessert, I felt like we’d been friends for years.  He was young, which obviously contributed a youthful and un-stuffy vibe to the experience, yet he really knew his stuff.  Wine pairings, the historical lineage of kurobota pork, any question I threw his way about the menu.  You could tell he has a real passion for food, wine, and pleasing his customers.

Chef Ted Peters has cooked around the globe - London, France, the Caribbean, Miami, Texas, Boston - and you see glimpses of these global influences in Azurea’s menu.  It changes with the seasons, which is a good thing for those who appreciate seasonal fare and for repeat visitors to Azurea.  But it’s a bad thing if you head to the restaurant expecting to see a specific below-described dish on the menu.  I like the look of the autumn line-up – you can find it here.  If you’ve got the cash for it, I’d suggest trying the Adventurous Palate tasting menu.  Chef Ted Peters and his sous chefs will construct a menu based on your personal preferences, what’s fresh and in-season, and the whimsy and creativity of the cooking team.  

Our first taste of Azurea was an amuse bouche that evoked summer like no other dish can: a tiny tomato, a single leaf of basil, and a slice of mozzarella strung on a dainty little stick and anchored by a square of olive oil and balsamic-soaked bread.

Could have perhaps been a bit more creative or artfully presented but, like I said, it tasted like summer.  I like summer.

The wine list at Azurea is as thick as a phone book, and TJ seemed to be intimately familiar with the entire selection.  Phil and I each ordered a glass of citrusy Handley Gewurtztraminer to accompany our appetizers and bread course.  Bread course, you ask?  Azurea presents all guests with an impressively well-though-out bread service: a basket of assorted breads with four spreads presented on a long, transparent blue plate that echoes the aquatic theme of the restaurant.  It’s even brought out by a separate waiter, so it feels extra special.

The sundried tomato and kalamata olive tapenade had an incredible depth of flavor and complexity.  It was my favorite spread by far and displayed an admirable balance between the saltiness of the olives and the acidity and sweetness of the tomatoes.  Also delicious were the creamy elephant garlic confit with Maldon sea salt and the parsley-sprinkled Vermont Butter and Cheese Company European-style butter.  The butter tasted fresh and its sweetness reminded me of the butter I used to devour by the stick in Switzerland.  The bread service also included your standard olive oil and balsamic vinegar combination.  We had fun trying each spread on different types of bread. 

For his appetizer, Phil went with the cast iron-seared jumbo blue crab cake.  The cake was served on a bed of apple cider-braised collard greens and surrounded by charred red and green heirloom tomatoes and a round of crisp pancetta.  According to Phil, it was the best crab cake he can remember eating and he particularly enjoyed the salty and textural elements contributed by the crisp pancetta.  I thought there might have been a bit much going on, but I really appreciated the Southerness of the dish and agree with Phil that the crab cake itself was an exemplar of its kind.  (George Singletary, Jacksonville’s Fine Dining Examiner, agrees with Phil that this is the best appetizer in Jacksonville.  It made it onto the autumn menu, so make sure to try it when you visit.) 

I chose the caramelized Vidalia onion tarte tatin with melted mini heirloom tomatoes, cured Niçoise olives, and Indian River lime emulsion.  The Chef really respected the onion, know what I mean?  The caramelization brought out the natural sweetness of the Vidalia and instead of falling apart in a limp and soggy heap, the onion retained its texture.  Serving it with the caramelized side up made for a nice presentation and although I wished for some sort of element to tie the onion with the pastry crust underneath – maybe a sauce or some other juicy element to penetrate the dryness of the pastry? – I happily drug the onion tart through the sweet lime emulsion and alternated bites of the warm, juicy, squirty tomatoes with the onion.  The lime emulsion also served to dress the salad of watercress, herbs, and crunchy strips of jicama. 

Phil and I had a tricky time deciding on our mains.  TJ recommended the hand cut Wagyu beef tenderloin and the Spice Island duo of Caribbean pork and grilled scallops.  But, probably because we had just passed through that tunnel into the underwater world, and seeing as we were surrounded by such an undeniably aquatic atmosphere, it felt appropriate to order seafood.

Hence Phil’s grilled Atlantic snapper with pineapple lime salsa.  The fish was firm, moist, and flaky and well-complemented by the sweet fruit salsa.  However, Phil was disappointed in the bleu cheese “cheesecake” served with the snapper.  It was the side of the day and the heavy, custardy texture and intensely rich flavor overpowered the mild fish and delicate sweetness of the fruit.  Phil doesn’t particularly like bleu cheese in the first place, and he wasn’t given a choice of sides, nor was he informed of the side until the plate arrived to the table.  I love bleu cheese and this side would have gone well with a richer protein.  Like that hand-cut Wagyu.  But with the snapper, not so much.

TJ paired Phil’s snapper with a glass of DR Loosen Riesling.  Again, good choice for the fish but not for the bleu cheese cake.

I also took the seafaring route and ordered the Fresh Catch, Three Ways.  It was just like it sounds: the catch-of-the-day – grouper – prepared three different ways and propped up on puffs of creamy mashed potatoes.

Let’s look at each fish preparation, starting from the right and heading to left.  The grilled fish with a tropical fruit salpicon was immensely refreshing and a perfect summertime preparation.  I wished I’d eaten the beignet battered grouper with smoked Vidalia onion remoulade first, since as with any fried food it got a bit soggy as it sat.  However, I’m a sucker for fried stuff and I loved the light batter.  Overall the remoulade was tasty and a good choice for the battered fish, but I found myself wishing the onions had caramelized and softened a bit more.  I wanted them to melt into the remoulade but they were still too raw and bitey for my liking.    

Of the three preparations, my favorite was the bronzed fish with a citrus butter emulsion.

I love that term – bronzed.  It was lighter on the spices than a blackened preparation and the subtleness of the seasoning really allowed the freshness of the fish to shine through.  Plus, the word “bronze” reminds me of summer days at the beach slathering myself with Hawaiian Tropic.  Good times, good times.

TJ paired this dish with a bright and crisp Sonoma Cutrer Russian River chardonnay.  It was a good choice for pairing with an array of preparations, and I liked that it was well-balanced and not too oaky.

In the interest of research, Phil and I also ordered a side dish of four cheese baked macaroni.  It was totally unnecessary.  Unlike some upscale eateries, the portion sizes at Azurea are more than ample to satisfy a hungry person.  But, hey, I’m only human for being unable to pass up a cheesy mixture of asiago, cheddar, parmigiano, and manchego tossed with curly pasta and topped with crunchy breadcrumbs.  Cellentani pasta really is a superior choice for macaroni and cheese.  Its curves and nooks and crannies catch all that cheesy béchamel, and the fresh breadcrumb and parmigiano topping allowed for a bit of crispness in every bite.

Also unnecessary but impossible to pass up was the bittersweet chocolate soufflé with vanilla crème anglaise.  Apparently Nancy, the pastry chef at Azurea, was the food stylist for the Horse Whisperer and has baked her way around the globe.  The soufflé required advance notice and as such arrived warm, straight from the oven to our table, with a decadent, gooey center and a little pitcher of extra crème anglaise to drizzle in the center once we’d scooped out a few spoonfuls of silken chocolateyness.  A couple shots of espresso rounded out a very enjoyable dining experience.

So here’s where it needs to be said that Phil and I didn’t… well… we didn’t pay a cent for the meal.  We were invited by the restaurant.  I was initially uneasy about accepting free stuff – expensive free stuff, to boot – but I’m only human and I’d really been wanting to eat at Azurea and to meet Chef Ted Peters in person.  I think his involvement with the James Beard Foundation has the potential to bring national exposure to Jacksonville and the First Coast.  And hopefully his relationship with other local chefs (he’s invited a few of my favorites to cook for a big James Beard dinner in the spring) is another step towards creating a culinary identity for our city.

Chef Ted came out and spoke with Phil and me after each course, and his passion for food and fine dining was inspiring.  But… I couldn’t help notice that, on a Friday evening, there were only two other tables of diners.  I’ve heard a similar story from other friends who’ve dined at Azurea: the restaurant is beautiful, the food is good, but often, tables are empty.  Why?

I think partly it’s because the economy isn’t going so great, in case you didn’t hear, and fine dining is one of the first and easiest things to cut out of a tight budget.  And it’s not just that the prices of entrees hover in the upper $20 to lower $30 range; I think it’s also the simple fact that Azurea is a restaurant inside a fancy hotel, and as beachy-chic and locally-oriented as they try to be, there’s no denying that.  I do have to say that the dishes were presented like… like… hotel dishes.  Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not for everyone.

Another issue I’ve heard about Azurea relates to consistency.  I’ve told friends about my great experience dining there and they didn’t seem to have received the same attention and quality as Phil and I did.  I know food and dining is a subjective, personal experience, but it’s worth pointing out, especially since we were invited guests.  A friend shared a photo with me of a disappointing macaroni and cheese they were served at Azurea.  It didn’t look nearly as cheesy as mine, nor did it have as much of that delicious breadcrumb topping.

I urge you to dine at Azurea and form your own opinion based on your experience with the food and service.  For most of us, it’s a special occasion kind of deal.  I think it would be very difficult to walk out of there without spending less than $100 for dinner.  But think of the breezes, and of the ocean view – sadly, a rare thing offered by restaurants in our city by the sea.  For some, that view is priceless.

Azurea at One Ocean Resort
One Ocean Boulevard, Atlantic Beach, FL  32233 (904)249-7402
Azurea at One Ocean on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Canfield Fair

The Canfield Fair.  Largest county fair in the state of Ohio.  Harbinger of autumn and the beginning of the school year.  Best place to slurp Lemon Shake-Ups, munch fresh-cut fries, and tackle giant corndogs.  Showcase of the heartland’s agricultural abundance and continuing farmland traditions.  Familiar faces, community spirit, family values.  The Canfield Fair: America at its very best.

Lucky me.  I grew up just down the road from the Canfield Fair and went at the end of the summer nearly every year in my youth.  In high school I was surely more concerned with scoping out those cute corn-fed boys than I was in the myriad varieties of tomatoes and prized gourds in the agricultural barns.  But a visit this Labor Day weekend to the fair reminded me just how lucky I am to have grown up in America’s heartland.  Today, my parents live even closer to the fair and my fair visit has been one of the highlights of my time here.

This year marked the fair’s 164th anniversary and it’s common to see generations of families milking cows, grooming horses, serving apple cider, and attending the demolition derby together.

Let’s go on a tour of the 2010 Canfield Fair.  And let’s, of course, start with the food.  At over 350 acres the fair is massive, and much of the space is occupied by concessions.  Over 1,000 concessions, according to the fair’s website.  Me, first thing I do is go straight for the fresh-cut fries when I go to the Canfield Fair.  My mom says there are two brands that vie for the title of best fries: Richardson’s and Hoover’s.  Each brand operates multiple stands on different midways.  In the interest of research (!), I tried both.  First up was Richardson’s.  

The perfect fair fry: thicker than a shoestring but definitely not fat, skin-on, soft on the inside and crisp at the edges, bendy, just a tad greasy… the perfect formula for sopping up globs of ketchup and sprays of vinegar.  Richardson’s is serious about their fries; they even come in paper cups branded with the company logo.  Know what my favorite part of eating fries out of cups is?  Those last few stragglers soaked with the tang of ketchup and vinegar hiding down there at the bottom.  Go on, fish ‘em outta there, get your fingers and hands greasy and sticky all the way up to your wrist.  You only get this once a year. 

It was virtually impossible to choose a favorite between Richardson’s and Hoover’s.  Hoover’s enjoyed all the same traits of the perfect fry as did the potatoes from Richardson’s.

I suppose I do prefer the glass bottles of vinegar at Hoover’s to Richardson’s spray bottles.  I really like a lot of vinegar on my fries, and it takes a lot of spraying to get them to my liking.  Richardson’s, though, has an extra size option.  At Hoover’s, you choose between small, large, and a bucket.  Richardson’s has a tiny little small cup.  So, if you’re like me and want to sample as many different fair foods as possible, the small size at Richardson’s will give you a taste without taking up too much room in your stomach.

But I’m splitting hairs here.  Richardson’s or Hoover’s – you can’t go wrong.

While Richardson’s is single-mindedly focused on serving the perfect fry, Hoover’s also sells Lemon Shake-Ups, a perennial fair favorite.  Glasses full of juiced lemon halves and sugar are lined up along the counter, with bright paper lemonade cups as hats.  When you place your order, the vendor adds ice and water and applies a few good, firm shakes.  Nothing quenches your thirst better, or serves as a better accompaniment to fries.

Another treat that brings me back to my youth and just screams YOU’RE AT THE FAIR! is a DiRusso’s Italian sausage sandwich topped with peppers, onions, and tomato sauce.  This Youngstown-based company gained street-cred by selling its sausage sandwiches at fairs and festivals and is now the best-selling sausage in the area.  DiRusso’s is over 50 years old and still uses family recipes that have been handed down for three generations.  You can purchase their frozen products at a number of area grocery stores.  But it’s only when I eat one of their sausages sandwiches outdoors, surrounded by the atmosphere of the fair, that it take me back to when I was a kid.  

You can smell the distinctive aroma of DiRusso’s sausage and peppers before you actually see the concession stand.  Their sausage isn’t shy on the spices.  You can choose your heat level, but all of them include a good amount of fennel.  The soft bun soaks up the tomato sauce and juices from the meat… mmm…

When I go to the Canfield Fair, I usually pick up a fried cheese at the Antone’s booth near the grandstand.  

Antone’s is a small local chain of Italian restaurants that has been around since the 1960s.  The restaurants serve up Italian classics, of which fried cheese was always my favorite when I was growing up.  Antone’s doesn’t bother to cut their cheese into wimpy little batons, like most other places.  Oh no.  They bread and fry a nice square hunk of mozzarella and top it with a healthy dose of their spaghetti sauce.  This isn’t finger food; cut into the square and the cheese oozes out, leaving a trail of stringy goodness all the way to your mouth.

There are a few food items that you just have to order at any fair you visit.  Like a corndog.

But just any corndog won’t do at the Canfield Fair.  How about a giant corndog?  Double the dog, double the size.  My dad’s hand is HUGE.  This corndog was HUGE.  Three of us couldn’t even eat half of it.

The Canfield Fair, like many fairs, is big on the meat.  This year a two-pound $17 hamburger made headlines, as did a concession serving chocolate-covered bacon.  You can always find piles of grilled turkey haunches, Philly cheesesteaks, and barbecued ribs.

Then there’s the creativity involved with desserts.  I spotted a stand advertising deep-fried Pop Tarts.  The thought of that makes me nauseous, but warm blackberry cobbler a-la-mode certainly does not.

I also tried a sip of cherri cider that tasted like a cherry Lifesavers and was sweet enough to be dessert.

Other than the concessions selling ready-made fries and sausages and cheeses and meats and desserts, the Canfield Fair is a place where we can connect with the source of our food and the traditions that have inspired Northeast Ohio’s down-home food culture for generations.  I particularly enjoyed poking around the poultry barn and watching the cows getting milked.  Guess I'm officially a city girl.

The agricultural barns not only display the pride of local farmers and the bounty of the area, but also serve as a colorful reminder of the beauty of the harvest.  Many of the produce displays could have easily been mistaken for works of art.  

I learned about the multitude of varieties of tomatoes and peppers that are grown locally.  They have charismatic names like Fat ‘n’ Sassy, Golden Jubilee, Better Boy, Early Girl, and Green Magic.

My mine was boggled by all the different fruits and vegetables and meats that can be canned (kohlrabi! buffalo?!).

The display of canned items completely fascinated me, with whimsical names (dilly beans), unfamiliar ingredients (sassafras), and a good dose of REALLY?!ness (bison and ground chuck patties).

Did you know there were so many different varieties and colors of apples?!

Or that you could have SO much fun with squash?!  Prizes were awarded for fattest zucchini, longest zucchini, heaviest zucchini, prettiest zucchini, and my favorite, curviest zucchini.

The veggie fun didn’t stop there.  I think I enjoyed the “Vegetable Oddities” display a little too much.  Eggplants with XXX-rated protuberances, convoluted bell peppers, potatoes in unnatural shapes. 

I think next year I should enter the vegetable decorating contest.  Look up “good, clean fun” in the dictionary and this is the photo you’ll see.

One of my favorite barns has always been the one displaying giant pumpkins.  This year, a hefty 1,244-pounder took home the prize.

My ma, pa, and I spent four hours eating and looking at vegetables and canned foods, but there is much more entertainment to be had at the Canfield Fair.  Apart from country music concerts and watching the cows being milked, you can also pet baby pygmy goats and watch any number of animal shows.

There are rock bands and Appalachian folk music, too.  Just like my grandma and her family probably sang when they lived in a coal-mining camp in West Virginia.

The Canfield Fair is a place where traditions stay alive.  Where the past is as relevant as the present, and more valuable than the future.

Canfield Fair
7265 Columbiana-Canfield Rd. 
Canfield, OH 44406
(330)533-4107

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Breezy eating at the beach

This time of year is my favorite time of year to play –and eat – and drink – at the beach.  Just when I start thinking, Hey! alright, it’s September, fall’s coming soon… then BAM! I leave the cool confines of my AC’d apartment and quickly remember that, in Jacksonville, summer lasts until November.  So.  I’m infinitely grateful for the ocean breezes that, like most of my friends who live at the beach, never seem to venture further inland than the intracoastal.  Lucky for me I’m not a geographic elitist.  I may not be one for sand and surf, but I do love the laid-back, no-worries vibe found at many restaurants and eateries near Jacksonville’s coast.  Here’s an overview of my favorite breezy, beachy restaurants and bars in Jacksonville Beach, Atlantic Beach, and Neptune Beach.

SALT LIFE FOOD SHACK
Salt Life is a singular lifestyle brand that is trying its very best to singlehandedly embody Jacksonville’s beach culture… and I have to say, they’re doing a pretty good job.  T-shirts, bumper stickers, koozies – you see them all over the place.  Salt Life Food Shack is a relatively recent addition to the brand and to the Jax Beach dining scene.  It occupies the spot where Harry's used to be for years, but they've knocked down all the inside walls to make a huge, bright, airy, oceany open space, with the main dining area separated from a bar area simply by a huge aquarium.  The brick walls have all been painted white or sky blue and the ceilings were left exposed.  There are all these cool montages of beach life paintings hung on the walls.  Plus they created a covered outdoor patio.  Harry's was so dark and claustrophobic - Salt Life is the total opposite of that.

You get a beach vibe the second you step into Salt Life, and that oceany feel carries over to the menu.  Seafood is the name of the game, although they do have a rockin' beer can chicken which I'll tell you more about in a sec.  There's a raw bar and sushi section, and a bunch of salads, sandwiches, and seafood entrees.  Lots of simple preparations to highlight the freshness of the ingredients.  All the waitresses I saw were young and bubbly and gorgeous and ours was extremely competent and friendly, so double score for that.  

To be honest, I really wanted to hate this place before I ate there.  I had tried to do dinner at Salt Life twice before sitting down to lunch but never made it inside due to hour and a half waits on Friday and Saturday nights.  !!  The eatery was crawling with tan, cutesie beach people both times.  Blech.  Plus, the whole concept is so cha.  A restaurant piggybacking off the cheesy Salt Life bumper sticker craze?  I was thinking the place would be all like, Duuuuude, Salt Life isn't a restaurant, it's a state of miiiiiiind, bro.  I mean, I even hate the font they use for that Salt Life stuff.  But my experience wasn't like that at all.  

I had been hearing about this poke bowl from seemingly every person who lives out at the beach so I definitely had to try and it see what all the buzz was about.  A friend had given me a really hot tip: order the Hawaiian Shrimp Bowl, but substitute ahi tuna for the shrimp.  Boy was she right - when the waitress brought me the dish she said all the cooks in the kitchen were really excited about it.  And so was I!  A big bowl of sticky Japanese-style short grain rice topped with diced, stir-fried squash, zucchini, onions, red bell peppers, and pineapple all cooked in a ginger-soy glaze, then topped with spinach, avocado, and raw ahi tuna slices sprinkled with sesame seeds.  All the ingredients were so fresh and the rice was perfectly cooked and they served it with chopsticks and it was just so darn good.   It was filling without being at all heavy and I can't tell you how much it hit the spot. 

One of my girlfriends ordered the beer can chicken.  Salt Life offers daily specials and beer can chicken was up for Sunday.  The chicken was ridiculously tender and had a glaze on the outside that made the skin salty and flavorful.  It was served with an ear of grilled corn with a spicy mayo dressing drizzled on top.  A really hearty and well-prepared meal for just nine bucks.  She took half of it home.

My other friend got the East Coast shrimp roll: poached shrimp tossed in a light mayonnaise dressing with celery in a toasted roll.  The shrimp salad was refreshing and the light dressing allowed the flavor of the shrimp to really come through.  However, we really could have done without the melted cheese on top of the roll.  If I were you, I'd ask for no cheese - unnecessary and not traditional.  The roll came with thick seasoned fries.

Salt Life Food Shack would be perfect if only they took dinner reservations on the weekends.  The parking lot is a nightmare, but they do have valet so I can't really hold their popularity against them.   If you have friends or family visiting from out of town, bring them to Salt Life!  It’s Jacksonville’s beach scene and coastal food culture at its best.  1018 Third Street North, Jacksonville.  (904) 372-4456.  http://www.saltlifefoodshack.com/
Salt Life Food Shack on Urbanspoon

MELLOW MUSHROOM
Mellow Mushroom is a pizza joint that has enjoyed great success in northern Florida.  This new-ish location on 3rd Street in Jacksonville Beach seems to have been a smash hit from the start.  The restaurant shares a wall with Salt Life Food Shack, so if you’re wondering where all the tan young thangs eat dinner on the weekends, well, now you know where to find them!  (Advice: car pool if you can.  The shared parking lot will test your nerves.)

This is a hip place that attracts a fun crowd.  When you enter Mellow Mushroom you immediately notice the retro-funk décor and psychedelic motif.  

They have a decent selection of domestic and import brews on tap.  The menu ranges from standard to experimental, as the creative mindset of the restaurant's owners steers Mellow Mushroom in directions that make this place different from all the other pizza houses in town.  You'll see lots of hippie-inspired pizza names like Kosmic Karma, Magical Mystery Tour, and the Philosopher, and this vibe and sense of humor extend to all aspects of dining at the Mellow Mushroom.

I’d recommend dining outside on Mellow Mushroom's patio if the weather is cooperating.  You get breezes out here at the beach that don’t reach us city dwellers, and the tone is relaxed – dare I say, mellow? – with lights casually strung about overhead and lots of sunburnt, rowdy young people hanging out in large groups.  I've never come here for the bar scene before, but the giant bar inside the restaurant combined with the festive mood on the patio made me think it would be a fun night.  Plus, they have a pretty decent selection of bottled and draft brews.   

I really like the pizza here, and according to my beach-residing friends it competes for the unofficial title of best slice in town.  Last time I visited my date ordered a 10" pizza with some pretty standard toppings - pepperoni, green peppers, extra cheese.  I had a slice and we both agreed that the crust at Mellow Mushroom is some of the best in town - it holds up well to the toppings and the thick outer border was chewy and almost had a sourdough-like tang.  I was glad we ordered extra cheese and I'll do the same when I return.

My dish was less successful, mostly because it was cold when it was supposed to be hot.  Serves me right for ordering something semi-healthy at a pizza joint.  I got the portobello mushroom stuffed with artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, feta and spinach… topped with mozzarella, baked in the oven and served over a salad.  It was an appetizer dish, so we speculated that they threw it in the oven thinking we wanted it to come out before the pizza, then it just sat around until the pizza was done.  It had potential, though.  But it needed more artichokes.

The service was really slow outside on the deck because it was so busy, so don't expect to come here for a quick meal on the weekends.  Our waitress was really nice and she was doing her best - it was just packed.  But hey - it's still way better than the two hour wait next door at Salt Life!  1018 3rd Street North, Jacksonville Beach.  (904) 372-4456. 
Mellow Mushroom on Urbanspoon

TACOLU BAJA MEXICANA
Tacolu is another fun, casual, energetic place out at the beach.  On the weekends it’s always crawling with taco-hungry folks willing to wait up to an hour for a table.  Luckily Tacolu has a happenin’ bar area and the best tequila selection in town to help bide the time. 

The restaurant bills itself as serving Baja-style tacos, and that’s what I always get when I go.  You order tacos individually – three tacos and a side fill me up, especially with all the munching on chips and salsa and queso and guacamole.  Last time I went, I ordered a Baja fish taco, Chingona chicken taco, and brisket taco.  They’re my favorites.  The Baja fish taco was the biggest of the bunch, with big hunks of beer-battered mahi, cabbage, pico, chipotle crema, and cilantro stuffed into a homemade corn tortilla.  The chingona chicken is tender, full of flavor, and slightly spicy from the tomatillo-chile de arbol salsa drizzled on top.  And the brisket taco is rich and filling.  The beef is slow-roasted in Dos Equis Amber beer and served on a soft flour tortilla with homemade Ranchera sauce, poblano peppers, cotija cheese, diced onion and cilantro.  Don’t forget to squeeze lime over everything.

Phil’s Tacolu verde taco was a less spicy version of the Chingona chicken taco, but equally delicious.

My favorite side is an ear of Mexican street corn.  It’s topped with cotija cheese, chipotle crema, chile powder, and a squeeze of lime.

I like that Tacolu exercises creative license with their taco fillings.  While you won’t find a cheeseburger taco, lamb taco with feta sauce, or Asian-inspired bangin' shrimp taco in Baja, I really appreciate that the restaurant isn’t bound by a notion of authenticity.  They like to have fun.  So do I.  Their enchiladas are also different from what we’re used to, cuz they’re stacked instead of rolled.  I tried the enchilada roja the other day: freshly made corn tortillas layered with slow-roasted beef brisket smothered in homemade ranchera sauce and Mexican cheese.  Mexican lasagna.  Yum.  My mom-in-law ordered it with cilantro-spinach rice.

I was very happy to see the Aperol Skinny Margarita on the cocktail list.  Tacolu’s Irene entered the drink in the Jacksonville Mixology Competition at Orsay a couple months back and took home the second place prize!  Irene was very proud of the fact that the Skinny Margarita uses all natural ingredients, and I was just stoked that it tasted so fresh and clean and citrusy.  The drink contains Corazon blanco, Aperol, organic cucumber liqueur, fresh-squeeze lime juice and agave nectar.  The night I visited Tacolu there were some Cuervo promo girls passing around free shots of Cuervo silver.  Si.

Taco Lu gets packed on weekends, when parking can be a bit of a headache.  Best to go during the week or early or late on Friday or Saturday to avoid the dinner rush.  If that’s not possible, well, there’s always that wall full of tequila at the bar!  1183 Beach Boulevard, Jacksonville Beach, FL.  (904) 249-8226.  http://tacolu.com/
TacoLu on Urbanspoon

SINGLETON’S SEAFOOD SHACK
Singleton's is a seafood shack of the highest order.  The eatery is in a rambling old wooden building right over the water on the Intracoastal, in the Mayport area of Atlantic Beach.  It looks like it could fall into the water at any moment.  That's why it's called a shack, I suppose.

If the waterfront location and fishing boats parked in front of the restaurant aren't clues enough, you'll know exactly what you're getting into the minute you walk into Singleton's.  There's a display of fresh seafood hanging out on ice right by the door, and the kitchen is immediately behind this display.  You can watch the cooks grab a fillet of triggerfish, or sheepshead, or some crab legs, or a soft-shelled crab... turn around... and cook it.  Right there.  Pretty fresh.

We went on Saturday night at prime dinner time and were told there would be a pretty sizeable wait, but our table was ready within twenty minutes.  Perfect amount of time to walk around outside, take a stroll down the docks, admire the boats, take some sunset photos.  Look at the wooden boat replicas and local art in the back room.  Grab a beer at the bar.

We were seated in the indoor area that's A/C'd, but honestly the temperature was no different inside than it was outside with the breeze coming off the water and all.  Our waitress was exceedingly friendly and nice.  I think I'd get sick of slinging the same fried seafood day after day, but she showed not a single sign of jadedness.  We started with conch fritters.  Like everything else we ordered, they arrived hot hot hot to our table, fresh outta the fryer.

I went with fried sheepshead (a local fish) and shrimp.  Others at the table had Cajun-fried triggerfish, fried scallops, and grilled shrimp and triggerfish.  I'm glad I tried the sheepshead since I’ve only seen it available here in Northeast Florida.  But I definitely preferred the triggerfish, another local option - it's more meaty and moist and flaky.  My favorite preparation was Cajun-fried so I'll get that next time!  As far as sides are concerned - get the collards.  They're well-seasoned and tasty.  We also had fries, baked potatoes, rice and beans, and coleslaw floating around, and they were all pretty standard.  Everything's served with plastic cutlery on Styrofoam plates.  I wouldn't have it any other way.

It seems that the right thing to do here is to get your seafood fried.  But my mother-in-law ordered her shrimp and triggerfish grilled and I actually preferred it that way.  Bonus for my waistline!

I don't think Singleton's is cheap necessarily - mains are pushing $20.  But if you realize that you're getting enough food on one plate for three people, then you begin to see just how reasonably priced the food is here.  We took enough food home for at least another meal.  
Singleton's makes me wish I grew up in Jacksonville.  My husband grew up in Atlantic Beach and this is the food he ate when he was a kid.  Now I understand why he was incredulous when I told him that I'd never eaten seafood before we met.  There's no ocean in Ohio.  Boy am I happy to live in Florida now.
Don't listen to the reviews on Yelp and Urbanspoon telling you to steer clear of Singleton's.  This place is what northeast Florida is all about.  It’s a great example of our seafood culture and the casual atmosphere that permeates nearly all of our most-loved local eating establishments.  Any a self-respecting food snob will love this place - awesome views, lived-in feel, the freshest local catch imaginable paired with well-prepared regional favorites like hushpuppies and coleslaw and smoked fish dip?  Local color at its finest.  (Watch out for a future post covering more of Jacksonville’s fish camps.)  4728 Ocean Street, Atlantic Beach.  (904) 246-4442.
Singleton's Seafood Shack on Urbanspoon

CARIBBEE KEY
When I lived in Boston and came down to Jacksonville for Christmas or spring break to visit Phil’s family, the first place I wanted to go was Caribbee Key.  With an upstairs bar open to the breezes of the ocean, affordable beers, and unmistakably Floridian fare, this eatery embodies the laid-back, casual surfer vibe of the beach.  

Their conch fritters are some of the best around - moist, well-browned, and always fresh and hot.  

I had a cup of roasted corn and crab chowder once and was less impressed, but generally their seafood offerings are fresh, simply prepared, and filling.  I can definitely recommend the sweet potato fries and the peel-n-eat Caribbee shrimp.  Phil usually gets the Mahi2 sandwich, blackened.  

The place really gets bopping at night, when it becomes difficult to fight your way to the bar on the upstairs level.  There’s often an island-y reggae type band playing downstairs, and a good mix of just-turned-21 and just-turned-30 folks.  I only go out at the beach like twice a year, and it seems everyone who's out on the weekends comes through Caribbee Key for at least a drink.  So, the place is definitely a fixture in my going-out-at-the-beach rotation.  It's like a high-school reunion, only less awkward and only the cool people were invited.

Know what you should drink at Caribbee Key?  The Lemon Drop Martini.  It’s the absolute perfect after-dinner drink.  Kind of like a limoncello, only girlier cuz it's served in a martini glass with a cute little curly lemon peel.  It's really strong - just one should do the trick.  They'll make a "guy" version too, if you ask - all that means is that they put it in a plastic solo cup instead of a martini glass, and they skip the lemon peel.

I like the slogan on the website:  Dine, Dance, and Find Romance.  I'm sure more than one beach bum, full of conch and Corona, has waltzed out of Caribbee Key with a one-night romance on a hot summer night.  (Tip: Please oh please do not forget your ID when you head to Caribbee Key.  They don't mess around here and the bouncers won't accept a smile and a flirt in lieu of a drivers license.)  100 1st Street, Neptune Beach, FL.  (904) 270-8940.  http://caribbeekey.com/
Caribbee Key on Urbanspoon  

CASA MARINA
Casa Marina is a stunning colonial building situated right on the ocean.  I think it must be the classiest spot in Jax Beach.  A long walkway leads you over the dunes and drops you directly onto the sandy beach.    

The Casa Marina is a popular venue for intimate cool-weather weddings in the courtyard.  I attended a wedding here and got to try the brunch buffet.  It included many items from the regular Sunday brunch menu and a good mix of sweet and savory options.  Most were quite good, but I can't say I'd be willing to spend $26.95 of my own money to have brunch here.  To me, brunch just wouldn't be brunch without a mimosa or bloody Mary, so figure in the cost of tax, tip, and a drink and you're easily looking at $80 for brunch for two.  Maybe for a special occasion.  But maybe not.

What I can recommend without hesitation are the unparalleled ocean views from the Penthouse Lounge on the top floor.  Enter through the side of the Casa Marina and wind your way up some gorgeous wooden stairs to the top floor.  When you reach the lounge, the first thing you'll see is a very cool wooden bar lit by pendant lamps dangling from the ceiling.  The main lounge area is straight ahead.  It's a circular room with floor-to-ceiling windows on nearly all sides so you have an amazing ocean view from almost every single inside table.  

It was drizzling so we didn't sit outside.  However, most of the outdoor deck is covered by a permanent tent so it really wouldn't have been a problem for us to sit under the tent.  Also great for providing shade from the sun!
The lounge has an extensive cocktail menu with tasty-sounding martinis like a blueberry lemon drop, bikinitini, and Caribbean cosmo.  Girls get specials on the drinks every Friday.  Our waitress was extremely friendly and recommended a key lime martini that wasn't listed on the menu - she had the bartender make it especially for our table.  It was frothy and creamy and tasted just like key lime pie.

We also ordered bleu chips and crab cakes.  The bleu chips are housemade potato chips topped with warm crumbled bleu cheese and a rich rosemary balsamic reduction.  And the crab cake was crisp and full of crab and came with two sauces: whole grain mustard and sweet chili.  

If you have out-of-town guests, take them to the Penthouse Lounge at the Casa Marina!  The view, the Spanish colonial style, the locally-themed martinis, the tasty snacks... you can't go wrong.  691 1st St
Jacksonville Beach.  (904) 270-0025.
 
http://www.casamarinahotel.com/
Casa Marina on Urbanspoon

SUN DOG DINER
Sun Dog is one of the signature restaurants found in the Neptune Beach/Atlantic Beach Town Center.  The casual menu, service and atmosphere have been satisfying the tastes of beach locals for generations.  Many people come into Sun Dog straight from the beach with sunburnt necks and sandy flip flops.  

The first thing you do when you get to Sun Dog is order is a beer.  They have Bold City on tap.  Go for it.
This diner prides itself on being unpretentious and the bar can get pretty rowdy as the night goes on, especially on the weekends.  They often have a variety of live music going in the corner, and the crowd is typically a bit older than some of the other bars at the beach.  

Used to be that I only went to Sun Dog to drink.  A lot.  But I recently stepped outside the box and went with a big group of friends for dinner.  Luckily we scored a big round booth in the back corner that perfectly accommodated our big party.  Unfortunately the AC didn't really reach the back corner and we didn't have a ceiling fan directly overhead so we pretty much had a thin layer of sweat the entire night.  That's cool, contributes to the seedy vibe of the place, just wish I hadn't gotten all dolled up before.  (Mental note: not necessary to get dolled up to go to Sun Dog.)
We started off with chips and salsa and some of their delicious lobster parmesan dip.  The salsa was fresh and the dip was definitely the best dish of the night - rich and full of lobster and really an enormous portion for the price.  It easily served as an appetizer for all seven of us.  Too bad the tortilla chips were REALLY stale.

Someone in the group had a hankering for fried shrimp but they were out of shrimp (?!) so here's what we ordered: crab cakes, crab cake sandwich with fries, blackened mahi sandwich with fries, ahi tuna provencal salad, chili, blackened mahi with bleu cheese, and scallops with pineapple salsa and spinach.   The mahi and scallop entrees also looked really good but I'm not sure I'm down with paying nearly $20 for a main dish at a diner.  I could pay that and get something way better somewhere else.

The best dish was the ahi tuna salad, and I thought it was fairly priced at $10.  

So final verdict: come to Sun Dog for lunch or drinks and a snack or two.  Sandwiches are good and standard and the prices are reasonable, but main course dinner entrees are too expensive for what you get.  It's not a place to get dressed up for, obviously, so I think Sun Dog will remain my casual beachy grab-a-beer-at-a-cool-bar joint.  207 Atlantic Boulevard, Atlantic Beach.  (904) 241-8221.  http://www.sundogjax.com/
Sun Dog Diner on Urbanspoon

SLIDERS SEAFOOD GRILLE
Sliders is a Neptune Beach staple.  The eatery has been serving casual but quality seafood for, like, ever... and should continue to do so for years to come.  There's seating both indoors and out and the place is normally the busiest in the late afternoon to early evening, when folks come stumbling inland from the beach.  

Up until last week, I only ever went straight for the advertised specialty: oysters.  Raw, steamed, casino, whatever, they're delicious and if they're in season, they can be earth-shattering.  

Get ‘em steamed and you get to shuck ‘em yourself.  Play with your food!  Come on, it’s fun!

So last week I went with Phil and the in-laws and we all went for non-oyster entrees.  First time ever!  Plus… we sat inside.  First time ever?

We started with smoked fish dip.  It was aight.  Not as good as Chowder Ted’s (you need to go there, by the way).  It needed a bit more time sitting at room temperature to make it easier to spread, and there weren’t any hunks of fish in it, just lots of shreds mixed with cream cheese and some spices. 

Then we got: blackened cobia topped with fresh tomatillo salsa verde and a Southwest corn aioli; grilled jerk marinated wahoo over coconut rice and topped with Island red curry sauce; and grouper baked with a crust of herb-seasoned breadcrumbs and buttered pecans.  All entrees came with the same tasty veggie medley of edamame, red bell peppers, snow peas, zucchini, carrots and corn.  All the plates look the same.  Yeah.  You get the idea, though.

The atmosphere at Slider's is a huge part of the restaurant's appeal.  It's right across from Pete's Bar, so combine the two experiences and you'll get a pretty massive - if not overwhelming - dose of beaches local color.  Sometimes it's too much for a townie such as myself to handle.  But slurping down some oysters at a picnic table outside is a pretty awesome way to sample a way of life that us townies often dream of - surf, sand, sun, no shirts, no shoes, no problems, bro.  218 1st Street, Neptune Beach.  (904) 246-0881. 
Sliders Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

PETE’S BAR
I first went to Pete's about a decade ago, when Phil and I started dating and I came to visit his family for the first time.  The in-laws have been going for a decade longer than that.  It would seem that not a lot has changed with Pete's during my lifetime - and that's exactly how I like it.  

The place that Pete's holds in the hearts and minds of beach locals is virtually unmatched by any other establishment.  The laid-back clientele you'll encounter on nearly every night at the bar offers perhaps the best example of the state of mind and lifestyle that characterize life at the beach... a combination of Southern attitude and surf-n-sun casualness that has defined the Neptune/Atlantic beach neighborhood for years.

Beer and/or dark liquor drinks are generally the norm.  Fruity cocktails imbibed by men or women will earn suspicious glares from the regulars.  My mother-in-law certainly betrayed herself as an inexperienced patron when she asked for details about the "house red" - oops.  Don’t do that. 

Besides being the local dive bar for casual drinks, Pete's is also the most popular pool hall at the beach.  At a practically prehistoric 25 cents per game, the bar attracts some extremely enthusiastic competition, and each table holds its own unique history for those who've been playing for years.  

The bar also has a ping-pong table and a foosball table spread out over the bar's three main rooms, so the atmosphere is one of friendly interaction where strangers or dates have a natural way to get to know each other.  Oh, and there’s also the Galaga arcade game.  Try not to let your date see that if you want him to pay any attention to you for the rest of the night.

The mystique and history of the bar have attracted the attention of several noteworthy men and women, including John Grisham who made Pete's a vital setting in his novel "The Bretheren."  I think Hemingway hung around once or twice, too.  Check out the history page of their website for some interesting Prohibition-era stories.
Listen, Pete's isn’t for everyone, and some “classy” people are probably downright horrified by the conversations they overhear in the bathroom.  But if you're looking for a raucous time on a Friday night, or you simply find yourself at the corner after a day at the beach, Pete's bar is a fantastic place to get your cold beer fix and a dose of real local flavor.  117 1st Street, Neptune Beach.  (904) 249-9158.  http://www.petesbar.net

LEMON BAR
The Lemon Bar offers a glimpse into everything that is good about life in Jacksonville's beaches.  Located on the beach in the nexus of the Atlantic Beach-Neptune Beach town center, The Lemon Bar offers a drinking experience like few others in the area.  Because it's closed during the winter months, the seasonal opening of the Lemon Bar really gets you excited about the arrival of warmer weather.  The excitement fades rather quickly as “warmer” weather turns into scorchingly-hot-and-humid weather, but at least you have some ocean breezes and big umbrellas to shade the sun at Lemon Bar.  The bar itself is extensive and stocked with just about everything you would expect... so no surprises there.  It's the atmosphere that makes The Lemon Bar so special.  Grab a seat on the back patio area with a cocktail and take in the seaside view.  

There are not many bars that afford such a stunning view of the sea dunes and manage to achieve a balance between both beachy casual and dressy chic.  You can wear your cover-up, or you can wear heels, and you'll be appropriately dressed either way.  There's a nice mix of locals and tourists with a common desire to have a laid-back time on the First Coast.  The bar is part of the Seahorse Oceanfront Inn, so if you’re visiting from out of town you might want to consider this extremely affordable beachfront option.

The Lemon Bar is popular on weekend afternoons when the sun's out, and in the evenings things get considerably livelier as singles make it a stop on their evening out at the "corner."  One of my favorite things to do at the beach!  120 Atlantic Blvd, Neptune Beachhttp://www.seahorseoceanfrontinn.com/

FLY’S TIE IRISH PUB
Fly's Tie is the most charming bar in Atlantic Beach.  It's well off the beaten path on Sailfish Drive, about a mile from the ocean… away from all those popular drunken beachy spots.  Fly's Tie is an Irish pub and it manages a much more authentic feel than most of the other bars that bill themselves in similar ways.  The inside is quite small with a comfortable capacity of perhaps, oh, 30 people.  There are dart boards and a stage - open mike night has been a popular event with locals for years.  

There is something about Fly's Tie that just feels… right.  The crowd is subdued and mature and people go there to hold real conversations and enjoy a responsible night of drinking instead of getting plastered at nntcha nntcha poser bars closer to the water.  There is absolutely no pretension about the place.  You’ll definitely have to have Fly's Tie in mind specifically as a destination because you are unlikely to stumble upon it by accident.  I would be enthusiastic to bring out-of-town guests - anyone from my parents to my college friends - to Fly's Tie on practically any night of the week.  177 Sailfish Drive East, Atlantic Beach, FL.  (904) 246-4293 http://www.flystie.com/

AL’S
Al’s may be a local chain, but I’ve been to this one on the beach more than any of the others.  It’s light-filled, casual, airy, and affordable.  Servers are young and tan with big smiles and bubbly personalities.  It's been a local staple for awhile but the reputation seems to have declined in recent years.  Not sure why, though.  I mean, it is what it is.  It's still a go-to spot for my friends who live out at the beach and we often grab lunch there on the weekends if I'm out thataway.  

Al's serves up pretty standard pizzas and pastas and subs and Italian-American entrees.  I quite like the tomato sauce they serve on pastas and dishes like the eggplant parm.  It's bright and tangy and you can tell they haven't cooked the tomatoes to death.  

And, there's something about that house salad at Al's.  Nothing special, really, just lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, shredded carrots and cabbage, and mozzarella cheese.  But the ingredients are always fresh and well-proportioned and the mozzarella is grated in-house.  

I don't know - I always get the salad when I go to Al's.  With oil and vinegar.  It's perfectly American and I love it... kind of like Al's itself.  303 Atlantic Boulevard, Atlantic Beach.  (904) 249-0002.  http://www.alspizza.com/
Al's Pizza (Atlantic Beach) on Urbanspoon

Well, there you have it.  My go-to beach spots.  It’s not a comprehensive list of beach eateries and bars, and there are some fancy places that I’ve had on my wish list since I moved here in December:  Dwight’s Bistro, Azurea at One Ocean, and 11 South… plus newcomers The Brasserie and Engine 15 Brewing Company.  And keep an eye out in November for Nipper’s, a restaurant owned by none other than Top Chef season seven’s Kenny Gilbert!