How have we gotten this far and not written a review of The French Pantry? Our apologies. As soon as you are finished reading, this you have some lunch plans to make. Ask a Jacksonville local where the best lunch spot in town is, and more often than not the answer you will get is “The French Pantry.”
The French Pantry is on Powers Avenue off of University in a nondescript building that certainly doesn’t look like a restaurant. They are open weekdays 11am-2pm. That’s it. There are chalkboards with the daily offerings when you walk in, you order at the counter, and are seated frequently with other diners at community tables. Oh and there is nearly always a line out the door. Expect to wait 30 to 45 minutes, no matter when you arrive. The folks at The French Pantry are thoughtful enough to put a jug of ice water and cups outside for patrons waiting in the sun to get in. Once you’re inside, you will see that their menu includes salads, sandwiches, pastas, and a few heartier entrees. Don’t forget to order dessert when you order your meal. It will be staring you down from the dessert case anyway.
The day we went to The French Pantry we ordered the Smoked Salmon Salad (with a Belgium endive and radicchio salad with a crostini topped with dill crème fraiche, $12), Provencal Salad (crispy artichokes, grilled polenta, Belgium endive, prosciutto, olives, $12), Shrimp, Artichoke, and Goat cheese Bruschetta, Strawberry White Layer Cake, and a Napoleon.
We were seated at our own table, which was a first for me at The French Pantry. Typically you’re seated at a table with folks you don’t know. They use every seat in the place in order to get people seated and served as quickly as possible. Our desserts were plated and delivered immediately and we decided to dig into those. Oh, the decadence. The frosting on the cake and the cream on the napoleon were so rich. The cake was plated with a strawberry sauce underneath that the cake soaked up a bit and I thought it took away from the simple goodness of the cake. Nonetheless, the cake was awesome. We demolished that Napoleon. It was huge! There is no way to cut into a napoleon without completely squashing and dismantling it, but fortunately that has no effect on the flavor.
In the middle of our gluttony a server brought over a plate of fresh bread and olive oil with balsamic and spices. I wish I could tell you that I have enough self control to not stuff my face with fresh warm bread, but that would be a lie. The bread is delicious. Eat it. Plenty of other restaurants around town think highly enough of The French Pantry’s bread that they buy it to serve in their restaurants as well. Trust the experts and eat the bread.
Our entrees arrived and they were beautiful plates of fresh food. The Salmon Salad was largely made of endive and radicchio tossed in a balsamic dressing. The smoked salmon was on top of crostinis with dill crème fraiche. Imagine a fancy cracker with fancy dill spread with fancy smoked salmon. Voila. The endive was crispy, the radicchio not too bitter, the dill crème fraiche was good enough to eat with a spoon, and the salmon was smoked and tender. This is a salad I had never had before, but would definitely get again.
The Provencal salad was equally a delight, but maybe a touch heavier with the crispy (fried) artichokes. It had the same base of Belgium endive and the same balsamic dressing it was tossed in. It was a very different salad, with very different flavors, though. The grilled polenta was perfect and the prosciutto was delicious and obviously imported. This was a great salad with a variety of complementing flavors.
The Shrimp, Artichoke, and Goat Cheese Bruschetta is a favorite at The French Pantry. They offer more than a half dozen different bruschettas every day. There were 4 large crusts of bruschetta with toppings surrounding a large green salad with marinated tomatoes. After eating dessert first and then a plate of bread, another plate of fancy bread was almost too much…almost. Some of this came home for dinner. It’s a pretty straightforward dish, but like with everything, the French Pantry uses very fresh ingredients and also high end imported ingredients. I regret nothing.
The food at the French Pantry may be fresh, high end, prepared perfectly, and plated beautifully, but the restaurant itself functions almost like a cafeteria or a dining room at an old boarding house. You wait in line, they pump people through as fast as possible, and you sit with fellow diners. All in all, it’s an out of the ordinary experience with out of this world food. Recently The French Pantry was sold with the new owner promising extended hours, dinner service and an additional location. If the 30 to 45 minute wait goes away and the food stays just as good, we’ll end up there even more often.