Spent the weekend in St. Augustine, and I have a couple reports. First off, I've come to the conclusion that St. Augustine is a pretty lame town. Everything closes early, few restaurants are open on Sundays or Mondays. The whole old town is designed to be safe for your grandma and/or children, which isn't all bad, but beware for anyone in between those ages who might want to enjoy some night life while on vacation. A fine place for a night or two, nothing more. See the Castillo and browse the mostly lame stores, which can be accomplished in a single afternoon. Then move on to the chow, if you can find a restaurant that is actually open.
We hit town about 4pm on a saturday and pulled over when we saw O'Steens. My girlfriend and I thought it was good, and the real side dishes were welcome. The fried shrimp was good, but I've had much better. The Seabreeze here in Tampa used to bread theirs with ground saltines, which was sublime. The Minorcan clam chowder was excellent with a nice datil pepper kick. Sides ranged from the very good green beans to the gooey squash casserole to the sweet potato casserole, which was too heavy with brown sugar. The chicken and dumpling special was nice, with an excellent home made broth. would i go back to O'Steen's? You bet. Would i wait in line for 30 minutes? No. I'm still trying to figure out what all the fuss is about.
Had a late dinner at Opus 39, and the restaurant mostly delivered. Be prepared to spend a lot of time waiting for your food. The portions are small and can be eaten in a matter of minutes, but you will wait at least 20 minutes between courses. I suspect this is good for the business of their wine store, where the prices are not friendly. Cheapest bottles start at $30 and clumb steeply from there. The fixed prce 5-course dinner had climbed to $65, so expectations were high. The amusement was a nice hummus with lots of garlic. We could have used more pita, but it was a good start.
The butternut squash soup was a bit salty, but worked perfectly with the candied walnuts. The other appetizer, a green salad with hearts of palm and crab, was quite good. Both second courses were excellent: seared scallops with curried coconut sauce over jasmine rice and poached shrimp with banana sauce on a black bean cake, all cooked perfectly.
The fish courses were more uneven. The sauteed grouper with basil mashed potatoes and creamy crab cauliflower sauce was excellent, but the grilled cobia was badly overcooked and the tomato parm broth had no flavor. A regrettable dish. We told our server, who apologized.
Entrees were similarly lopsided. The braised bison short ribs were wonderful with machengo cheese polenta, arugula, and a bold ancho chile mole. This dish was superlative, but the seared duck with roasted veggies was vastly undercooked. The texture was that of raw duck and was difficult to cut or chew. Very unpleasant. The accompanying vegetables, however, were excellent.
The chocolate banana bombe with cinnamon chocolate sauce was very good, but the rustic sweet potato tart was most excellent. Housed in a baklava-style pastry and saturated in maple caramel, the chunks of sweet potato were perfectly cooked al dente for lack of a better term.
Overall, our experience was good, but my girlfriend ended up with all of the duds. Nonetheless, we had a nice time. I would go back if i felt like blowing lots of time and money.
Sadly, the beachcomber doesn't serve on sundays or mondays, so we missed it. We tried the Manatee Cafe for breakfast instead, but were disappointed. This hippie cafe has a very limited menu and the food--- although well intentioned (organic, etc) is not always well thought out. The breakfast burrito is more of a taco or wrap, and is a train wreck of ingredients: eggs (or tofu) with sweet potato, avocado, bean sprouts, and more. The accompanying grits were swimming in margarine and spiked with garlic. Egads! The menu should warn you that the grits have been adulterated. I was hungry again in an hour. My companion had a peanut butter and banana sandwich. It worked, but was not the hearty breakfast we were looking for. This cafe needs to add some food for hungry non-hippie folk. Everything seemed so self-consciously healthy and great taste had fallen by the wayside, at least for breakfast.
We had a light late lunch at A1Alehouse. Their beers were nice, and the hummus was a tasty, huge portion. The roasted veggied (zucchini and red peppers) were appreciated. The cheese and ale soup was very good and not too thick or heavy, especially nice with the brown bread. The mixed lettuce salad (with mustard vinaigrette, raisins, pine nuts, and gorgonzola) seemed to have something missing.
We had dinner at the Columbia just before it closed at 9pm. I find it hard to believe this town goes to sleep so early. We had such a nice time at the bar the night before, we returned. Half of the town had already shut down.... yawn. Spanish bean soup, 1905 salad, scallops and shimp apps were all excellent, cooked perfectly. Of course, the toasted Cuban bread was tops. But something was amiss in the kitchen. The calamari was not cooked enough and arrived lukewarm. Our server had spilled half of the order while struggling with so many plates, but the newly-cooked half order was much better. The deviled crab croquettes were okay, but lacked panache. The worst disappointment was the snapper alicante, which was not properly adorned with almonds, eggplant, or shrimp. The kitchen had apprently run out, and replaced the eggplant with empanadas and the shrimp with chicken fingers(!). Furthermore, the dish, which featured a great piece of fish, had simply not been prepared properly. It is one of my faves, but lacked flavor. We were served the "good rice" because they had ruin out of yellow rice, but the good rice was far too salty. They shouldn't have served the snapper dish at all that night. We agreed to the substitutions, but should have just changed the order. I've had a great many excellent meals at the Columbia in Tampa. This meal began wonderfully, but ended on a bad note.
If we thought things were sedate sunday night, monday morning was a rude awakening. After searching in vain for a good breakfast, we went to Gypsy Cab Company and enjoyed a very good, reasonable lunch. The chicken enchiladas special was quite good, and the cheeseburger was good as well.
After a couple nights in the oldest city, we were very happy to return to Tampa, which has a pulse after dark and isn't so dumbed down for wholesome middle american tourists. I confess i felt like throwing bottles in the St. Augustine streets, felt like breaking into the cemetaries, which always seemed closed, felt like hijacking a trolley and raising a little hell, felt like shooting bottle rockets down the outdoor mall that is St. George street. It sure feels like the oldest city, but aside form the Castillo, doesn't feel very historic.