Chef Kevin Sbraga has his fair share of credentials. With 12 years of experience, an award in the Bocuse d’Or USA culinary competition, two successful restaurants in Philadelphia and most notably, placing first on Bravo’s Top Chef: Season 7, Sbraga has much to brag about. But don’t let his impressive resume fool you. Chef Sbraga’s new restaurant, Sbraga & Company, offers simple, locally inspired food that will feel as unassuming and unpretentious as mom’s does … so long as your mother happens to make really, really good food.
Served family style, Sbraga and Company looks more like a dining room than a restaurant. Long, wooden farmhouse tables are sectioned off in private rooms designed to create an intimate and communal atmosphere. Open bar tops are placed directly in front of busy chefs, deflating the kitchen barrier between cook and customer.
A must-have starter is the breadboard, with biscuits, corn bread, soft pretzels, churned butter and fennel jam — all baked fresh in the open bakery.
Another top choice is the kale salad, made with pecans, bleu cheese and hot mustard dressing. Grilled Octopus should make the rounds as well, served with hot okra, field pea salad and a slightly spicy finish.
For the main dish, there’s a choice of Whole Striped Bass, Country Captain Fried Chicken or a Smoked Meat platter with pork shoulder, beef brisket and chicken wings. Sides are individually ordered, including turnips, smoked bacon potatoes or grilled cauliflower. Chef Sbraga doesn’t mess around with BBQ, keeping it savory, tender and wholly traditional.
Sbraga said he was inspired for the menu during his second trip to Jacksonville when he visited the farmer’s market on Beaver Street. He was impressed by the variety of locally grown fruits and vegetables, including boiled peanuts, snap peas and watermelons that, “looked like torpedoes.” His goal was to base the menu on his experience by, “focusing on the ingredients,” rather than an exploitation of style.
Sbraga said that his own family dinners growing up have influenced him to make the homey style presentation. At his house, “it was all about the sides.” Sides, which to him, could turn unappetizing vegetables into the best part of the meal.
Bridging the gap between fine dining and familiar can be challenging to balance. Guests want to recognize what they are eating, but want to be surprised as well. By channeling the culinary culture of Jacksonville, with homage to tradition, Chef Sabraga manages to surprise by showing us what Jacksonville tastes like at its roots.