Living in the South has its rewards, especially if you like rich, flavorful foods. Pimiento Cheese and Crispy Fried Chicken, Chicken and Dumplings and Shrimp and Grits, are just a few of Northeast Florida’s culinary traditions that have withstood the test of time.
Chefs Jon Insetta and Kerri Rogers at the newly opened Bellwether in Downtown Jacksonville (sister to Orsay, Black Sheep and BLK SHP at Intuition) have taken creative liberties with these Southern classics in a manner that is surprisingly delightful and delicious.
House-made pimiento cheese, considered to be “the caviar of the South,” crops up in a number of their dishes including Arancini (stuffed rice balls) and the house soup, as a companion to Fried Boiled Peanuts, and in their interpretation of cheesy grits made from rice middlins.
For the uninitiated, middlins are the broken bits of rice that result from threshing and milling. While originally a poor man’s dish, the culinary team at Bellwether, recognizing that they can be cooked in a manner that takes on a creamy, risotto-like texture, has used them in some of their more remarkable creations.
Being undeniably ravenous, curious, gluttonous, and ready for adventure, and to the surprise of our waiter, we ordered a little something from every category. If we were going to recommend a perfect pairing for the 2015 San Simeon Viognier that awaited us, we wanted to get it right.
Our selection started with snacks – specifically Tsukune, a Japanese chicken meatball made with togarashi (Japanese capsicum), benne (a sesame-like seed), kewpie (Japanese style mayonnaise) and scallion, and Korean Fried Broccoli served with gochujang vinaigrette (made with Korean red chili paste), scallion and benne. Not being familiar with any of these ingredients other than the chicken and the scallions, we had to give these innovative small plates a try.
The starters were followed by a Pastrami Sandwich and Chicken & Dumplings. The pastrami is pretty much what you’d expect in its presentation. This being said, the meat is house cured, smoked over oak, and served with Swiss cheese, yellow mustard butter, and sauerkraut on marbled rye – giving this sandwich a flavor that is 100% Bellwether.
Their Chicken & Dumplings is a curious reconstruction of a Southern classic featuring tarragon biscuit dumplings, peas, carrots, fried okra and shallots. True to the restaurant’s mission, this elevated Southern classic was one of the most controversial dishes on the table.
Since we were eager to crack open our bottle of San Simeon 2015 Paso Robles Viognier, it was agreed that a perfect pairing would be achieved with Bellwether’s Fried Shrimp & Grits.
This viognier is a bright, luscious wine with ripe peach flavors, tropical notes, and bright floral aromas, produced by Riboli Family Wine Estates at their just completed state-of-the-art winery in Paso Robles from grapes grown on the Stefano Vineyard. This appellation provides the perfect conditions for growing viognier – as we happily confirmed.
With a representative from the winery participating in our indulgences, we were treated to Riboli’s Opague Darkness – a delicious red blend featuring Zinfandel as the dominant grape. This would be outstanding with Bellwether’s Rib Eye or Short Rib entrées, (or ask your local wine merchant to get you a bottle or three). This is a wine that’s worth investigating.
An interesting side note about Riboli. Originally founded as the San Antonio Winery in 1917, this remarkable company started producing wines in downtown Los Angeles a hundred years ago. Now celebrating its centennial, the company survived Prohibition, thrived under four generations of family leadership, and has successfully exploited its remarkable longevity.
In order to properly discuss the Shrimp & Grits, it is important to note that it appears on the menu as “Fried Shrimp & Grits?” Questions about the curious punctuation bring this explanation: grits are traditionally made from corn and Bellwether’s grits are made from rice middlins. The dish is made with Congaree and Penn pimiento middlins, bacon, house hot sauce butter, and house pickle relish. While not quite as controversial as the Chicken & Dumplings, its presentation was still debated.
There are a few other inspired dishes on the menu that, in spite of our gluttony, seemed too much to attempt in one sitting. On our next visit, we’ll try the Arancini with Bellwether’s house made pimiento cheese, Poutine featuring house-smoked meats, the Beet Burger (love me some beets), Fried Shrimp Po’ Boy (who doesn’t love these Southern classics?) and Dill Pickle Brined Fried Chicken Thigh. Of course, this will all need to be accompanied by a side of Mac & Cheese and one of the restaurant’s many salads.
Unfortunately, Bellwether’s house-made soft serve ice cream specialties were something we overlooked altogether. We’ll just have to check them out next time.
100 N Laura St Suite 100, (904) 802-7745, www.bellwetherjax.com
See Chef Insetta’s recipe for Bellwether Shrimp and Grits here.
Pair it with:
San Simeon Viognier 2015
Grapes: Viognier. Once a rare white wine grape, historically grown in France, Viognier is now a popular varietal found around the world, particularly, in California. San Simeon Viognier is a bright, luscious wine with ripe peach flavors and tropical notes. The nose reveals bright floral aromas. Mineral notes express the rocky terroir of the vineyard. This structured and well-balanced wine shows a lengthy finish.
Description: Along California’s Central Coast, the Paso Robles appellation of San Luis Obispo County provides an ideal climate for growing Viognier. A dry climate with warm days allows for complete maturation of the grapes and creates ripe fruit flavors. The maritime influence of the Pacific Ocean creates very cool nights, which preserve the natural acid balance of the grapes. Our Viognier is fermented in stainless steel tanks at 55 ̊ F for several weeks. This long, cold fermentation process preserves the delicate flavors and aromas of this variety. Immediately after the fermentation, 10% of the wine was transferred to neutral French oak barrels in which the lees were stirred fro several months to add texture and depth.