It seems that all of Atlantic Beach watched with baited breath as the first Al’s Pizza location was torn down to its footprint and word of a new restaurant by local icon Al Mansur spread. Mansur’s Coop 303 now stands with style – and a two-story chicken mural – as the newcomer to the Beaches’ ‘corner,’ and while its name and artwork harken to its focus, there is more to see and taste at this southern-with-a-twist restaurant than its house specialty.
The care going into the food here is exceptional. Yes, fried chicken is their top seller. But there’s not just one way it is prepared: they employ two different methods of brining, breading, frying and presenting, depending on the dish. That’s just the start of a creative comfort menu that is intriguing without being unapproachable.
Chef Joshua Agan, who is also responsible for menu development at Coop’s sister restaurant and neighbor, Flying Iguana Tacqueria and Tequila Bar, is direct about his perspective: “I’m a gringo who opened up a Latin American restaurant and I’m a Yankee who opened up a southern restaurant in the South,” he says. In other words, while Coop 303 offers southern food, it’s modern and it’s a new take on classic dishes exactly because Agan unabashedly brings an outsider, chef-driven perspective.
“When I was in culinary school, one of the things that stuck with me was a chef who said, ‘it’s not about learning different cuisines it’s about learning different techniques,’” says Agan. “If you learn different techniques you can apply those to any cuisine.”
“If you’re born and raised in Jacksonville, you may think collard greens are made one way, and you don’t think about another way to cook them,” he says. “I definitely like to do things with a little twist and in a way people haven’t seen before.” Agan uses classic techniques and local ingredients, and puts them together in different combinations to create a harmony of flavors and textures both familiar and exciting to the palate. Their take on the southern mainstay chicken and waffles is buttermilk fried chicken sitting atop a waffle, sure, but this waffle has bacon cooked inside of it, and is served with hot-sauce honey and other accoutrement that take the dish beyond home cooking.
Coop 303’s house-made condiments are integral to their dishes’ harmony. The top-selling appetizer, fried local green tomatoes, is called Peaches & Cream because the tomatoes are accompanied by peach jam, made with Georgia peaches, and creamy burrata cheese, as well as mustard balsamic. Another favorite, luxuriously fresh, beer-battered Fish N’ Chips, includes malt vinegar slaw, a fun way to get the anticipated malt flavor with the crunch of a beloved southern side. The Loaded Tots are a bowl of potato tots loaded up with pulled pork – smoked out back and doused with sorghum barbecue sauce – then tossed with cheese curds and served with hot sauce aioli. “You could say it’s southern poutine, minus the gravy,” says Agan.
They’re making their own jerky in-house, called Clothesline Jerky, and routinely change up the flavors. Right now, they’re using Korean barbecue sauce on the beef, and Beverage Director Roly Anderson says it’s great to snack on while sipping whisky. In fact, the Snacks section of the menu, which also includes daily pickle, crispy hominy, boiled peanuts, truffle popcorn, and pork rinds, is ideal for pairing with Anderson’s specialty cocktail menu. The cocktails, many of which feature distinctly southern ingredients and all of which are perfectly in sync with the food, are named for local people, songs by local musicians, and the vernacular and points of local history — Helen Dobson, Operation Bootstrap, Jookhouse, and Bless Your Heart are popular examples.
The eye-catching plates and tastebud-popping drinks are enhanced by the sleek-but-funky décor that features art with a sense of humor (check out the pigs’ snouts on the stairwell), including photographs by local artist Doug Eng and murals on both interior and exterior walls by another local, Anthony Rooney. The building itself is alluring and takes advantage of its location close to the ocean with an upstairs bar and perfect people-watching balcony.
Chef Agan may be from Vermont, but his food feels like the South, present-day. The flavors of tradition mix and mingle with grace as they play with each other in new ways. It’s an education in preparation and the salty, savory, bitter, and sweet notes of our food heritage, presented in a thoroughly modern building and in a thoroughly modern way.
Coop 303, 303 Atlantic Blvd., Atlantic Beach, 372-4507, Coop303.com.
Photos by laird
Pair it with: Alto Moncayo Veraton 2015
Grapes: 100% Grenache
Description: Loads of beautiful blackberry and black cherry fruit, with licorice, lavender and a touch of graphite and earth. Plush, pliant and round, it has mineral-accented dried strawberry, cherry liqueur and dark chocolate flavors. Finish is long and sweet, with soft tannins and repeating spiciness.
Bodegas Alto Moncayo started in 2001 as a collaboration between importer Jorge Ordoñez and American importer Dan Phillips, and is now overseen by famous Barossa Australian winemaker Chris Ringland. Located near the town of Borja, the 210 acres of vineyards are head-pruned, old Grenache vines planted at 3,000 feet above sea level in poorly nourished soils of slate, clay, chalk and quartzite. They make a number of cuvées, the most famous being the more expensive Alto Moncayo and the Aquilon. Their inexpensive offering is the Veraton, a 100% Grenache aged in 60% new French and 40% American oak for 16 months.