Ocala’s downtown has always had a kind of magical appeal—the manicured square abuzz with families, the picturesque storefronts neatly decorated for each season, the sidewalks filled with friendly, familiar faces. Yes, the heart of our city is a charming destination unto itself, and now, there’s one other important reason to make the trip “into town.”
Dining. Interesting and varied, delicious dining.
Over the past year, a whole new crop of eateries has sprung up alongside such perennial favorites as Harry’s, The Melting Pot, and Mark’s Prime. They’re international in their scope, from all-American faire to French cuisine to Japanese sushi to Belgian chocolates, and they’re endlessly alluring for the franchise-weary crowd.
I set about trying out eight of these newest eateries over the course of several days (and nights!), and I have to say, the time was very well-spent. If you haven’t been downtown for lunch or dinner lately, these fresh options just might have you coming back for seconds.
Maybe even thirds.
‘The People Make Your Visit Memorable’
Sushi lovers take their sushi seriously. They’re also a loyal bunch, so I knew something was up when I heard that patrons of one of Ocala’s established sushi restaurants were raving about a new place downtown. With my sushi-expert friend, Robyn, in tow, I headed to Sushi Bistro of Ocala, tucked into a storefront facing the square. What we found gives sushi lovers reason to rejoice.
Sushi chef and co-owner Nestor Espartero was a finalist at the 2009 Sushi Masters competition and brings flair to every dish he creates. A native of the Philippines, Nestor has previously worked on cruise lines and studied at a California sushi school.
Beyond satisfying the palate, each dish is a work of art, artistically arranged on sleek white dishes that highlight the food. For example, with the spicy tuna rolls, which are presented in the graceful shape of a flower, you’re eating the “petals” with each savory bite.
Among the numerous appetizers, I’m not surprised that the Kanisu (Kali roll) is so popular. Tender crab, avocado, and masago are rolled in thinly sliced cucumber.
Basil Duck is one of the chef’s specialties. Boneless slices of duck are fried until perfectly crisp and served with a heaping portion of tender slivers of bell peppers, onion, scallions, and basil.
“I like making different things,” says Nestor. “Several of the dishes are named after customers.”
We raved over the Alexander Dos, a specialty cooked roll named after Nestor’s infant son. The delicate shrimp tempura topping adds a delightful crunch to the cream cheese, crab, and avocado combination.
For sushi newbies, the menu offers up many cooked items. Diners can be as adventurous or conservative as they prefer. Relax at a table in the dining area or sit at the sushi bar and watch as the chefs prepare the orders from a wide range of fresh ingredients.
We got through the whole meal (even dessert!) with chopsticks, but old-fashioned silverware is available. Just ask.
Beyond the truly delicious meal, the people are what make a visit here memorable. Nestor and his mother-in-law, Silvia Gonzalez, are business partners. Silvia managed the daily operations during the building renovations while Nestor and wife Martha were still in Miami because their son, Alexander, was born four months early and weighed barely one pound.
Says Nestor of his firstborn, the earliest preemie to survive at that Miami hospital: “He’s a miracle baby.”
‘The Tapas Menu Is Large And Varied’
On a mild December evening, I dined with a friend beneath strands of lights on the second-story, outdoor patio at Pi On Broadway. On colder nights, the heaters and portable fire pits make things cozy, but we were already quite content—both with the setting and the excellent food.
When Tom McDonald and a group of partners bought the building, they saw great potential in the historic structure located just a block off the square. McDonald, who manages the establishment, says the goal was to pull together different flavors from around the world.
Since Pi on Broadway opened in December 2008, the eatery has become known for its warm atmosphere, tantalizing tapas (small dishes to share), and, of course, gourmet pizza. They also specialize in small batch draft brews. I’m not a beer drinker, but I liked that the menu shows where the brews originate, such as the Sweaty Betty, which hails from Colorado, or the Red Sky at Night Ale that comes by way of Clipper City, Maryland.
The tapas menu is large and varied. Among the most popular items are the Ahi Lettuce Wraps, thick slices of lightly seared ahi tuna encrusted with plantains and served atop bib lettuce caps with spicy crème and tomatillo salsa. We loved the Rock Shrimp, tender morsels of shrimp sautéed in olive oil, chilies, lime, garlic, and herbs. My favorite dish was the Espinacas, sautéed spinach with figs, honey, and garlic. This must be what made Popeye love his greens so much.
Of course, he’d probably order the Spinach Salad, another popular item. The blood orange vinaigrette lends just the right kick to this creative combination of baby spinach, gorgonzola, Anjou pear, curried walnuts, and crispy pancetta.
With over a dozen gourmet pizza choices and the create-your-own option, you’re only limited by your imagination. Each gourmet pie is cooked from the bottom up on a six-inch thick slab in the massive brick oven, which the partners purchased in Kansas City and had shipped back to Ocala.
We enjoyed the Lana’I, a satisfying twist on ham-and-pineapple. It features tender pulled pork, caramelized pineapple, onion, papaya barbeque sauce, and asadero cheese. Another popular pick is the Genovese, which features roasted chicken, basil-pistachio pesto, and goat cheese.
Executive Chef Adam Volpe has been involved in the project since the construction phase and created the large menu with the intention of offering a memorable selection of “American tapas.” His skill was apparent in everything we ate. Adam also put together an absolutely divine Raspberry Flambe Cocktail dessert for us. Served in a martini glass, this heavenly bit of sweet bliss deserves a permanent spot on the dessert menu.
We left Pi feeling as though we’d just savored a very cosmopolitan evening far beyond the city limits of Ocala. I’m eager for a return visit.
‘Like Dining In Paris’
Okay, I’ll admit right up front that I’ve never been to France. So when a well-traveled friend started talking about a new restaurant that was “just like” dining in Paris, I had to check it out.
La Cuisine French Restaurant, which opened last August, is housed in a beautifully renovated building near the square. The classic French décor, white-linen atmosphere, and incredible aromas emanating from the kitchen immediately set the stage for a memorable meal. La Cuisine makes an elegant choice for any celebratory occasion and often features special menus on holidays.
We visited at dinner and were impressed by the tantalizing appetizer choices, which our server, Nichole, explained in detail. The menu plays perfectly to guests searching for traditional French dishes, such as Quiche Lorraine and Escargot. Unlike salty imitations, the Gratinee a l’Oignon (French onion soup) is the real deal and topped with a deliciously thick layer of crusty, melted cheese.
I was smitten with the Poached Eggs in Meurette, featuring eggs poached in a red wine sauce with bacon, mushrooms, and pearl onions on country toast. Rich and flavorful, the sauce is absolutely spectacular.
Entrées offer plenty of choices, from chicken, beef, and fish to veal, lamb, and pork. Bread is a must in order to savor every last bit of the sauces, especially the Beef Bourguignon, the classic French stew with beef tender enough to cut with a spoon. I had been intrigued by this dish ever since seeing Julie & Julia, and now I know what all the fuss was about.
Although I didn’t have 365 days in which to decide on my entrée, the accompaniment was easy. The Gratin Dauphinois, seasoned and sliced potatoes in cream with a crusty top, was my favorite. The Ratatouille features Mediterranean vegetables and was also excellent.
The French definitely know their way around dessert. The Crème Brulee was outstanding, but our hands-down favorite was the Beaujolais-Style Fruits, which highlights pear and dried plums stewed in aromatically-flavored red wine and finished with almonds. We also loved that the chefs thoughtfully decorated the edges of the plates in chocolate script.
La Cuisine got its start after accomplished chef Patrice Perron visited friends in Ocala in 2005. He and his wife fell in love with the area, but noticed the lack of French restaurants. Back home in France, Patrice shared his idea of opening a traditional French cooking establishment in the “Horse Capital of the World” with one of his relatives, Stephane Gattacieca. Before long, their idea evolved into an obsession.
Armed with this vision, the two men, their families, and another French chef, Christophe Crouzet, crossed the Big Pond to Ocala to make the dream a reality. As Julia Child would say, “Bon appetit!”
‘Food With A Cuban Slant’
Downtown Ocala was in need of a little soul and The Mojo Grill & Catering Co. has plenty to spare. Ocalans already knew owner Rondo from his former eatery by the same name. Now that he’s turned his more-than-competent culinary skills to this new endeavor, anyone craving a hearty helping of soul food home cooking knows where to look.
Rondo knows how to make a killer burger, and wing lovers are crazy about his chicken wings with their signature sauces, but I was delighted to discover a different side to the menu. The Rajun Cajun Chicken Pasta, with its not-too-spicy Alfredo sauce, mushrooms, tomatoes, penne pasta, and tender chicken, is amazing. As much as I loved that entrée, I was also crazy about The Pepin, Rondo’s Famous Cuban Pork Dinner, which highlights incredibly tender marinated pork in a secret Mojo sauce.
“This is my favorite!” exclaimed my friend, Alyce, as she reached for another helping. “And I don’t usually even like pork.”
The perfectly seasoned black beans and rice and sweet plantains were ideal accompaniments.
We enjoyed the Crazy Cuban, too, featuring ham, pulled pork, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles. Rondo says he sells about 2,000 of these classic sandwiches every month.
In addition to cold beer and a nice wine selection, a dizzying array of appetizers, quesadillas, salads, sandwiches, and wraps round out the menu. You’ll even find Cajun boiled peanuts, which fits neatly with the homestyle blues music theme, complete with blues concerts on TV and music posters on the wall. All in all, Mojo Grill has a very family-friendly atmosphere. When we visited, the guests ranged from kids to senior citizens. Live local blues musicians jam on Friday evenings.
Yes, we did manage to save room for one of Soriana’s desserts. Rondo’s 10-year-old daughter inspires these daily homemade treats and we enjoyed a warm blonde chocolate chip brownie topped with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, and drizzled with chocolate.
As hearty and satisfying as the food is at The Mojo Grill, the catering side comprises about 40 percent of the business. Many customers create their own theme and Rondo works with them to deliver a complete catering package.
The good news for the rest of us is that you don’t have to throw a party to enjoy his soulful cooking. The Mojo Grill can satisfy just about any craving you have, particularly if you’re hankering for food with a Cuban slant.
‘Great Place to Watch the Game’
Sometimes you have to leave home to know where you belong. When Hugh Price left Marion County to live in California and tour the country with his band Moss Bluff, he wasn’t thinking about returning. Yet, that’s exactly what he did last year at the age of 27.
Back in the Sunshine State, the Ocala native decided it was time to focus his dreams on the town where he was raised. Last November, together with longtime buddy Brandon Magnuson, he opened BFE in the downtown spot that formerly housed Joke Boys Comedy Club. Having heard good things about the menu, my friend Robyn and I decided to check it out.
We showed up the day after the Super Bowl. Noting the nine flat-screen televisions and the 100-inch projection screen, we knew this must be a great place to watch the game, and our server assured us they were packed for the big event.
Finger foods are among my favorites and BFE has a wide assortment. We loved the Animal Fries, a heaping portion of hot French fries crowned with melted cheese, caramelized onions, and Thousand Island dressing. I told myself I’d only try a few, but they were so good, we ate the entire serving. It’s easy to see why this is one of the most popular, if not lowest-calorie items on the menu.
Mom’s Crabby Things, which are indeed inspired by Hugh’s mother, feature hearty crabmeat and cheese broiled on an English muffin. The Queso Fried Cheese offers a spicy twist on the standard fried cheese stick. The Chicken Cordon Bleu Bites and the Rueben Bites are also a big hit, and while you can just pop them in your mouth, they’re even better dunked in one of the sauces.
“We’re still playing with the menu and adding things,” says Keith, one of the cooks.
One of the offerings they won’t toy with is the BFE Burger and rightfully so. Made of 100 percent locally-raised, grass-fed Angus top sirloin, each burger is grilled to order. An exceptionally tasty burger, you can dress this up or down as you please, even adding jalapenos and grilled mushrooms if you fancy.
Along with the burgers, Ruebens, Patty Melts, and Philly Steak, the Chicken Subs are among the best-selling sandwiches. I’m not a chicken wing kind of girl, but I’m in the minority at BFE where the menu features both “naked” and “dressed” wings tossed in a number of different sauces.
Pleased to find a variety of salads, we opted for the Caprese, which features slices of ripe tomato topped with smooth fresh Mozzarella cheese on a bed of lettuce, drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette and olive oil.
BFE is decidedly casual and friendly. Enormous, colorful murals painted by local artists decorate the entire west wall of the establishment, while weathered brick on the opposite wall testifies to the building’s history.
Along with the full menu and bar, BFE offers live music Thursday through Saturday nights. Tuesday is “open mike” night for acoustic music, and poker players can get into the action on Wednesdays with two free Texas Hold’em Poker tournaments. Although the eatery is for ages 21 and older after 10pm, families with children are welcome earlier. The restaurant offers a kid’s menu with classic kiddy fare.
Price says his customers tell him there’s no other place in Ocala like BFE, which, by the way, stands for “Booze, Food and Entertainment,” and that’s exactly what he likes to hear.
‘Start With Dessert First’
When I heard that the specialty cooking store Bakers & Cooks was serving breakfast and lunch, I knew a visit was in order. I was already familiar with the shop’s fabulous array of kitchenware, hard-to-find food items, and cooking classes. I figured since they had this down pat, they’d also score big on the restaurant end.
I was right.
My friend Shirley and I met there for lunch and were delighted to find that you can order from both sides of the menu anytime.
“We serve both breakfast and lunch from 8 to 2, so if you want a cheeseburger at 8am, you can have it,” says Gene Belden, noting that customers who work the night shift appreciate this option.
Belden and his wife, Marie Harrington, have owned the shop since it opened in December 2006, and each manages their own area: Marie in the shop and Gene in the kitchen.
One of the best things about visiting a friend who cooks is hanging out in the kitchen together, and dining at Bakers & Cooks is much like this. Though they can choose to sit at one of small tables available, most customers eat at the counter facing the kitchen—a front row seat to witness everything being prepared upon order. Chef Adam and his assistant handle most of the preparation, but Gene also slips on an apron and helps.
Chef Adam spent 32 years in Rhode Island where he had his own restaurant and catering company before moving to the Sunshine State. He was the driving force behind the menu’s creation and you can taste his magic in every dish. Adam worked closely with Gene to come up with unique dishes, many of which offer a clever twist.
I’m a big fan of classic grilled cheese, but now that I’ve had the Bakers & Cooks version, I’m forever spoiled. This is not your grandmother’s grilled cheese! Rich, melted French brie, thin slices of crisp green apples, honey, and a touch of Dijon mustard make this a memorable sandwich indeed.
“I’m not creative in the kitchen, so I love it when people combine flavors you wouldn’t expect,” Shirley comments as we devour our meal.
We raved over the macaroni and cheese. No offense to Kraft, but this side dish was anything but “blue box.” With penne pasta, four different cheeses, and a touch of crisp bacon, this is the perfect “adult” version of the beloved comfort food.
And don’t be apprehensive about trying “The Elvis,” a sandwich inspired by The King’s southern cravings. Creamy peanut butter, sliced bananas, and bacon are stacked between two slices of Texas toast-style bread, then egg battered and fried. Not exactly diet food but The King wasn’t known for moderation!
Meat lovers can’t say enough about the Black Angus burgers and the one-pound applewood smoked bacon sandwich.
And the breakfast items are just as impressive! Instead of the predictable two-eggs-with-bacon-and-toast, you’ll find incredibly creative dishes, including omelets and benedicts on the breakfast menu. A favorite is the Crème Brulee French Toast made with French brioche, honey, and Neilsen-Massey’s vanilla bean paste. The toast is then egg battered, grilled, and served with warm apricot maple syrup and fresh berries. Yum!
Any eatery worth its salt must have at least one fabulous dessert and Bakers & Cooks certainly does. Their crystallized ginger ice cream is my favorite. Rich, creamy, and studded with bits of ginger, the ice cream is absolutely divine when paired with the bread pudding. Chef Adam leaves out the raisins in this traditional dish, but adds a decadent caramel sauce, a touch of peach purée, and just enough vanilla bean whipped cream.
There are no “rules” when eating at Bakers & Cooks.
“We have some women who start with dessert first and then have a sandwich or salad,” notes Gene.
These are women after my own heart. I’ll have to remember this for my next visit, which will be soon… very soon.
‘What Ocala Was Missing’
An enchanting European atmosphere suffuses the storefront occupied by Stella’s Modern Pantry. If you aren’t hungry when you walk through the front doors, just wait a minute or two. This will give an opportunity to settle in at one of the marble-topped café tables and decide on a sandwich, flatbread, or salad.
I had the Artichoke & Sundried Tomato Flatbread, which features a crispy, thin crust topped with artichoke hearts and sundried tomatoes, along with Greek olives, pesto, and imported Parmesan. A classic combination, sure, but not an easy decision since the Wild Mushroom and Red Pepper Flatbread with fontina cheese, rosemary, and olive oil drizzle also sounded enticing.
Try Stella’s Spanish version of the traditional ham-and-cheese sandwich. Thick slices of serrano jamon and manchego cheese are adorned with a basil pesto spread and served on a hearty, olive oil-toasted ciabatta roll. I enjoyed mine with a bottle of genuine Hank’s Black Cherry Soda, the taste of which brought back many fond childhood memories.
Another sandwich option is the Goat Cheese, which includes roasted red and yellow peppers, marinated onions, and chickpeas topped with mixed greens and lemon vinaigrette on fresh bread. There’s also the salami sandwich featuring Italian salami and fontina cheese with a tangy olive salad and greens on a ciabatta roll.
If you’re feeling “green,” you can go for the House Salad, but whatever you do, save room for one of the tempting creations by pastry chef Albert Barrett. From cinnamon buns and baklava to lemon meringue tarts and the artistic Chocolate Trilogy, the bakery case shelves are filled with goodies, all made in-house.
After eating, make time to peruse the well-stocked shelves where you’ll find everything from “A” (an abundant assortment of aprons) to “Z” (zany Zebra marshmallows striped with chocolate), with lots of other foodie favorites in between.
Browsing the aisles, I discovered accoutrements for baking, cooking, and party hosting that I didn’t know existed in Ocala. I was thrilled to discover the Spanish olive oil tortas I’d previously only found via an expensive mail order catalog. (Yes, they came home with me!)
An array of cheeses—imported and domestic—fills one case. You can pick and choose or rely on Stella’s experts to assemble a top-notch cheese tray. Meats, olives, boutique wines, European beers, and unusual imported beverages add to the delicious dilemma of what to buy. Olive oils and vinegars, candies and condiments, along with great gadgets and cookware essentials fill the shelves alongside a fabulous selection of cookbooks. The friendly, knowledgeable staff can put together a gift box or help you select items. Just surveying all the offerings made me want to throw a party.
Owners Stacey Atsides, Felicia Tyler, and Albert Barrett and Manager Thomas Pestow have put heart and soul into the shop and it shows. One visit and you’re convinced they knew what Ocala was missing all along.
‘Top-Quality Belgian Chocolate’
Nestled into a snug little shop on Fort King Street, a block off the square and right next to Mojo’s Grill, is Ocala’s Chocolate & Confections. The town’s only handmade chocolate shop is owned by Keith and KerryAnn Terrelonge, natives of Jamaica who lived in south Florida for three decades before relocating to Ocala.
Several retail shops carried their chocolate creations in Miami where customers would often wait for the satisfyingly sweet deliveries. Eventually, Keith and KerryAnn decided to open their own shop and numerous visits to the Ocala area convinced them that downtown was the ideal spot. Ocala’s Chocolate & Confections opened for business in mid-February 2009.
As the chocolatier, Keith spends hours carefully creating every item that lines the display case shelves. He prefers to use top-quality Belgium chocolate—milk, dark, and white—as it has no additives and results in a smooth silky texture and color.
An enormous difference exists between buying a pre-boxed assortment of chocolate and walking into a shop where everything has been made by hand. Just try leaving without something chocolate in hand, whether a single piece or an entire box!
Decadent and rich, truffles are one of the most popular items. KerryAnn says they can’t make enough of the dark chocolate raspberry and says that Ocala’s fanatical about dark chocolate.
I stopped in several times in December and everyone seemed to have the same idea: a gift box of locally-made chocolates is the perfect present for any occasion. You can even customize your gift basket or box with special order chocolate items that highlight the recipient’s hobbies, such as a boot or horse for the horse lover, an edible chocolate diamond, airplanes, trucks, flamingos, and just about anything else you can imagine.
“We’ve had a wonderful response from Ocala and we’re very grateful to the community for their support,” says KerryAnn. “We’ve had customers travel from Gainesville, Lady Lake, and a number of other cities, a great opportunity to highlight the downtown’s other businesses.”
Thanks, KerryAnn. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Bon appetit!
Want To Know More?
Sushi Bistro of Ocala
Pi on Broadway
La Cuisine French Restaurant
The Mojo Grill & Catering Co.
Stella’s Modern Pantry
Bakers & Cooks
Ocala’s Chocolate & Confections