The Jacaranda used to be Sanibel’s late-night hangout.
Back in the days of Morgan’s Rain Forest and McT’s, the dark and cozy Jacaranda served as the island’s after party. It was where cooks and servers gathered following their shifts, the latter flush with cash tips, the whole lot jonesing for a stiff drink.
The 2000s weren’t especially kind to the place. Sanibel moved on, but The Jacaranda stayed put, a time capsule of trellises and tropical carpeting. The menu got stuck, too: nut-crusted fish, rice pilaf, prime rib with Yorkshire pudding.
It’s not that it was bad. It was just — outdated, stifled, stale, take your pick. But now, now it’s the opposite.
The Jacaranda turned into The Jac in June, when owners Eve and Alex Alves bought the restaurant. They’ve transformed the place into something airy and light. Grays and whites wash over the all-new dining room, with rustic details — crates of wine glasses, barn-style doors, cute jars of succulents — giving the space a homey feel that tricks you into thinking it might be a casual restaurant.
And I guess it is, in a Sanibel-way.
There are burgers, tacos and a grouper basket, sure, but the best of this menu is far pricier, far more creative and far more tantalizing. And it’s owed to the guy leading the kitchen.
The Alveses hired Chef Phillipe Schroeder for that task. A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco, Schroeder cut his teeth working as a line cook and then bread manager at Jeffrey’s, an iconic fine-dining restaurant in the heart of Austin, Texas.
At The Jac, he’s brought a young and modern sensibility to the menu. His palate is worldly, his technique is solid. And he takes risks — a trendy but perfect cauliflower steak, for example, brightened by golden raisins and a soy-mustard vinaigrette — that more often than not pay off in spades.
Schroeder showcases his pastry talents by scratch-baking the baguettes for his sandwiches and rolling all The Jac’s pastas by hand. His gnocchi, tender puffs of rice flour and potato, have a lithe chew about them that’s wholly addicting. And they’re not even on the menu.
The dumplings are merely a component of another dish: the pan-seared mahi with shaved Brussels sprouts and oyster mushrooms in a lemon-wine broth. It’s a dish that’s been thought through from top to bottom, from the flaky meatiness of the fish to the light tang of the broth, to the earthy chew of the mushrooms, to those happy gnocchi hidden beneath everything else, like prizes in the world’s best cereal box.
Schroeder has a way with seafood.
He rubs his yellow snapper in chili powder before searing it hard in the pan. He tops it with a slaw of cilantro, jalapenos and cashews sweetened by jewel-like orange segments that glisten with ginger-spiked soy sauce.
Schroeder uses mascarpone to enrich his risotto, loading it with sweet lumps of crab and surrounding it with beautiful scallops, fat Gulf shrimp, mussels and ribbons of shaved asparagus. In another take on shrimp, Schroeder slakes them in buttery, garlic-laden hot sauce and serves them with wedges of his house-made focaccia, a bread so airily perfect I could have wept.
The chef has a way with everything, really. The burrata, the ridiculously creamy burrata, was equally tear-inducing, puddled with peppery olive oil, and served with roasted heirloom tomatoes, a tomato coulis and more of that fine bread. And then there was the pork belly, first smoked (God bless Texas), then seared till the skin went chewy-crisp, while the insides still wobbled with melting, delicious fat.
I could go on (tri-tip sliders on Schroeder’s brioche buns, grilled octopus in Japanese-chili sauce), but I haven’t even touched on the bar. The Jac’s cocktail lineup is as solid as the rest of the restaurant, laden with house-infused syrups, top-notch ryes, local rums and organic vodkas.
Its missteps have been minor. Grouper cheeks, delicate and lovely, felt wasted in a salty basket of fish and chips. A dessert of cold banana-bread bread pudding would have been far better warm.
During a late lunch The Jac was all but empty, and our server left us hanging a few times as he hurried to prep for dinner. Service was more efficient on a Saturday night, though the dining room wasn’t much busier.
It’s late summer, and with the algae disasters still looming, Sanibel’s a ghost town. But The Jac won’t be this quiet much longer. People will recognize the level of cooking taking place here, the skill of this talented chef.
The Jac may never again be a late-night hot spot, but it is already a culinary one that’s well worth a trip to the island.
* This report was originally posted on The News-Press. To read the full article, click here.