Our city is blessed with an enormous range of dining options – from authentic tacos to Southern fusion to fine dining seafood and everything in between. But sometimes we get the urge to explore beyond our borders. Whether we’re purposefully planning an adventure or just out of town for practical reasons, we get curious about the restaurants just past the county line. That, I suppose, was the impetus behind adding this new regular column to our pages – Worth the Drive, a story that pushes your geographical dining limits just a little bit.
When this column was first proposed, the immediate reaction of the publisher was to suggest Bistro Aix in the historic San Marco neighborhood of downtown Jacksonville. Bistro Aix was named after Aix-en-Provence in southern France and serves a menu of French and Mediterranean-inspired dishes. The restaurant has been open since 1999 and has a long history in the neighborhood, but the current owners, Fraser Burns and Jacques Klempf, purchased it in 2015. They kept the ingrained atmosphere and culinary inspirations intact while adding their own dose of Southern charm and hospitality.
The space is welcoming and elegant, a refined but rustic feel advanced by a blazing wood fire oven and open kitchen, original exposed brick from the 1940s, and the monastic shape of the chairs. It’s easy to be mesmerized by the quick skill of the chefs visible in the kitchen, the rise of flames from pans, and the flash of knives on cutting boards. It draws you in with comfort and warmth and the promise of something tasty. In slight contrast, walking through the door in the far wall labeled “Bar X” reveals a distinctly contemporary glowing white onyx bar and open wine cellar. It’s a space of understated interest, unusual but cohesive.
Bistro Aix is a favorite of the neighborhood and a dining destination for all of Jacksonville. But it isn’t just their distinguished atmosphere that draws such a large and consistent crowd. Chef Shaun Trachtenburg is a mainstay of the restaurant, having worked in the kitchen in some capacity or another since its opening when he was seventeen. His seasonal dishes are creative and thoughtful while still maintaining the French-inspired flavors that bring people back every night.
In order to get a feel for what the whole Jacksonville population was on about culinarily-speaking, Chef Shaun sent us out a sampling of some menu favorites. The first dish was Sesame Ahi Tuna Tartare, a striking little appetizer for both its color and its garnish of three large togarashi-dusted crispy wontons. The lightly-seasoned Ahi tuna rests on a bed of avocado in a pool of soy dressing. Like many of the dishes here, it doesn’t need anything too flashy to be delicious – just uber-fresh ingredients and a skillful preparation.
The Seared Duck Breast is slightly more substantial, with traditional flavors brought to life by creativity. The duck is served with a fennel puree and an assortment of fava beans, baby heirloom tomatoes, and wild mushroom. The flavors are earthy and suit the rustic surroundings. It’s a dish that transports you to the heart of rural France, as if you could be dining around a French farm table (if that farm happened to be populated by highly-trained chefs).
The Braised Short Rib is rich and comfortable. Impossibly tender and delightfully aromatic, the short rib is accompanied by basil whipped potatoes (in a very herbal shade of green), served with wild mushroom and rainbow carrots, and finished with a savory braising jus. It’s hearty but polished, elegant but distinctly pastoral. Like the duck breast, the Braised Short Rib embodies the atmosphere of the place as it inhabits two worlds.
Dinner wouldn’t be complete without dessert and a drink. The cocktail came courtesy of the two dapper bartenders mixing drinks behind the onyx bar, and it was called the Basil Rum Smash. It started with spiced rum and ginger liqueur then gets a splash of orgeat (a syrup of almonds and rose water) and a little guava puree and basil. It made a nice partner for the Chocolate Praline Torte – a black cocoa cake with praline feuilletine (thin, crispy crêpes flakes), caramel mousse, and berry coulis.
We urge you to join the throngs of Jacksonville as they flock to Bistro Aix. Its unpretentious elegance and its to-die-for menu elevate the experience and make it stand out among the rest.