Cook This. 
Happy Thanksgiving, y'all!


Empty Bowls

The 27th Annual Empty Bowls Luncheon, presented by Bank of America, will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011, at the Prime Osborn Convention Center. Doors open at 11 a.m., with the one-hour luncheon scheduled to begin at noon. Tickets are $25, and all proceeds benefit Second Harvest North Florida.

The Empty Bowls Luncheon demonstrates community support for those who are coping with hunger in North Florida. All proceeds benefit Second Harvest North Florida, its member agencies and our neighbors who need food assistance.

For more information about the event, or to order tickets, tables or sponsorships, visit:


First Coast Fabulous: Food Day At Intuition Aleworks

Arugula (sourced from The Veggie Bin),
Proscuitto, and Honey Caramelized Peaches

October 24 is Food Day - a national grassroots campaign promoting healthy, affordable food produced in a sustainable, humane way.  On the First Coast, we celebrated a day early with a Moveable Feast - a yard to table tour of the gardens of Riverside / Avondale with freshly prepared delights along the way, culminating in a Slow Food Demo sponsored by Slow Food First Coast, Intuition Aleworks, The Veggie Bin, SeaCow Confections, 29 South, the Jenks House Bed and Breakfast, the Jacksonville Dietetic Association and FoodDay.org 

Chef Scotty Schwartz explains the
concept of eating locally sourced food.
I must confess I skipped the bicycling, touring portion of the program, and instead made a beeline for Intuition Aleworks where Chef Scotty Schwarz of 29 South presented a simply prepared fresh meal of REAL FOOD. 

In his own words, Chef Scotty advises that when you want to start cooking locally sourced foods, a great way to start is to  "shake the hand that feeds you." Get out to your local farmer's market - meet the people who tend the field at your local farm, the cheesemaker at your local dairy, the beekeeper who supplies you with fresh honey from their local apiary. 

If you are too busy to make it out to farmer's markets or the farms themselves, check into produce delivery services like The Veggie Bin. It's a great way to introduce new veggies and fruits into your diet, and get creative finding new recipes for favorite ingredients. 

Summer Truffle Chianti Sausage,
Chef Scotty's Kale with Whipped Ricotta 
Another revelation of the evening was Chef Scotty's Fresh Ricotta. I recently learned first-hand just how easy and rewarding it is to make your own ricotta - one of my all-time favorite culinary experiments! Once our weather turns for real, I am planning to make a rich, delicious vegetable lasagna with home-made ricotta. Who needs bechamel? 

Topping off the evening's repast was a Spiced Seminole Pumpkin popsicle 
from Sea Cow ConfectionsThe icy-fresh chunk-o-punkin hit all the right notes. Subtly spiced, not too sweet, creamy without being cloying. A tasty spiced ginger "snap" cookie rounded out the flavor profile nicely. 

PJ and Jaime Pawelek from Sea Cow Confections
PJ Pawelek is the owner of Sea Cow Confections - a small St. Augustine business making handcrafted, artisan sorbets and popsicles, using locally and regionally grown fresh fruits, nuts, and sugars, mostly from local area family farms. Any fruit he uses which is not grown in Florida is certified organic and fair trade.  All of their products are vegan and dairy free, with no chemical stabilizers, artificial coloring, or preservatives. Their packaging is 100% biodegradable and compostable. You can see why they received the Slow Food Snail Of Approval from First Coast Slow Food!
Last Christmas I picked up some great confections from them, and tonight I chatted with Jaime about my order for this year. I've been dreaming about their chocolate covered almonds all year long. She tells me they are a best seller. I can attest to their being the best chocolate covered almonds I've ever eaten. Not sure any got into gift stockings though... Cheeky Santa!

This year when you're holiday shopping, be sure to patronize your favorite purveyors of REAL foods - the makers, bakers, chefs and farmers whose personal connection to and passion for food is 100% worth celebrating! 

Cheers to hosts Cari S. and the crew at Intuition Ale Works - did you hear they were recently named Jacksonville's BEST NEIGHBORHOOD BAR


Inconsistent Experiences at Indochine

When the sexy urban-chic Indochine opened on East Adams Street in Jacksonville's urban core, it seemed like Jax diners could at last be in for a great Asian restaurant experience. I've never wanted to like a restaurant more. I crave Thai food, and I appreciate a restaurant that puts such an effort into creating a beautiful space. I purposely didn't go immediately, while it was the talk of the town. I gave them more than enough time - almost a year in fact - to settle in to the restaurant they would be for the long haul. In the meantime I read many glowing reviews on Urbanspoon. 

I was more than ready when the opportunity presented itself to go for lunch with a couple of co-workers. We were seated immediately, and our waitress found her way to our table shortly afterward with water and menus. We found the atmosphere attractive, but the noise level during a half-full lunch service was a little high for our tastes. 

Green Curry - Lunch Portion
This was a particularly hot summer day, and the large, open room was a bit warm, but I managed to get by with a couple glasses of water from our table's water bottle, a nice and practical touch. When it came to ordering (or a refill on that water, for that matter) it was another story. 

Two tables were seated after us, but ordered and were served before us.Our waitress apologized in advance explaining some staff had called off and they were shorthanded. I was pretty sure I couldn't use that as an excuse back at my office.

I'll have mine with extra cabbage please...
Our food, when it finally arrived, was adequate. I enjoyed a small bowl of green curry with some very fresh vegetables in it, not the usual stewed melange. It almost looked as if the sauce had been ladled in and the crisp-fresh veggies laid on top of it. The heat level was a perfect #3, as ordered.

One of my table-mates chose the vegetable stir-fry and asked for extra vegetable in lieu of a protein choice. Her entree, while beautifully sauced, seemed to be topped with copious amounts of  cabbage. She professed to enjoy it, but I would have been disappointed in the dish. 

The biggest issue was the table service, or lack thereof. Our waitress was nowhere to be found once our entrees came to the table. We eventually managed to flag her down for more water and a soda refill, but these things never made it to our table. We wrote it off to a possible short-staff situation and I vowed to come again before forming an opinion or stating my feelings about the place. I usually dine somewhere 2-3 times before writing a review here or on Urbanspoon

My next visit was during Eat Out Downtown. My friends and I were happy to see that Indochine hadn't changed their usual menu for the annual promotion. We dreamed of which savory delights we would enjoy, and booked far in advance, an early seating so we could get some light for snapping pics. 

Aside from a brief brush with the law, we had no trouble getting there on time or finding convenient parking. We were seated immediately at a table near the back door and kitchen area, a bit warm as they were keeping the doors and windows open for cross-ventilation. With an outdoor temp in the 80s, I noted again that this wasn't the coolest of spots. 

As you can see, the appetizer platter was less than appetizing, with some clammy, lettuce filled summer rolls, a couple of crab rangoon oozing with a piping hot, bright orange liquid filling, some quite ordinary fried calamari and the greasiest, most overcooked spring rolls I have ever seen. Each of us ordered this dish, and two of us got the sauce pictured here, while the third got a bright red mess that looked like standard Americanized sweet and sour. No explanation was given regarding the different sauces. 

One bright note was an appetizer of Stuffed Chicken Wing. It was appropriately seasoned, a sort of pork-alicious filling with a crispy panko style crust, and came to the table at a perfect temperature. I would order this again. In fact, with a glass of wine, it would make a nice meal. 

Our waitress was April, the same woman who had waited on us during my previous visit.  She copped a surly attitude when we asked her to check if a particular dish was available, noting it wasn't listed on the promotional menu. She took an almost instant disliking to us, despite our attempts at remaining congenial and upbeat. 

Our dishes were tossed at us as if we were a pack of hungry dogs. At one point, we managed to flag her down to refill our long empty water bottle. She took it and abandoned us altogether. When much later she managed to reappear for our dessert order, we asked her to please bring our water. It was then I recalled we had the same issue with her the last time. Be forewarned. If you get April, it could be May or June before you see your beverage refilled. Order accordingly. 

And word to Indochine, when your server goes AWOL on a table, you are losing revenue from potential drink refills. I'm certain I would have ordered another glass of Steele Shooting Star Aligote - it's so infrequently found on local wine lists, and it pairs perfectly with spicy sweet Thai food.

Surly, dismissive service notwithstanding, we would still have been happy campers if the food had been up to standard. My chicken stir fry entree was tasty enough, but having ordered a #3 spice level, the same as at lunch, this time I didn't detect any heat in the dish. I assume they thought we didn't know better. Cari ordered her entree super spicy though, and it did pack the heat she expected. 

And then there was Jodi. It was her first trip to Indochine, and she had been looking forward to the experience. She ordered the Shrimp Pad Thai, #1 spicy. She calls it the "canary in the coal mine" of Thai cuisine. Hard to screw up a dish as elemental as Pad Thai. As it turns out, not impossible. Her dish appeared to be coated with and swimming in oil. The greasy noodles came with the usual condiments, but the shrimp were not evident at service. With some careful excavation she was able to find four small translucent shrimp, which she was afraid to eat, they looked so far undercooked. Complete. entree. fail. 

Dessert was part of the package deal for Eat Up Downtown, and we planned to each order one of the three options. When the lovely April came to take our order she informed us they were out of the chocolate lava cake. This was day two of Eat Up Downtown, early in the evening, at that, and they were already out of one of the three, the one any first year kitchen manager might assume would be the most popular, despite it not being in keeping with the restaurant's Asian theme. Planning fail. 

I ordered Coconut Creme Brulee, J and C each ordered the Mango Sticky Rice. The creme brulee was delicate and sweet. Score. The girls' Mango Sticky Rice dishes, however, came out looking like two totally different desserts. One was topped with a sliced mango, the other with an oddly cobbled together slab of mango colored.... custard? flan? orange cream jello? It was and remains a mystery. Of course April didn't mention a thing about the dueling presentations. The other, more critical issue with the sticky rice was that it seemed to be more crunchy than sticky. Another failed dish. 

I might return to Indochine, but probably only at lunch or for a cocktail and a snack, and only if I have plenty of extra time. I didn't find it to be worth the extra coin for dinner service. I do hope they make a go of it, though, and I especially hope they address the poor service and inconsistencies in presentation.

Indochine on Urbanspoon

21 E Adams Street Ste 200
JacksonvilleFL 32202

(904) 598-5303


Adventures in Jacksonville's Urban Core

Let me begin by saying downtown Jacksonville has such potential. The urban core boasts a fair amount of architectural charm. It's accessible, fairly easy to find a space to park (especially at night), there are decent restaurants, nightclubs, a theatre, hotels, and a fabulous new library. 

So why aren't we flocking there in droves? Maybe it has to do with the lingering perception that it isn't safe there after dark. Consider my recent foray into the area on the occasion of Eat Up Downtown - a showcase of downtown eateries sponsored in part by Downtown Vision

I parked my car in a safe and well lit (it was still daylight) lot by my restaurant of choice for the evening, Indochine. As I was settling into my parking spot, I saw a JSO officer chase a middle-aged woman across the lot. He flagged her down, they had a brief conversation, and he returned to his cruiser. As he was exiting the lot, he pulled up beside my car, threw his cruiser into park, and approached, jesturing for me to roll down my window. While my mind started cataloging my possible offenses (unpaid parking ticket? backing into the parking space?) I rolled my window down JUST enough to hear what the fine officer had to say. 

"Do you come downtown often?" he asked. Beads of sweat were popping out on my forehead at this point. What answer was he looking for? Did he mistake me for a middle aged, overweight hooker? 

 "Yes - well - not really" was my non-committal response. My mind was racing. 

He edged closer to the car and handed me - a government issue pamphlet. "We're giving folks some tips on staying safe. There's a lot of people coming here for the first time with that Eat Up Downtown."

"Yeah - that's actually why I'm here, I'm headed to Indochine" (I pointed to the restaurant in plain view, some 50 yards from my car). "Has there been a rise in the crime rate downtown or something?"

"Oh yeah, It gets pretty bad down here at night, especially with the homeless and all" he suggested. 

I was sixteen different kinds of offended by this. To begin with, I have, actually, spent many evenings in downtown Jacksonville over the years. I have had interaction with, but  have never felt threatened by the homeless population seeking shelter and sustenance there. Also, we were within walking distance of the Sulzbacher Center - offering "the way home"  for homeless men, women and children. If you suffer from the ill-conceived notion that homelessness is somehow a criminal offense, please visit their website and learn more about the wonderful work this organization does for the most vulnerable among us. And if you want to support their cause while learning more about what they do, consider attending their annual fundraiser, Transformations, October 6. 

The officer must have spied another potential victim of crime, and bid me farewell about the same time my friend pulled up. We warily made our way the few short steps to the restaurant and waited for our friend to arrive so we could get our fill of some Thai food... 

Next post - Indochine.


Florida Staycation - Salt and Steele

"The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea."  ~ Isak Denisen

My Florida Staycation took a swanky turn recently, when I was invited to attend a Winemaker's Dinner at the Ritz-Carlton resort at Amelia Island's flagship restaurant, SALT, featuring Jed Steele of the Steele Winery in California's Lake County. They didn't have to ask twice. I was so there...

Crossing the intracoastal waterway and winding my way through the hammock of Live Oaks, I handed Charlotte the Prius over to a valet and soaked in the effortlessly elegant ambiance of the oceanfront resort. 

It's always a pleasure to dine at the Ritz-Carlton. Earlier this year my food-loving friends Jodi from Eat Jax, Cari from  Intuition Ale Works and I were invited to a Meet The Farmers Dinner at their Cafe 4750, and we enjoyed every single detail of the evening. 
A savory creme brulee 
This dinner would also begin with delicate appetizers and pleasant conversation, and end with me following the moon and stars home to my own little stretch of beach. 

The food and wine were superb, and the service impeccable, but it was the company that elevated the evening into one of the most pleasant experiences I've had in some time. 
A whimsical note was struck early in the evening with an appetizer you in part squirted into your mouth through what the server described as a syringe. A lovely counterpoint to the fresh seafood, the little vial of chilled soup took playing with your food to a new level. My host and I shared a  laugh at the concept of "injecting" food into our mouths, and my mood was elevated along with my palate. 

With the Hors d' Oeuvres we tasted two lovely wines. The Steele Cabernet Franc Rose (Lake County, 2009) paired perfectly with a savory-sweet bite of steak, strawberry and asparagus spear. 

The crisp, clean, tart and sweet Shooting Star Aligote (Washington State, 2009) has become a favorite since an earlier tasting I attended in Ponte Vedra, during which Mr. Steele explained that the little-known Aligote is actually the fourth most planted wine grape variety in the world. In America it usually ends up blended into Chardonnay, which is why we don't hear much about it here. I'm glad he decided to bottle it by itself. Under the Shooting Star label, Steele produces their lighter, "everyday" wines, and showcases a few fun, lesser known varietals. The booming popularity of Chardonnay has long overpowered Aligote, but we are seeing it on more local wine lists, and during a recent visit to Indochine I discovered it pairs nicely with spicy sweet Thai food. It's my new summer wine obsession, one that I expect will stretch well into fall.

Custom Blended Salts - a Fume, cold smoked using
Steele Winery's oak barrels, a Citrus Blend and one
infusing the lees of Steele wine grapes.
As my host and I arrived at our table, Salt's excellent Maitre’ D, Isabelle, introduced each guest by name, a lovely and gracious custom. I was privileged to enjoy the company of a sweet-natured local coffee shop owner and her beautiful daughter, a wine distributor and his lovely wife, my charming host, and Mr. Jed Steele himself. The dining room was full, but our little group settled in at one quiet end, where the sun streamed pleasantly across the table and the surf seemed close enough to lap  at the window.

Salt is probably the only restaurant on the First Coast with its own Salt Sommelier.  Our server explained the custom blended salts for the evening. We sampled each on its own, and they were all amazing, but the dishes were all so expertly seasoned they were rarely called into play. The fume and grape lees infused salts were both lovely parting gifts, and have been gracing my table, enhancing steaks and salads ever since.

An early triumph of the evening was the first course of Georgia Quail, cooked sous-vide for ten hours and plated with hard boiled quail egg, shaved summer truffle, a cherry, tart creamy goat cheese, marcona almond crumbles, pickled celery, and garnished with a tuft of micro-greens. I checked into the clean-platers club, and sipped the accompanying Steele Pinot Noir, Carneros, 2008.

The fish course was one of the most beautiful and impressive dishes I've had all year, and it has been a good year for food. Striped Bass rested on bright, tender pillows of Basil Gnocchi and Chanterelle mushrooms in a Steele Chardonnay reduction, napped with an impossibly creamy lemon zabaglione, and topped with a salty-sweet Serrano ham chip and fresh basil. 

I fear I may have outright guzzled the Steele, California Cuvee Chardonnay (2009) at this point as I became the the foursquare mayor of the Salt clean-platers club. At some point in the evening's festivities, our wine-merchant friends also busted out some private stock of Steele Durell Vinyard Chardonnay (Carneros, 2006), made with grapes grown in a vinyard Steele had taken a liking to during his days at Kendall-Jackson. A glass or two of this sleek Chardonnay may have rolled around my tongue as I savored every bite of that fish dish. 

Incidentally, Steele Chardonnay was the wine of choice at my wedding reception at the not nearly so posh Myrtle Beach Yacht Club in 1996. Steele Wines had only been on the scene since 1991, and since we were tying the knot on the east coast and not California wine country, I credit Kiki, proprietress of Ruby Magnolia Vintage and Home, my San Francisco muse and MOH, for suggesting it. AND since most of the crowd were beer drinkers, she and I probably polished off most of it. Good times. 

Winemaker Jed Steele
But I digress. Fast forward fifteen years, and I'm sitting at the big kids table drinking their  private stash. Life is good. And strange. Good and strange. 

While I pondered what an odd trajectory my life has taken of late, Jed (he just seemed to down-to-earth to refer to as Mr. Steele at this point) shared a story about a recent excursion in which he had come across a colorfully woven bag of the sort that is used to carry salt in Afghanistan. To our surprise and delight, he pulled it out and explained that he bought it as a present for Isabelle, our Maitre 'D. It was a sweet and thoughtful gesture and she seemed genuinely charmed.

While the sun set, our next two courses made their way to the table. An Entree of Lamb in Variations - succulent braised lamb-filled ravioli and perfectly pan-seared rare lamb loin, served atop a deconstructed ratatouille of sorts - sweet and sour eggplant and heirloom tomato, a cool, subtle cucumber gremolata, olive, and bold mint pistou. The result was a study in contrasts of textures and temperatures,  somehow drawn together into an artful composition. (Forgive the photo quality here - due to darkness setting in I had to revert to flash.) 

At a certain point I was having trouble keeping up with
all this wine, but I'm pretty sure none of it went to waste.
The lamb was paired with not one but two wine selections - Steel Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Hills Vinyard (Lake County 2007), and the reason I jumped for joy on receiving the invitation to attend this event, the  Steele Stymie Merlot (Lake County, 2007). I usually leave the wine descriptions to Master Sommelier Kris Chislett at Blog Your Wine, but given my intense interest in this wine I will take it upon myself to cut and paste from the Steele Wines website to inform you that Stymie Merlot is a rich, well-structured wine with layers of ripe red currants, anise, chocolate-covered cherries, a peppery mid-palate, and just a hint of coffee. I couldn't have said it better myself. Especially with my nose thrust deep into my wineglass as I inhaled aromas of chocolate, jammy fruit, tobacco and pepper. OK that was another cut and paste, but seriously, I fear I couldn't do it justice. If Steele Chardonnay is sweet seduction, Stymie Merlot is steamy hot sex in a glass. I'm pretty sure we also sampled a bit of Stymie Syrah as well, but don't tell the others - it might just have been a dream. I was two-fisted drinking at this point, I'm pretty sure. 

AND then the desserts started rolling out of the kitchen. If you've eaten at Salt you know you're likely to be served not one or two, but a seemingly endless array of sweet little treats at the end of your meal. I think these are designed to get you to linger just a little longer at table, and quite possibly in this case, sober up with a cup of coffee at least. 

A deconstructed Peach Melba featured Tahitian Vanilla Panna Cotta with a deep red raspberry consomme, a Berry sorbet and "dots" made from a reduction of Steele Late Harvest Chardonnay, which was the pairing for that particular dish as well. A slice of deep chocolate served to intensify the Stymie Merlot, which I was still savoring at this point. Good luck finding the Steele Late Harvest Chardonnay, Sangiocomo Vinyard (Carneros,1997) anywhere. It is quite possible we drank the last of it. 

True story - as I was driving home it suddenly occurred to me that I had neglected to taste the "dots" which had been so carefully reduced down and placed on my dessert plate. It might have required licking said plate though, and I just couldn't see myself doing that - in public anyway. 

My thanks to everyone at Salt and the Ritz-Carlton for a truly memorable evening. I hope to return to in October for another of their Farmers dinners, and I will most likely savor more of Salt on an upcoming special occasion that shall remain nameless but may or may not be my birthday. 

Salt on Urbanspoon
4750 Amelia Island
Fernandina BeachFL 32034

(904) 277-1100

Full disclosure - my participation in this event was complimentary - and while this post is 
my personal and honest point of view - it is not meant to be a critical, unbiased review of the restaurant.


Florida Staycation - Breakfast and Breakers

They say its the most important meal of the day. But who the heck are they, and what do they know? American breakfast standards bore me. Give me the continental breakfast buffet at my local motel, and I'm good to go with yogurt and a banana. 

Hold the eggs, bacon, grits, biscuit and for GOODNESS SAKES hold the sausage gravy - what in the name of all that is holy IS that, anyway??? It's like library paste thinned out with motor oil and a cup of salt. Non, merci. Here are a couple of lovely breakfasts I've enjoyed in and around Jacksonville and the Beaches area. 

At least once a week I like to stop in at Bakery Moderne for a cup of coffee and pastry or a mini-quiche - they make at least two varieties of quiche fresh daily, and the scones are lovely, crumbly soft and laden with fresh fruit. 
Bakery Moderne on Urbanspoon
Bakery Moderne
869 Stockton St
JacksonvilleFL 32204

Late breakfast at Culhane's involves Bangers and Mash, and yes, frankly, a pint of Guinness as well. Don't judge. You know you want it.
Culhane's Irish Pub & Restaurant on Urbanspoon
Culhane's Irish Pub and Restaurant
967 Atlantic Blvd 
Atlantic BeachFL 32233

One of my favorite spots for breakfast is Biscotti's in Avondale. The atmosphere there reminds me of Cincinnati - can't tell you why. Anyway, they have some slightly awesome breakfast offerings, including some over the top french toast, and this quiche, that has an unusual but awesome crust. 

I was obsessed enough after eating this one that I made my own for another couple of weeks - until I decided it was easier and more rewarding to go out and enjoy it at Biscotti's.
Biscotti's on Urbanspoon

3556 Saint Johns Ave
Jacksonville, FL 32205

       Check out Mi Pueblo Bakery on Beach Boulevard for a latin twist to the grab-and-go breakfast. I wrote about them in my Serious Sandwiches segment last year.  The Buneulo gets my vote for a quick bite. Savory cheesy goodness, Charlie...
Mi Pueblo Bakery on Urbanspoon

Mi Pueblo Bakery
10771 Beach Blvd Ste 107
Jacksonville, FL 32246

And while we're talking Latin influence - one of my absolute favorite pastries in Jax is this Guava Pocket from Edgewood Bakery. Sweet tart guava jelly loaded with sugary glaze, piled into a crispy layered pastry square.

Edgewood Bakery on Urbanspoon
Edgewood Bakery
1012 Edgewood Ave S
Jacksonville, FL 32205 
OK - that's enough! I need to go walk on the beach and shed some of these virtual calories! 

I hope it is sunny and warm where you are today - enjoy your summer. I'll be back soon with more from my Summer Staycation. Woop-woop!


Florida Staycation - Lunch at The Floridian

One great feature of living at the beach in north Florida - it's a great place to visit - AND I already live here, so the travel time is minimal - more time for shopping, sipping adult beverages and finding new and novel ways to beat the Florida heat. I'll be posting some of my summer adventures here in the coming months - day-trips and short jaunts, new spots or favorites revisited - it's all part of my Florida Staycation!

Recently my friend Alison popped in for the weekend from St Louis. We enjoyed acting like tourists, snapping pics at Ponte Vedra and Jax Beach, and during the requisite daytrip to St Augustine we grabbed a delicious and healthy lunch at The Floridian. 

Since it opened last September it has been on my Urbanspoon wishlistIt's the kind of place I love. Casual ambiance and a seasonally rotating menu featuring fresh, quality ingredients, sourced locally and regionally, prepared creatively and presented simply. It's real food -with real flavor. Remember flavor?  

The essence of summer shines through in every sip of chilled Watermelon Lemon Basil Soup.  The first impression is watermelon - not too sweet though - and the other flavors open out as you taste each bite. 

Scarlett O'Hara wouldn't wait another day to sample the Southern Belle - lovely to look at and loaded with charm - crisp cool local lettuces, sweet South Carolina peaches, Sweetgrass Dairy's Crossroads Bleu, toasted pecans and roasted sweet potatoes in a lemon-basil vinaigrette. 

Alison enjoyed the Summer Salad - a hearty plate of Georgia blueberries, spiced garbanzo beans, carrot, white cucumbers, quinoa, goats' cheese and lettuces in a Honey-herb vinaigrette. The cucumbers were a little tough, so they mostly got scooted to one side of the plate, but she enjoyed everything else in the mix. 

We let our enthusiastic hosts describe every item on the dessert menu, and though they all sound amazing, we were full from the generous salads and had to take a pass. 

Another great thing about Staycationing - when you find a place you love - there's no need to wait another year to return! 

I'll be introducing more friends and fam to The Floridian, I'm sure. Next time I'm going for the Banh-Mi sandwich - my latest obsession. I'm sure you'll see it on Urbanspoon or Instagram.  It's the real deal, Beasties. See you there!

The Floridian on Urbanspoon

The Floridian
39 Cordova St.
St AugustineFL 
32084 www.thefloridianstaug.com 


FOODFIGHT to Benefit Second Harvest of North Florida

Fine food and spirits – along with a festive battle for best culinary presentation – are what's for dinner on  Thursday, June 9, during the 21st Annual Jacksonville FOODFIGHT™ at EverBank Field’s Touchdown Club East.

The event – sponsored by EverBank – will bring together more than 50 of the First Coast's finest restaurants, caterers and beverage wholesalers for a friendly competition. FOODFIGHT has raised more than $1 million to help fight hunger in Jacksonville over the last 20 years and hopes to raise at least $100,000 in 2011 - with all proceeds benefiting Second Harvest North Florida.

Tickets are $60 for general admission and $100 for VIP access, both of which include tastes of dishes prepared by the city's top restaurant chefs, various adult beverages and live entertainment.

VIP admission gets you a private reception with access to all restaurants on the upper level from 6-6:30; a private seating area available throughout the event; automatic entry into a prize drawing for a variety of special items, including a bicycle, hotel stays and tickets to special locations; a commemorative FOODFIGHT wine glass; and exclusive access to the Jaguars Suites level.

Isn't that Don from Tacolu? Woot! 
A raffle features the winner’s choice of one of three exciting prizes – a new 2011 Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight motorcycle, provided by Adamec Harley-Davidson; a pair of “his and hers” Yamaha 125cc scooters, provided by Beach Boulevard Motorsports; or $5,000 cash. Raffle tickets are $100, and only 300 tickets will be sold.

Hunger is serious business on the First Coast. Food distribution at Second Harvest has risen dramatically in recent years, from 6.62 million pounds in 2007, to 19.3 million in 2010, with 2011 projections  at more than 22 million pounds.
For every $1 donated, Second Harvest is able to generate seven meals for people in need. If the FOODFIGHT achieves its goal of $100,000 it will allow the Food Bank to supply 700,000 meals for north Florida families in need. 

To order tickets or purchase sponsorship packages, visit www.JacksonvilleFOODFIGHT.org or call 904.739.7074.


A Taste of Sunny Spain in the Windy City

A recent business trip to Chicago provided just enough free time to enjoy a few meals on my own.

After hours spent "virtually" eating my way through the city via Urbanspoon and several enticing local blogs, I narrowed my search to three or four likely candidates.

Not willing to fight the crowds at Top Chef Stephanie Izard's white hot Girl & The Goat, I was in search of a unique dining experience, preferably within walking distance of my hotel, hoping to feed my iPhone picture taking habit while also getting some sorely needed exercise (I consider it way to beastly hot to walk more than a block outdoors in Jacksonville most of the year).

I settled on Iron Chef Jose Garces' Mercat a la Planxa in the recently renovated Blackstone Hotel, where the signature offerings are Catalan tapas and grilled to order seafood and steaks. Two words: GOOD CHOICE.

These days, the mod Michigan Avenue spot is in the capable hands of Chef de Cuisine Michael Fiorello, who just days after my visit was crowned Chicago's "Porc Prince" at Cochon555 Chicago. Chef Garces does make the odd return visit as well, I'm told. 

Serrano ham and fig salad  ($8)
Settling in to my table on a Friday mid-morning, I felt instantly at home in the space. As the lunch service began I perused the menu and made my selections. 

Arriving in record time, the Serrano Ham and Fig salad was beautiful to look at AND one of the best salads I've eaten in recent memory. The flavors melded well, yet each stood out on its own. 

Sweet, salty Serrano ham was arranged as petals over a bed of baby spinach, studded with firm bits of smoky lardon and chewy fig. 

Subtle, creamy Spanish blue La Peral and a nutty, tart sherry vinaigrette rounded out the flavor profile. I am pretty sure I licked the plate clean.

Choosing a main course was simple once I saw the words Potato Croquette, Hanger Steak AND Braised Short Rib - on the same dish... Add in a Mushroom Escabeche? I was perplexed as to how this dish was ever going to come together. When it arrived, all packaged neatly in one layered piece, it all made perfect sense. 


A healthy portion of Black Angus Hanger Steak is grilled to order, and tops a satiny short rib braise, which in turn rides atop the long, crisp plank of potato. The mushrooms are sprinkled on top of that, and the whole thing is dusted with herbs and plated with brightly colored infused olive oil. This is a great dish for lunch but would also be easy to slice up and share as tapas.  

The ambiance at Mercat at early lunchtime was one of warmth and relaxed elegance. Light streamed from the tall windows and made sihouettes of nearby diners. 

The service was impeccable, and I felt like I was on my own little island, where I was welcome to relax and stay as long as I liked, eat as much as I could hold. 

Eventually, however, meetings beckoned, and I reluctantly surrendered my cozy corner table and eased out into the brisk March air for the short 11 block walk back to my hotel, snapping pics of buildings and their fabulous architectural details all along the way. 

I probably drove my friends crazy posting all the pics on Facebook and Instagram, but I was inspired. Maybe it was the cool crisp air. Or maybe it was the meal. It all just fit beautifully together into one lovely visit to one of my favorite cities.

I love Chicago. Next visit, I'll most likely stay at the Blackstone. 

I hear Mercat has a great brunch. 

Mercat a la Planxa on Urbanspoon

Mercat a la Planxa
(312) 765-0524
638 S Michigan Ave
ChicagoIL 60605