I typically shy away from the idea of reviewing restaurants for several reasons.
First and foremost, as someone who worked in the culinary field for 20 years, if I let my internal critic loose I would never enjoy a meal out. I learned a long time ago that if I wanted to relax and have a good time I was going to need to let some things slide. Hakuna Matata, man.
And if I were inclined to review a restaurant, I certainly wouldn’t suspect that I’d start with anything in Leesburg. I mean, let’s face it, a mecca of cuisine it ain’t. However, lately my Spidey senses have been detecting a low rumble of goodness coming from downtown Leesburg that I just had to see for myself to believe.
Ladies and gentlemen, one of the best restaurants in Lake County is located in Leesburg. I know what you’re thinking, but work with me here, and I want you to read the following sentence closely: “Citrus brined leg of venison paired with curry dusted BBQ boneless quail with sweet potato puree, house made ketchup and julienne of seasonal squash garnished with pea shoots and edible flowers.”
There I said it.
Turners Kitchen and Bar, located on 5th Street in the heart of downtown Leesburg, blew my socks off. I’ve been in the building before, it used to house the 5th Street Char House, and since that went away the spot has housed a few here today gone tomorrow ventures. Historically, it dates back to 1926 when it housed Leesburg’s only car dealership. In the 1940’s it became Turner’s Bakery and Cafeteria. In the 1960s, when Buck Turner took his bakery to the fancy new Palm Plaza on US 27, the building became another monolith to Leesburg’s history.
The inside of the space has been completely renovated – very tastefully. From the hostess stand to the large U-shaped bar into the dining area, the color palette is pleasing and muted. Everything looks fresh and shiny new, even the reclaimed barn-wood tables are highly polished and smooth, while retaining their historical look. In a cheeky nod to history, the new owners kept the name Turners but dropped the possessive tense and instead used it as a noun, like spatulas, which is reflected in the fiery logo.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that this restaurant not only offers farm-to-table ingredients, but that our server was well versed in where everything was sourced. The wine list is adequate – although pricey for the offerings. The beer list included the usual suspects, and a nice selection of craft beers.
This place is menu driven. They don’t take reservations, if you get there and it’s busy, you have to wait for your chance to dine. The hostess explained that the dishes they serve are very intensive to prepare so they would rather ask you to wait as opposed to slamming the kitchen. This is something that I appreciate, but may be a new concept to many locals used to “turn and burn” Outback-style service. This is a place where the artists in the kitchen take their time, you should return the favor.
The menu is written very well. It has all the right words and catchphrases, and obviously has a wealth of experience behind it. The tuna entrée was a considerable portion and cooked perfectly rare, as requested. It was topped with several petit fried oysters and accompanied by the ubiquitous house made sweet potato ketchup which proved to be delicious on everything. The presentation was elegant and high off the plate, providing depth and drama.
The Crab + Grouper Napoleon was also stacked atop an oatmeal risotto – and towered off the plate surface. The apple chai rum butter sauce on that dish was subtle, which I appreciated because done improperly it would have dominated the meal, instead of setting off the sweetness of the seafood. Turners actually employs two separate grills, one at each end of the line, one dedicated solely to the surf, while the other handles the turf. You will never get a fish flavored steak that way, another nod to Jack and Allison Braton’s desire to not just open a restaurant and serve some food, but to instead provide a total experience.
When I went back for lunch and saw the $5 Express Lunch Menu my heart sank. “Here we go,” I thought. Bring on the mediocrity. WRONG! My Braised Short Rib Sliders were to die for, the Chicken Salad on the croissant was obviously made from scratch, and the Black Eyed Bean Burger was excellent as well.
The Braton family relocated to Leesburg after Jack’s successful stint as a corporate restaurant consultant. It was his job to rehab failing restaurants into profitable and functional businesses. You can tell that he has seen enough of how to do it wrong because he is doing it right.
“I wanted to keep things sacred,” says Jack, and you can feel the reverence he holds for the plates that leave his kitchen. “The idea was to pull together all the factors; front of the house, the service staff, the food and the relationships with the vendors to strive to create new things,” says Braton. He hails from Beaufort, South Carolina and the low country influence is there, but it’s not overwhelming to the menu. Braton isn’t living in the past, he’s in the back of the house pushing the envelope, playing with food on the molecular level and dreaming up cuisine that will continue to fascinate his clients.
No RSVPs allowed however Turners does participate in the NoWait system, if you use that app.
Joe Runnels, Writer (email@example.com)