By Cynthia McFarland
Gainesville is a city enriched with cultural offerings and fine dining options. After much deliberation and consideration, Ocala Style has chosen four restaurants that are “musts” when visiting the Gator Nation. After dining, make a night of it by taking in a show. From world-famous artists and musicians to a variety of plays and theatrical performances, Gainesville’s cultural scene is alive and kicking. One visit and the chain-restaurants-and-local-multiplex combo will never measure up again.
Tucked into a storefront setting just off Main Street, Paramount Grill has been enticing customers to this popular downtown Gainesville location since opening its doors in August 2001. The reason? In two words: Clif Nelson.
As owner and chef, Clif has poured his heart and soul into creating a memorable atmosphere where creative cuisine reigns. “All the elements of great food” proclaims the slogan etched on the front windows and atop the menu. Indeed, all the necessary ingredients — both culinary and sensory — have come together to make Paramount Grill a standout.
Deep and narrow, the restaurant has a sleek, contemporary feel with its pale wood floors and black ceiling. On the walls, sepia-toned photos in black antique frames provide a glance back at the past and include many of Clif’s relatives. A crisp white tablecloth and a single daisy in a clear glass vase adorn each table. Lighting is soft and subdued, thanks to upturned, frosted wall sconces.
A native of New York’s Hudson Valley, Clif moved to Gainesville in 1983 to attend college. Working in restaurants to put himself through school, he first learned about getting inventive in the kitchen while a dinner chef at Ivey’s Grill. After successful stints in a number of local establishments, Clif was eager to open his own restaurant.
“I love having creative control and working for myself,” he notes. “Most of my staff has been with me for years, and some of us worked together at other restaurants.”
Clif is a totally self-taught chef and confesses that he could never afford culinary school. Judging from the inventiveness and incredible taste combinations he creates at Paramount Grill, we decided he could easily be teaching at a culinary institute, should he hang up his chef’s apron. Hopefully, this will never happen, as the fine dining niche in Gainesville would suffer a serious loss without him.
You won’t find a large and confusing menu at Paramount Grill. What you will find are creative entrees that make the most of beef, seafood, pork, chicken, and even vegetarian courses. The appetizers, salads, and soups are also fresh and innovative. The wine list inspires with a good variety that pairs well with the entrée offerings, and the reserve wine list, while not enormous, is quite impressive.
Our server, Garry, was most attentive, answering our questions and quick to make suggestions.
“Clif likes to make new things, so our menu changes several times a week,” he remarks, “but there is always a dish from each category. We offer one or two specials every night, and some of our regular customers will even call ahead to request a certain special.”
We launched our meal with panko and parmesan-dusted crabcakes, but Garry pointed out that the flatbread with roasted garlic bulb is another popular starter. Toasted foccacia with smoked salmon and seared sesame tuna were also among the appetizers.
Don’t pass on the soup of the day, which happened to be roasted potato/blue cheese/dill when we dined. This fabulous mingling of flavors was both hearty and comforting. I wanted to take home a bowl for the next day’s lunch.
We decided to let Clif choose our entrees himself and were most happy with the results. On my own, I would probably not have ordered the pork tenderloin and that would have been a mistake. We could immediately see why this particular entrée, a pan-roasted, horseradish-rubbed pork tenderloin served over creamy blue cheese polenta is a customer favorite. Tender, young green beans and an apple cider, lemon thyme reduction round out a symphony of harmonious flavors.
We also enjoyed blackened moonfish over spicy black bean cakes in a smoked tomato vinaigrette and chipotle aioli. Similar in texture to swordfish, this thick fish steak was quite moist and tender.
At an adjoining table, we heard patrons sighing with delight over the grilled Angus fillet, the baked pesto marinated salmon, and the night’s special, a roasted rack of Colorado lamb.
As with everything else on the menu, Clif makes his own desserts and there are usually five or six of them daily. On our visit, we sampled two: the espresso crème brulee and the vanilla peanut butter mousse pie. The presentation was superb, but the taste was even better. The pie was light, fluffy, and pleasantly “peanut-buttery,” while the crème brulee was dense and flavorful.
Along with our desserts, we also enjoyed locally roasted coffee from Sweetwater Organic Coffee Company. Served in oversized thick white mugs, it was the perfect accompaniment to dessert. Clif notes that the chocolate peanut butter ganache tart is his most popular dessert, and encouraged us to return another evening to indulge ourselves.
Dinner at Paramount Grill is a serious treat, but I was delighted to find they are also open for lunch and Sunday brunch. It’s easy to see why this tiny establishment has earned rave reviews in the Washington Post and the Orlando Sentinel and why a large number of customers regularly make the short drive up from Ocala.
Because Paramount Grill’s snug setting offers just 12 tables, for your convenience you might want to make a reservation, although they are certainly not required. There isn’t a bad table in the house and service is as close to perfect as it comes. But it’s the food that will send you home with a smile on your face and bring you back time and again. True to its name, Paramount Grill is clearly supreme.
12 SW 1st Avenue
Lunch: 11:00am-2:00pm, Monday-Friday
Dinner: 5:00-9:30pm, Sunday-Thursday
5:00-10:30pm, Friday & Saturday
Sunday Brunch: 10:00am-3:00pm
Mark’s U.S. Prime
It’s not just the service, which is exemplary. It’s not just the cuisine, which is both creative and consistent. And it’s not just the atmosphere, which is classy and welcoming. Mark’s U.S. Prime succeeds because all of these vital components are woven tightly together, delivering a dining experience that is as close to perfect as it comes.
Since opening in November 2002, Mark’s U.S. Prime has carved a prominent niche in the fine dining scene of North Central Florida. Owned by partners Billy Scheel, Randy McCoy, Louis Saig, and Jay Anneaux, the downtown Gainesville establishment has handily earned the title of “showcase restaurant.”
It had been too long since my husband and I last dined at Mark’s U.S. Prime, so we made reservations for a recent Saturday evening. Gracious and subdued, the atmosphere is reminiscent of an exclusive club with its dark wood and red brick, Tiffany stained glass, and massive tiger mahogany bar crafted in the 1870s.
Settling into a comfortable booth to study the menu, we were immediately greeted by our waiter, Chris. Service here is second to none. Prompt and solicitous, the wait staff is quick to explain the menu and answer any questions. I easily spy a few tempting dishes that were not here last time we dined.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” says managing partner Jay Anneaux, “but we feel that we owe it to our guests to keep things fresh and add new twists.”
If crab tickles your fancy, you must try the Crab Bisque, one of the restaurant’s signature first courses. Hearty and ultra creamy, this bisque is literally brimming with lump crab, and like everything on the menu, is made fresh in-house.
Other memorable appetizers include the classic Steak Tartare with all the traditional accompaniments, Colossal (no exaggeration here!) Shrimp Cocktail, Seared Ahi Tuna, and Crab Cakes with a delicately seasoned wine and pink peppercorn sauce, to mention only a few.
Because the menu is a la carte, you may choose a salad before dinner if you like or hold out for the main course. I highly recommend the sliced tomato and fresh mozzarella, featuring a meaty Beefsteak tomato with thick slices of smooth mozzarella made on-site. The fresh basil and herbed vinaigrette over mixed greens makes a perfect, not-too-heavy second course. Blue cheese lovers will adore the Original Blue salad with its unique Big Blue dressing.
As one might suspect from its name, Mark’s U. S. Prime serves U.S.D.A. prime beef. All steaks are carefully cooked over a slow smoke grill atop hickory and pecan wood for excellent flavor. Your waiter will bring a sleek, weighty knife, but don’t get too attached. You’re not going to need it to cut these steaks.
From filet mignon (8 or 12 ounce), to New York Strip, Delmonico, Ribeye,or Blue Cheese Encrusted Sirloin, all steaks come sizzling in butter on a heated plate. Prime beef is definitely the focus; after all, this is a steak house.
Knowing, however, that not everyone craves beef, the menu also features several delightful seafood entrees, ranging from tuna, grouper, shrimp, and scallops to lobster. The Chilean Sea Bass Amandine is a winner, featuring succulent pan-seared sea bass, topped with fresh asparagus, toasted almonds, and diced tomato, presented on a delicate lemon beurre blanc sauce.
Normally, one wouldn’t think to order chicken at a steak house, but the Wood-Grilled Chicken Breast stuffed with fresh spinach, asiago cheese, and mushrooms is an excellent choice for those not in the mood for red meat.
Side dishes, such as the rich mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, fresh asparagus, and sautéed wild mushrooms are served separately and in generous portions meant for sharing.
Wine earns high marks here, with some 600 or more bottles regularly in stock on the “wall of wine” in the main dining room and in the temperature- and humidity-controlled wine keepers. The restaurant has now won three distinguished “Awards of Excellence” from Wine Spectator magazine.
Already impressive, the wine list was recently expanded to include even more variety.
“We now offer more quality wines produced in California, but not at your typical restaurant mark-up price,” notes Jay.
A good number of wines aren’t included on the main list, so be sure to ask Jay himself.
“We usually have some hidden jewels squirreled away that don’t appear on our list,” he says with a smile. “We have some great wines you wouldn’t expect to find in this part of Florida.”
While few people have room to finish a whole dessert, Chris informs us that almost every table orders one or two to share. We take his advice and indulge in the Chocolate Paradise, a signature creation of chocolate mousse in an Oreo-Kahlua crust over a blanket of Hazelnut cream, raspberry, and toasted almonds. Key Lime Cheesecake, Crème Brulee, and Sorbet with Fresh Berries round out the sweet options.
Many patrons turn to Mark’s U. S. Prime for celebrating special occasions. Except on weekends, the main dining room can be reserved for private parties. There is also a totally private room which seats up to 20 and is available any night of the week.
“We have a lot of regular patrons,” says Jay. “We want to exceed every guest’s expectations.”
Mark’s U.S. Prime
201 SE 2nd Avenue, Union Street Station
5-11pm, Friday & Saturday
When Southern Living ran an article called “Where the Locals Eat in Gainesville” last November, Emiliano’s Café made the short-but-worthy list. Anytime local patrons give consistently high marks, you can feel confident the restaurant has earned them.
In the case of Emiliano’s Café, my own past experiences there were in complete agreement with the locals, and I decided another visit was in order.
Located in the same building on downtown First Avenue for over 20 years, this family-owned and -operated café actually got its start as a bakery in 1982. Originally from Puerto Rico, the Ibanez family named the business after their grandfather, Emiliano, a respected baker in his own right. Although he never worked in their bakery enterprise, the family knows he would be proud to see that the fourth generation is now running the café.
Jorge and Wanda Ibanez started Emiliano’s before the renovation of downtown Gainesville made the area so popular.
“It’s a source of pride to us to be a long-time part of the community,” says Wanda, “and to contribute to the flavor, literally, of the community.”
Latin influences are readily apparent in the bright colors and warm atmosphere of the café. Rich blue walls, red brick, and latticework on the ceiling all contribute to the casual, comfortable setting. Jazz music plays in the background and the walls display the colorful, bold artwork of co-owner Jorge Ibanez. If you like, chose to dine al fresco beneath the awning and enjoy your meal in a sidewalk setting.
Jorge and Wanda’s son, Diego, manages the restaurant, applying flavorful ideas he learned while recently living in Madrid. Their daughter, Rebeca, also works at the café while attending school.
Latin fusion is the best way to describe the cuisine found at Emiliano’s. Loosely translated as “everything Latin,” the term refers to the many influences found in the culinary traditions of Puerto Rico, Spain, Cuba, South America, and other Latin countries. Indeed, you’ll find dishes that are representative of all these countries and more. The staff is skilled in creating traditional meals such as paella, Cuban sandwiches, arroz con pollo, and others, as well as getting adventurous.
The dinner menu includes both classic Latin entrees and “chef’s presentations,” which are Emiliano’s originals. Entrees such as pecan-citrus Atlantic salmon, “jerk” pork chops, and grilled Ahi tuna steak are all a fusion of flavors and styles in the “Nuevo Latino” culinary journey.
Tapas are all the rage now, but they’ve been a staple at Emiliano’s for many years. Made for sharing, tapas are appetizer-sized portions that enable one to try a greater variety of dishes than would be possible by ordering an entrée.
“We’ve been doing a tapas menu since 1986, long before it became popular in other cities,” notes Diego. “Now it seems that no matter where you go, you’ll find restaurants doing tapas. It’s such a fun way to eat.”
That said, my husband and I decided to forego the regular dinner menu and focus on tapas. Lest you think you won’t get enough food by ordering appetizer-sized portions, I can assure you we had more than enough between the various items we shared. Our server, Shane, encouraged us to save room for dessert and we weren’t sure we’d be able to do that!
Emiliano’s tapas menu is long and varied, including both hot and cold items. Dishes have Spanish names, but are fully described so it’s easy to know what you’re ordering. We ended up with a half dozen different tapas, but realized we could have chosen fewer and still had plenty. Part of this was due to the fact that we couldn’t stop eating the Cuban bread dipped in roasted garlic-infused oil with a rich garlic spread. Keep this in mind when your server brings the bread and oil at the start of your meal. (Or throw caution to the wind, as we did, and just dive in!)
Seafood, beef, pork, chicken, and vegetables all star in various tapas dishes, so there truly is something for everyone. We loved the “jerk” shrimp, sautéed in a spicy sweet jerk sauce and served with roasted red pepper aioli and amarillos, which are sweet fried ripe plantains. Personally, I could order a plate of amarillos and be perfectly content with just that.
Another favorite was the Mediterranean flat bread topped with black olive tapenade, fresh tomatoes, chopped basil, parmesan, and artichoke hearts. The Spanish sausage sautéed with garlic, onions, and peppers was another winner in our book.
Emiliano’s stocks a good selection of beer and wine from Spain, Mexico, and South America. You’ll also find traditional sangria on the menu and mimosas, which can be made with fruit juices other than the predictable orange. Try a mango mimosa for a fresh twist on a familiar treat.
Taking Shane’s advice, we choose the signature creamy flan and decadently rich Chipotle Brownie Rum balls from the numerous dessert options. I couldn’t resist ordering a café mocha and finished every drop of this seriously chocolatey cappuccino. Just popping in for coffee and dessert would be an ideal choice on your way to or from a downtown event. This would solve any guilt issues about ordering dessert after such a filling meal!
Do yourself a favor. Become one of the locals and check out Emiliano’s. Whether for Sunday brunch, lunch, or dinner, you’ll quickly discover why Gainesville has made this cozy café one of its favorites.
7 SE 1st Avenue
Lunch: 11:30am-4:00pm, Monday-Saturday
Dinner: 4:00-10:00pm, Monday-Thursday
4:00-11:00pm, Friday & Saturday
Sunday Brunch: 11:00am-3:00pm
Dragonfly Sushi & Sake Company
Walk through the doors at Dragonfly Sushi & Sake Company and you’ll feel hip even if you didn’t minutes ago. Brimming with high energy, flooded with fabulous aromas, and packed with a devoted clientele, Dragonfly is definitely one of the spots to dine in Gainesville.
After five years in its previous location on the same block, the bustling establishment has stepped up to this larger corner spot in response to the enthusiastic demands of patrons who have made this a favorite setting for lunch and dinner.
Find a place at the long sushi bar or ask for a table. You can even request the chef’s table in the small side room for more private dining. Any seat you choose, though, know you’ve come to the right place for sushi.
Can’t make up your mind while studying the extensive menu? Just tell your server you want “omakase.” Roughly translated, this means “trust me.” Simply give your server an idea of what you like and leave it to the chefs. The “omakase” concept is both clever and adventurous, but you needn’t worry. My friend, Robyn, and I took this option on our visit. It’s a unique way to experiment with various menu selections, and odds are you’ll discover a new favorite dish — or two or three!
“A lot of our regulars do ‘omakase,’” says Hirofumi Leung, co-owner of Dragonfly with Song Kim. “Just tell your server how hungry you are. This gives them a creative outlet to play with the food beyond our daily menu.”
In addition to trust, Dragonfly promotes another noble ideal — sharing. “Izakaya,” the concept of sharing, is encouraged by the menu’s abundance of appetizer-sized dishes. According to Japanese legend, families dined using three-foot-long chopsticks, so the only way to eat was to feed each other. No, you won’t have to wield dangerously long chopsticks at Dragonfly, but you will find the idea of sharing greatly increases your dining pleasure, as you are able to sample more menu items.
I’m a sushi novice. Just ask our server, Justin. After witnessing my awkward attempts to manage chopsticks and my subsequent request for a fork, he took pity on me and fashioned a set of “chopsticks on training wheels,” which enabled me to eat the rest of my meal almost gracefully.
If I was just learning the ropes, Robyn was in sushi heaven, sipping cold sake and perusing the menu. No stranger to sushi restaurants, she gave Dragonfly high marks for its vast and varied menu.
“If you want to get to know sushi, this is a great choice,” she remarked. “This is definitely above and beyond your average sushi restaurant. They have a versatile menu and you can actually get an education in sushi because it’s all listed on the menu.”
As she pointed this out, I was scanning the sushi dinner menu and reviewing the choices Justin had carefully made for us. Beyond the inventive names for the specialty rolls and items (“krispy krunch,” “hawaii five-O,” “godzilla,” and “lava,” just to name a few), I noticed that each listing notes what goes into that particular dish. This makes it much easier to order, since you can simply find items you like instead of wondering what ingredients are included.
Choices, choices, choices! We were most impressed with the fact that the menu offers such an array of items. Even the uninitiated needn’t feel intimidated by the menu. If you already know what you want, you can simply mark off your selections on the paper sushi menu and hand it to your server. If you decide on “omakase,” just leave things in your server’s hands.
Justin proved extremely skilled in selecting dishes that we both loved. The crab and cream cheese wontons with peach sauce were a perfect starter, and we raved over the escolar sashimi, thin slices of white tuna artfully arranged like a blossoming rose. Indeed, every dish came out of the kitchen looking like a work of art. From the main feature to the garnishes and sauces, each item shows the care and creativity that goes into its design.
We shared several dishes from the specialty rolls and items portion of the menu. A customer favorite, “the dragonfly,” quickly became one of ours as well with its perfect combination of tuna, yellow tail, and scallions wrapped with grouper and baked with a spicy sauce and served with eel sauce.
The “fire me up wasabi” was an excellent choice with its mix of tuna, salmon, crab delight, cream cheese, and asparagus fried in wonton skin and served with wasabi aioli. Despite the hot name, this dish wasn’t too spicy and was actually my personal favorite.
We both devoured “paper,” which pairs tuna and crab delight with scallions wrapped in daikon (Japanese radish) sliced paper thin.
Justin brought us banana tempura over green tea ice cream for dessert. The crunch of sweet breaded fried banana slices atop the ice cream made for a cool and satisfying ending to our meal.
We walked out with plans to return soon and sample even more dishes. I love the whole idea of “omakase.” If only all of life could be as simple as “trust me!”
Dragonfly Sushi & Sake Company
201 SE 2nd Street, Union Street Station
Lunch: 11:30am-2:00pm, Monday-Friday
Dinner: 5:00-10:00pm, Sunday-Thursday
5:00pm-midnight, Friday & Saturday