Foodie heaven lurks behind many a quaint facade in St. Augustine.
Leave your diet at home and pack your appetite when you visit St. Augustine in northeast Florida. The oldest city in the United States is not only visually beautiful for its charming, quaint cobblestone streets and historic sites, it's also a feast for the palate.
“Where to eat?” can be an overwhelming question for first-time visitors. Step in Savory Faire, a two and half hour tour that introduces the city’s culinary heritage in an entertaining, educational and utterly lip-smacking way, while wandering through the Spanish historic quarter.
This tour serves up small plates with big history. Licensed guides shares facts and anecdotes from St. Augustine’s rich cultural trove as you walk from place to place, eating your way through traditions left by the Spanish, British, Minorcan and other cultures who called this area home during the colonial period.
The Spanish Bakery is behind the wall. Walk through that doorway on the right, which the bakery shares with other businesses.
Our tour started one rainy afternoon on gorgeous Saint George Street, where we sampled savory beef empanadas (pastries) and piccadillo (ground beef stew in tomato-base sauce) at the Spanish Bakery. The establishment has been serving up baked goods and traditional foods since 1975 -- a recent newcomer considering that St. Augustine was founded in 1565. But oh, old-fashioned and oh-so-good was in the air here. The heavenly scent of baking and cooking from this small bakery is so intoxicating, it should be packaged and sold as an air freshener. We enjoyed that scent while noshing in a humble garden courtyard on wooden picnic tables.
Here at Sex and the Beach we wonder if Anita Bryant would've sponsored this good stuff.
After our first stop, we strolled over to Vino del Grotto for a tasting of Florida-made orange wine -- a traditional Minorcan beverage during Easter. The Minorcans were a group of poor Mediterranean souls who got scammed into a life of indentured servitude in New Smyrna, 70 miles south of St. Augustine. They eventually escaped and settled in St. Augustine around 1777. Their cultural heritage remains alive today.
Wine made from fruit other than grapes is common in Florida; this variety comes from citrus country in the center of the state. The wine is light and would make a great summer picnic drink. If you only bring a carry-on on your flight and want to take some home, don’t worry, shipping is available.
Although you'll find many small tapas plates at The Tasting Room, don't let the name mislead you. The restaurant is definitely more than just a "tasting room."
After the wine, we enjoyed grilled mint and lamb meatballs with a yogurt honey sauce at The Tasting Room. Yes, say that twice and roll it around on your tongue. It was that good. Chef Matthieu Landillon (a.k.a "Frenchy") personally brought out the savory morsels. The Tasting Room is an elegant contemporary Spanish restaurant specializing in tapas as well as adaptations of traditional dishes from the Iberian peninsula. Check your bag to see if you forgot your passport; you’d swear you were in Barcelona after setting foot inside here through a lovely courtyard.
The Gourmet Hut is tiny but what a charming and romantic little spot, even on this rainy day.
Our movable feast continued just a block or so down the street to The Gourmet Hut, where you know the British came and certainly stayed a little, at least with their delicious version of Constance Spry’s famous curry-based Coronation Chicken Salad, offered with a side of English Sausage Rolls made with a flaky, buttery crust. And in true St. Augustine multi-cultural spirit, the lovely owner, who is from South Africa, let us wash down the Britishness of it all with refreshing, fruity Spanish red wine sangria.
Feeling rather full at this point, we would still have three more stops to go.
Every decent city worth its weight in grog must have an Irish Pub. Meehans, an Irish Pub facing the Matanzas River, offered up rich Irish Clam Chowder, oysters on the half shell and half of a Reuben. What? A Reuben in an Irish restaurant you ask? Let’s take this one step further and go back to multi-cultural: the Reuben was served deep fried in a spring roll wrapper and a side of Gruyere fondue. While it may make any fan of a traditional Jewish deli cringe, this Reuben was undeniable and delicious proof that despite their military stronghold, the Spanish, who "owned" Florida for a better part of its history since Ponce de Leon's official discovery dated 1513, would never stand a chance against these great foreign invaders of the lunch platter.
After Meehan’s we surely had to lighten up a bit, so a palette cleanser was in order. Hyppo Gourmet Popsicles (so named because the storefront is on Hypolita Street), fit the bill. Hyppo’s popsicles aren’t just ice cream truck style treats for the kids; these are serious grownup sweets made fresh daily with local fruits. Try the strawberry and datil – a local spicy pepper that brings tongue-tickling heat to the flavor of the fruit.
As a library to a book fiend, so this display to a foodie. Both shall swoon. Contain yourself from sniffing what's inside every jar.
Our last stop was one that no foodie should miss. (Please go there, even if you don’t take the tour.) The Spice and Tea Exchange, part of a national chain, sells a dizzying and delectable variety of salts, dried herbs and spices as well as teas and sugars. Your nose will thank you for stopping here, just like it would if you were to stop at the Spanish Bakery. Make room in your suitcase for the rubs, spices mixes and other pantry goodies you’ll surely want to take home to your kitchen. Go for the locally inspired St. Augustine mixes of spices and herbs.
Are you full yet just from reading this? We certainly were after the experience! The tour is a great deal at $45. The portions are generous -- Adam Richman from Man v. Food might even take this one as a challenge, so don’t eat before the tour. Don’t let that worry you, however; take a nap after and opt for a light supper later that evening.
UNBUCKLE YOUR BELT
During your stay, make room for more. Your tour guide will recommend other places to eat because obviously you can only eat so much in two and half hours.
I recommend you pay serious homage to the Spanish heritage in St. Augustine and go back to The Tasting Room for a full dinner accompanied by fine Spanish wines from their extensive collection. We sipped on white wines from Galicia and the Basque country recommended by owner Michael Lugo to pair with our courses, which included jamón serrano and manchego croquetas (béchamel sauce, serrano ham and manchego cheese croquettes), seafood paella and roasted duck with membrillo (quince). A solo acoustic guitarist set the mood for what was, again, “a pinch me and tell me I’m not in Spain” dinner.
The Tasting Room also recently opened a Spanish deli at 39.5 Cordova Street, near the beautiful Casa Monica hotel, serving artisan breads as well as fine meats and cheeses imported or U.S. made, inspired from the original mother country. Yes, you heard me right. I know I'm a sucker for Spain, but trust me U.S. citizens, you'll come to see Spain as the "original mother country" after you visit St. Augustine.
For details on the food tour, click on Savory Faire, run by St. Augustine City Walks, purveyor of additional fine tour experiences. Confirm your reservation for the tour before hand; it's limited to 12 people and you wouldn't want to miss out as a stand by.
FLAVORS OF THE HISTORIC COAST
It’s always foodie heaven in St. Augustine, but October brings Flavors of Florida’s Historic Coast, with prix fixe menus available at over a dozen restaurants in the Saint Augustine and Ponte Vedra area until the end of the month. If you can’t make it this year, keep an eye out for the next edition of the same program; if you love to eat well but are on a budget, consider visiting this destination during Flavors month for reasonably priced deals in the area's finest restaurants.
For more information about visiting Saint Augustine, check out Florida's Historic Coast.