All it takes is a little love and a positive outlook
By Jeffrey Spear • Photos by laird
Restaurants have always been vital to Jacksonville’s social and economic well-being. They are the places that provide a backdrop for myriad social and business interactions, lift our spirits, and nourish our souls (literally and figuratively) on a daily basis. They are inviting and comfortable destinations that, along with impeccable service and hospitality, offer the warmth, friendship, care, and compassion that makes them a welcome and indispensable part of the community.
In the historic neighborhood of Avondale, Orsay has been recognized as a premier dining destination since they opened their doors in 2008. Operating as a French bistro with culinary influences from the American South, the restaurant quickly became a neighborhood fixture with an exceptionally loyal following.
This being said, operating a restaurant under the best of conditions is always challenging. When you factor in a global pandemic and economic upheaval, survival becomes a questionable proposition. The good news is that the management team at Orsay has been resilient, creative, and determined to keep their business afloat.
With determination and quick thinking, the team figured out how to launch a fully operational takeout service in a very short time. Needing to cover losses and generate much-needed operating capital, they opened the doors to their coveted wine cellar and offered every bottle, from the most economical to the most opulent, at half-price. According to Jason Eddy, Orsay’s managing partner, “The best thing we could do was maintain a positive outlook. We needed to keep our spirits up.”
Apparently, there was more than just a cheerful disposition that enabled Orsay’s survival. For as long as the restaurant had been in business, they recognized the needs of others by contributing to local charities and sponsoring local events. As soon as the pandemic struck, the tables turned. With Orsay scrambling to survive, the community responded with overwhelming patronage of takeout meals and other profound expressions of support.
Eddy continues, “It was heartwarming to be on the receiving end of so much love. While we have learned to adapt, we could not have managed without the emotional and financial support from our loyal patrons.”
Today, Orsay is back on its feet with a few noticeable changes. Tables have been eliminated or relocated outdoors and others have been moved further apart, all contributing to a more spacious, safe, and enjoyable environment. With steadily increasing demand for takeout, Orsay has added online ordering, take-home family meals, and a team of staff dedicated entirely to off-premise service that operates independently from the on-premise service team.
While the menu has been adjusted, it remains familiar—offering many of the restaurant’s long-standing favorites including freshly shucked oysters from the raw bar, house-made charcuterie and pâté, beef stroganoff, and lobster pot pie.
During our visit, we were treated to another enduring favorite—cassoulet. For the uninitiated, cassoulet is a rich and hearty French stew made with white beans and a variety of meats (typically pork sausage and duck). At Orsay the cassoulet is a delicious presentation of duck leg confit, great northern beans, peas, boudin blanc (a house-made sausage with pork and chicken), fresh lamb bacon, and fried sage. The distinctive and contrasting flavors and textures of these ingredients are a sensory delight, making it easy to understand why this dish has become so popular.
Of course, a nice bottle of wine should always accompany a dish of this caliber. Our cassoulet was appropriately paired with a remarkable bottle of Carlos Serres Reserva 2014 (90% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano) produced in the renowned Rioja winemaking region in the heart of Basque country in Spain. This territory is home to more than 600 wineries, several operating for more than a hundred years (including Carlos Serres). It’s also just a stone’s throw to Pamplona (known for its San Fermin Festival and the running of the bulls) and Bilbao (home of the much-celebrated Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry), making it an ideal travel destination.
No meal of substance is complete without a sweet treat to cap everything off. As devoted patrons of Orsay will tell you, their desserts are to die for. When you consider that Corporate Pastry Chef Rebecca Reed is looking after this side of the business (she also makes the sweets for Bellwether and Black Sheep and was a recent winner on the Food Network’s Chopped Sweets), the selections tend to be irresistible.
We enjoyed a plate of macarons (one of Reed’s specialties) but were told the bread pudding should not be missed. Reed tells us, “I like my desserts to embrace lots of interesting and engaging flavors and textures, adding a touch of whimsy and fun to everything I make.”
In spite of recent hardships, Orsay has not lost any of its swagger. It remains warm, inviting, and impressive without being pretentious and retains its reputation as a highly prized culinary destination in the heart of Jacksonville.
Orsay, 3630 Park Street, (904) 381-0909, restaurantorsay.com.
Pair it with: Carlos Serres Rioja, 2014
Grapes: 90% Tempranillo, 10% Graciano
Description: Dark-cherry red with a purple rim, it is a clean, bright wine with aromas of ripe, red fruit set against a spicy background, adorned with light licorice notes. Tasty, fresh, and fruity in the mouth. An enticing nose showing ripe strawberries and raspberries plus hints of eucalyptus.
Carlos Serres was a pioneer in Rioja. In 1896 he established one of the first wineries in Haro, the heart of Rioja. He was an instrumental figure in promoting the early exports of Rioja wines. Today, the Bodega remains family-owned and operated and is one of only a few centenarian producers in Rioja. The estate is southeast of Haro, just 800 yards from the winery and spreads out over nearly 150 acres of premium Rioja Alta vineyards with vines that average 20+ years. Bodegas Carlos Serres sets out to remain one of the most internationally renowned and influential wineries in Spain.
Rioja in Northern Spain is best known for berry-scented, barrel-aged red wines made from Tempranillo and Garnacha. It is arguably Spain’s top wine region. It is certainly the most famous, rivaled only by Jerez. The vineyards trace the course of the Ebro River for roughly 100 kilometers (60 miles). between the towns of Haro and Alfaro.throughout the year to ensure maximum quality of fruit for these wines.