Easily the most-anticipated restaurant opening this year, Black Sheep Restaurant in Riverside (5 Points if you’re being technical) had a lot of hype to live up to–and seems to be doing a great job. A sort-of reincarnation of Downtown’s Chew (some menu items have been retained) and newest addition to owner Jonathan Insetta’s Black Sheep Restaurant Group (which includes Orsay), Black Sheep’s focus is on food that is sophisticated but still seasonal and locally-sourced. However, I think one of the biggest draws is the fancy new building that houses the restaurant and their just-opened rooftop bar.
I’ve visited three times now, and beyond a few minor gripes have thoroughly enjoyed it. I will say though, that Mario has not been particularly impressed with his meals thus far–and I can understand why. So your ordering preferences can have a big impact on your experience, as with any place. I’ll start with our last–and I think best–visit, where I had the Braised Beef Shortribs (creamy leek and rosemary soubise, wild mushroom and blue cheese bread pudding) and Mario had the Marinated Flatiron Steak (smokey onion-tomato timbale, fingerling potatoes, chimichurri)
This. shortrib. Omg. I loved every single thing about this dish. The shortrib was crazy-tender but not too fatty, the soubise was rich and flavorful, and the side of bread pudding–omg again. I can’t get enough mushrooms and blue cheese in my life, so this was like a flavor home run for me. This might make its way onto the list of things I want to eat before I die. Omg (x3). Mario’s steak was less stellar–just good, not great. The spinach on the side, however, was fabulous (and full of butter/cream, I’m sure). Count this as Mario’s first time trying spinach–and he liked it!! I’m lobbying Black Sheep for some hints on their recipe so I can try replicating it at home
Now I’ll back up a bit to our two previous visits: one lunch and one dinner. Lunch was sandwiches, the Grilled Chicken (thick cut bacon, tomato, market greens, house pimento cheese) for me and the Black Sheep Club (black forest ham, roast turkey, swiss cheese, thick cut bacon, tomato, garlic aioli) for Mario.
Again, I liked my sandwich well enough, but understood why Mario was severely underwhelmed–cold sandwiches are SUCH a no-no. Simply heating the meat and toasting the bread on the club would have made a huge difference. I found the bacon on both sandwiches to be a little tough (overcooked? too thick?) and found it served as more of a salt additive than a flavor additive. For now, we’ll call Black Sheep’s lunch service (“service” used loosely–for lunch, you order at a counter and find your own table) middling.
Completing the reverse review, our first dinner visit started with the Bar-B-Q Pork Belly appetizer (wainwright cheddar grits, pickled mustard seeds).
We both LOVED this appetizer. The grits were creamy but had enough “grit” to be of a satisfying texture. The pork belly just melts in your mouth. We may have been fighting over bites of it. Now to one of my personal gripes–we were here fairly early on a weeknight and I really wanted to order that shortrib. However, they had run out! I am willing to accept that it may have been due to their recent opening–maybe they just hadn’t effectively gauged customer ordering habits yet. Still, very frustrating. Instead, I had the Duck Confit Panini (red onion marmalade, Camembert, shoestring potatoes) and Mario went for the Grass Fed Hamburger (plus cheddar and bacon). Unfortunately, I have photos of neither. I enjoyed the duck panini, which was generous on both filling and flavor. I usually find Camembert a little boring, but with the duck and marmalade it was a nice creamy complement. Mario’s burger had a too-perfect, possibly previously frozen look to it, but looks can be deceiving–he said it was one of the better grass-fed burgers he’s had.
I’m so excited for Black Sheep’s creative space and food. Their rooftop bar, while a little cramped, is unique to Jacksonville and will no doubt make the place a destination. I noticed some complaints from other diners on restaurant review sites and to that I say: COME ON! Is Black Sheep a little pricey for Jacksonville? Maybe, but it is hardly on its own in this range. Is the food worth the price? Yes. Take this place and plop it in a bigger city, and these menu prices are the norm. To compete on a higher level, you have to move up to a higher level, and restaurants like this are helping Jacksonville make that move.