The movement towards “new Southern” cooking has garnered a great deal of press in recent years and deservedly so, as time-honored traditions in Southern cuisine have been expanded, updated, and enhanced in fine demonstration that Southern chefs are not solidly bound to convention but widely adept at innovation. Much of the attention has been drawn to restaurants in New Orleans, the Mississippi Delta region, or the Carolinas, with Atlanta also claiming an especial array of media focus, yet Florida has been often left out, perhaps due to the mistaken assumption that its cuisine is something other than truly Southern. While Florida boasts many influences from around the Americas and around the globe, the heart of its cooking—especially in regions north of Orlando—is Southern, and a number of restaurants deserve attention for what they’re doing now in service of the continuation of a cuisine that has always been innovative. In addition, while much of Floridian cooking comes from Florida Cracker traditions, these humble origins have hardly stopped chefs today from taking our cuisine to very high levels of sophistication and refinement. Here are three restaurants—two actual and a swell bakeshop—doing just that.
The Ice Plant, Saint Augustine, Florida
The Ice Plant is actually housed in a renovated historic ice plant where ice was produced to be shipped out to customers for their ice boxes prior to the advent of electric-powered refrigeration. A number of Florida cities had such ice plants, and the design of those in Lake City and here in Saint Augustine bespoke a refined if industrial warehouse-like typology of architecture based on the sheer size of space required for such an outfit. Saint Augustine’s ice plant was near its downtown core and had been left largely untouched in its years of disuse when it was owned by a telephone company and apparently used mainly for storage. These two factors provided a building in a great location and in decent-enough shape to provide for adaptive reuse that was faithful to the original design of the space both inside and out. The result is simply stunning: an interior that is spacious and where every last detail has been furnished in a manner to evoke the 1930’s and the feel of a speakeasy, with two bars forming the centerpiece of a huge, open upstairs area for dining and drinking. There is a small outdoors patio upstairs, as well, and the restaurant also is in business with a distillery that produces vodka and gin. Benefiting from large windows and ample daylight during the day, the Ice Plant becomes downright club-like at night with low light, an emphasis on its bars and drink specials, and often DJs spinning a variety of jazz-influenced tracks as the business stays open until 2:00 am.
The cooking at the Ice Plant is without a doubt upscale Southern but has deep local roots. Dishes such as shrimp-n-grits, a grilled filet mignon, and pan-seared scallops speak of coastal northern Florida’s relationship with both the sea and cattle ranching. On the other hand, a smoked fish dip and a cheese board of local-sourced cheeses harken back to actual Cracker traditions, where home-made goods like cheeses, honey, and the like were instrumental to entertaining. Every part of caught fish—much like they say of “every part of the hog except for the squeal”—was used insofar as possible, hence the origin of fish dips and fish spreads. The core emphasis here is on fresh ingredients, local when possible, and Southern foodways, and this approach doesn’t end with the food, either, but is found also in the cocktails. There is truly a level of attention-to-detail here that is unrivaled and very seldom found even in the best of restaurants—and it all begins in Floridian traditions.
How do you make something like a cheese board outstanding? How do you make every detail perfect? For the lce Plant, it starts with sourcing local cheeses and including pimento cheese, a Southern original, as the centerpiece of the whole thing. Walnuts, candied cherries or grapes, fresh bread, and honey round out the board. It’s not a difficult concept nor one that’s unique—the Westbank Grill at the Four Seasons in Jackson Hole has offered a similar cheese board based around regional cheeses for years—however, pulling off this dish requires the utmost dedication to quality. The Ice Plant certainly doesn’t disappoint, and its shrimp-n-grits is another hallmark of the same type of basis in a Southern foodways legacy with the appropriate care and detail to carry forth the dish to the next level.
In the cocktails we find several strong influences: the 1920’s-30’s speakeasy atmosphere, Floridian and tropical concepts heavy on rum, and the fact that the Ice Plant’s owners also have a distillery producing vodka and gin. So you have superb old fashioneds, drinks inspired by “Papa” Hemingway, and a knowledge of both rum and gin that is truly encompassing of these spirits and not just viewing them as a typical basis for trite cocktails. The level of craft that goes into the drinks here is second-to-none. They make their own bitters and stock a dizzying variety of Bourbons, other whiskeys, and the aforementioned rums and gins. During Prohibition, not only was liquor expensive but it was also in short supply, leading people to order fewer drinks; yet these cocktails would have been made with the utmost of care. That approach lives on with the bartenders at the Ice Plant. While craft cocktails are trendy across the nation, I have yet to see any other bar produce results as exacting and consistent as what the Ice Plant is doing.
Blue Gill Quality Foods, Gainesville, Florida
Chef Bert Gill has for decades held a track record of consistent, innovative food at his Gainesville restaurants Mildred’s Big City Food and New Deal Café; and before that, he operated the original Mildred’s which started the entire Gill dynasty of great restaurants. His newest venture is Blue Gill, tucked away into the unlikely spot of a street-level space in, of all things, a hospital parking garage. This follows more logic than one might presume. The garage was designed with retail/restaurant space on its lowest level and also houses a hair salon and fitness center, but its attraction for Chef Gill seems to be the fact that Shands Hospitals at the University of Florida and their associated clinics and research and teaching components have long wanted for a quality sit-down restaurant. Due to the hospital complex’s location on the southern edge of the UF campus, few decent restaurants were anywhere near walking distance, despite the tremendous number of staff, students, patients and visitors at the medical center every day. Yet Chef Gill didn’t just provide a quality restaurant for doctors and nurses but added a highly innovative take on traditional Southern—traditional Floridian—cooking to Gainesville.
Blue Gill’s roots are deeply within the scope of Florida Cracker culture and foodways. Items such as fried chicken, homemade pickles and other preserves, and an array of takes on fresh regional fish are the hallmarks of what this restaurant is all about. Glancing over the menu, it’s easy to assume many of these dishes could be found in a grandmother’s kitchen or at a roadside diner, but on closer inspection it’s clear that Chef Gill has taken trends and techniques found in America’s (and the world’s) leading cutting-edge restaurants and used them to evolve Floridian standards in often unexpected but always delightful ways. Like the Ice Plant, there is also an emphasis on craft cocktails and maintaining a bar stocked with a real diversity of regional and national liquor of merit. The focus is on Bourbon and tequila, with cocktails reflecting Florida’s essence and American spirit. As craft cocktails have become trendy, this may be an easy area for restaurants to turn profits, but in the case of Blue Gill there is a refreshing sincerity about what they’re doing with their bar: the quality is outstanding, and despite having a variety of bartenders it is also uniform. The attention to Bourbon also has filled in a long-vacant space in local Gainesville bars: while very recently a couple new bars opened that also place emphasis on Bourbon and other whiskeys, Blue Gill really was the first to do so, reflecting a national revival of interest in these traditional American liquors.
For an example of the Blue Gill approach to taking something standard and really making it exceptional, look no further than their fish sandwich. The fish is lightly breaded and fried in a delicate manner and that avoids burning, even at its corner-edges. The bun is robust and really, once the ample garnish is added, too thick to allow eating this sandwich in true sandwich form, so you have to attack it instead with knife and fork. You can order it with either a side salad or homemade chips: both are awesome. The tartar sauce also is most probably homemade: it’s possibly the very best tartar sauce I’ve ever had. The fish always arrives from the kitchen so hot—fresh from the fryer—that you have to wait a few minutes to bite into it. The Blue Gill approach to that ultimate Sunday favorite of Southern cuisine—fried chicken—is also over-the-top: a full game hen fried and served with two sides on a separate plate—these sides being mac n cheese and collard greens. It is a hefty, hearty meal—an embarrassment of riches, really. There are lighter items on the menu and everything is made in as healthy a manner as possible, but there is still a feeling of delightful excess, that type of feeling you’d get at a church dinner-on-the-grounds or favorite aunt’s house for Sunday dinner.
The Chocolate Turtle, Saint Augustine, Florida
The Ice Plant and Blue Gill both offer up amazing desserts, rooted in Southern conventions but innovative and of the highest quality: coconut cake and homemade ice creams at Blue Gill while Ice Plant has a carrot cake that’s simply exceptional. They know that Southern foodways always have placed a high emphasis on sweets. So it’s only fair to also look at a café that is devoted only to sweets, coffee, beer, and wine. Where do you go in Saint Augustine if you’ve had dinner but want something sweet an hour later while walking around the lovely historic downtown? The answer can now be the Chocolate Turtle, an establishment that opened just last year in an old home on Cordova Street in the heart of the historic district. The concept is one that is so evident it makes you wonder why no one thought of this sooner: a dessert café with wine and beer especially paired with the desserts they sell, in a location easy to reach from popular downtown attractions. What makes the Chocolate Turtle noteworthy to include in an article otherwise devoted to two leading restaurants—two full-service, cutting-edge, restaurants—is the sheer quality and care invested in its dessert offerings which places its admittedly limited menu into the stratosphere of fine dining simply by how well everything is produced.
The White Chocolate Raspberry and Lemon Hazelnut cakes are personal favorites of my own, but everyone will find something exceptional at the Chocolate Turtle. Some are very traditional cakes—a carrot cake for instance—while others are twists on conventional themes, such as Key Lime or Red Velvet bars, inspired by the pies and cakes that came before them. The Voreo Torte is another popular offering, as are the cheesecakes. The Chocolate Turtle gets my respect for its variety as much as for its quality: if you’re going to only do desserts, it seems fair to offer a true diversity, and they do this, yet never does the quality waver, either. The ability to pull off a traditional Southern coconut cake alongside their Salted Caramel Cake and other house innovations is impressive, because it demonstrates both a willingness to be creative and trendy and the restraint not to do so when something is best left well enough alone.
A word about coconut cake in general is appropriate: Coconut cake arose as a Southern favorite with the post-war rise of iceboxes in the 1870’s through the 1920’s. While keeping the cake refrigerated wasn’t always essential and was predicated on its icing and how warm the house was, the concept of exotic coconut coupled with the ability to have a dessert on hand should company come to call was a sign of progress, as was the icebox, after the devastation of the Civil War. Prior to the War, desserts were normally either simple cakes often without frosting, syllabub, or sweet pone (known also as pain patate in New Orleans and made from sweet potatoes). The evolution of cake in the South is a story unto itself, but if one dessert could probably be said to unite the modern South, coconut cake would be a fine contender for that title. Both Chocolate Turtle and Blue Gill proudly serve fine examples of such cake.
See More Mike Walker “Progression of Southern Cuisine” Photos Here