Bite Club Report: Augustine Grille
When relatively unfettered by economy, what level of cuisine is possible? Can it be sustainable? Can it be local? Can a “normal” person buy an expensive meal and not feel robbed? Can it knock your socks off? Can you get it south of Manhattan? At Augustine Grille the answer to all of these questions is “yes.”
I had the privilege of being included in the Folio Weekly’s Bite Club visit to the Augustine Grille on March 8, 2011. Please understand that this is not an unbiased anonymous review. Obviously, as invited guests, the restaurant was well aware that we would be writing about our experiences at the restaurant. Tastecasting, Bite Club and media events are always clearly marked here at EatJax. Please visit the Bite Club website for information on how Bite Club works and how you can participate in future events.
First I’d like to address the elephant in the room – the Augustine Grille is an expensive restaurant. Times are tough. While there is a relatively affordable ($39) prix fixe menu, to experience the meal I am about to describe would cost considerably more than that. You can view the dinner menu here. It is not something I would have done on my own and I recognize the privilege. However, missing this place would have been a mistake because if you are truly a food lover, Augustine Grille is not to be missed. Wait until a birthday, anniversary or other special occasion if you must, but don’t miss this gem. Of course, nestled in the Sawgrass Marriott Resort complex, the Augustine Grille is accustomed to serving the rich and famous. However, having eaten at many high-end resort restaurants in the area, I have yet to find one that lives up to the price tag — until Augustine.
We were greeted with a signature cocktail – for ladies it was the Sawgrass Sunset – Absolut vodka, Aqua Perfecta raspberry liqueur, pineapple juice.
As we mingled and took in the spectacular lagoon view, I noticed two things. First, there was a local farmer from Fresh Start Hydroponic Farms showing off his sustainable produce, which supplies the restaurant.
Next, as I enjoyed that cocktail, I noticed two small square white boxes on stands perched on the sloping hill leading to the water. I immediately recognized them as bee hives! Next week, 40,000 honey bees will be delivered to start this colony of bees which will supply the restaurant with their own honey and will be loaned out to the partner farms to aid in pollination for their crops. This is not something a restaurant has to do to bring in customers. It’s something they are doing to enhance their cuisine and be more responsible members of the community, which appeals to me greatly.
We enjoyed three passed hor d’ouvres – tuna tartare on wonton crisps, dry-aged beef satay and warm lobster bisque shooters. They were all quite tasty, but the tuna tartare was a real standout.
As we were seated we were given the choice between wine pairings or spirit pairings with our meal. I chose the wine pairings including RKS Grande Cassagne Rose, Long Meadow Ranch Sauvignon Blanc, Long Meadow Ranch House Red and finally Graham’s Tawny Port with dessert.
Olive (left) and Cheese (right) breads
The breads were warm, fresh and soft with beautiful crusts and Vermont artisan butter.
A surprise Crab Rangoon amuse bouche.
The meal was divided into Small Plate, Leaves, Sea, Land and Sweet.
Small Plate: pork belly, red pea, andouille and greens.
The pork belly was sourced from DelKat Family Farm, owned by Del and Kathy Conner, which is located in Hilliard, Florida on property that has been in the Conner family for four generations. They raise all natural beef and pork without the use of medication, antibiotics, or growth hormones. DelKat Family Farm raises Berkshire pigs providing a premium quality of pork, well marbled with excellent flavor. For more information contact them by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. To say it melted in my mouth would be the understatement of the year.
The Carolina red peas were provided by Anson Mills, which specializes in handmade mill products and near-extinct food varieties. Read about the fascinating history and goals of this company here.
The andouille was provided by Azar Sausages, a company operating right on Union Street here in Jacksonville since 1954. See their website here.
The braising greens were provided by Twinn Bridges Farms. Scott and Denise Francis were our tablemates and I must say that it’s especially satisfying to eat food grown by the guy sitting next to you. See Twinn Bridges’ website here. I am blown away by the level of experimentation and innovation going on at Twinn Bridges. I’m excited to be visiting them for the Tour De Farm in April! Check out the Slow Food First Coast Facebook page for details. Augustine Grille has achieved the Slow Food Snail of Approval – a true honor.
Getting the chance to sit down and share food with these people really illustrated the level of passion and dedication going on among local farmers. We all know in theory what it must take to dedicate your life to growing sustainable food, but these folks are truly living what we’re all searching for – delicious sustainability.
Scott and Denise Francis
Leaves: Arugula, beet, truffled goat cheese, shallot vinaigrette
The arugula and beets were sourced from Fresh Start Hydroponics (seen above). They don’t have a web presence, but their number is 904.449.5323 if you’re interested in more info on their products. Truffled goat cheese was provided by Cypress Grove Chevre, an award winning small batch artisan cheese producer in California. Chef Smith says that if he can’t get something locally he gets it from “local somewhere” – meaning small, non-corporate and artisan.
Sea: Mayport shrimp, grits cake, greens, tasso gravy
The super-awesome shrimp and grits were comprised of Mayport shrimp sourced from Safe Harbor and grits from the aforementioned Anson Mills. If Safe Harbor isn’t already on your list of great sources here in Jax, first check out the website, then get in your car and see what you’ve been missing.
Land: House dry-aged, prime, natural strip loin, gnocchi, brussels sprouts
This strip steak is sourced by Creekstone Farms, a Kansas purveyor specializing in the highest quality natural beef raised humanely. How humanely? How about a processing plant designed by Temple Grandin? Learn all about Creekstone here. The beef is dry-aged, IN-HOUSE, for 60 days. The result is a beautifully marbled, tender, succulent, delicious piece of beef with a depth of flavor unmatched by any steak I’ve tried in any restaurant in the area.
Anything more than medium rare would be a crime.
Sweet: Crunch, pot de creme, truffle
This was the perfect end to a perfect meal. The “crunch” was described as “an adult Kit-Kat.” That description doesn’t do it justice. Such good chocolate and crispy crunchy bits with a soft fluffy top. Yum! The Pot de Creme was smooth, cool vanilla heaven. The two little truffles were chocolate at its best, an essence of what our brain believes it’s going to get every time we see, smell or wish for chocolate. The port served with this dish was beyond compare. I have a bottle of lesser Graham’s in my cabinet right now that is soon going to have a partner. What a treat!
I believe the moral of the story here is that any high end restaurant can order prime cuts of meat and expensive frozen seafood from a truck rolling in from who-knows-where. They can charge big bucks for steak and lobster and most people dining there won’t complain. But Augustine Grille is going so far above and beyond because they are truly passionate about being the best. Being the best means not just putting the best ingredients into their dishes, but also being the best citizens of their community that they can be. When you invest what is sure to be a magnificent meal here, you’re also putting your money where your mouth is – literally. You’re sustaining the local farmers, artisans and suppliers that represent the best of our area.
During extensive conversations with the restaurant manager, chef and other staff, there wasn’t a single hint of snobbery – only excitement about their mission. The final commentary on this came at the end of our meal. Chef Brett Smith came out to the dining room and was greeted with wild applause. He took the time, not just to bring out the full kitchen crew, but to introduce each of them by name, praise them and explain what they do in the kitchen. The feeling I got from my time at Augustine Grill was that everyone matters to them and that is something no one can put a price on.
Special thanks to everyone at the Augustine Grille, Sawgrass Marriott, Folio Weekly Bite Club and my fellow diners for a fabulous evening. I will surely return to share the joy with others. You should too.
The Augustine Grille is located inside the Sawgrass Marriott, 1000 PGA TOUR Boulevard, Ponte Vedra Beach, FL 32082. Visit their website for more details and contact information.
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all images copyright © 2011 by jodi a. kasten • all rights reserved