Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Salty Fig

901 King Street, 32205

Jacksonville has been to the food scene what the British Isles is to European cookery.  They have never identified themselves as a city with culinary prowess.  At most, it has been a culinarily boring city with chain restaurants, okay bar-b-que, and poorly treated seafood.  But there are now chefs and restaurateurs who are working to break that mold.  They are determined to show the world that Jacksonville is more than mediocre. Whether it is with shrimp and grits in a paper boat out of a food truck or seared scallops on a china plate in a brick and mortar establishment, Jacksonville’s food profile is on the rise.

The Salty Fig is a prime example of such endeavors.  The Salty Fig was welcomed with open arms as a food truck, but now Jacksonville is ready to experience their new dining room in Riverside.  They are taking the term “Southern Gastropub” and running with in the correct direction.  You see fingerprints of the Southeastern United States all over the menu.  There are many traditional culinary delights with the modern twist of the gastropub.  They even go as far as using moonshine and bourbon to create drinks that speak of the South, which are just the drink Callie and I choose to begin with.

The Salty Fig Manhattan, fig infused Maker’s Mark Bourbon, Averna Amaro, house made rhubarb bitters, $10

The classic Manhattan with a proprietary twist.  They not only chose to use a whiskey more attuned to the South (bourbon), but also chose to infuse it with their namesake -figs.  Their take uses Averna Amaro instead of the usual sweet vermouth. The fig infusion, along with a little help from the Averna Amaro, helps to soften the cocktail creating a much smoother drink than the traditional version.  The presence of the bitters is just as noticeable as a normal Manhattan, however, the rhubarb flavors get lost in the mix.  The cherry on top is tuned into one of the infused figs in the bottom of the glass.

The Dark Moon, Catdaddy moonshine, lemon, agave nectar, apple juice, ginger ale, $9.

I have no confirmation of where the name comes from, but I am sure it is because this drink will sneak up on you.  It is a light, refreshing lemonade with a bit of carbonation.  Nothing too sweet or sour, you can barely tell the moonshine is in the cocktail.  A sure treat for the sweltering summers to come in Jacksonville. 

The Salty Fig offers six other specialty cocktails, all of which sounded more than intriguing.  They also offer twenty bottled and canned beers and eight tapped beers of local, craft and big beer companies.  As well as a wine list that consists of more than 25 reds, whites, sparkling, and blends.

Crawfish Goat Cheese Croquettes, tomato coulis, sweet potato butter, $10.

A well-presented plate of four fritters with traces of crawfish sprinkled with goat cheese and finished with the accompaniment.  The dish was not bad; it was just not what they said it was.  Being a croquette, it should have been a large amount of crawfish meat bound together with a goat cheese béchamel.  There are certain things that allow for artistic direction, misleading a customer into what they are buying is not.  After delicious cocktails, the appetizer left me and my dining companion wanting.  The flavors and components were there, but there were elements missing in the execution.

Cochon de Lait, braised pork, jalapeno cornbread, poached hen egg, mushroom fricassee, scallion hollandaise, $20.
Cochon de Lait traditionally is an open pit roasted suckling pig, usually basted with copious amounts of wine, butter and Louisiana style hot sauce.  The Salty Fig’s take is a braised pork dish served over cornbread which did not seem to have jalapenos in it by flavor or sight.  The egg was poached decently; it was a little over done, but still had a nice creamy yolk to ooze over the ingredients below.  The mushroom fricassee was nothing special.  The scallion hollandaise was just hollandaise with scallions sprinkled over it, no infusion of flavor at all.  All together the dish was good, nothing done bad, but nothing to wow the guest.

Grilled Cobia, spring ratatouille, pork belly tapenade, $24.

Though the dish may be a little early for spring, it pronounces those bright, sweet flavors we associate with the first spring harvest almost dangerously.  The cobia was beautiful and perfectly cooked.  The Ratatouille was not forced by using out of season ingredients yet still had the body and flavors you would expect of the classic French dish.  The pork belly tapenade brought a nice salt and acid to the dish, though the pork belly gets lost really quick in the dish, the smell is prominent when first brought to the table. 

Nothing piqued our interest from the dessert menu of beignets, pot de crèmes, and cobbler.

The Salty Fig is doing a difficult thing in a city that still loves its meat and potatoes, but they are doing it at the right time and in the right place.  Being in Riverside and offering fare such as they do will allow them to grow to an audience that is ready for what they bring to the table.  They still have some things to improve on, namely execution and pricing.  Twenty dollars for an okay braised pork dish is a little pricey, especially when they have the fresh cobia priced at an appropriate twenty four dollars.  I will not be standing in line to eat dinner here, but a nice lunch of their Plant City Strawberry Salad and a Sunday afternoon original cocktail are probably in the near future.

The Salty Fig on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Speckled Hen Tavern & Grille


During the holiday season we love to reminisce on the traditions each of our families have established.  In the South, especially during these times, a lot of those traditions stem from the kitchen.  Whether it is Sunday morning biscuits or Saturday evening greens, we can relate many things we do during this time of year to an activity in the kitchen.  So some have taken these traditions we have grown up and fallen and love with and combined it with an artful twist to bring us a Southern gastropubSpeckled Hen Tavern & Grille is taking the classics we know and love and putting their upscale spin on them in hopes of intriguing us to come dine with them.

The Speckled Hen is located in an area most people would not think to look for nice meal out, beside a Steak ‘N Shake and Regal Cinemas and sandwiched into a little strip amongst places that seem to just come and go while they hold strong.  The restaurant is split up into three areas, two sections of booths and four seat tables split by a row of high top tables and a small bar.  At first the restaurant appears to have that perfect ambient lighting, but after trying to read a menu you realize they could turn the house lights up a little bit.  They do have a beer and wine list, but the beer on tap are written on a chalkboard that is nearly impossible to read because it is tucked away in a high dark corner with no dedicated lighting to keep you from straining your eyes.

Our hostess greets and seats us without stating the specials or taking our drink orders, and then the server shows up expecting this to already having been done.  She then goes over the beers on tap selection and I was so distracted by the huge stain on the server’s shirt that I had to ask her to repeat them, she seemed irked at what is a common request that does not force her to go out of her way.  She also explained the specials for us, one which made us all look kind of funny at each other while looking over the menu.  The soup of the day way Beer Cheese Soup, while the soup that is on the daily menu is Beer Cheese Soup.  Maren, Darryl and I order our beverages and move on to the appetizers. 

Fried Brussel Sprouts, habanero aioli, balsamic reduction, $6.
Ahh, brussel sprouts, commonly a vegetable that makes the average kid turn their nose up and sit at the table until bed time because they will not eat their vegetables is now being accepted for the versatile vegetable that it is.  And it is a welcome comeback, with chefs now preparing it in ways to appeal to several palates, by chefs frying it.  These chefs are being a little deceitful with their “fried” brussel sprouts as they are not battered and fried, as opposed to more of a method like immersion sautéing.  Finish them with a beautifully balanced habanero aioli and contrasted with properly reduced balsamic vinegar and these once lost vegetable will soon be found on every dinner table.

Duck Quesadilla, caramelized onion, white cheddar, avocado aioli, charred tomato salsa, $9.
The thing with duck is you tend to either love or hate it.  Some people just can’t stand the thought of eating the “cute animals”, while others loathe it being served for its association with Foie Gras, and other simply because it comes across to them as “gamey chicken”.  Well if you want a dish to attempt to change yours or another’s mind, do not do it with this one.  Though conceptually a good dish, we felt like it was executed horribly.  The duck was flavorless and slightly greasy, and there appeared to be no caramelized onions in the tortilla at all.  The salsa was a little lacking, but being that they are out of season during this time of year, it did not surprise us.  What did surprise us was the avocado aioli.  We would have been happier paying for and eating toasted tortillas with avocado aioli to dip it in.  Velvety texture.  Heat, acid and salt were all perfectly balanced.  This sauce was executed so well we held on to it to dip other things into the liquid love.

Tavern Fries, beer cheese sauce, bacon, scallion, $6.
Potatoes, which are just blanched and fried.  Who would have thought that something so simple would take to Americans like funnel cake and cheeseburgers?  The irony behind it all is these are all deeply rooted in European culture.  But there is definitely debate on who finally perfected them.  And you can throw Speckled Hen Tavern onto that list.  Some things are not meant to be described with words but rather experienced with the senses, so if you do not do anything else with this restaurant, go and eat some of the fries.  The beer cheese sauce did not have much of the beer flavor we were expecting but was still very good.  The only problem we had with this dish was there was no bacon on it as stated on the menu.  While it did not hinder the crispy, golden potatoes, it surely could not have hurt them, I mean, BACON!!!

Throughout the appetizers our server seemed to be getting more and more irritated that she had to do her job.  She did not like that I requested a glass to go with my bottled beer, nor that I requested for water.  At least it was not the tangible and audible teenage version of irritated, but with the leering looks and the constant setting down of the water bottle harder and harder as the night goes on, it was obvious we were being some sort of inconvenience to her.  This all leads into her not communicating to the kitchen our progress in our starters and entrees get served while we are still enjoying the perfect fries and awesome sprouts.

Grilled Meatloaf, caramelized onion whipped potatoes, bacon wrapped green bean, red eye gravy, fried onion, $14.
A traditional meatloaf, nothing extraordinary or outlandish about it.  The potatoes were grainy, almost inedible grainy, and had no caramelized onions in it.  The green beans looked beautiful but were very lacking in flavor, unseasoned and wrapped with cheap bacon.  The best part about this dish was the fried onion garnish.

Shrimp and Grits, grilled Andouille sausage, Tasso etouffee, Anson Mills stone ground grits, $19.
Mayport shrimp are properly sautéed and served with a beautiful creamy etouffee laced with the spices of Tasso ham.  All of the toppings melded into a delicious topping to a nice coarse stone ground grits.  The grits, however, were stone cold, so cold they had already congealed on the outside and bottom before they put the rest of ingredients on it.  Properly heated grits make this dish a winner, but being served cold turns it mediocre.

Grilled Flank Steak, sautéed spinach, lardon whipped potatoes, wild mushroom, roasted red pepper, Worcestershire sauce, $18.
This dish looked visibly appealing, but eating only begins with the eyes.  The flank steak was ordered medium-rare and was served just over medium.  I got the same potatoes that were served with the meatloaf.  Even to the point of mine was missing the lardons.  The roasted red peppers tasted as is they had been soaking in straight vinegar and Worcestershire mixed with the juices from the steak, a sign that it had not been rested properly before slicing and plating, and spinach and created a watery pool on the bottom of the plate, washing whatever flavor that happened to be left into it.

When the server comes to check on us, I bring up all the concerns of the meal.  Her first mistake was trying to blame us for taking a few more minutes to finish our starters being the reason behind some of our food being cold.  Then, instead of offering ways to fix it, she asks us what we would like done.  Darryl decided the meatloaf was edible enough and did not ask for anything in exchange.  Maren requested a hotter side of grits, and I decided to exchange my dish for another menu item.  She returns my dish to the kitchen while I decide on one of the burgers to replace my dinner.

Southern Burger, Cahill porter cheese, lettuce, tomato, fried pickle, sesame seed bun, $10.
This burger made up for the disaster of a plate I had not fifteen minutes earlier.  The burger was actually cooked medium-rare.  The pickles were thick cut and fried golden.  The bun was warm and toasty.  The only thing is the cheese gets a little lost in the mix.  It was still a good burger and it comes with more of those fries, I mean, I could have gotten some fruit to go with it but let’s be honest; these fries are worth eating twice in one meal.

This restaurant certainly provided killer entertainment with a meal. After all, how many places offer a roller coaster ride with dinner? The worst part is they decided to leave us in a slump.  While we were finishing our meals, our server informed us that the manager had tried my original dinner and agreed that it was sub-par.  Good to know management backs a customer, bad to know they will not come to the table and admit their mistakes.

The Speckled Hen has skills in the kitchen but does not deliver 100% of the time.  I remember seeing this place open a few years ago. They have done a good job changing their menu to keep clientele coming through the door, but good fries, concepts, and beer will not keep a restaurant afloat if your customers don’t feel like they are being given the service they are paying for.  I am hoping the next thing they work on is fixing the service side with both the kitchen and service staff. But until I hear word of that, I do not think I will be dining here again for some time.

Speckled Hen Tavern & Grille on Urbanspoon