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.