When I first arrived in Jacksonville, FL (read my travel diary here), I made a point of hooking up with a close cousin. My mother's youngest brother met his wife here many years ago, and my cousin was actually born here. Although she mostly grew up with me in Illinois, I think she considers this her real hometown. Therefore, she knows more about the restaurants and bars than I could having just moved in.
Nippers is owned by Chef Kenny Gilbert, a contestant on Top Chef. This makes my lunch at Nippers the first time I have eaten something at least conceived of by a celebrity chef.
My wife and I arrived before my cousin, so we had some time to look around. From the wood floors to the exposed wooden beams, it spoke to me like a Florida beach bar. Particularly, I thought of Sloppy Joe's in Key West, with the stage and bar dominating the floor space. Nippers has a bar just inside the door that seats a couple dozen people. The stage is the other side of the bar, and there is a dining room area deeper into the building.
It was a bit chilly outside, so we sat inside by the huge window wall overlooking the marina. At least two of the yachts docked there would suit my fantasies just fine. I love the idea of having a dive boat where I can cook the catch. Being able to pull right up to an amazing restaurant is the backup plan.
The lunch menu (PDF) is replete with interesting dishes as well as some southern standards like fried green tomatoes and calamari. I immediately ordered a cup of conch chowder. It is a tomato-based chowder, heavily seasoned with bay and bacon. I should have gotten a bowl!
We were looking for a relatively inexpensive lunch, so we skipped the delicious-sounding entrees and specialties. Garlic Crab Mac & Cheese, Abaco Conch Bolognese, and Shrimp n’ Grits with chorizo are some of the unique dishes Chef Kenny has chosen to show off his eclectic style. I see it as a blend of southern and Caribbean cuisine. His jerk chicken was very popular on Top Chef.
We went instead with the blackened fish sandwich. My cousin chose the wrap, but I definitely preferred the brioche bun to the tortilla. I was stunned to learn that the immense piece of fish we received was swai. In Tucson, the swai fillets were maybe a half a pound each if lucky. This sandwich was over-filled with closer to a pound of the tender white flesh. The seasoning was a pretty standard blend of creole spices, the chili powder and black pepper being the most prominent flavors. The ultra-soft brioche bun was smeared with Nipper's Remoulade, a cajun spicy mayonaisse, which is superior to the horseradishy tartar that a lot of places will naturally pair with fish. Combined with the blackened seasonings, it was a sandwich well worth the $12. Believe me, I don't say that often.
Besides great food, the service was outstanding. We were promptly greeted, seated in a beautiful place quickly, and checked on within a few minutes. Our server was not flustered by our many questions, and although he had to get the answers from the kitchen on two occasions, he did, in fact, get those answers for us. I always appreciate it when the staff puts up with my incessant nagging for more information: "What kind of fish is this?", "Where do you get your vegetables?", and "Is this fresh or frozen?" are standard fair for every place I eat, including the simplest deli.
Overall, the experience was terrific, just the kind of place I wanted to visit for my first time out in Jacksonville. Located just miles from Ponte Vedra Beach, I recommend it with a full rating. I can't wait to have more money so I can try out some of the signature dishes. This one is my next try: Blackened Salmon – collard greens, peas & rice, Boursin cream, garlic crawfish. Yum!