Friday, February 15, 2008

Be Mine

For the past two years, my sweetie and I have had a very low-key Valentine's Day. This year wasn't too different, only instead of joining the hordes crowding out the city's most popular restaurants (not that we don't love you Bistro Aix...) we decided to spend it with friends.

Cafe Nola, inside of MOCA Jacksonville, is one of Downtown's favorite lunch spots (the shrimp salad wrap, with hints of lemon is worth the extra-long lunch hour alone). But many people don't know that chef Kathy Collins has started opening three nights a week (Weds, Thurs, & Fri).

This posting might seem out-of-place on a blog where I regularly rail against/wax poetic-ish about works of art, but the thing that really garners my respect about Nola is Collins's enthusiasm and dedication. She strives to work within a framework of accessible food, while maintaining a commitment to contemporary cuisine.

She took over cheffing and managing the restaurant from the former company that was handling it, Chives, about a year ago. Since then she's had an uphill battle; though the lunch crowd is strong and supportive, there are things she wants to accomplish as a chef, that are in many ways best for the evening meal. Whether it's pairing wines, or creating coursed dishes, there are simply limitations to the lunchtime aesthetic. Especially considering her primary diners are Downtown business people and art-community types--people who don't often have time for a three course lunch, paired with wine flights.

I've been in for dinner several times, but this was far and away the best. The prix fix menu ($39 per person, including a bottle of champagne to split), had two courses per person and a shared dessert. It's been a long time since I was equal parts satisfied and surprised with my meal: I started with the shrimp; it was poached in champagne and served chilled over a bed of greens with a blood orange vinaigrette that'd been laced with chunks of sea salt. Here there was a play of flavors and textures, the citrus bite of the vinaigrette set off the cool creaminess of the shrimp, while the sea salt provided added crunch and just a hint of the sea.

For an entree, the lure of fresh truffled papardelle pasta with portabella mushrooms and fresh thyme proved too strong to resist. I slowed down to eat this dish. It is so rare to find good Italian food in Jacksonville, that I savored the experience. The scent of the truffles filled my mouth while the fresh pasta was both comforting and refined--finished against the fresh greeness of the thyme, it was a dish of classic flavors, carefully balanced against one another.

For dessert we split the chocolate pyramid with the creme anglais heart, coconut truffles, and chocolate sauce. Though chocolate can be overwhelming, Collins transformed the dessert into manageable bites, each varied enough to tickle the palate.

Overall, it was a wonderful, quiet meal spent among friends (it'd be disingenuous of me to pretend that I don't count the chef and the front-of-the-house-manger among my peeps). The only drawback, the kitchen seemed to be a little understaffed and it took a while for our first course to appear.

But if one can't overlook small things on a day no-one likes to work (Valentine's is famous for bringing out amateurs), then perhaps staying at home is advisable (one caveat, Matthew's in San Marco is where fine dining has died--the last time we were there we got to witness a Sopranos-esque character throw wads of cash around, have his date serenaded by a barbershop quartet, and then listen to a keyboardist play weak renditions of Yanni's greatest hits).

Anyway, enough of where not to dine. Check out Nola for dinner...added bonus? Viewing the new Duval Carrie sculptures the museum just acquired, they're right there in the lobby.

*What's that in the picture? Meat and Potatoes Redux: a medium-rare petite filet with a sliver of fois gras, roasted baby carrots and a gruyere and potato gratin served with a cabernet sauce. There really is a reason the French are consistently at the top of the food pyramid.

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