Gilbert’s Social opened this weekend, and being fans of Gilbert’s Underground in Fernandina we had to stop in. We dined completely anonymously, without any perceived or real benefit or disadvantage of outing ourselves as Jax Restaurant Reviews writers.
Gilbert’s Social is in an existing free-standing building on Southside Blvd. just north of Tinseltown. With a fresh coat of orange paint and a smoker out front, Gilbert’s is bold on the outside and the inside. It has a homey, southern feel to it, but not like your grandma’s house. The open kitchen has a big footprint; it takes up at least a third of the interior space. The dining room is open with a smattering of tables. It was smaller than I expected. I commented to my dining partner that there weren’t very many tables. Certainly they could have fit more. They absolutely could have, but it would be to the detriment of diners. Gilbert’s made a wise decision to keep things comfortable and not crowd customers in. Every part of the experience at Gilbert’s feels fresh and authentic. The attentive wait staff coordinates with jeans and plaid shirts, drinks are served in mason jars, and dishes are brought out to share.
Typically when a restaurant opens it takes time to get their feet under them and operate smoothly. Gilbert’s is blowing that theory out of the water. Our dinner experience, and it appeared that of the other patrons in the restaurant, was easy breezy with excellent service and shorter than expected wait times for our dishes. It likely helped that Chef Kenny Gilbert himself was in the kitchen himself, cooking and overseeing the process, and making rounds to the diners in the restaurant. It is unclear how long Chef Gilbert will be present at his new restaurant, but certainly he is making sure that the right people and processes are in place.
So how is the food? Different than most other food in Jax. Where many cooks rely on butter, oil, and fat to flavor their food, and many chefs choose high quality ingredients and let them speak for themselves, Chef Gilbert uses a lot of herbs and spices in his dishes, along with fresh ingredients. This makes for a menu with a lot of flavor in each dish.
We started with the goat curry soup (goat curry soup, raita, pickled raisins, crushed cashews, $5/cup $10/bowl). Our waiter warned us that there are some bones left on the meat for more flavor, which was an appreciated tip. I was worried about biting down on a bone and it crumbling in my mouth, but when I did finally come across a bone, I discovered I was in no risk of it crumbling. It was solid with smooth edges.I’m not sure if I have had goat before. The combination of goat, curry, pickled raisins, and all the other flavors made this taste more like an ethnic dish than a southern dish. It was very earthy. I would have felt right at home eating this in an Ethiopian restaurant. One of us was a fan of the soup and one wasn’t, but we both agreed it was done well. If it matches your taste buds you’ll really enjoy it.
We tried the watermelon ceviche appetizer (Florida citrus, watermelon, tomatoes, fermented datil pepper mash, cilantro, red onion, tortilla, $12) as well as the boar toast (wild boar ham toast, Texas armadillo egg spread, pickled carrots, cilantro, $12). The watermelon ceviche had a ton of flavor, between the fresh mahi, yellow and cherry tomatoes, baby kale, watermelon, and datil sauce. We were not prepared for the kick that came with it due to the datil peppers, but it was a good dish. The boar toast was interesting. It was heartier than expected on thick, chewy country bread. The “armadillo egg” salad was mild and satisfying, the boar was deeply flavorful without being gamey, and the pickled carrots added a zing to each bite.
For our entrees we had the smoked turkey and dumplings (smoked pulled turkey drums, pimento cheese gnudi, smoked turkey velour, root vegetable, $19) and the fried chicken (24 hour brined ½ fried chicken, jalapeño cheddar drop biscuits, datil pepper hot sauce, $20). The smoked turkey and dumplings is the dish Chef Gilbert beat Chef Bobby Flay with on the Food Network’s Beat Bobby Flay. The flavor that takes center stage in this dish is tarragon. Combined with root vegetables, this dish has an herbed and earthy thing going. Tarragon is best friends with poultry and I wish people would pair those two together more. Those who enjoy earthy flavors will enjoy this dish. If earthy’s not your thing shoot for a different entree. The fried chicken turned out to be the star of the show. It was an entire half chicken (breast, wing, thigh, leg) with two cheddar jalapeno biscuits. It was piping hot, with salty, crispy skin, and flavorful meat. We cannot think of anyone making better fried chicken in all of Jacksonville.
We also tried several sides during our culinary escapade: roasted mushroom gratin (shiitake + crimini + oyster mushrooms, black pepper queso, roasted garlic, cheddar jalapeño biscuit gratin, $8), Anna’s Mac N Cheese (black pepper queso, cavatappi pasta, pimiento cheese, cheddar, saltine cracker crust, $9), and blistered shishito peppers (grilled lemon, salt, $10). The roasted mushroom gratin was a rich dish that came in a hot skillet. The rooasted garlic was especially nice in the gratin. Anna’s Mac n Cheese is a show stopper. Before I took a bite I said, “There’s no way this is as good as Empire City”, referring to the new Empire City Gastropub and their lit mac n cheese. I was wrong. It is as good. I cannot compare the two, but Chef Gilbert’s mac n cheese is on the same level as Empire City’s and you should probably go eat it at both places right now so you can die happy and satisfied. Gilbert’s mac n cheese is made with cavatappi pasta. It has a generous level of creaminess due to the black pepper queso. Our final side was the shishito peppers. The preparation is simple: blister them with high heat. There is no special sauce or any fancification to these peppers. And yet they are delicious. Order them. Our waiter told us shishitos are known as the roulette pepper because occasionally you will come across a hot one, and there is no way to know until you bite in. I’m not a fan of real hot and spicy food, but that endears me to shishito peppers.
We finished our meal with KG’s S’mores and soft serve (bittersweet chocolate creme brûlée, crushed gingersnap cookies, toasted mini marshmallows $8, with softserve $9). This was one menu item we just didn’t love. The bittersweet chocolate crème brulee was like a grainy mousse and the marshmallows were toasted/charred on top, but not melty. We got much more of the char taste than anything. The crushed gingersnap cookies didn’t add much, but I think it was due to the overwhelming marshmallow char. It did not LOOK like the marshmallows were burned more than they should be. The dish looked great and well executed. It just didn’t taste that way. It was disappointing because conceptually it’s awesome. I still want to eat that version of s’mores.
In addition to the inspired menu, Gilbert’s Social has a generous wine and beer list, and offers five handmade sangrias. I tried two of them because I take my job seriously. I had Nurse Anna’s Potion (Our strongest sangria. Made with orange, allspice simple syrup, and all four wine based spirits, $11) and the Berry Romance (A refreshing strawberry lemonade with juniper berry simple syrup and rosemary $10). Nurse Anna’s Potion had an almost creamsicle thing going on with the orange and allspice. It may have had the most alcohol, but it went down smooth. The Berry Romance was a fancy alcoholic strawberry lemonade. Two thumbs up! The rosemary was delightful in this one. If you really can’t decide which sangria you want, Gilbert’s offers a flight of all five for $30. If you aren’t a drinker Gilbert’s also has a koolaid flavor of the day. Yes. KOOLAID OF THE DAY.
The concept at Gilbert’s is polished at a point in the restaurant’s life where very few are. Too often you never see the name of the chef that is on the door, so it was a delight for Chef Gilbert to walk table to table to talk to guests. With multiple restaurants, he certainly can’t be there all the time, but he is investing himself for the life of his latest endeavor. All in all Gilbert’s is a welcome addition to the Jacksonville food scene. We love the revamping of an existing building, and the accessible location on Southside. The restaurant is already running smoothly with awesome, attentive service.