Puttin' on the Ritz

Just got word of an upcoming Farm to Table gig that sounds like a must-do! 

Meet the Farmers Dinner - Friday, April 8, 6:30 p.m. - CafĂ© 4750 at The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island  - meet and mingle with their supplying farmers, seafood purveyors and chefs - nibble to your heart's content at the appetizer buffet of shrimp and other local seafood, farm-fresh vegetables, regional meats, honey, and house made charcuterie. Then enjoy the seasonal menu served family-style - including local trigger fish, Berkshire pork, and fresh vegetables with house made dips. Columbia Valley organic wines will be paired for the dinner. Each course is introduced by the chef and a grower. Dessert will be something citrusy and tasty from the fabulous pastry chefs. REASONABLY Priced at $75 per person, plus tax and gratuity. Complimentary valet parking. Reservations are required - call 904.277.1100, ext 1010 to make yours today!


Farm To Table Fresh at the Augustine Grille

At The Augustine Grille in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, Chef de Cuisine Brett Smith runs a class operation with a simple concept - seasonally influenced, fresh local ingredient-focused cuisine.

Sourcing ingredients from farms, creameries, ranches and vinyards where the people care deeply about the quality of what's coming to the table, he and his crew are creating honest, balanced dishes with integrity and genuine flavor.

On a recent visit with the Folio Weekly Bite Club,  we were treated to a sample of the best of the seasonal menu.

I'm still raving about it, and I can't wait to return to taste my way through the menu before our quiet beach town becomes the PGA Tour Golf fan zone. Welcome, The PLAYERS Championship visitors!

Freshly grown beets taste of earth and sugar and the minerals they draw from the soil. Peppery arugula and the beets came from Fresh Start Hydroponics - growers Chip and Connie Foy were seated at the next table. Before dinner, over cocktails and appetizers in the grand lobby, they treated us to a display of hydroponically grown lettuces, and explained the advantages of their technique.

Tasting was believing - wearing a light coating of shallot vinaigrette and a sprinkling of cracked pepper, sweet heat met earthy ripe Truffle Tremor Chevre - a particular favorite of ours from Cypress Grove Chevre in Arcata, California. On any given night, I could make a meal of this one plate, a slice or two of that bread, a glass of wine, and be perfectly happy. But on this occasion, we moved on to ecstatic. 

On the DelKat Family Farm in Hilliard, Del and Kathy Conner are raising all natural premium Berkshire pigs,without the use of medication, antibiotics, or growth hormones. 

Sweet and supple, the simple cut my grandma referred to as "fat back" and relegated to seasoning stews and pots of boiling potatoes was elevated to a gastronomic delight in this small plate of Pork Belly, Red Pea, Andouille and Greens

This was my single favorite dish of the evening. There is nothing more to say here - I'm gonna let that picture tell the tale.

The greens came to the table from Twinn Bridges Farms. I was seated next to farmers Scott and Denise Francis whom I'd had the pleasure of meeting recently at our local Beaches Green Market at Jarboe Park in Neptune Beach. 
I had just purchased a beautiful bunch of rainbow chard from their stand the Saturday prior, and it was a pleasure to break bread with them at the Augustine Grille over such a wonderful meal.
Every course was a special treat - house-baked fresh bread with sweet creamery butter followed an amuse bouche of fresh crab salad nestled in a crisped wonton wrapper in a playful take on crab rangoon.

Mayport shrimp, grits cake, greens and tasso gravy made their way to our table via Safe Harbor Seafood from Mayport, Florida, and Anson Mills (grits). 

The shrimp were perfectly cooked, but mine were much too salty  - my only complaint of the evening. The sweet grit cake held its own and soaked up the assertively spiced tasso nicely though.

A respectful hush fell over the crowd when the next course was served. House dry-aged, prime, natural strip loin, gnocchi, brussels sprouts were treated with the reverence afforded a PGA Tour superstar addressing the ball on the famed Island Green at 17. 

Creekstone Farms Black Angus beef is dry-aged on site for sixty days - concentrating the flavor and enhancing the tenderness. Nutty sweet baby Brussels sprouts and pillow-soft gnocchi stylishly accompanied. There was not a scrap left on my plate. 

Successful wine pairings were offered throughout the meal, and the red that accompanied this steak was a particularly nice house red from Long Meadow Ranch. It made perfect sense, supporting but not overpowering the meaty rich strip loin. 

Dessert. Crunch, Pot de Creme, Truffles. Silky cool vanilla pot de creme was contrasted by the heat of Graham's Tawny Port, lending notes of raisins and almond to the dish as it was sipped. The understated star of the show was the Crunch bar - a chocolate pastry crunch shell with a rich ganache topper that we lovingly referred to as an "Adult Kit-Kat." It was the topic of many a tweet that night and in the days following. If you have the opportunity to dine at the Augustine Grille, do not, I repeat, do not skip dessert.

When our dinner service was done, the chef brought the entire kitchen and front of the house crew out and introduced them to our group. We actually lept to our feet and gave them a standing ovation. I kid you not. I can't imagine dining there without doing that now, but I will endeavor to maintain a dignified exterior posture while my tastebuds are doing somersaults and backflips.

Thanks again to our hosts at the Augustine Grille, the Folio Weekly Bite Club, and all the purveyors whose life's passion was represented at our table. It's easy to see why Slow Food First Coast has awarded the Augustine Grille with its "Snail of Approval." Check them out and plan to join us on the upcoming Tour De Farm.

Augustine Grille on Urbanspoon

The Augustine Grille 
at the Sawgrass Marriott
1000 PGA TOUR Boulevard,
Ponte Vedra Beach, FL 32082


Jamaican Me Happy

Jacksonville, as it turns out, is teeming with Caribbean restaurants - but one of the newest to arrive on the scene has got my goat - um, I mean, vote. 

Actually, I mean goat. Curry Goat. And Stewed Oxtail, Curry Chicken, Ackee and Saltfish, Jamaican Beef Patty, Plantains, Festival, and the list goes on. 

Caribbean House Restaurant opened in February - taking over the property once briefly occupied by Bungalow on Park - a well liked but short lived operation whose demise left more than a few of us wondering how people can get a place opened but can't stay in business, despite good food and a halfway decent location.

Curry Goat - small lunch portion - $7.95
Caribbean House seems to have made a solid start - with good food, simply prepared, reasonably priced, and friendly, fast service. It's like good, soulful home-cooked food, if your home is Jamaica. 

Curry Goat - when I saw this was on the menu I made a beeline to the place. Let me tell you - they knock it out of the park! Succulent and tender - old school preparation - chunks of bone-in goat with an assertive but not overpowering curry, accompanied here by white rice and an oddly pedestrian vegetable melange.

My first lunch at Caribbean House also included a sampling of Green Banana - (presumably a young plantain) which was more grey than green, tasting like nothing more than starch, and looking like a dis-membered, well, member, on the plate. I've cropped this pic to feature the goat, but you can see the odd bit protruding upper left. While I prefer the sweet ripe plantain in all its various presentations, I have come to understand and appreciate the prevalence of bland, starchy foods in the Caribbean diet. One needs something to balance the Scotch Bonnet, jerk, curry and other bold flavors.

Stewed Oxtail, Steamed Cabbage, Macaroni Pie
Menu items at Caribbean House may change from day to day based on availability and demand. Entrees can be ordered in small, medium or large portions, and accompanying sides are your choice, and there are many options. One I recommend you do not miss is the cabbage - this is NOT your mama's steamed cabbage (unless your mama is a jammin' Jamaican cook). 

Stewed Oxtail - $6.95 small portion (shown here) - had me eating like a wild child - with both hands and my whole face involved. It was all I could do to order anything else once I tasted these. I'm going back for dinner to get a couple large portions as take-out. Accompaniment here is the Macaroni Pie (a custardy mac and cheese, basically) and that awesome Steamed Cabbage. I am still raving about this simple yet delicious meal.

I'm not a fan of Jerked anything, so when I was in the mood for chicken I went back to the curry, despite having already sampled the Curry Goat. 

Curry Chicken, Steamed Cabbage, Fried Plantain
Curry Chicken  $7.95 medium lunch portion (shown here) lets the curry shine through. Moist chunks of chicken (some breast meat, some back and thigh, bones and all) are coated with a pungent yellow curry. 

I found myself wishing I had ordered some rice to sop it up. And there was that cabbage. Wilted just enough to move from crunchy to cooked.  Fried Plantains were appropriately sweet.

I've never been to the Caribbean, but this next dish seems like something I grew up eating.
Ackee and Saltfish is known as Jamaica's national dish  (I Googled it - ours is hamburger, hot dog, apple pie)... So we get MickeyD's, while Jamaicans get the fruit of the Ackee tree, boiled and sauteed along with prepared salt cod, possibly with peppers and onions (although none noticed in Caribbean House's preparation). I loved the tender, pillow-soft Ackee fruit (tastes a little like scrambled egg) and the salty bits of fish.

I would have liked some fresh scotch bonnet or even some onion and green pepper with it, but I doused it with hot sauce (the way my mom eats eggs - and just about everything else, come to think of it) and it was delish.

Boiled Dumpling
Accompaniments this time were more of the bland and starchy variety - Yellow Yam tastes like its cousin the potato, and Boiled Dumpling is a thick, doughy disk the size, shape, and roughly the same consistency as a hockey puck - and I was assured this is just the way they serve it in Jamaica. 

I'm not sure if it is cassava based, or what, but the taste was bland and the texture just really didn't work for me. I felt a little like a tourist in my own town, and I tried to justify it as culinary research.

I was able to slice into the thing with my knife, and gamely sampled a few bites. Let's just say I won't be ordering it again. The yam, however, was a more familiar, foodlike texture, and just the right taste to offset the saltiness of the cod. 

I'm coming back for more Ackee and Salt Fish at breakfast, but it made a lovely light lunch, outside in the courtyard. 

And because this meal was so light (dumpling excluded), I was able to fit in a slice of Blueberry Cheesecake. Wow. Just. Wow. 

Before I forget - WHEN you visit Caribbean House, be sure to sample one of their daily special fresh juices. 

Pictured is the Cucumber - a sweet green refresher. I can also recommend the Ginger Beer - way better than Ginger Ale, and you won't miss the bubbles - this one has an effervescence all its own. 

Caribbean House is open Sunday through Thursday for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Friday breakfast and lunch only, and closed all day Saturday.  It's definitely worth checking out! See you there, Beasties. 

Caribbean House Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Caribbean House Restaurant
2782 Park Street
Jacksonville, FL 32205