Review: ‘town (**CLOSED**)
Ask anyone and you’ll hear it – ‘town is a Big Deal.
Snuggled into Avondale on St. Johns next to Underwood’s, it’s been described as the best new restaurant to hit Jacksonville in years. ’town is featuring numerous locally sourced ingredients from Twinn Bridges, Eli’s Raw Foods, Sweetgrass Dairy, Blue Buddha, Springer Mountain, Fudge Family Farms and Down to Earth Farm. When the time came for The Man and I to celebrate one of our many anniversaries (this time was our wedding ceremony) we had to check the place out.
I was nervous about the communal table concept before we ever got there. I like space. I like room. I like to be able to use my cell phone to take photos without anyone noticing. When we entered, it was obvious that sitting at the bar seats wasn’t going to offer enough light. The hostess showed us to a table. The good news was that it wasn’t shared with other diners; the bad news was that it was the size of a postage stamp. Two place settings dwarfed the tiny table. I couldn’t see where there would be enough room to put any other dishes down. So, we opted to sit outside. This was the definitely the right choice. We had a table that was four times bigger than the one inside and there was no one outside with us but a party of three with their backs to us and they were almost finished with their entrees.
Our server was very nice, attentive and exuded that elusive “I’m on your side” trait that I adore in servers. He explained the menu, which is a bit tricky. It’s divided into sections, $5 Bar Bites, $4 Cheese + Charcuterie, Entree plates at $9, $12 and $15, $6 sides, $7 Desserts, $6 Ice Cream & Sorbet then finally “off the menu” items priced individually. We opted for the “3 for $33″ plan which gives a dish off of each of the $9, $12 and $15 menus. (Add dessert for $5) Of course, we asked him what the apostrophe was short for in ‘town. He said “In town.” I am skeptical. They certainly don’t make it easy to search for them on the Webernet.
Not knowing what the evening was going to bring, I started with a 2008 Borsao Rose ($7/glass) and we were all set. We were very excited about the “Bar Bites” which we chose as our apps. I got the Truffled Tater Tots on the server’s recommendation and The Man was all over the Pork Belly “Popcorn”. (All items shown at individual prices)
Truffled Tater Tots ($5)
The server said, ”‘town is kinda famous for these tater tots.” When you consider that the place has only been open since very late spring that is saying a lot. Honestly, he was right. Those were the best darn tater tots I have ever even imagined. They are crispy, light and make no apologies for the slight greasiness. They are tater tots – if you’re not into greasy potato-ey goodness, what are you doing ordering them anyway?
Pork Belly “Popcorn” ($5)
The Man’s Pork Belly Popcorn had been a topic of discussion for weeks. There isn’t anywhere online or on their menu that truly describes what this is going to BE, so we had commenced to fantasizing. Would it be like upscale pork rinds? Puffy fried bacon? Completely melty belly encased in a smooth tempura-ish situation? Would it be shot into our mouths with a t-shirt cannon? We did not know.
In the end, it was actually one of the few disappointments of the night. They are basically thick cubes of pork belly covered in a pretty standard breading, resulting in an extremely salty, very tough Pork (GodForgiveMe) McNugget. I would be concerned that I just don’t “get it” but, I consider pork belly to be a blessed sacrament. I have seriously considered traveling to Texas specifically to try fried (fill-in-the-blank) at the state fair. I am the target audience and I found it tough and almost inedibly salty. Concept? Awesome. Reality? Eek.
And that’s all I have to say about that.
Next came the first of our three dishes. Off of the $9 section, I got the Chop Salad (tomato, cucumber, onion, artichoke, bacon, Kelle’s Blue, baby lettuces, red wine vinaigrette) - The Man got the Gaspacho (blue crab salad, cilantro oil).
I really enjoyed this salad, but it’s important to roll up your sleeves, get in there and really toss it. Don’t be prissy – really get at it. The elements are great together but you don’t want to end up with a pool of tomatoes at the bottom and no more greens to add to it. It was very well seasoned and dressed but I could have done with a tad more blue cheese crumbles. I enjoyed them so much that a week and a half later I remember there were only three.
The Man’s gaspacho (Portuguese spelling) was excellent. It had a bright, full tomato taste with excellent seafood piled generously in the middle. We both agreed that it could have used more heat. Gaspacho is refreshing and so good paired with chilled seafood on a hot night, but just a dash of spice would have made the dish perfect.
From the $12 section of the menu, I chose Scallops (fennel, orange, jalapeno, pistachios, cardamom vinaigrette) and The Man chose Fudge Farms Pork Cheeks (heirloom eggplant ratatouille, thyme sauce).
This past summer in Nova Scotia I fell in love with the scallop all over again after being bored with them for years. I stood in a little shed on the end of a dock in Lunenburg and ate a live scallop off the end of a fisherman’s knife. It changed who I was. Now, I’m chasing that fresh, creamy essence-of-ocean that scallops can be when insanely fresh and well prepared. The fresher a scallop is, the less that must be done to it to make it great. ‘town’s scallops are fresh and delightful and less is done to them than meets the eye. The presentation may look complex, but the strips of fennel and jalapeno are just a fresh crunch with a bright orange pop to set off properly seared scallops.
This was, hands down, the best dish of the night. Imagine, if you will, the finest texture of pot roast you have ever experienced or imagined - now make it pork-flavored. That’s what this is. It is the most tender, moist, delicious pork I have ever eaten – ever. Run there now and order this – then bring me some. If you try nothing else at ‘town – try the pork cheeks.
From the $15 menu, I chose Roasted Duck Breast (Georgia peaches, house smoked bacon, kale, red wine syrup) and The Man chose Hanger Steak Frites (parmesan-herb fries, chimichurri).
Roasted Duck Breast
This was excellently prepared duck breast – crispy skin, moist pink interior, tender, well seasoned, no chewy bits where the fat hasn’t broken down – just perfect. I chase duck all over the city constantly and this is among the best in Jax. The kale bed it was placed on was quite good – the house smoked bacon cranks it up to 11. The only flaw in this dish was the peach. It was sadly green and under-ripe. Here’s a close-up of my sad little peach. (It was actually quite greener than that in person.)
Hanger Steak Frites
This was extremely well-done. It’s a very standard, comfortable dish that most bistro-concept restaurants offer. In comparison to others around town, it’s in my top three. The fries are top-notch and the steak is tender and delicious. If you’re dining with someone less adventurous or very carnivorous, this is the dish for them.
Finally, we could not justify two desserts after such a meal. We opted for a single order of the Mini Sugar Doughnuts with milk chocolate fondue ($7).
My fellow foodie friend viCarious thought these to be a bit heavy but personally I was totally into them. These aren’t little Sweet Sixteens. These are serious, hefty, giant doughnut holes of awesomeness. I found the chocolate sauce to be beside the point and the doughnut to be just the thing to split between the two of us. ‘town does sneakily incite a riot by giving you five of them. We cut one in half with a knife.
Dessert brings me to my one last persnickety fussbudget point - I wasn’t offered coffee. Nowhere on the dinner menu does it state that coffee is available, though once again through Cari‘s review I know it exists. I always take service as it’s given and for me being offered coffee separates the men from the boys (so to speak) when it comes to service. It’s like table crumbing or a server remembering which dish goes with which person. Service was not seamless for us at ‘town. A manager came out to our table on a cruise-by and offered me a refill on my drink after it had sat for quite some time. Twice, a separate server brought out our dishes from the kitchen, so he didn’t know which ones went to which person but other times our regular server brought out food. Yet, when I went to the ladies’ room, a staff member (yet another different one) came to the table and folded my napkin back into origami happiness. They are striving for excellent service, but a few little tweaks would make them great. I do attribute a huge part of that to sitting outside.
Bottom line – ‘town is not cheap. Even with the $33 deal, after apps, a single glass of wine and splitting a dessert, our bill came to $94.16 before tip. Of course, you could cut this considerably by not having wine, skipping appetizers and dessert, but the thing about ‘town, like most tapas-type places, is that the individual parts add up to a whole. In truth, most people could have a $5 app and $15 steak frites and be quite satisfied for $20. If the price of the place is daunting, that may be the way to go because ‘town is not to be missed.
‘town is located at 3611 St. Johns in the Avondale neighborhood of Jacksonville, Florida. Visit their website for more information.
all bad cell phone images copyright © 2010 by jodi a. kasten • all rights reserved