By Jeffrey Spear
When it comes to well presented, enjoyable, and thoroughly delicious dining opportunities, there are lots of worthwhile destinations throughout Jacksonville. Considering it’s ranked among the fastest-growing cities in the United States, it’s not surprising that restaurants of note are beginning to pop up in some of the burgeoning communities in St. Johns County, especially along the east-west corridor along County Road 210 that stretches from Nocatee just east of the Atlantic Ocean over to Fruit Cove on the banks of the St. Johns River.
One of the first restaurants to attract attention in this region, described as rustic American fare, is Ember & Iron. The creation of Michael and Brittany Cooney, this warm and friendly operation takes advantage of Chef Michael Cooney’s more than 20 years of work in renowned local restaurants including Restaurant Medure, Palm Valley Fish Camp, and Julington Creek Fish Camp. As such, Ember & Iron offers a broad selection of dishes that goes well beyond any one culinary concept or regional style.
It’s apparent, however, that the menu acknowledges the Southern heritage of its owners with dishes such as Shrimp & Grits, Blue Crab Hushpuppies, and Fried Pickles. It also embraces a wide range of seasonal and somewhat eclectic dishes including their Sweet and Spicy Korean Chicken Sandwich, Baked Casarecce with Short Rib Bolognese, and Chorizo Braised Mussels.
The centerpiece of this restaurant is its hearth—a towering, oak-burning inferno that powers all of the cooktops and ovens and lends distinctive character to everything on the menu. If you’re curious about this flaming behemoth, it’s easy to watch through the glass-fronted kitchen that spans the width of the restaurant.
Depending on your disposition, the bar may be far more impressive. With an ever-growing selection of whiskey that includes Thomas Hardy Sazerac Straight Rye, Whistle Pig Boss Hog, and Elijah Craig 18 Year, aficionados in search of the ultimate drinking experience could be easily distracted. Plus, it’s hard to miss the massive array of bottles that serve as the bar’s backdrop.
Even if you’re not a whiskey enthusiast, there are a number of intriguing cocktails on the menu that are worthwhile indulgences. The Real Housewife of SJC (New Amsterdam Gin, Hibiscus Orange Blossom, and brut bubbles) is a customer favorite, as is the High Class My Ass (see recipe on page 68). For fans of the old fashioned, you can build your own. Make sure to ask the bartender to add an extra touch of smoke to make your drink even more distinctive.
It goes without saying that, where there’s fire, there’s steak. While the menu offers a variety of ember-roasted options, we were looking for a dish that would pair well with our bottle of Cooper & Thief 2019 Red Wine Blend. Based on recommendations from Chef Cooney, we selected the 8-ounce filet (ember-grilled beef tenderloin, confit fingerling potatoes, asparagus, béarnaise sauce, and bone marrow butter). Prepared to perfection, the beef was tender with a flavorful crust, accompanied by deliciously prepared vegetables on the side.
The wine, a dark and jammy blend of Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Cabernet, was a good choice. Aged for three months in bourbon barrels, this flavor-forward red was a wonderful companion to our steak and conceptually appropriate when you consider Ember & Iron’s affinity for bourbon.
Since we were after the ultimate Ember & Iron experience, along with cocktails and wine that set the mood, our meal started with their Logan Turnpike Mill Skillet Cornbread (with whipped honey butter and pepper jelly) and Hearth Roasted Beet Salad (ember-roasted beets, honey, thyme goat cheese, arugula, cashews, and champagne vinaigrette). Coupled with our filet and a side of Creamy Field Peas with Bacon Lardon, we were happy campers.
Not wanting to leave any stone unturned, it was surprising to learn that the Ember & Iron S’mores featured house-made marshmallow. When it was explained that this creation is toasted in their wood-burning hearth, how could we say no?
The only dish we missed was their Waffle Tots. Served exclusively during Sunday brunch, this breakfast extravagance is comprised of tater tot waffle, smoked salmon, lemon and black pepper ricotta, poached eggs, pickled red onion, and “everything” bagel spice. Of course, if you prefer something a little more traditional like eggs Benedict or French toast, these dishes and considerably more are also available.
If you’re looking for a reason to hop in the car, a dinner or brunch at Ember & Iron is a worthwhile excuse. If you live nearby and are simply craving a good meal in a welcoming setting, this is the place for you.
Ember & Iron, 60 Shops Boulevard, Unit #80, St. Johns, (904) 531-5185, emberandiron.com.
Get the recipe for Confit Potatoes with Béarnaise and a High Class My Ass here.
Pair it with: Copper & Thief
Grapes: 38% Merlot, 37% Syrah, 11% Zinfandel, 7% Petite Sirah, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Other Red Blenders
Description: This dark and jammy red blend, from California’s Cooper & Thief Cellarmasters, is loaded with bourbon-inspired flavors and aromas and toasty vanilla notes. Aged for three months in ex-bourbon whiskey barrels, it has soft, velvety tannins with subtle heat and a rich flavor with a long finish.
Cooper & Thief is founded on risks and experimentation. “Cooper” represents influence in taste and craftsmanship — the skilled craftsman who hand makes each wooden barrel. “Thief” represents the role of winemaking — the tool of the trade used to steal tastes of the wine as it is aging.
Cellarmaster Jeff Kasavan is a veteran winemaker who travelled the world studying winemaking traditions. He realized no two wines are made the same way, and there is more to wine than tradition. His philosophy is to create high-quality, affordable wines that satisfy an adventurous consumer palate.