words by Damon Noisette // photo by Agnes Lopez
"Business turnaround king” Marcus Lemonis and his CNBC show The Profit featured Jacksonville-based Sweet Pete’s Candy Company in an April 2014 episode that ended with Lemonis and former Peterbrooke confectioners Pete and Allison Behringer joining forces and planning a move to Downtown.
Eight months and more than $3 million later, the 22,000-square-foot Seminole Club building, which sat unused since 2004, is now a candy factory, event space, and home to The Candy Apple Café & Cocktails. Restaurant owners Jennifer and Liz Earnest of Chef’s Garden and Ellen and Alan Cottrill of Millwork Design Studio have created a Southern and French fusion concept in a 95-seat dining room that has the vibe of a place where Dr. Seuss would meet Willy Wonka for afternoon drinks. The main entrance still has the Seminole Club’s original dark wood paneling, but the remnants of old Jacksonville stodginess disappear the second you take a left into the café.
The Buffalo Chicken Cracklin’ appetizer is all kinds of wrong (in the right way), with house-made blue cheese and buffalo sauce drizzled over flattened fried chicken skin. It was a table favorite, with one in our party likening the experience to ordering fried chicken but only eating the best part.
Our sautéed escargot ($10) appetizer was a genuine surprise, first for its existence on the menu and then for how attractive and satisfying it was. It came flawlessly prepared with a goat cheese-filled puff pastry and a large dollop of pesto that oozed little streams of olive oil.
Testing the Candy Apple’s Southern bona fides, another in our group ordered the buttermilk fried chicken ($9/$13), declaring the three large pieces a solid effort and a good value since she planned to take the rest home.
The brunch eater in our group went for two dishes, the Southwest crepe ($8) and bourbon pecan waffles ($10). His decision was a boon for everyone because we all took a forkful of his waffle before returning to our own plates somewhat reluctantly.
We were particularly pleased with the availability of half-portions, which made the entrée section of the menu more accessible for lunch appetites and budgets. I selected a half-order of the short rib meatloaf ($11/$16) entrée. It was the right choice because the brown butter whipped potatoes were so rich and creamy; any more of them would have spoiled my dessert, the crepes Normandy ($7). More like a slice of apple pie with layers of soft crust, they sat on a bed of cream large enough to join every bite. My companions split an almond dacuqoise torte ($8), which conveniently came in two pieces, either of which could have been delivered alone and been worth the price.
Sharing the details of our meals later that evening led to a number of friends insisting on grabbing a reservation for the next day. We arrived, again, at noon, lucky that the word wasn’t out yet.