Good Swill Hunting: Confessions of a Farm to Table Foodie

"Eating is an Agricultural Act" — Wendell Berry

Month: January 2015

Affordable Local Fare in Gainesville, Florida

Affordable Local Fare in Gainesville, Florida

THURSDAY, 4pm:
On a very cold Thursday in early January I pulled into Gainesville, Florida after a six-hour drive south from Atlanta. I was passed through a year ago for another Orlando conference but didn’t find a go-to farm-to-table place.

I’m writing this at The Jones, a compact college place at 203 SW Second Avenue in downtown Gainesville. I discovered it on the web a week or so ago. School is back in session at the University of Florida (Gainesville’s chief industry) but I hit town at 4pm. Nicely, this place never closes–from the time it opens for breakfast through dinner. And that’s 7 days a week. Wi-fi is available here too, perfect for students.

I hear the breakfast really rocks! That and its vegan dishes is what made the place well-known. Breakfast is a big deal here. That’s reflected by the fact that they offer a few breakfast items, called “Breakfast for Dinner,” starting at 4pm, when they move from a breakfast-all-day approach to their dinner menu. I passed on that, considering I ate 3 eggs before my drive. I’ll be back on Sunday, though, for their Wild Boar Omelette.

The Jones is going through a transition. They closed their small, 35-seat Westside location five months ago and hired a new chef, Michael Sneed, to bring all three meals together under this one 135-seat roof. The building at one time was Ralph’s Burgers and the drive-in window is still in place. That’s no surprise. The generic, sloping metal roof is quite prominent as you approach the eatery.

Inside, the ceiling is being redone. From up there somewhere emanates a great Pandora blues station that they’ve chosen. It’s weaving from Stevie Ray Vaughan to downhome country blues, with plenty of blues harp in between.

The decor is very rustic. I’m not sure what the plan is for it, if any. My suggestion is to start by overhauling the hallway to the bathrooms to make it less forbidding, and completely rehab the Men’s Room. A few planters or an awning at the front door would go a long way to make The Jones more welcoming.

Their mission statement is on the menu: “We strive to source our produce and meat from nearby family farms; organize our workplace around joy and liberation; honor the land and our relationship to it.”

According to the chef (who allegedly picked the groovin’ music) Hawthorne FL grass-fed beef is brought in. (Burgers are $10. Sriracha Sauce is on the table for macho types.) Wild Mayport Atlantic Ocean shrimp (local from Jacksonville) is used in the Shrimp and Grits. Nice heat with Jalapenos on that dish, with organic grits and local wild boar sausage. It’s a very substantial portion ($15.95), served piping hot, and nicely paired with a Left Hand Milk Stout.

My entree was preceded by a tasty cream-based cup of hot butternut squash soup. It was also served very hot. No room at all for dessert. I’d fall asleep at the wheel on my drive to Orlando if I could fit it–which I can’t.

Other suppliers used are Strongtree Organic Coffee, Fox’s Herbs and Jose’s Tempeh Shop. Apparently, Gainesville is also very proud of Wellspring Kombucha, brewed right here in town. They serve it here on tap and mix it into their cocktails such as the Moscow Mule. I’ll report about it on Sunday.

SUNDAY, 10am:
Back at The Jones. Much warmer today but overcast. Spanish Moss on the trees everywhere. This morning’s music selection is oldies. Sorry, but Bill Haley and Roy Orbison isn’t my thing. My waitress raves about the bacon: “The best in town,” she says. How can I resist? I ordered standard fare instead of a Wild Boar Omelette: two eggs over-easy with bacon, two buttermilk pancakes and cheese grits instead of potatoes. A sublime American fried breakfast, I thought, right? What did Steve Coogan say in The Trip?: “Is there anything better than a fried breakfast?”

For $11.95 the portion was huge! Two very large pancakes and a big cup of grits. (The cheese was an extra buck.) Very nice meal! The Cognito Farms Over-Easy Eggs were done perfectly. Yes, the bacon was good. But the Buttermilk Pancakes? They were excellent! Really flavorful and fluffy, and with real butter and real maple syrup! The Organic Grits needed more cheese. Perhaps I should’ve added some Shiracha?

This college place is a really good find, only 15 minutes off I-4. It has a huge vegan menu and they say people are completely obsessed with the Tahini-Ginger Dressing. Did I try the Wellspring Kombucha? Yes. Today’s flavor is Ginger/Lemongrass. Very effervescent and tasty. I can image it fantastic with rum or vodka. But not for me today. It’s 11am on a Sunday and I have to drive to Atlanta. Hasta Domingo . . . .

Foodie Paradise in Winter Park, Florida

Saturday, January 18: The Ravenous Pig
Sunday, January 19: Cask and Larder
Monday, January 20: Prato
Tuesday, January 21: Luma on Park

Scallops at Luma on Park

Scallops at Luma on Park

A year ago I attended at multi-day conference in Orlando at Disney World. I had the good sense, in some ways, to stay at a really comfortable 4-Star Sheraton north of the city. Although I had to fight traffic each morning to get through downtown Orlando to arrive at the conference, my evenings were spent near my hotel and far away from din of Disney. It allowed me to eat my way through four terrific farm-to-table restaurants in the beautiful suburb of Winter Park.

All four are run by two acclaimed James Beard chefs: James Petrakis and Brandon McGlamery. The first two I attended are run by Petrakis, the last two by McGlamery. The four eateries–The Ravenous Pig, Cask & Larder, Prato and Luma on Park–are excellent restaurants where the locals eat and where (I assume, like me) those, sick of the carnival atmosphere of Disney, flee to get a great meal. Generally speaking, for farm-to-table foodies, Winter Park is a fantastic destination, possibly overlooked in the Southeastern U.S.

Winter Park is very picturesque. Its downtown village is reminiscent of Santa Monica or Walnut Creek or Ridgewood, New Jersey: Very posh, very clean, very pretty. The main north/south artery through the old town, aptly named “Park Avenue,” is parallel to the train tracks that support a new commuter line and Amtrak. North of the village, I’m told, are turn-of-the-century mansions. I was too full each night to check them out but I did walk around the village.

Here’s some random notes about my experiences at each place.

RAVENOUS PIG:
An uber farm-to-table spot. Wi-fi available. The menu changes daily. Talking Heads was on the music system. Two CIA-trained chefs opened the place. Its got a very unpretentious vibe, with a double dining room, friendly bar area, open kitchen and outdoor seating.

They have a solid wine-by-the-glass program (43 selections: 24 Old World). Very good, unobtrusive staff. When you taste two wines, they leave the bottles on the table so you can check out the labels!

I had the Gatherer Salad, with Mister McGregor’s lettuces, avocado, pickled beets, radish, goat cheese, pistachios, herb vinaigrette. Great mouth feel with goat cheese, avocado and nuts. Nicely balanced. Herb dressing excellently balanced too. Good Alsatian Pinot Gris pairing with it. Although it was tomato and citrus season, I chose this salad instead.

No bread or gimmicks here, instead really showcasing the menu. A real fun, casual place with excellent, fresh food and a rocking wine list.

Their Pork Porterhouse is a delicious, smoky steak, paired with a side of sweet potato. Ask for more marmalade on the side. The Porterhouse is served on a plank with the savory sweet potato thing in a small cast-iron pan. Be sure to nibble the chop to oblivion!

I finished with a Pot de Creme paired with 20-year Tawny Port. The Pot de Creme was dusted with ancho for complexity, plus dressed with Mascarpone. Local craft coffee from Lineage Roasters is offered. No tea program.

Nice mixed crowd (30s-60s), under control on a Saturday night. Verdict: Come as you are, eat like a king!

CASK & LARDER:
This is Ravenous’ sister restaurant, just as firmly an uber farm-to-table place but, in this case, featuring its own brewery. Essentially, it’s a casual variant of Ravenous, also with wi-fi and a daily-changing menu.

The interior is a large, open place subdivided into two rooms. One is the dining room with an open oven and a bar surrounding a raw bar. The other room is a bar with TVs and the brewery.

Classic rock on the PA: Credence, Clapton, Allman Brothers, assorted funk, etc. If you like keening B.B. King guitar licks, you’ll dig the music.

Nice refreshing lemon notes on the Bibb Salad, well paired with a Muscadet. The wine list is (rightfully) tightly focused because of the brewery.

Cuisine is Southern focused. I ordered Wild Boar with Parsnip Puree, Beets, Carrots, and Bourbon Jus. (I first sampled the Split Pea Soup, with a huge hunk of pork in it.) Wild boar sausage and chops had an exotic touch of cumin in the bourbon sauce. Almost Germanic in preparation, with cumin and parsnip puree with weenies. Nice dish.

Their ice cream is homemade. Ask Kelly to make you a two-scoop dark chocolate float with their stout. Tell her I sent you!

As with Ravenous Pig, they have excellent service. They even remembered to give me the bottle cap for the large bottle of Saratoga water I ordered but couldn’t finish. Verdict: Fun, casual place with solid, very clean food.

PRATO:
Prato, a former Ann Taylor clothing store, sits about a block from its sister restaurant, Luma on Park, on beautiful Park Avenue. On a really mild Monday night, with ten-foot-tall outfoor heaters ablaze and beckoning me, I was able to park just outside the restaurant. The environment inside has some of the trappings of an upscale bar, with very loud music that makes it necessary to scream to be heard. Its vertical bar starts almost from the front door.

It’s a very lively Italian spot, mostly packed even at 7:30 on a Monday night. It has a warehouse feel, with a 15-foot massive pair of arched front doors and a wooden ceiling. Very refined food and space for such a raucous, crowded, loud spot. The menu changes daily and it also has wi-fi, for those who need it.

This establishment strives to be an uber farm-to-table establishment. Purveyors are posted on a Florida map on the wall of the restaurant and on the menu. Being an Italian eatery, with pizzas and pastas comprising a large part of their menu, it’s hard to hit 75% local when you import high quality wheat from Italy.

After a long day at my trade show, I didn’t want to stay too long because of fatigue and the deafening Prato volume. I took a pizza to go for my travels the next day. I started, however, with veal meatballs. A very nice starter over cippollini puree, it was a hearty winter dish with the added Corona beans. Also brought to the table was delicious focaccia with olive oil. My entree was Eggplant Caponata atop a Pork Porterhouse. Verdict: Very fresh well-prepared food. Good staff. Consider going when not as crowded so you don’t have to scream.

Salad at Luma on Park

Salad at Luma on Park

LUMA ON PARK:
This is the most beautiful room of the four I enjoyed last year on my Winter Park food odyssey. At Luma, you’d feel as if you were in Atlanta, Los Angeles or New York City. An exotic wine room right in front of you when you enter definitely pushes the “wow” factor! The restaurant’s decor is smart and sophisticated without being glitzy.

There’s an open kitchen and small chef’s table in back. Both bathrooms have ultra-cool, push-button-activated, curved sliding doors. (Be careful you don’t enter the wrong one!)

From Sunday-Tuesday Luma offers a prix fixe three-course menu at $35. It’s comprised of one small plate (choice of 3), one entree (choice of 3), and dessert (choice of 2).

Their reserve wine list has around 20 bottles in 7 categories (Bubbles, Chard, Alternative Whites/Rose, Old World Reds, Pinot, Cab, New World Reds) and there’s one glass pour for each, all at $16. The Cab featured in early 2014 was an Arbios Cab, made by my old friend Bill Arbios. Good choice there!

House water is purified and filtered–same as Prato.

My amuse was a Mote Farm-Raised (“Perfectly Sustainable”) Caviar on a wafer with Ground Mullet Bottarga Roe sprinkled on top. Paired with a glass of Prosecco it was sublime.

The wine list is substantial, with 8 bottles at $20, $30, $40, and $50, and all items are available as a bottle, glass or half glass.

The menu doesn’t list purveyors but says instead, “Luma is dedicated to using artisanal producers, sustainable purveyors, [and] local and organic farmers whenever possible, for the inspiration and direction of our menu.” I was given a list of local purveyors and they’re not messing around. Uber farm-to-table, all the way!

The menu is divided into small plates and mains, with burger, pizza and sides being exceptions. The burger is $14 and you can add a farm egg and bacon for a $4 supplement.

Chef Brandon McGlamery oversees the well-run kitchen and has authored a cookbook, “9 Courses.”

Olde Hearth Sourdough Bread is baked in nearby Castlebury. With delicious, soft, spreadable butter (that’s whipped in-house) or olive oil, it’s terrific!

The wedge salad is contructed unlike elsewhere, with long wedges of Romaine and bleu cheese packed within it, and a beautiful, big slice of bacon on top. The blue cheese allows the natural bitterness of the romaine to come through.

Beautiful citrus notes and a little heat with my scallop dish. Spectacular dish, visually and tastewise! Sea scallops are perfectly prepared: Charred on the outside, luminescent beneath.

Superb service. Each time I stepped away to photograph the dishes I returned to my napkin folded on the table.

The desserts are very good too. Consider sitting at the Chef’s Table, right in the middle of the action, all the way in the back. That way you can hang with the pastry chef and be entertained by all the food preparation.

Verdict: Luma on Park is a destination restaurant. For a special occasion, I’d choose this place over the three others. Dress up if you feel like it or hang at the Chef’s Table in the back. Perfect back there for a special date or a special night. No reason to only go for special occasions, however, because the food is too good to only go sporadically. Take a long walk around the village to work off your meal because you’ll likely over-eat.

Panna Cotta at Luma on Park

Panna Cotta at Luma on Park

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New Foodie Guides

Panna Cotta at Luma on Park in Winter Park, Florida

Panna Cotta at Luma on Park in Winter Park, Florida

 

 

Since the roll-out of 30 individual US and Canada Foodie Guides about a week ago, this blog has been re-energized and re-dedicated. I’ve gone on this week to finish the Nevada and New Mexico Foodie Guides. Kansas is almost done and Arkansas shouldn’t take much longer.

You might wonder why such small population states to start? Why not finish California or New York, for example? My short response is that small states are much less dense by rule, so much easier to finish in a short amount of time.

Time, for me, is a scarse commodity these days. I just changed my career from a traveling wine broker back to an insurance consultant. Insurance sales, not nearly as sexy but far more lucrative, is something I did about twenty years ago. That’s why I’m trying to pick my battles carefully with these less complicated Foodie Guides.

It’s my hope for this blog to bring you interesting content regarding the North American farm-to-table movement. I’ll be heading south on business next week. I plan to check out the scene again in Gainesville, Florida and visit some old favorites (if possible) in Winter Park. I’ll be blogging about my experience at The Jones. I expect to have as many as three meals there, so I’ll have lots of photos and info to share with you.

About a year ago I attended a different conference in Orlando. I spent my evenings in Winter Park, attending four terrific places: Luma on Park, Prato, Ravenous Pig and Cask & Larder. Somehow that piece never got posted. I’ll be writing it up today and posting it next Sunday.

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