Dining Around the World without Leaving Gainesville
For those who love to explore the world, discovering authentic regional cuisine is woven into their adventures. Many even plan their destination around culinary tours or cooking classes that immerse travelers in traditional ethnic food preparation and local culture.
If time or budget is cramping this year’s travel plans, there’s plenty of delicious research to be done at home. Gainesville’s ever-emerging international restaurants each offer unique menus and ambiance reflecting its cultural roots. While sharing a love of international cuisine, these restaurants also embrace the Gainesville community. As residents, they have become eager to partner with local organic farms, bakeries, breweries and coffee roasters.
Begin planning your next foreign excursion now by eating around the world without a passport — or leaving Gainesville for that matter. The first downtown Gainesville stop on our international dining tour is Japan for traditional ramen, sake and a surprising taste of Japanese-crafted fine whiskeys. Just steps away, you can enjoy a quaint French bistro with selected regional wines and beers. Venture about a mile north, up Main Street, and you will discover a Gainesville dining secret that can transport you weekly across Europe, through the Mideast and into Africa.
Ramen – Japan’s Comfort food
Crane Ramen, Gainesville’s first craft ramen restaurant features traditional delicate broths. Whether chicken, pork or vegetarian-based, the broths all are house-made and slow-cooked around the clock in large pots to create five signature ramen bowls; shio, shoyu, miso, paitan and tonkotsu. Ten otsumami dishes — think Japanese tapas — are also hand crafted. Gyoza, steamed buns and kimchi roasted brussels sprouts are a few of these small plates meant to pair with drinks.
Simply put, ramen is the Japanese version of hearty chicken soup for the soul that, in a way, might be considered the country’s fast-food. Though, there’s nothing fast about the fine art of creating distinctively flavored ramen, restaurant founder Fred Brown explains.
It’s only served fast, as ramen shops are found literally everywhere in Japanese cities. Business executives and other commuters may even dart into one at a train station to spend 15 minutes having a hot, hearty lunch to sustain their long work day.
“For me, ramen provides spiritual, emotional comfort as well as physical nourishment,” says Brown.
Located on SW 1st Avenue in downtown Gainesville, Crane Ramen first opened December 2014. Brown credits his parents’ appreciation of fine food for his lifelong love of international cuisine. Growing up in south Jacksonville, he recalled when the automaker Mazda helped create a new hub there to import its cars into the United States. With an influx of Japanese executives, soon a family-owned authentic Japanese restaurant followed and he discovered his love of Japanese cuisine.
Now, at his Gainesville restaurant, Brown’s team incorporates traditional ramen techniques and local ingredients to create ramen that is unique to Gainesville. White hanging crane banners and colorful murals balance the open kitchen with a custom-built seated bar, transforming the small restaurant into a traditional ramen shop where casual diners enjoy a touch of elegance. Properly set tables and high-tops, soft lighting and contemporary music complete your journey to another culture.
“You may not feel like you are in Asia, but maybe a more urban center somewhere far from Gainesville, like New York or San Francisco.” says Brown.
He sees the rise in quality restaurants in the city as a promising sign that Gainesville that is truly evolving its culinary culture, and hopefully, will become a recognized city that can attract highly skilled chefs.
Brown gained experience working in Gainesville restaurants and bars while working on his master’s degree in mass communications at the University of Florida. After graduation, he spent 15 years in New York City working as cook and a chef.
While living in NYC’s East Village, an ethnic ramen shop opened and Brown became a regular. Named after Japan’s first public ramen restaurant, Rai Rai Ken, the Tokyo-style noodle bar featured ramen and small dishes. He had found his calling through his love of ramen. Rounding out his culinary training and restaurant experience, Brown decided it was time to bring authentic Japanese ramen home to Gainesville.
Dining in the French Alps
Rounding the corner on SW 2nd Street, you’ll think you stepped into a family-run bistro in the French countryside. You may even hear an accordion player who completes the international dining experience and cultural ambiance that accompanies French cuisine.
Alpin Bistro is named for the Alpine region where proprietors, Sita Marlier, originally from Paris, and her Swiss husband, Romain Challandes, first met. It is truly a family affair as demonstrated by random appearances of their twin 3-year-olds and teenage daughter.
The restaurant’s refurbished interior features an open, modern kitchen and seated bar area with minimalist stools, a few small tables, corner booth and a large, shared French farm table. The original gray-scale, geometric linoleum floors set the tone for the bright, unpretentious, hip interior design – all built by the couple themselves before opening just last October. Ducking through a side door, you will find a petite patio with small tables. Always thinking creatively, Marlier is considering showing classic French films one night a week on the patio in honor of her mom, a notable French actress in the 1960s.
Dining at Alpin is more like being invited by friends to drop by. Challandes is the head chef and Marlier, the dessert chef, and their kitchen is central to everything. They also offer breads made locally from the Vine and bakery items from a local wholesale bakery, BakerBaker that supplies select coffee shops and other small Gainesville restaurants.
“All of our cooking happens right in the front of our restaurant. People are surprised to learn that we don’t have kitchen somewhere in the back.” laughs Marlier.
As their slogan, “Imported delicacies paired with local goodness,” implies: assorted chocolates, cheeses, meats, wine and beer are imported weekly, and fresh produce comes from local farms. A menu staple, Croque Monsieur, is a hearty, grilled Gruyere cheese with ham sandwich. Definitely not your mom’s grilled cheese — it can also be ordered, végétarien. Order Croque Madame if you prefer an egg on top. Other traditional offerings include, quiche, savory tart and charcuterie – or sliced meats.
On Saturdays, brunch at Alpin features your choice of a variety of savory buckwheat crepes or sweet selections such as Nutella, chestnut or fruit jams. For something non-traditional, try an apple spice mimosa, or a black velvet, which is stout beer mixed with champagne.
Due to the restaurant’s growing popularity, Marlier says they will be closed during Gainesville’s slower month in July to add a much needed second prep kitchen before the fall rush.
International Food in Gainesville – Dining from Europe to Africa
Gainesville’s most unlikely culinary metamorphosis occurred in 2009 when the historic Gulf Oil Building on NW 2nd Street emerged as Gainesville’s best-kept international dining secret — Civilization. It all began with the purchase of Terranova catering. To founding partners, Caroline Hines, Laura Nesmith and husband and wife, John Prosser and Ann Murray, it seemed only logical to create a casual dining venue to serve their handcrafted, locally sourced world dishes daily. Adopting a co-op-like philosophy, the restaurant materialized from a 1929 Gainesville trucking garage and railway depot.
A cash-only business, Civilization’s intercontinental fare has been an unfaltering success since its inception. The founders credit the care, skill and wholesome, fresh ingredients that go into every dish. They also attribute the restaurant’s success to their business philosophy of supporting sustainability and working with local farmers and businesses.
“I always feel like it’s such a complement when the restaurant is filled with people from many different countries and cultures,” Says Murray.
Favorite family recipes, libraries of cookbooks and a collection of authentic herbs and spices are key to creating the restaurant’s world inspired fare. Some traditional dishes require very specific ingredients.
“To make authentic injera bread, for example, we use teff flour, which is made from an ancient grain native to Ethiopia,” Murray says. Each week, Worldwide Wednesday features recipes from countries around the globe, including ethnic cuisine from regions across the United States. Aaron Walker, one of the restaurant’s cooks loves the opportunity to explore his vast library of recipes. This is a sampling of international dishes you might enjoy on any given Wednesday night, right here in Gainesville:
- Trinidad – Callaloo soup, fried curry flatbread and king snapper
- West Africa – Berber spiced pumpkin soup, black eyed pea fritters with harissa aioli, and chicken and okra stew
- Montenegro – Chicken and Mushroom soup, griddled spring onion on crostini topped with goat cheese, and red peppers stuffed with ground beef, rice, ginger and sun dried tomatoes served with braised cabbage and mashed potatoes
- France – Lentil soup with a leek and fennel, sun-dried tomato on brioche, topped with goat cheese, and shrimp and clams tossed in a spicy tomato broth with fried Yukon potatoes and topped with roasted red pepper and lemon aioli
Perhaps, most of all, the small Gainesville restaurant’s secret to success lies in a belief in its workers who contribute to every aspect of the business. Unlike traditional corporate management, Civilization is proud of its democratic operations, holding monthly member meetings with shared responsibilities and decision making.