Tallahassee, Florida’s culinary tastes are anything but pedestrian. From Ethiopian stews to Thai curries to a good filet of ostrich, the gustatory pickings are plentiful. I recently treated myself to a few meals in some of Tallahassee’s best restaurants to get a taste of the dining experiences and bold flavors only found here.
By six o’clock Masa, an Asian-fusion restaurant, was filled with the clinks of glasses and conversation from the bar to the outdoor seating under tall shade trees. With seating for 200 in the main room, plus two private dining rooms and Asian-latticed cubicles for couples, the atmosphere was exotic and young, but intimate enough for a second or third date.
At the long, polished bar, I drank Thai Basil sake as I watched six or seven chefs creating variations of more than 100 sushi choices—knives flying and concentration intense. My own concentration perked up when my starter appeared. Fried seafood shumai with delectably thick soy syrup primed my appetite for Masa’s specialty penang beef and grilled miso Chilean sea bass with mango salsa—each cooked to perfection.
Dessert, as usual, presented a dilemma, but at Masa it was more difficult than ever. Should I stay Asian fusion with a fried cheesecake roll or the green tea brûleé? Or, should I give in to the Deep South surroundings and order a piece of Dixie with the lusciously indulgent, bourbon pecan pie. I decided to let West meet East. I chose the pie and a cup of green tea, and I wasn’t sorry one little bit!
Clusters and Hops is one of Tallahassee’s most revered high-end dining locales, and it has a gourmet wine and cheese retail shop too. I walked through what at first seemed to be a tiny deli, but then I noticed the products on display were more refined than ham and turkey slices. Stocked floor to ceiling with truffle oils, esoteric cheese varieties, thick pates courtesy of ducks and geese, as well as a staggering array of more than 1000 wines from all over the world, I was actually in an artisanal shop.
Choosing a two-seater high-top from the nine tables inside, I chatted with a bartender only feet away while the white-aproned waiter tended to me like royalty. His recommendation of the truffle mac and cheese was pure heaven. But I veered from “down home” to “far away” with my next dish, a tender ostrich filet covered with slices of duck and topped with a crispy Parmesan wafer. For dessert, I indulged further with a hazelnut crème brûleé that had bacon crumbles dancing along the seared sugar top. Need I say more?
The perfect date night venue for couples or lunch spot for ladies, Sage sent a vibe of comfortable decorum mixed with culinary surprise. The al fresco dining was set just right with a wooden fence and wrought iron tables arranged under the swooshing leaves of mature trees. For this meal, I settled into one of the plush leather booths inside and gazed at the curated wall art, as the server poured my pinot grigio with one hand tucked behind his back.
I’ve had lunch here before and was torn between ordering one of Sage’s signature quiches, or the Gulf shrimp and andouille sausage etoufee. But tonight I wanted to experience something fabulous. I began with a country-made rabbit and pork terrine sparked with bright red pickled radishes. And then I spied the za’atar spiced Scottish salmon, which added a Middle Eastern flare with a mix of spices that included thyme and sumac, and the prosciutto-wrapped quail. Challenging choices, so I decided to treat myself by taking an entrée home for a delicious tomorrow.
When your palate craves expert attention, but you’re happy in your causal wear, think Liberty. With its industrial, open-ducted décor, the spacious dining room, bar and veranda had an inviting atmosphere, while its small plates and delectable sauces added that air of chef-driven restaurant elegance.
It was a steamy midday, and I wanted something light and fresh. My tall glass of pale ale was decidedly crisp. A series of tapas-like plates were a perfect complement to the beer and my light-eating mood. Scotch eggs were the first to arrive—softly poached and cradled within a lightly fried garlic-sausage outer sphere, all topped with mustard crema. Next came cornmeal-crusted oysters, lightly streaked with a smoked jalapeno remoulade, and right beside it the server placed a plate of cobia squares with a pineapple salsa over white beans. One more beer, please.
If first impressions are meant to dazzle, Nefetari’s vestibule does just that! Think Queen of the Nile, with a stuffed lion, purple walls and zebra chairs to boot! The menu was just as animated with its superb list of worldly dishes, from Ethiopian to Caribbean to Mediterranean, all made with organic, home-grown foods.
As I was shown to my table, I passed by the Queen’s Table, which is set aside for large parties. Tonight, a crowd was celebrating a birthday. Centered in the large room beneath a crystal chandelier, the gold and inlaid turquoise and coral table glittered with even more gold table settings and sparkling goblets. Regal thrones were at either end, and the birthday girl was commanding the table from her perch. While I wasn’t being seated at a throne, I would still eat like a queen.
I chose some spicy Thai spring rolls and an order of delicate lamb nachos. Undecided between an Ethiopian stew with authentic injera bread, Greek red snapper or the vegetable biryani, I opted for the more accustomed-to flavors of crab cakes and mushroom ravioli. Served with mustard aioli sauce, the paired crab cakes were enormous, fresh and delicious. I was still murmuring “Mama Mia!” about the ravioli, as I walked out the door with a to-go order of Nefetari’s over-the-top pistachio cheesecake. Alright, a double order, if you really must know!
There’s a whole world of dining to experience in Tallahassee, from award-winning fine dining to authentic regional cuisine.Explore local restaurants for new flavors.