On the ground floor of one of downtown Jacksonville’s many highrises is a wooden entranceway that, despite its subtlety of color, sticks out among the sea of stone and concrete. Just adjacent to the wooden entrance is an emblem of a sheep with a bell around its neck and emblazoned on the wooden entrance are letters that spell out “Bellwether.” For those that don’t know (I didn’t either until I Googled it), the word “bellwether” means “the leading sheep of a flock, with a bell on its neck” or – more practically – “one that takes the lead or initiative” or “an indicator of trends.” Says Chef Kerri Rogers, “We found that name to be appropriate for what we were trying to accomplish.”
Bellwether opened in May of 2017 after owner Jon Insetta found success first with Restaurant Orsay then Black Sheep (both in Jacksonville). He had closed his first restaurant, chew, in 2011 but had always had a desire to get back into downtown Jacksonville. He felt that there was a gap in the restaurant scene in downtown, and an elevated fast casual lunch and casual upscale dinner restaurant was needed. So Bellwether was born – born to take the lead, to be at the head of the proverbial flock.
Walking through the open doors just before the start of service, the space was already a hustle and bustle of activity. Someone sliced fruit for cocktails behind the bar; baristas polished espresso machines; hosts arranged menus; and servers sat in a large group at tables, listening to the sous chef explain the day’s specials. The space was light and airy – palette-wise a mix of whites, blacks, and various shades of brown – and dramatic photos of sheep add to the elevated-whimsical atmosphere.
As Chef Kerri and her team prepared our dishes, we stopped by the bar for an introduction to Bellwether’s craft cocktail menu. Creative both in name and preparation, their cocktails are widely varied to appeal to any patron. The bartender started us off with the bright, fruity, and acidic Undisclosed – Manifest Gin, Aperol, strawberry, lemon – then the cool and refreshing Fahrenheit 904 – Bearing light rum, aloe, cucumber, mint, dill, lime, tonic – and finally The Bellwether – Evan Williams Single Barrel Bourbon, Bénédictine, walnut bitters. I should stop scheduling food editorial shoots first thing in the morning.
Chef Kerri treated us first to the restaurant’s bestseller – the Korean Fried Broccoli. A vegan and gluten-free appetizer, the broccoli is lightly fried and topped with a house-made gochujang vinaigrette, benne seeds (an heirloom sesame seed), and scallions. Gochujang is a Korean red chili paste that adds both sweetness and heat to the dish. Devoured quite quickly at our table, we understood perfectly why it’s the most popular item on the menu.
Then came the Poached Shrimp, which frankly looked so much like a work of art that we were loathe to ruin the aesthetic. But I’m glad we did anyways. Full of uber-fresh flavor, the poached shrimp are placed on a swipe of smoked chili aioli and garnished with beet pickled red onion, celery, radish, and burnt lemon. The colors and the flavors let your eyes and taste buds work together in perfect harmony.
A little more on the light side and showing what magic can be done with a simple salad, the Strawberry Salad is a mix of arugula, upland cress, and fennel topped with orange, goat cheese, pistachio and almond clusters, and drizzled with a fines herbes vinaigrette (traditionally composed of parsley, chives, tarragon, and chervil).
As if we hadn’t been introduced to enough showstoppers already, the entrees set the Bellwether bar even higher. The Crispy Skin Salmon is placed on a bed of Job’s tears, a grain found in a few Asian countries that’s also known as adlay, coix seed, Chinese pearl barley. It’s then garnished with sugar snap peas, radish, and pickled beech mushrooms, with a corn puree and Maldon salt. An utterly unique preparation, it highlights what Bellwether does best – pushing the palate to new heights while keeping to an accessible flavor that draws the diner in.
The Fresh Catch did much the same. As the name implies, of course, the type of fish will change with what’s coming in off the boats, but the preparation this season sticks to something spectacular. The catch is served over bok choy, oyster mushrooms, and a house-made daikon kimchi, alongside coconut jasmine rice and in a Thai broth with chili oil, fried shallots, and garlic. They’re classic flavors brought to your plate in a brand new way and with an intention and thoughtfulness that defines the restaurant’s menu.
Finally, the team had decided that the menu needed a taco of some kind, and a dessert taco seemed the logical next step. So Pastry Chef Rebecca Reed presented us with the Choco Taco, a chocolate-coconut semifreddo encased in a waffle taco with cajeta casera and coconut whipped cream. It’s delightfully decadent, overwhelmingly chocolatey, and will be a favorite of the table. There may have been some friendly competition over who got to finish it.
Despite a few ingredients that seem unfamiliar and preparations that you’ve definitely never seen before, the dishes at Bellwether are approachable and friendly. With a seasonally-based menu, the team is guided by both nature and color. “You eat with your eyes first,” says Chef Kerri, “so it is very important our food looks as delicious as it tastes.”
As our own meal winds down, the restaurant fills up with an almost alarming rapidity. Lunch at Bellwether is dominated by downtown professionals filing out of the various buildings as well as the nearby courthouse – everyone from executives and their assistants to lawyers and judges. Dinner sees mostly a mix of symphony and concert goers, as well as residents from downtown and the surrounding boroughs. Even though they’ve seen a lot of success already, for Bellwether and its team, this is only the beginning. “Bellwether is starting to gain recognition and make our mark as one of the pioneers in the downtown restaurant scene,” says Chef Kerri. “We are continuing to push ourselves and stay driven. We would like to be the guiding light, or rather, the ‘bellwether’ of downtown.”