Southern Charm Thanksgiving With Chef Art Jennette Live On Jitsi And Odysee For SOLD OUT Lunch 11/24
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"If you leave hungry, it's your fault."
Such was the unvarnished advice offered to this hungry writer by the regulars at Southern Charm on St. Augustine Road.
Much like its neighbor in this quadrant of the Southside, The French Pantry, Art Jennette's Southern soul food eatery is a proverbial fish out of water, in a sea of tired industrial warehouses and garages north of Emerson Street. And much like The French Pantry, it stands out from nearby competitors for good reason.
Chef Art earns the credit for that. He's been plying what he calls his cracker-cooking craft in this space, formerly Checker BBQ, for nearly a decade following a 37-year stint at Palms Fish Camp on Heckscher Drive.
His flamboyant hat and gregarious nature, drowning out his fry pan's sizzle with unabashed superlatives for his kitchen creations, earns him plenty of laughs and loyalists.
Inside, the twin dining rooms and open-air kitchen are as kitschy as they come, with splintered menu signs touting the place's multitude of buffets, prints and murals from a local artist wrapped around mismatched tables and chairs. It's unapologetically unpolished and down home, and the patrons seem just fine with that.
Jennette's "cracker" cooking is what people come to see. He attributes the term, adapted from a Gaelic word for festivity, to Irish workers visiting Northeast Florida at the turn of the last century. It was their term of endearment to describe the joy of eating authentic Southern cooking as a social occasion.
His translation of that vision: heaping plates of family recipe-inspired barbecue standards, fried seafood and old-world Southern sides served from a "side bar," much of it locally sourced and served piping hot on paper plates with plastic silverware. You know it's ready when he rings the bell, and patrons scramble to queue up for collard greens, cheesy cheese grits and cole slaw. Servers deliver your ordered proteins a short time later.
First-timers would do well to show up on time - dinner is served in just a two-hour window during the week, shorter on weekends - and ask for menus. We had to seek them out to order on a recent Thursday night, or go with the flow on the all-you-can-eat feast of fried whiting for $8.99.
The menu also offers helpful ordering etiquette. For instance, on weekend nights, a by-reservations-only country-style seafood and ribs buffet for $22 is your only dining option, as is Friday's $12 seafood lunch buffet.
There are no appetizers per se; a trip to the side bar should be enough to whet any normal human's appetite. I chose whiting and bay scallops as the two meats on my Choose Your Own Combo ($14.99) entree. This vertically stacked plate came packed with what seemed like dozens of perfectly golden bite-size scallops, delicious strips of whiting lightly dusted in cornmeal and flour, and "Ron's World-Famous Handcut Fries," a collection of slender, perfectly seasoned potato wedges. These made-to-order treats aren't on the side bar so you'll need to order them.
As first-timers, Chef Art also sent us a mountainous plate of lightly fried tail-on white shrimp that needed no more than a squeeze from a lemon wedge to be rendered addictive.
My dining partner's pork plate ($7.99) featured an excellent portion of shredded pork that didn't need any saucy embellishment to bring out its simple, smoky goodness.
Buffet-goers will find a lot to love with the side items, which were simply tasty across the board without being weighed down by salt or other flavor enhancers. The baked beans had a strong tomato base, while the potato salad was quintessentially Southern with a mustardy foundation and plenty of egg whites. The fried green tomatoes were razor-thin and lightly dusted with flour but very little else, leaving just a scant amount of oil in their wake.
At the end of the buffet line, you'll find a pan of whatever Chef Art has whipped up that day for dessert, which can range from ginger cookies to cinnamon rolls. We enjoyed the latter, a dense cake bubbling with gooey cinnamon slabs and encased in an icing that would take out the most unrelenting sweet tooth with ease.
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