There are many reasons why North Florida is such an wonderful place to visit (or live). The climate is spectacular; great for boating, golfing, surfing, fishing and other forms of sports and recreation. In addition, the area is rich in arts and entertainment, fine-dining, shopping and history. North Florida also offers miles of beautiful beaches and waterways, cultural pursuits from jazz and Scottish festivals, to hot clubs and remarkable, ethnically diverse restaurants.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Good Eats . . .

Tops in Jacksonville

It goes without saying that picking “best” or “top” restaurants is a subjective exercise. Because no two diners have exactly the same preferences and tastes, compiling a one-size-fits-all list of favorite eateries is not a scientific endeavor. What it is, however, is extremely labor intensive, sometimes contentious, often rewarding and always challenging.

No matter a diner’s preference for flavors and spices, we believe our readers can agree on a few features and amenities that separate the good restaurants from the great. These are the things Jacksonville Magazine looks for when settling upon eateries to highlight in our annual list. For example, an establishment’s attention to cleanliness is always appreciated. In addition, aspects such as pleasing decor and atmosphere, perceived value (regardless of the price for entrées), consistent food quality, creativity and innovation, professional and attentive service elevate the best above the rest. Then there are other intangibles, including how the staff handles a mistake or a complaint from a customer, if the bartender remembers your favorite drink, if the busboys retrieve plates, silver and glasses quietly, and if the manager or chef stops by the table to converse with guests.

As you review and digest this year’s Top 25 list and the various side dishes that accompany them, we anticipate you will see some old neighborhood favorites as well as a few restaurants you have yet to visit. We know there won’t be universal agreement with our choices. And that’s okay. We believe you will agree that the story is arguably the most thoroughly researched and informative article on fine dining and good eats served in Northeast Florida.

Aqua Grill

950 Sawgrass Village Dr., Ponte Vedra Beach, 285-3017

Many Ponte Vedra restaurants have come and gone over the two decades since Aqua Grill opened its doors. An unpretentious atmosphere and a consistent focus on seafood and meat-and-potatoes staples with a twist may explain some of its longevity. From pork osso buco to braised beef shortribs to herb-crusted tofu, the menu covers lots of ground. Some regulars stick to the classics like the fried seafood platter with panko-coated fish, lump crab cake, scallops, shrimp, fries and cole slaw.

Most Expensive Entrée: Wild mushroom smothered grilled filet mignon with horseradish whipped potatoes, grilled asparagus and fried onion straws, $34
Least Expensive Entrée: Eggplant parmesan “To Die For” with plum tomato sauce, three cheeses, and sautéed angel hair pasta, $17
Jax Mag Recommends: Day’s catch prepared First Coast Hemingway-style coated in parmesan, herbs, sesame seeds, sautéed crispy, with a sun-dried tomato mornay sauce and rosemary red potatoes, $22. Aqua Grill knows fish.


1019 Hendricks Ave., San Marco, 306-0100

A few of bb’s dishes have been on the menu since day one, including the Mediterranean chicken salad and mozzarella bruschetta. The grilled pizzas—white truffle, marinated artichoke, Thai bbq and jambalaya—are perennial favorites. However, arguably the best way to go when ordering are the daily chef specials, a collection of dishes that really allow the chefs to stretch their creativity. Seating in the bistro is snug and it can get loud. Arrive late for lunch and the only seat available may be one at the short bar near the door. Sit and enjoy, though don’t leave before checking out the dessert case near the back.

Most Expensive Entrée: Black Angus filet of beef with bacon and shallot potato gratin, asparagus, boursin cheese, red onion marmalade, toasted hazelnuts and sauce bordelaise, $31
Least Expensive Entrée: Orecchiette pasta with spicy Italian sausage, Swiss chard, roasted baby carrots, sundried tomatoes, shaved parmesan and herbs, $21
Jax Mag Recommends: White truffle pizza with wild mushrooms, shaved parmigiano, mozzarella, prosciutto and arugula, $12; And the dessert case. Just pick one of anything here. The slice will be big enough to share.


3556 St. Johns Ave., Avondale, 387-2060

Upon entering Biscottis, check out the big blackboard above the bar to see what the week’s specials are. The dessert case will be a distraction, so be sure to peek inside it before the bill comes. The Avondale favorite offers all items one expects from an exemplary cafe, including terrific soups, salads and sandwiches (try the ancho honey glazed salmon BLT or open-faced meatloaf sandwich). Back to the dessert case—triple chocolate cake, red velvet cake, white chocolate raspberry cheesecake… oh, where does one begin?

Most Expensive Entrée: Tortilla-crusted cod sandwich, $12 (daily blackboard specials are pricier)
Least Expensive Entrée: 8-inch free range chicken pizza with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, $10
Jax Mag Recommends: The mozzarella bruschetta, $10, is a tiny loaf filled with fresh cheese, baked with olive oil and lots of garlic, plum tomatoes, basil, pine nuts and cracked pepper. Two, please!

Bistro Aix

1440 San Marco Blvd., San Marco, 398-1949

For a decade now Bistro Aix has been among the city’s most popular fine dining establishments. Stylish without being stuffy, the restaurant earns raves for consistently delicious food, including innovative seasonal specials and classic menu favorites. Creamy French onion soup, house-made bacon and brie pizza, lamb short ribs, roast chicken and fresh pasta dishes—the menu is diverse, but all the while pays homage to the Southern French cooking roots favored by executive chef Tom Gray.

Most Expensive Entrée: Angus beef filet mignon with green beans, shallots, Stilton bleu cheese and au gratin potatoes, $36
Least Expensive Entrée: Three-cheese wood-fired pizza with tomatoes and basil, $12
Jax Mag Recommends: Steak frites bistro “onglet” steak with green beans, red wine shallot sauce and French fries, $23. The next-door Onyx Bar is a chic spot in which to enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail.

Blackstone Grille – filet mignon au poivre

Blackstone Grille

112 Bartram Oaks Walk, Julington Creek, 287-0766

The River City has too few white tablecloth dining spots. Count Blackstone among those few. Chef Charles Wang characterizes his cuisine as “modern American fusion.” Diners who frequent the attractive Bartram Oaks restaurant just call it good. Blackstone features an impressive collection of wines, capped by bottles of Opus One Meritage, $240. From grilled quesadillas to flambéed quail and vegetable dumplings to lobster ravioli, deciding upon what to eat can be a challenge.

Most Expensive Entrée: Grilled rack of lamb with dill sour cream sauce, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, spinach and asparagus, $32.95
Least Expensive Entrée: Grilled vegetables on a bed of linguine pasta with tomatoes, basil garlic and olive oil, $17.95
Jax Mag Recommends: Tea-smoked duck breast topped with apricot shallot demi glaze and served with roasted garlic mashed potatoes, spinach and asparagus, $20.95. Unusually delicious.

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