Escape Restaurant & Bar — A Wonderful Melting Pot of Cuisines

One of the liveliest spots in Jacksonville is the Five Points neighborhood in Riverside, considered the bohemian center of the city. If you haven’t visited in a while, and enjoy ethnically inspired foods, you’ll want to check out Escape Restaurant & Bar. Described as a melting pot of cuisines from around the world, their menu pays delicious homage to a cornucopia of culinary styles and cultures. 

While the concept has been in place since their doors opened, Executive Chef Roger Regulacion is a relatively new addition to the kitchen. Working collaboratively with Executive Sous Chef Nedal Mardini and Sous Chef Sean Beene, this culinary team has made noteworthy improvements to the menu. 

When asked about Escape’s multi-cultural approach, Chef Regulacion explains, “The beauty of our concept is having the ability to create something new … foods that embrace flavors and ingredients from all over the world.” He also mentions that the culinary staff is just as ethnically diverse as the menu, allowing them to infuse their dishes with greater cultural context and creativity. 

Whether you’re interested in happy hour, cocktails and a few nibbles later in the evening, or a full-on meal, Escape gives you plenty of options. At Chef Regulacion’s recommendation, our adventure began with the Grilled Garlic & Zatar Pita Bread. If you have yet to encounter zatar, it is a spice blend used frequently in Middle Eastern cuisine. At Escape, it is a flavorful blend of thyme, wheat, sesame seeds, salt and sumac. 

The accompanying cocktail was a very easy-to-drink creation called The Floor is Guava, made with locally produced Saint Augustine Vodka along with guava, Pamplemousse (a grapefruit liqueur), Aperol & lemon. We also tried She Don’t Mezz Around, a slightly smoky concoction made with Vida Mezcal, Jasper’s mix (a vintage mixer typically found in Tiki bars), China China (orange-based amaro) and blood orange juice. While this should have been sufficient, we agreed there were far too many enticing options on the menu that required our attention before throwing in the towel.

I’m happy to report that the Deluxe Khachapuri, a pizza-like dish from the Republic of Georgia made with a combination of lamb, chicken, sucuk, bastirma and mozzarella (sucuk and bastirma are varieties of dry cured meat), is heavenly and a meal unto itself. The dough alone is exquisite. We also enjoyed a Mexican influenced dish – Mole Glazed Lamb Lollipops (two lamb chop lollipops served with Mexican street corn grits, roasted summer corn salsa and cotija cheese).

The Braised Beef Short Rib Masala (tender short rib with an Indian spiced masala sauce, biryani rice and crispy spiced chickpeas), with its unmistakable Indian heritage, was remarkable. If you enjoy curries and flavor-forward foods, this dish is a must.

Although we started out with beverages from Escape’s remarkable cocktail menu, both thoroughly enjoyed as companions to our first few courses, we ordered a bottle of Mas Sauvaire to go with the Short Rib Masala. Produced by Hervé Sauvaire in the Languedoc region in the south of France, it is a drinkable red wine made from a blend of Carignan, Grenache and Syrah grapes.

At this point in our culinary adventure, we certainly didn’t need anything more. This being said, our curiosity could not be assuaged. Plus, no meal is truly complete without a little something sweet to cap things off. 

Maintaining its international profile, Escape’s dessert menu features Kanafe, a traditional Middle Eastern dessert made with filo, pistachios and cheese. Served warm, it is part gooey cheese, part crunchy bits, and undeniably seductive. You’ll probably want to check out the Hawaiian Stuffed French Toast as well. Taking reference from Chef Regulacion’s childhood experiences in Hawaii, it is described as stuffed Hawaiian sweet rolls dusted with a macadamia and coconut crust served with a warm coconut syrup and fresh berries. Traveling a bit further around the world, there’s a little Spanish influence in their Manchego Cheesecake. While not available during our visit, I imagine it is equally fabulous.

For those of you who indulge, there’s an outdoor Hookah Lounge where you can light up a wide range of flavors on exotic water pipes. Combined with the creative cocktails and multi-dimensional menu, this is the place to relax, indulge, and enjoy the warm evening air. 

With so many delicious ethnic influences and endless flavor profiles to work with, the menu is constantly evolving and warrants repeat visits; there’s always something exotic to stimulate your senses. You should also consider bringing a few friends. With so many alluring choices on the menu, you’ll want to sample and share everything.

Escape Restaurant & Bar, 1023 Park Street, Jacksonville, 801-3899, www.escaperestaurant.com. 

Open from 3:00 p.m. Tuesday – Sunday.

By Jeffrey Spear • Photos by laird

Escape’s Braised Beef Short Rib Masala full recipe:

Short Ribs

8-10 lbs. boneless beef short ribs

3 cups all purpose flour

¼ cup garam masala seasoning

¼ cup coriander

¼ cup cumin

¼ cup deggi mirch chili powder

¼ cup fenugreek

¼ cup garlic powder

¼ cup kosher salt 

½ cup olive oil

2 cups red wine

4 qts beef broth

2 cups rough chopped carrots

2 cups rough chopped celery

2 cups rough chopped onion

2 ea. whole garlic bulbs (cut in half)

Warm a large nonstick dutch oven over medium heat and preheat oven to 325 degrees. Mix dry spices with flour and coat each short rib generously and evenly. Add olive oil to pot and sear short rib on all sides, being sure to develop a nice golden crust. After searing the beef, set aside. Add vegetables and garlic to the pot and deglaze with the red wine. Let the wine reduce slightly and add the beef broth followed by the short ribs, cover and set in oven. Braise at 325 degrees for 2 hours and check tenderness. They should be just at the point where you can lightly pull apart, but not completely falling apart. If not, cook slightly longer until desired tenderness. Remove from the liquid and let cool on a wire rack. Portion into desired size. A 5 to 8-oz portion is usually best. Strain and reserve braising liquid for holding short ribs to keep warm.

Masala Sauce

2 tbsp. finely minced shallots

2 tbsp. finely chopped garlic

¼ cup olive oil

½ cup tomato paste

2 tbsp. deggi mirch chili powder

2 tbsp. garam masala seasoning

1 tbsp. coriander

1 tbsp. cumin

½ tbsp. turmeric

½ tbsp. halaby pepper

½ cup golden raisins 

½ cup fenugreek

1 cup white wine

1 qt. heavy Cream

Salt & pepper to taste

Add olive oil to sauce pot on low heat and slowly sauté shallots. After shallots begin to become translucent, add garlic and let cook for a minute until the garlic softens, then add the tomato paste and mix well. Add all the dry spices and mix well together. Let the aromatics of the spices start to bloom before deglazing with the white wine. Let the alcohol reduce slightly then add heavy cream and let the masala sauce slowly thicken. You want the sauce to reduce just to the large bubble stage while checking the spice level and the salt and pepper. When the sauce is at the desired flavor, which should be a nice savory spice with a little sweetness from the golden raisins and the richness of the heavy cream, blend well with a hand-held blender or in a table top blender. Hold on warm until serving.    

Biryani Rice

White Rice – part of the Biryani

2 cups extra long grain basmati rice

3 cups water

¼ cup olive oil

½ tbsp. kosher salt

If rice cooker is not available, bring all ingredients in a small sauce pot to a gentle boil and reduce to low, covered, for 12-15 minutes until light and fluffy. Keep warm until served.

Yellow Rice – part of the Biryani

2 cups extra long grain basmati rice

3 cups water

¼ cup olive oil

½ tbsp. kosher salt

½ tbsp turmeric

1 pinch saffron threads

Add all ingredients to your rice pot and bring to a gentle boil and reduce to low covered for 12-15 minutes until light and fluffy with a fork. Keep warm until served.

Biryani Jam

2 tbsp. finely minced shallots

2 tbsp. finely minced garlic

2 tbsp. unsalted butter

¼ cup olive oil

¼ cup honey

2 tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice

½ cup golden raisins

2 tbsp. ras el hanout

½ tbsp kosher salt

Add olive oil and butter to a small sauté pan over medium low heat. Add shallots and begin to gently sweat, then add garlic. Once shallots and garlic become translucent, add lemon juice, honey, spices and raisins. Gently simmer for 3-5 minutes until thickened. Keep jam warm or at room temp. until mixed with warm rice.

Finishing Biryani Rice

Crispy Fried Chickpeas

2 cups chickpeas (cleaned, shelled and dried)

2 tbsp. ras el hanout

Salt & pepper to taste

Fry chickpeas until light and crispy, then toss in the spices until evenly coated.

Fresh Herb Mix

½ cup freshly chopped parsley

½ cup freshly chopped cilantro

¼ cup freshly chopped chives

To assemble the Biryani Rice, mix the jam with the warm rice. Fold in the fresh herbs and top with the crispy chickpeas before topping with the short ribs with the masala sauce.

… Pair it with:

Mas Sauvaire Domaine des Sauvaire 

Grapes: Carignan, Grenache, and Syrah

Notes:  Ripe black fruits–plum, currant, and boysenberry among them.

Producer:  The Sauvaire family has been working the land around Crespian, in the Languedoc, since the mid-1600s.  Its 25 hectares (61.77 acres) of vines, planted with traditional Southern varieties, are scattered on a plateau with lots of small boulders and stones, and thus mainly poor, sandstone soils. This forces the vines to work extra hard to find nutrients.

Hervé Sauvaire works the land here using ancestral methods, with no pesticides or chemicals. He believes in letting the vineyard work in conjunction with the land around it to find balance on its own, without man’s help. What little assistance he provides is in the form of compost made from the marc of his grapes. At harvest, everything is manually harvested.

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