Sunday, January 15, 2012

Nipper's Beach Grille

2309 Beach Boulevard, 32250

January 11, 2012

Former Top Chef Contestant Kenny Gilbert has an impressive resume, so when he decided to partner up and open Nipper’s Beach Grille, I was excited to finally make my way out there to experience his work.  The restaurant sits just off the Intracoastal Waterway on a little inlet, with a large boardwalk style dock that wraps around for plenty of seating.  Immediately inside is a large sports bar style area with a little Tiki bar off to the side.  After being pleasantly greeted by the hostess we are lead into a long dining room that leads to a semi open kitchen.

The menu is rather large, over fifty items, and allows you to easily see his direction of turning Southern cuisine to a higher level.  Boiled Peanuts, Fried Green Tomatoes with Nipper’s Aioli, Marsh Harbor Guacamole, Bahamian Conch Fritters with Nipper’s Remoulade, and many more items, that not only represents the South with passion, but showcases a love for the port city that is Jacksonville.  Looking the menu over a couple of times more, makes me really wish I had decided to dine with more than one person.

Fried Calamari with house marinara, Nipper’s Aioli, and lemon, $9.  Large pieces of tubes and tentacles breaded and fried golden brown.  Simple, straight forward, fresh.  What sets this apart from your average calamari dish is the sauces served with it.  House marinara, bright, slightly sweet without anything over powering the bright flavor of the tomato.  Nipper’s Aioli is a well flavored Cajun style mayonnaise, without any excessive heat, which brought a perfect creaminess to the sauce and layered flavors in the plate.  Fully plated, no ramekins of sauce on the side for you to decide what to put where, a chef’s decision to place the on the bottom so the calamari does not get soggy and you get the food the chef has envisioned.

Rock Shrimp Cobbler, Parmesan chipotle gratin, $10.  An Italian will tell you, “No cheese with seafood”, but in the South, it is viewed differently.  So as a chef, we see it as a bit of a challenge on how to incorporate these two beloved items together without over powering one or the other.  Chef Gilbert achieves it here.  The sweet, succulent rock shrimp are coated perfectly with a cream sauce gently flavored with Parmesan and chipotle.  The sauce itself is not heavy in the slightest, a perfect medium of body and lightness that allows you to savor as much of this dish as you would like.  It can be difficult to end up with perfectly cooked shrimp when you are using multiple cooking techniques for service, but Nipper’s has developed this dish perfectly, the shrimp were plump and tender, and anything but over cooked.  Finish it with a beautifully breadcrumb topping and you get one of the best shrimp dishes I have ever had the pleasure of eating.

Port Royale Pork Chops, smoked bacon onion compote, mashed potatoes, collard greens, $19.  Pork topped with pork, served with vegetables cooked with pork?  Can’t go wrong or so I thought.  As soon as the plate is set down in front of me I knew that I was about to have me first disappointment of the night.  Three paper thin pork chops with diamond char marks from the grill means nothing other than a dry piece of meat, which was exactly what the first bite delivered.  The flavors of the dish were spot on.  The bacon onion compote was smoky and sweet.  The collards, perfectly cooked.  Not stewed to death and not crunchy, nor over vinegared or spicy.  A perfectly even keel for greens.  The mashed potatoes, made from red potatoes, were creamy and served with the skins mashed in; I felt they could have used a little salt, but they were very well made and tasty even without it.  The only thing this entire dish needed was a better method of preparing the pork chops and it would have been spot on.

Shrimp n’ Grits, rock shrimp, chorizo con queso, creamy grits, $17.  Simple, traditional dish of the South with a twist.  Perfectly cooked plain grits allowed the sweet rock shrimp shine.  Paired with the slight heat of the chorizo, this dish would be perfect for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.  It was almost like a spoonable version of really good shrimp nachos.  I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

I am sure Nipper’s has gotten plenty of publicity with Chef Kenny Gilbert doing so well on Top Chef, but the food he serves here in Jacksonville has not.  The new and fresh takes on traditional Southern fare is one that needs to be shared.  Though I would leave momma at home, we wouldn’t want her getting mad when you tell her that this food is better than hers.

Nipper's Beach Grille on Urbanspoon

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Round Boys Grill

11629-8 San Jose Boulevard, 32223

January 7, 2012

A small place seating only 36 people, Round Boys Grill is a restaurant that has decided to go with the kitschy decor of license plates with cliche sayings and reprints of Warhol style portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn.  Nowhere does it say to expect white linens and silver service.  It is nice to see an open kitchen, a feature which has become more prevalent in restaurants of all styles.  The open kitchen allows the guest to feel welcomed and tells us the Round Boys take pride in the food they make because they are willing to let the customer watch them make it.

And these guys did not hold back.  It may not be five star dining, but it was small business cookery at its finest.  The menu is what you would expect when walking into a smaller restaurant in this part of Mandarin.  Wings, burgers and chicken sandwiches: food that can be made quickly for the busy lunch rushes from the surrounding business without having to sacrifice quality.  There "signature" menu item is a monstrous 3+ pound burger that may be part of an eating competition to promote the restaurant.  We perused the menu deciding on 2 starters and 2 flavors of wings.
Fat Daddy.  20oz burger of awesome.

Hand Battered Onion Rings with ranch dressing, $6.  I am always skeptical to order onion rings anywhere, as my mother has made an onion ring so unique and delicious it is hard to beat.  Nevertheless, we order them.  As the rings arrive at the table and I am already surprised.  The order is big enough for 2-3 to share.  They are an extra thick cut sweet onion, hand battered and fried to golden brown and, most importantly, delicious.  The onion rings were crispy, properly fried and neared perfection.  I felt that the only thing holding these back from beating out my mom's, other than the strong childhood memories, was the ranch.  In lieu of ranch, a house made sauce which ever tickled the chef's fancy may have done the trick.  Don't get me wrong, this is the South.  I completely understand it.  But it may be the only reason as why they will only make #2 on the list of best Handmade Onion Rings ever.  Besides, ketchup was the standard dipping sauce in my parents house when it came to this ethereal side dish.
Hand Battered Onion Rings

Fried Pickle Chips with ranch dressing, $5.  A classic appetizer in the South that is rapidly growing in popularity.  Nothing special or outstanding, but they were done right.  Not excessively greasy or extra sour or salty.  Just simply prepared and served with the beloved condiment of the region.  Ranch.
Fried Pickle Chips
15 Lightly Breaded Chicken Wings, $12.  2 sets of these were purchased: Cajun Ranch and Chipotle Citrus.  Juicy, crispy, jumbo chicken wings tossed in the sauce of our choosing.  The Cajun Ranch Wings were winners from the get go.  Round Boys has decided to not just take ranch dressing and mix some hot sauce or Cajun spice into it.  They actually take their wing sauce and flavor it with a ranch style seasoning.  The best part about this: You don't feel guilty dipping it into so creamy thick blue cheese dip.  Chipotle Citrus Wings were equally satisfying.  The sauce threw me for a loop, because I was expecting a traditional wing sauce base.  These guys took it in a soy based sauce direction that was perfectly mixed with a slight tang from the citrus, a nice smoky heat from the chipotles and a perfect seasoning with the salt from the soy.
Top: Cajun Ranch.  Bottom: Chipotle Citrus.

*Note:  Chicken wings have your choice of 3 preparations; naked, lightly breaded, grilled; and a myriad of sauces that they will gladly mix for you should you be so inclined to experiment.  As well as multiple amounts to buy them in; 10, 15, etc.
*Note:  We happened to catch it on a $.50 wing day costing us only $7.50 per order of wings.

Round Boys Grill may not be the next restaurant offering up a chef to be nominated for a James Beard Award, nor the next location being featured on The Travel Channel.  But with the help of locals, we could easily keep it off of the infamous Restaurant Impossible (and with any luck, get it on the list locals everywhere keep their eyes fixed on:  Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.)

Round Boys Grill on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 6, 2012

Pele's Wood Fire

2665 Park Street, 32204

This may seem like a bad idea, but it is actually what has pushed me to start a blog for local eats.  I am certain posting a negative review about a brand new place that is being met with lots of love from locals may not put me into good graces with people, but with the experience my friend and I had, the story needed to be told.

January 4, 2012, was day 4 of their soft opening, so being a little rough around the edges was understandable, and we took our meal with this in mind.  The course of dinner follows.

A good friend of mine, Dave S, decided to go check out the new place at the corner of Post and King in Riverside hoping for a night of good times and great food.  We walk in to a beautifully renovated pharmacy with high back booths, dark wood, high tops, what was easily a 35' bar, and 2 "Chef's Bars" that over looked the stone faced wood fire ovens and the open kitchen behind.  High exposed ceilings opened the restaurant a lot, but the deep reds and woods kept it toned down.  The lighting seemed to be at a perfect level to not over brighten a room or darken your dining companions face.  Very clean.  Very sleek.  Simply put.  A beautiful new place.

We decide to dine at the Chef's Bar and watch food roll out as we glanced over the menus.  The beer list was extensive, being composed of tons of local and non-local micro brew beers, including Intuition and Bold City brews.  Most beers were kept nicely priced between 5 and 6 dollars with a couple ranging into the 20 dollar range.  The downside was our server was not very knowledgeable about a few of the beers that we believed they should have known a little more about.  Not knowing about Intuition's People's Pale Ale seemed a little lazy considering it is the most common and popular of the local breweries tonics.  Prompt bread and water service was nice, but it was served with an olive oil, that, as Dave put, "tasted as if they put liquid smoke in it" giving it a very off putting taste and they decided to use dried herbs to go with their fresh made bread.  Not very tantalizing.  After ordering a round of libations we moved on to the food.

The menu looks simple, yet edgy enough to make a strong push in Jacksonville.  The menu currently consists of 5 starters, 4 salads, 6 pastas, 6 pizzas, 6 mains, and 4 desserts.  Some extremely traditional, others more of a haute style cuisine.  None the less, many piqued our interest.

We decided to begin with the Oven Fired Limoncello Wings, with Parmesan, chile, and olive oil, $9.   The starter arrives, six wings with the slightest bit of char from the wood fire oven, garnished with celery heart leaves.  We dig in expecting a flavor explosion and the dish immediately falls flat on our palate.  These perfectly cooked wings have been under seasoned and wrongfully descripted.  Instead of the wings being instilled with the flavor of Limoncello, Parmesan, and chiles, it is just a sprinkling of the latter as a further garnish.  Worst of all, the wings lacked one of the most crucial ingredients.  Salt.

So we decide to move on to the pasta course.  Taleggio Ravioli with Bolognese, spinach, $14.  6 handmade raviolis on a rectangle plate covered with bolognese and a patch of sauteed spinach at one end.  First bite reveals nothing but tough, thick pasta.  Second bite reveals a washed out bolognese with no body.  Third bite makes us wonder if Taleggio is even in the raviolis.  We decide to dissect one for the filling, and alas, the creamy pungent cheese reveals itself.  Finally, we eat the spinach, and we discovered where all the salt in the kitchen goes.

After finishing our second course, the front of house manager, who is running the pizza oven window, looks over and asks us how we are doing.  After voicing several concerns he gets the Sous Chef to come talk to us, though at first he seemed reluctant to entertain the request.  After voicing our concerns, he decides to try and rectify the mistakes by sending us 2 desserts on the house.

Tiramisu.  In a word.  Perfect.  Traditional, light, airy, perfectly soaked lady fingers and the right amount of cocoa dusting so you didn't choke when taking a bite.  Truly the high point of the night.  But that is not where we finished.

White Chocolate Cheesecake with Espresso Pot de Creme.  Presentation for this dessert got high marks, I just wish we could say the same about the rest of the plate.  The cheesecake was so dense that you literally had to force the spoon through it so you could take a bite.  And once you took the bite, the words white chocolate never came to mind.  The Espresso Pot de Creme was a perfect consistency, but the high tones of the espresso left you wondering if chocolate was actually used to make it.  This accompanment was so strong that it didn't let you reconsider the cheescake because it masked all other flavors.

Considering the fact that it was their 4th day of soft openings, I understand that there will be hitches.  But you must not trust yourself when you are doing 5 weeks of soft openings.  And you have a Sous Chef who sells food to guests that he agreed was sub par.  And the same chef decides to try and rectify said foul ups by giving you food that was made by someone completely different(they list the Pastry Chef on the Menu).  Reasoning they used behind some of their high pricing was they locally source their product using places such as Black Hog Farm, but they do not advertise it at all.  This is something they should be proud of and is a huge push in the restaurant communities these days.

All in all, the service was nice with prompt but not overbearing attention from the servers, who also provided proper plate placement and service.  The chefs did make time to stop by our table when requested, whether they felt we were worthwhile or not.  And it is a new local place with tons, excuse me, TONS of potential.  I look forward to trying this place out again after they get the oppurtunity to work the kinks out.  And I wish them the best in putting the final nail in the coffin of that hideous Burger King less than a block away.  I just hope they are not digging their own grave with some of the decisions they are currently making.

Pele's Wood Fire on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 5, 2012


I, Jarrod, have decided to begin blogging about the places to eat in and around Jacksonville, FL.  Being a chef and a localvore of all things, not just food, it seemed a good way to get my opinion out there and perhaps help those that deserve it.  So to all friends and family who have decided to stop and and all others directed here by them, I thank you in advance for your support.