By Jeffrey Spear.
Dining is always an adventure. Whether you’re looking for an exceptional mealtime experience, a few cocktails after work, a quick bite before showtime, or a comfortable place to connect with friends, you want to be well-fed and well looked after. Located in the heart of downtown Jacksonville near the corner of Laura and Forsyth Streets, Bellwether has you covered. For the uninitiated, Bellwether is part of the Black Sheep Restaurant Group, keeping company with Orsay and Black Sheep. While all three restaurants have earned enviable reputations, Bellwether has a distinctive personality that’s worth investigating.
What stands out, apart from its casual and comfortable character, is a creative bar program, a wine list that features a remarkable number of New World wines, and a menu that embraces a wide variety of culinary influences. According to Executive Chef Donald Dean, “Bellwether has been described as a contemporary bistro. While accurate, our menu is influenced by global flavors, allowing us to deliver truly memorable experiences.”
This culinary philosophy is evidenced by Asian-inspired dishes such as Soba Noodle Salad, Steamed Dumplings, Korean Fried Broccoli, and Bok Choy-Daikon Kimchi. Even at the bar, house cocktails are influenced by flavors such as oolong, lemongrass, bell pepper, ginger, chili oil, and baking spices. The menu also includes lots of bistro standards including Oxtail Ragu, Duck Confit, and Truffled Risotto. All of this, coupled with the large number of creatively conceived vegan and vegetarian dishes including Beet Burger, Cauliflower Steak Frites, and a Vegan Risotto make for an engaging experience throughout every part of the meal.
The restaurant’s versatility and creativity are particularly apparent when ordering a side of shoestring fries. Available with spicy togarashi or truffle, they are also available “sheep style.” When I ask if this is anything like In-N-Out Burger’s “animal style” fries, Chef Dean replies, “We like to take some liberties in our kitchen and have a little fun. While our “sheep style” fries pay homage, they are considerably better and a worthwhile companion to our burgers, sandwiches, and salads.”
The culinary team constantly finds remarkably flavorful ways to utilize every part of each ingredient and keeps busy making super-rich stocks, sauces, and soups. For the change in seasons, they also tweak the menu, adding a few more dishes that feature noodles as well as others that are vegan-friendly.
For this installment of Cinda’s Cellar, Chef Dean suggests that the light and fruity character of Jaine 2020 Chardonnay (Walla Walla, Washington) will pair exceptionally well with Bellwether’s Blackened Shrimp & Grits (Gayla’s grits, arbol chili cream, bread and butter jalapeños, bacon lardons, and scallions). While we are excited to put his recommendation to the test, there are a few other items that we feel should not be missed. Knowing that cocktails and nibbles are always a good start, we indulge in a Power Surge (Midori liqueur, Dolin dry vermouth, coriander, caraway seed, lemon, egg white, and celery bitters). Presented simply, the cocktail is one of those seemingly harmless concoctions that goes down a bit too easily. While we could enjoy more than just one, maintaining decorum seems appropriate.