CSt. Bistro opened its doors less than two months ago, but it already feels like chef and owner Paul Becking has been cooking in Jacksonville for years.
Customers on a recent Friday filled the small space, waiting outside in drizzling rain until tables became available or taking food to go if dining in didn't look likely. But the ambiance never seemed overwhelmed as Becking effortlessly navigated the bustle, cooking behind one side of the counter, waiting tables on the other and accepting compliments at every turn.
It comes as no surprise that this isn't the 37-year-old restaurateur's first rodeo. Becking was part-owner and executive chef of Elements in Santa Barbara, Calif., featured on a Food Network episode of "Giada's Weekend Getaways." He moved with his wife to the Rogue Valley about two years ago to live nearer her family.
Instead of signing on with a bona fide eatery, Becking worked at The Butcher Shop in Eagle Point until he could run his own kitchen again. His relationship with The Butcher Shop is evident in C St.'s emphasis on burgers and pulled-pork sandwiches, both based on meat from locally raised animals. Six-ounce burgers served with roasted fingerling potatoes range from $9 to $12, pork sandwiches are $8.
Now that locally grown produce is hitting farmers markets again, Becking says he intends to use as much of it as possible. He's creating more opportunities by opening for brunch next week and dinner later this spring.
Locally foraged mushrooms are the centerpiece of one C St. panini, easily among the best restaurant sandwiches I've had in years. It's only too bad I didn't have the whole thing to myself. My colleague ordered the sandwich ($9) and magnanimously offered to swap half for an equal portion of my muffaletta.
Revisiting the menu after lunch, I pinpointed the panini's "je ne sais quoi": roasted garlic and Oregon truffle mayonnaise. Both flavors worked in perfect harmony with the generous portion of sauteed chanterelle, hedgehog and black trumpet mushrooms oozing with melted provolone and Gruyere cheeses.
Although not as impressive as the panini, my 6-inch muffaletta ($8) was just as it should be. Classic Italian deli meats — salami, mortadella and capicola — were married to melted provolone and Emmantaler cheeses, accented with crushed olives and giardiniera relish. Although the brined olives and vegetables can turn this type of sandwich too salty, Becking's struck the ideal balance.
Sandwich prices include a choice of side dish: cup of soup, housemade pickles or small portions of green or chopped Caesar salads. To complete the New Orleans theme, I selected the day's special oyster chowder.
I was a bit skeptical when Becking said he used canned, smoked oysters rather than fresh. But the small pieces of oyster weren't as prominent as I expected and complemented the more mundane flavors of potato, carrot and cream. My friend's salad greens were impeccably fresh and thoughtfully presented with honey-sherry vinaigrette.
Becking's studied take on brunch, including thyme-spiced waffles with duck confit and cheddar-green apple biscuits with bacon gravy, definitely will call me back. But C St.'s tiny dining room in the formerly short-lived Steam Engine and longer-running Country Cottage Cafe, may dictate a return in sunnier weather to wrest a table from Becking's already loyal clientele. The restaurant's street-facing patio area still is bordered by a white picket fence and populated with another few tables.
Inside, however, Becking cleared out the cafe kitsch and introduced a sophisticated black-and-white palette. A few topiaries and pig figurines factor into the decor, along with bookshelves boasting credible cookbooks and chefographies, like Anthony Bourdain's "The Nasty Bits."
At least Becking provides worthwhile reading material while we wait.
— Sarah Lemon