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There are many local favorites in the San Marco area of Jacksonville: San Marco Theatre, Pizza Palace, Peterbrooke, Square One. So it is easy for the frequent turnover of tenants in the local shops of the square to go unnoticed.
Since 2009, Taverna has occupied a section of the local shops and is further establishing its foot hold with its extensive wine list and compelling Spanish and Italian influenced menu. Even though they are both western European countries, most people do not think of these two cuisines fusing, but when you compare tapas to antipastos, you start to see extreme similarities between the culinary ethnicities. Sam Efron, head chef, has helped draw these lines more distinctly. His preferred tactic of choice? Local and seasonal, exactly what you would see in these countries both urban and rural.
Situated in the former spot of Café Carmon, they have renovated the inside to give it a more rustic look. A worn, almost driftwood looking, wooden wall separates the two levels of seating. On the higher level a high back banquette stretches the whole length on the dining room. They use the same wood for the wall to accent the dining room in a multiple room without over doing it. The lighting was a little dark, but not unpleasantly dim. Taverna gives white linen service without being pretentious; it can be visited as a special occasion out on the town or a casual night out with friends.
We told our server that we would like a few minutes to peruse the menu and she checked back on us with what seemed to be perfect timing, even though we did ask for more time twice, but she did not get frustrated with us for taking our time, nor did she let it affect her service level in the slightest. We even ordered with an awkward progression and she did not let it faze her. First off, tapas.
Herbed Ricotta, fig compote, grilled peasant bread, $9. Ricotta is a beautiful cheese that often gets over looked by the grandeur of other cheeses , especially in Italian and Spanish cuisines with such monster names as Manchego, Pecorino Romano and the infamous Parmigiano Reggiano. But in a chefs hands it can be lifted up and transformed into a dish such as the one served at Taverna. Fresh, bright and vibrant, they used the simplicity of the cheese show by flavoring it simply with a few herbs, salt and pepper, and then brighten the whole dish up with just enough orange zest. Serve it with simple grilled artisan bread and a super simple fig compote and you have a near perfect antipasti by any Italians standards.
Patatas Bravas, fried fingerling potatoes, spicy paprika, aioli, $5. Traditional, straight forward and perfectly executed. The tapa of generations past that will not let any diner down. The potatoes were perfectly cooked and perfectly seasoned. Not to hard or soft, not over or lacking in salt, no throat closing amount of paprika. And the aioli was simple and delicate and delivered the final flavor and texture profiles to the palate.
Wood Fired Pizza
Fungi, wild mushroom, truffle, fontina, $16. They call these wood fired pizzas, but I have insider sources telling me that they just use the gas to power their brick oven. None the less, the pizza was cooked nicely. The toppings not overly heavy, the crust a perfect crisp with a slight char. The down fall in this pizza is the mushroom side. They say “wild mushroom”, our pizza was lucky if it had a full shiitakes worth of mushroom on it, the rest of the mushrooms appeared to be just buttons, no cremini, oyster, trumpets, porcini, you name it, we didn’t see it. And then “truffle”, I am told the truffle is brought into play by truffle oil being brushed onto the whole pizza just before being serviced to the guest. But if you ask me, it was left off. There was no flavor, or visible presence, of truffle or truffle oil on this pizza at all. Not to say this pizza wasn’t bad, the flavors were still good. Just with the lack of fungi on this pizza, I do not see it being worth $16.
New York Strip Steak, roasted fingerling potatoes, roasted shallot and garlic, balsamic reduction, $33. The special for the evening was a huge steak, easily 14 ounces, if not more. Perfectly cooked to the requested medium-rare. The rest of the accompaniment, though simply prepared, complimented the steak well. Dry roasted whole shallot, a whole head of roasted garlic, and beautifully roasted fingerling potatoes simply prepared with salt, pepper and olive oil.
Salmon, potato puree, leeks, mushrooms, eden farms bacon, bordelaise, truffle, $24. Not being a fan of most farm raised fish, I was cautious ordering this dish, but the combination of the ingredients listed intrigued me enough to push me into the decision. And it paid off. A perfectly medium cooked piece of salmon with crispy skin, and yes the skin was the first thing I ate and it was superb. The salmon sat atop the silky smooth, ultra buttery potato puree with the leeks, bacon and mushrooms nestled delicately between them. The bordelaise garnished the plate with vibrant green basil oil and brought the visual of the plate to a stunning level. Top the whole thing off with a nest of truffle and you get a sensational dish. Fish cookery at this level is not the easiest thing to execute, especially when there are so many elements to this dish. Taverna pulled it off, and gave me what may be my new favorite dish in the city.
Coffee and Dessert
One of the items that are so often pushed aside in any restaurant not dedicated to it is the coffee. I failed at finding out what brand or grind they use. But I did manage to find out it was a Costa Rican and Sumatra blend. And it was a well brewed cup. Taverna did not even let the coffee service fall to wayside.
Chocolate Brioche Bread Pudding, peanut butter and caramel vanilla swirl ice cream, $10. A simple and close to traditional dessert, this is the one dessert I thought did not belong on this Spanish/Italian menu. Hoping this was a dish to blow our minds being the odd one out, we ordered it. The peanut butter was mainly incorporated via a beautiful infused crème Anglaise. The ice cream was smooth and the caramel was spot on, but nothing inspiring. Finally to the bread pudding, but alas, I was still left wanting. There was a definite flatness to this dish. Something was missing. No matter how good the crème Anglaise was, it could not bring up the rest of the dish. Being pushed to the brink of being stuffed with tapas and dinner we settled on one dessert and it was a hard choice. Unfortunately, we made the wrong one.
The few down spots in the meal did not over shadow the whole experience though. Taverna looks to be joining the others who have been a mainstay of San Marco Square. And I hope it does. A beautifully composed wine list as well as delicious and cheap tapas make Taverna a place that can easily be visited weekly without breaking the budget. And when you are looking to celebrate that anniversary, graduation, birthday, or other special occasion, Taverna has the ability to give you the perfect meal to top it all off.