Review: Restaurant Orsay
Over the past two years, it has been almost impossible to live in Jacksonville and not hear that Restaurant Orsay is one of the best restaurants in the city. After reopening and reinventing the restaurant formerly known as Crush on Park Street, the restaurant’s reputation cut a swath through the Jacksonville restaurant scene and established itself as the “go-to” place for upscale, hip food with a strong French foundation. I had sampled Orsay’s food at events such as Caring Chefs, but I had yet to have the full experience.
Normally I have a small army of friends on hand that I drag along to various restaurants that I review but judging by the food I had sampled at events and the buzz I had heard, I wanted to take The Man. Like most parents of small children, this involved a babysitter, pizza, a Chipmunks DVD and event coordination that is akin to synchronized swimming. Yet, after much ado, at 7 p.m. The Man and I arrived at Orsay for the tenth anniversary of the night we met. We were determined to have the full experience.
The restaurant is beautifully decorated. There are numerous rapturous descriptions online and I must say they are accurate. The space is hip and open without being stuffy or pretentious. I was considering asking for an outside table, but wanted to see if a table inside might suit us. I knew I’d be taking my usual sneaky cell phone photos, so I didn’t want to be too near other diners. As we were shown to a table I instantly knew it wouldn’t work. The booth for two was tiny and beside two people already seated. We had spied an outside dining area on our way into the restaurant so I requested that we be seated there.
The porch was empty other than the two of us and it was a lovely warm evening. I asked the server if it would be acceptable to take photos with my cell phone and explained it didn’t use a flash. She said it would be fine. I do prefer to sit outside when doing reviews for this reason. I’m very lucky that, because of the rising number of food enthusiasts, taking photos isn’t an automatic tip off that I’m going to review the place. But, as I’ve explained in the past, I’m not a fan of obviously taking photos in restaurants. Unfortunately, a bachelorette party inside the restaurant did not feel the same way. The only negative part of our experience was their repeated flashes throughout the evening. Of course, that’s just my personal taste and certainly not the fault of the staff. My etiquette preferences sometimes result in blurry and grainy photos, but that’s the price I’m willing to pay to not be the jerk doing the flashing.
I excused myself to the restroom to wash my hands. You all know by now that I love to poke around in the restrooms of restaurants because it is a direct reflection on the state of their premises, including the kitchen. I am happy to report that Orsay’s bathrooms are spotless, beautifully decorated and they have “Lemongrass Love” hand soap which had me sniffing my hands for pleasure well after we left that night. Be sure to check out the pressed tin ceiling while you’re in there. It made me smile.
We began with a beautiful baguette supplied by the French Pantry. I am always pleased to get anything from the French Pantry because their operating hours do not mesh well with mine. The bread was exactly what it should have been – crispy, chewy and crunchy crust with a delicate, tangy, bubbly interior. The butter was also softened, which is one of the little things that make a good restaurant great. Not having to chisel off a chunk of butter and tear the bread to pieces to spread it begins the whole meal with the idea that someone, somewhere is looking out for you.
Next we decided to have two appetizers, after all this was a special occasion. The roasted oysters ($9) are topped with Eden Farms bacon, spinach, and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
These were just delicious. The bacon and cheese brought out the essence of the oyster and added to the texture which made the bite chewy, gooey and satisfying. The spinach gave a hint of color and just a note of “green” to the whole dish. The presentation was gorgeous as well with each oyster beautifully topped and tucked into a bed of chunky salt. I also commend this dish because there is not a PILE of bacon and cheese on top of the oyster, as so many restaurants do. It’s just enough to bring out the flavor without losing the oyster. The little twist of lemon zest on top zinged it up and made it the perfect mouthful of oystery goodness.
We also determined that it wouldn’t be right to not try the escargots ($11). I had sampled these in the past, but The Man had yet to try “snails.” I explained to him that when prepared properly, they are not what you would expect at all.
If you haven’t tried them, they are not the rubbery, fishy little erasers you would expect. They are tender and buttery. Most people expect something akin to chewing on a slimy rubber band with a pungent fishy taste. NOT SO, my friends! Don’t miss this dish because you’re squeamish. It is one of the great joys in life! Orsay serves them over a beautiful pan of mushrooms in a garlicky lemon butter sauce. The mushrooms are OUTSTANDING. Escargots is one of my favorite foods, but I have to say that the mushrooms were almost as good as the escargots! When we had forked all of the little nubbins of deliciousness out of the shells, both of us soaked up the sauce and topped the baguette slices with the mushrooms. It was like a third appetizer! Awesome!
When we had finished our appetizers, which we were not especially tidy about, Annie (Server Extraordinaire) crumbed my table, single-handedly salvaging the service industry in Jacksonville. I’ve eaten at restaurants in which I spent twice as much per diner as at Orsay and not had my table crumbed.
For his main course, The Man chose the Orsay burger ($30). It is grass fed beef topped with seared foie gras and red onion marmalade on a house made brioche bun with pommes frites.
Annie had told us that if we loved the baguette, we would be “blown away” by the brioche. I suppose our expectations were pretty high, because while the bun was good, I wouldn’t say it was better than the baguette. It’s a good foundation for an excellent burger, but I think we had been spoiled by that baguette. The Man ordered the burger medium rare and it was perfectly cooked. I wanted to take the little gherkins home and keep them as pets. They were so cute and perky. The foie gras was very tasty. It was salty and beautifully browned without being overcooked. Overcooking foie gras is a major mistake, as it makes it sour and grainy. But, there was none of that here, just a generous slab of tasty, salty (in a good way), golden brown deliciousness. The burger patty had the same great crust on it and when eaten together with the soft bun and tangy red onion marmalade, it was burger heaven. Diners may be put off by the $30 price tag, but as frugal as I am, I think this burger is a BARGAIN. (Yes, you heard that right, a $30 bargain hamburger!) The crispy pomme frites were a perfect addition, capturing the magic that can happen when good potatoes are simply prepared at the right temperature with a little salt.
It will come as no surprise to frequent readers that I chose the Maple Leaf Farms duck breast ($25) as my main course. It came with French green lentils, Eden Farms bacon, parsnip puree, roasted duck jus and crispy parnips.
I am rather passionate about duck. I’ve had duck breast all over town and I must say that this was one of the best. The duck meat itself was perfectly cooked. I always order mine medium and it didn’t disappoint. The flavor was excellent and I was very pleased with the dish. However, I do prefer preparations which involve a bit more of the fat rendering. I like a very crispy skin and fat rendered to the point where it is no longer chewy. Unfortunately, this is difficult to do while keeping the meat at medium doneness. The skin had a lovely flavor, but the crispness was lost a bit in the thick pad of fat. As I said, the flavors were all there and my only hesitation involves a close-to-impossible ideal, so I would still recommend this as one of the best duck breasts to be had in the city. The parsnip puree was sweet and delicious, the jus was good enough to lick off the plate and the lentils were tender and when joined with the other elements had just enough texture to make things interesting.
After this veritable orgy of consumption, we decided that we needed not one, but two desserts. (Special occasion! Hush!) Actually, we simply couldn’t decide between two desserts – the chocolate espresso torte or the strawberry shortcake.
First, the chocolate espresso torte ($8) with hazelnut crust, Valrhona ganache, espresso mousse and black cocoa espresso bean ice cream.
Before anything else, let me just say that this ice cream was the best variation on chocolate ice cream I have had in a very long time. It’s difficult to see in the photo, but there’s a lovely little scoop of choco-coffee deliciousness next to that torte. The torte was great, but the ice cream is what I’ll pine for later. The hazelnut crust was AWESOME. I could have had a pile of that and been very pleased, but the layer above it was dense chocolatey and satsifying. It was topped with espresso mousse which was richer than I expected (not a bad thing when you’re talking about chocolate tortes) and whipped cream. Two pretty little chocolate-covered espresso beans topped it all off. This is a good dessert for chocolate lovers but a bit heavy for my taste. The chocolate layer is dense and very rich. I could never eat a whole serving of this alone, but if you’re going to split a dessert, this is a perfect choice because just a bite or two satisfies.
Finally, we dove into the strawberry shortcake ($8).
The two of us had spent quite some time over the past two weeks mulling over the various menus on the Restaurant Orsay website. We thought we had settled on exactly what we would like to order. We even flipped a coin as to who would get to order the banana brioche bread pudding. But, all bets were off when I read the description of the Strawberry Shortcake on the seasonally updated dessert menu:
“Sugar crusted shortcake, thyme macerated Florida strawberries, lemon mascarpone creme, vanilla lavender syrup.”
Vanilla lavender syrup???
::Warning: Not for the faint of heart::
That syrup alone was worth the price of the dish.
The interplay between the thyme, lemon mascarpone, syrup and shortbread meshed so perfectly with the strawberries that I just didn’t want it to ever end. The lavender syrup is something so simple and natural, yet it is so perfect that you will wonder why EVERYONE doesn’t eat thyme and lavender with their strawberries. The lavender was so subtle that there was none of the “soapiness” that can happen when one goes overboard with it, but when you taste it and smell it your brain still says, “Ah, HA! There’s lavender!” The shortcake was hands down the best I’ve had in awhile. (Okay – ever, but don’t tell my mother.)
It was the perfect end to the perfect meal.
I would like to also include a note about service. I recently wrote an extensive piece about the meaning of excellent service. I assure you, dear reader, that the folks at Orsay had no idea that I was a food writer. Besides, there are so many food writers in the world right now that I doubt I would be on their radar. But, if I have an especially good experience, I do enjoy leaving my business card for my server with “Thanks” and the occasional smiley face drawn on. I know for sure that Annie didn’t know who I was when she served me because she mentioned my card as we got up to leave. Therefore, I am certain I was not treated differently than anyone else would be. Orsay is the perfect example, in my opinion, of how a high level of service can be achieved without a ridiculous price tag. Orsay is not cheap, but there are many restaurants in town where you’d get half the service and half the food quality for twice the price.
Down to brass tacks, The Man and I went all out after skipping anniversary gifts in exchange for the dinner as a gift to each other. For two appetizers, two of the more expensive mains, two desserts, house wine and coffee, we spent $104 before tip. That is just over $50 a person for seriously upscale food and some of the finest service I’ve seen in the city. In my opinion, Orsay is one of the best values in North Florida. I have seen no finer representation of classic and contemporary French cuisine in the region.
Shockingly, the service continued long after I was back at my home. When I sat down to begin writing this review, I realized that I had forgotten to ask our server for a copy of the updated dessert menu, leaving me without the prices and proper descriptions of the dishes we had, as neither had been on the online menu. I emailed Crystal Vessels, the General Manager of Orsay, requesting the information. Not only did she answer my email promptly at 12:30 at night, but she followed up with the updated seasonal menu pdf and this beautiful image of the strawberry shortcake which puts my grainy cell photos to shame, of course!
Throughout my experience, I felt like a valued customer. From the hostess who showed me to the restroom instead of just pointing to the door, to the kitchen staff taking care to prepare the food excellently, to Annie The Wonder Server - the experience was outstanding. Being able to communicate readily with the general manager made me feel as if the entire business is interested in my personal satisfaction. For that reason and many more, I give Restaurant Orsay my highest recommendation.
Restaurant Orsay is located at 3630 Park Street in Jacksonville, Florida.
If you’d like to visit Restaurant Orsay or contact them for further information, please visit www.restaurantorsay.com or call 904.381.0909.
Final Strawberry Shortcake image courtesy Restaurant Orsay
all other photos copyright © 2010 by jodi a. kasten • all rights reserved