When it comes to finding an upscale-yet-approachable dining experience in downtown Jacksonville, you literally have to peer near the heart of downtown, or darn near it, to find the sweet spot.
I’m talking about Candy Apple Café and Sweet Pete’s, joined at the hip in the historic Seminole Club on Hogan Street. Here you’ll find a sensory experience in which diners of all ages and foodie pedigrees should find something to appreciate, and ideally devour, in short order.
(That’s not just unctuous puffery. I’ve run this experiment numerous times with my own nuclear and extended families. The combined candy factory/retail store and whimsical eatery with down-to-earth menu offerings comes out a winner every outing … sugar high-fueled toddler temper tantrums notwithstanding.)
Just in time for the summer, Candy Apple’s proprietors have ushered in 15 new menu items across the brunch, lunch and dinner spectrums, all of which fit the place’s Southern-with-French-accents theme. In fact, it’s the first time they’ve changed up menus since their debut in December 2014. Those same folks welcomed me and a roomful of boisterous noshers over to the café on a sweltering Wednesday night to try them on, along with craft cocktails at a pre-dinner reception. I hope they knew what they were getting into.
In the spirit of “dessert first,” unabashed sweet tooths should not miss the Bourbon S’mores cocktail ($12), a concoction of house-made, chocolate-infused Four Roses Yellow Label bourbon, Kahlua, Kerry Gold Irish cream, milk, Demerara syrup and marshmallow fluff. With sugar scores this good, tooth enamel is overrated.
On the solid-food side of the house, if spice is nice for you, get things started with the Buffalo Chicken Croquettes ($9). These tangy spherical numbers ditch the bones but serve up that familiar, authentic sports-bar taste, aided by Frank’s RedHot cayenne pepper sauce and a toss of celery slaw over the fray. They’re way too easy to eat.
The Wedge Caesar salad ($7 for a half portion, or $10 for the full monty) is a tastier take on the tried-and-true Wedge with a sharp, creamy pepper-parmesan dressing that cuts through that iceberg faster than the Titanic.
Four entrees debuted this month ($17 to $32). For my money, go for the gusto with the Chargrilled Filet Mignon ($32). The edge is charred as advertised and the cut is petite and tender as they come, surrounded by a raft of wild mushrooms and other veggies that provide much latitude on the starchy/crunchy continuum (red-skin potatoes/gherkins).
Although it felt to me more like a starter, the Pork Belly & Cheddar Waffle ($15) is solidly in brunch main course territory and price. It’s a beautiful, savory, melty package, accented with a mustard glaze and apricot preserves overhead. There’s a lot going on here, and the complexity is worth it when the taste buds go to untangle things.
Swinging back to sweet: two desserts come on the scene with this new-look menu, a Ginger Carrot Cake and Orange Cheesecake (both $8). I was enamored with the former, a boaster of crystalized ginger, buttermilk glace and mascarpone vanilla bean mousse interspersed in layers.
Despite the accolades, I did run into one dish that wasn’t dealing in flavor as I would have liked. The Wild Mushroom Risotto ($17) needed a boost in the form of tabletop enhancement. But aside from that, most everything else I tried was a palate appeaser or outright pleaser.
Being spouse to a gluten avoider, I’m happy to see that Candy Apple still highlights gluten-free and vegan items prominently on its menu. That, combined with the care the wait staff show when answering her questions, plants this on my wife’s short list of gluten-safe establishments, a notable feat.
The new menu items are in effect right now. For more on Candy Apple’s gussied-up offerings, visit TheCandyAppleCafe.com.