One of the things that has been exciting for us has been watching the food scene in Jax evolve over the past few years. As longtime Jacksonvillians, we have seen a shift from boring cookie cutter restaurants and lots of mediocre BBQ to more creative concepts drawn up by passionate chefs. One area where Jax is still growing is downtown hotspots. A variety of lunch places have opened in the last couple of years and we are seeing more dinner spots on the horizon. Most people don’t and in the near future won’t head downtown for a good meal. It’s not yet a destination. But it’s coming.
When we look at vibrant downtown areas in other cities, we see a lot of foot traffic and restaurants that draw people in. The people that currently hang out in downtown Jax are those who are already there from work. The only other reason people make their way downtown in the evening is for a concert or show. We have certainly been in that group and the problem we always run into is where to have dinner where we can have a good meal and get in and out in time for our engagement. As locals, we never thought of trying a restaurant at one of the hotels, but the Hyatt Regency Riverfront is working to change that.
Executive Chef James Draper joined the team at Hyatt Regency Riverfront last June. Chef James has been working since then to offer better dining opportunities to both guests and locals. His most recent revamp has been the addition of an upscale happy hour drink and bar bites menu, available in the Currents Lounge and Jaxx Sports Bar. Happy Hour runs from 4:30-7:00pm with drink choices that include cocktails ranging from $3-$5. The Happy Hour food menu consists of small plates from $4-$6. With prices that affordable you would expect some frozen appetizers dropped in the deep fryer. Chef James does not run his kitchen that way and nearly everything is made in house.
The cocktails on the Hyatt Happy Hour menu are the French 75 (New Amsterdam Gin, Lemon, Sugar, Prosecco, $5), Jaxx Bourbon Bliss (Bourbon, B&B, Brown Sugar, Simple Syrup, Orange Bitters, $5), and Berry Mojito (Bacardi, Fresh Berries, and Mint, $5). We tried them all. You can’t go wrong. The French 75 is a classic cocktail, but will taste like refreshing twist. It is light and perfect for summer or all the time. The Jaxx Bourbon Bliss was a surprising delight. Bourbon can seem so heavy and intimidating, but this drink reminded me of vanilla sugar and a warm fire. It was smooth and delicious. This is the ideal foray into bourbon if you are new to this particular spirit. The Berry Mojito is likely the most familiar of the cocktails. It is full of whichever berries are in season when you order it, muddled with mint. You can’t go wrong with this cocktail.
The bar bites menu consists of a variety of flavors in small plate size. We tried the Truffled Fries, Charcuterie and Cypress Cheese, Warm Soft Pretzels with Beer Cheese Dip, Smoked Pulled Pork Sliders, Spinach and Artichoke Fondue, Crab Cake on Sesame Brioche, Calamari Fries, and Spicy Tuna Poke. The Truffled Fries (crispy shoestring fries, white truffle oil, parmesean cheese) are as delicious as truffle fries usually are. All fries should be truffle fries. The Charcuterie and Cypress Cheese plate (shaved speck proscuitto, bresaola, soppressata, Cypress Point Creamery Magnolia Cheese) is a remarkable value and a great dish. I am weak to resist a charcuterie and cheese plate, but for $5 this is a pretty awesome value. The three cured meats were full of flavor and a nice variety, and the cheese was creamy with a nice depth of flavor. This came with crostinis and cornishon pickles.
The Warm Soft Pretzels with Beer Cheese Dip were surprisingly good. We expected a basic soft pretzel, but these were more like pretzel bread sticks. They were a great texture and obviously made fresh. The beer cheese dip is made with local Dukes Brown Ale. The Smoked Pulled Pork Sliders (sweet potato biscuit, coleslaw, apricot glazed pork, buttermilk crisped onions) were an unexpected concept. The sweet potato biscuit is made from scratch, and the sweet potato gives it a nice softness and very subtle flavor. This dish is nicely balanced with the sweetness of the apricot glaze and coleslaw providing a nice contrast to the saltiness of the pulled pork and biscuit. The Spinach and Artichoke Fondue (parmesan and cream cheeses, roma tomatoes, sourdough crostini) was a fairly typical appetizer dish, but again it was done with quality ingredients and tasted great. The Crab Cake on Sesame Brioche (lump crab, lime remoulade, caramelized lemon) was a total homerun. It had tons of crab and the brioche roll is made in house. This is a great value and it’s absolutely delicious.
One of the most inventive dishes was the Calamari Fries (tender tempura dusted calamari steak, yellow tomato-EVOO aoili). Calamari fries are cut from a calamari steak, which is a portion of the body of a large squid. A calamari steak is similar in size to a ham steak. Chef James then cuts the calamari into strips, tempura fries them, and whips up a fresh yellow tomato aioli for dipping. The final dish we tried was the Spicy Tuna Poke (Saku tuna, marinated seaweed salad, scallion-ginger wasabi, crispy wonton). If Chef James was saving the best for last, it certainly worked. This tuna poke has layers of flavor with the tuna and some sesame with a little kick from the scallion-ginger wasabi, and great complimenting textures with the soft tuna and crucnhy wonton. Do not miss the Spicy Tuna Poke.
Our top picks for Hyatt Regency Riverfront’s Happy Hour were all three specialty cocktails: French 75, Jaxx Bourbon Bliss, and the Berry Mojito, along with the Charcuterie and Cypress Cheese plate, Warm Soft Pretzels with Beer Cheese Dip, Crab Cake on a Sesame Brioche, and Spicy Tuna Poke. As locals we wouldn’t have thought to head to the Hyatt Regency Riverfront for happy hour, but this visit convinced us that the Hyatt should be near the top of any happy hour list in town. We’ll be sure to return soon.