Blast from the past to back to the future: Grotto’s menu all grown up

Posted by on Sep 3, 2014 in Dining, Jacksonville | No Comments

The Grotto, San Marco Square Back in the mid-2000s, long before a marriage, daughter and gargantuan mortgage, Thursday nights were playtime for my urban tribe.

San Marco Square was the epicenter of our social rumblings. The fault line typically would zigzag from (in no particular order) Sushi Rock, to Square One, to the Grotto’s weekly wine tasting.

It was, quite literally, Friday Night Lite. To be honest, the real Fridays were tame compared to the damage we’d wreak with our credit cards the night before. Followed by the sadistic intonations of our alarm buzzers a handful of hours later.

Today, change has happened at the Square. Sushi Rock is now Fuji Sushi, and Square One is the Buddha Bar for Indochine. Only the Grotto soldiers on as in my previous life with its leafy-green wrought-iron exterior.

But, like my mortgage payments, the Grotto, too, has grown up.

For years, the Square stalwart specialized in tapas and light bites to complement its retail and by-the-glass business. Now the wine bar is rolling out a soup-to-nuts menu with an array of standalone dishes, all served from cafe tables and coffee table-anchored overstuffed chairs in back, or in carryout form. Toast with heirloom tomatoes, basil and goat cheese

While many of the new offerings remain built for sharing, the menu begins to position the Grotto to go head-to-head with other full-service operators nearby, in the style of Taverna and bb’s. Even the Town Center’s Ovinté, arguably spliced from the Grotto’s DNA via Chad Munsey, and with its own recently expanded culinary lineup, is in its sights. Only time, and foot traffic, will tell if Grotto makes the grade with the local gentry.

Executive Chef Scott Houser has assembled a one-pager of simple and more complex shareables, salads, “toasts,” entrées, cheeses and desserts, which will rotate seasonally. I closely examined several selections at a recent menu reveal. And for the purposes of this review, I’ll be all over the food. Rest assured, the wine pairings were excellent and appropriate throughout the evening.

So anyway, let’s talk toasts. That’s shorthand for bruschetta-style crostinis topped with tangy fruits, veggies and proteins. We began with heirloom tomatoes, basil and goat cheese ($10.50). It was a balancing act to keep the toppings in line on that crucial ride to my mouth. But once they got there all in one piece, it was worth the trip. These two-bite treats are best serving two and a worthy point of entry for your evening. Summer melon salad

Next came a “fresh,” the Grotto’s nomenclature for salads. The colorful Summer Melon ($12.50) boasted of prosciutto, cantaloupe and watermelon (the latter two expertly carved into cherry tomato proportions), atop arugula and goat cheese. It took my colorblind-challenged self a moment to realize the spheres weren’t in fact tomatoes. It was a long day, and to be fair, there was wine involved. As advertised, it was light in a naturally-good-for-you kind of way.

Caribbean snapperThe real menu reincarnation awaited, in the form of a Caribbean snapper (market price), served atop purple sticky rice and colorfully arranged with asparagus spears, cantaloupe gastrique and prosciutto. The cut of fish was tender, well seasoned and expertly grilled, a nice foil for its sweet, custardy foundation and bacon-y apex.

Finally, for a “simple bite” that might qualify as a sweet ending, we surveyed a platter of Medjool dates stuffed with herbed goat cheese and topped with spicy pecans ($7.90). The plump, sweet and tangy treats easily stole the show. As they are designated gluten-free, one of 13 menu items so marked, I can introduce these confidently to my wife.

The newly expanded menu is available now. The Grotto is at 2012 San Marco Blvd., near the southern edge of the Square. It’s closed Mondays and open from noon to 11 Tuesday and Wednesday, midnight Thursday through Saturday, and Sunday from 4 to 10. Get the full scoop, including events and drink specials, at

Those freewheeling fun days in San Marco may be long gone, but it’s nice to know that some places grow up along with you.