A journey to the Jacksonville area turns up various treasures—especially at Ocean 60 in Atlantic Beach.
A pre-Thanksgiving journey north took us to Neptune Beach last week, the (hardly ever) sleepy seaside community east of Jacksonville proper. Beach folks are funny. The tiny alleyways between ocean-facing houses leading to the sand are filled with barely-dressed folks of all ages; tiny children with seemingly no supervision whatsoever; and overlapping musical soundtracks of ’60s rock, reggae and bad pop emitting from each quirky bungalow. We stayed at an old fave, Casa Marina Hotel, opened in 1925. Its website claim of “stunning bedrooms” is a bit of hyperbole; in truth it has seen better days and has been a bit worn at the heel for many years—and still we go there.
The main roads are laden with chain restaurants and breakfast places; the side streets along the coast are home to more esoteric and indie fare, including Orlando standby Hawkers, the upscale Azurea at One Ocean Resort, and loads of fish camps fed by area fishing fleets. Sliders, Ragtime and Beach Diner take care of the wandering crowds, and Top Chef alum Kenny Gilbert has opened Southern Kitchen and Bar in Jax Beach.
But we headed for Ocean 60 in Atlantic Beach, and it was a fortuitous choice. Open since 2001 and across the street from One Ocean, next to a hopping frozen custard place, it is spread out along two storefronts, one side a casual, bar-occupied “martini lounge” (incredibly brightly lit before 8 p.m.), the other cozier and elevated in style. Same menu both areas, same intensely accommodating service. The food, from owner/chef Daniel Groshel, features superb shrimp from nearby Mayport (in my opinion the best shrimp on the East Coast), and the Atlantic Beach native and Culinary Institute of America-educated chef has a deft hand with seafood, specialties like grilled meatloaf, and one of the best shellfish bisques we have ever tasted. The beautiful Beach Bake ($26, above left) layered a firm piece of baked cod over smashed and sautéed potatoes and a sweet corn coulis, topped with broiled bay scallop, lobster and blue crab gratin (much like the ocean sauce at my beloved Adolfo’s in New Orleans … but better), and dressed with appropriately tart lemon beurre blanc. It was so perfect a dish that I didn’t need to taste my partner’s seafood cioppino ($27, above right), even with its temptingly aromatic smoked tomato broth, clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops, flounder and fennel mélange.
If Ocean 60 were any closer than Jax, I’d be there a lot more often.
* … and beyond. James Beard Award semifinalist Hari Pulapaka (chef-owner of the currently event-only Cress Restaurant in DeLand) has a slew of focused dinners in December. On Tuesday the 11th, he is pairing with Chef David Moscoso of the acclaimed Third Wave Café in New Smyrna Beach to explore a Chefs For Fish sustainable seafood feast. “We began this conversation,” Pulapaka says of chef Moscoso, “when we collaborated for a dinner at the Atlantic Center for the Arts.” Sustainable seafood is the key phrase, but Hari says he’s as interested in “how it translates locally, local seafood that can inspire local chefs.” The dinner will benefit the Maritime Discovery Center in New Smyrna Beach, and happens at Third Wave, 204 Flagler Ave, at 6:30 p.m., for $95 per person.
* The very next day, Pulapaka joins with Katherine O’Leary-Cole (The Natural Table in Avoka, Arkansas) for a plant-based dinner called Waste Not Want Not, where every part of every ingredient is utilized for a five-course meal. “Sustainable can put some people off,” Pulapaka says, “but ‘don’t waste food’ is an easy thing to push. Can we do better with how we handle food: it excites me as a chef.” Pulapaka has three recipes in the new James Beard Foundation cookbook, Waste Not, in such company as Elizabeth Faulkner, Rick Bayless and Tom Colicchio. Two seatings at Cress in DeLand, 5:30 p.m. and 7:45 p.m., at 103 W. Indiana Ave., for $50 per person.