Talking wine and tapas with Managing Partner Chad Munsey and Chef Ian Lynch of Ovinté
1. Tell us about Ovinté.
Chad: It's a new style of dining that I call European style dining. Whether you're sitting on couches or at a table you order small plates of food to share with others. It then becomes about the experience of who you're with and the conversation you're having. Dinners aren't rushed - they're more likely to take 2 hours than 30 minutes. It's about the whole idea of how food, wine, and conversation bring people together. In a nutshell, we're a restaurant that serves tapas and small plates along with wine, cocktails and beer. About 50% of our dining is lounge style dining on the couches, which we have both inside and outside. The other 50% is more traditional dining tables. We have a big bar area as well.
2. What do you mean by European style dining?
It's the way meals are enjoyed in Europe. They're really long. Lunch can take 3 hours and be followed by a nap, with dinner at 11 o'clock at night, which can also be a 3 hour meal. It's about the experience, and not just rushing to eat. For us at Ovinté it's about creating an atmosphere that slows things down so people can enjoy their experience and the people they're with.
3. Where does the name Ovinté come from?
It's a word we made up that we wanted to represent a toast, similar to Opa! or Sláinte! that would capture the experience of raising a glass to being with good friends and having good conversation while also enjoying good food and good drinks. We later found out that it's a Portuguese slang word that means "goodness," which goes along with what we're doing.
4. Do people come for dinner or are they generally coming prior to dinner to enjoy some appetizers and a drink?
They absolutely come for dinner. We have three main ways that people come to Ovinté. Some people come for happy hour along with a small bite such as a cheese plate or a few tapas. We have other people who come for dinner. That's what we want to stress - we are a full restaurant, we're not just a wine bar with a couple of bites to eat. We also have people who come after they've eaten dinner somewhere else. We're open later than most places so a lot of people like to swing by to relax and enjoy a drink in the evening. People come to Ovinté because they want to avoid the nightclubs and the bar scene. We're more of a restaurant-lounge than a nightclub.
5. What do you mean by a "wine lounge?"
Chad: I coined the phrase because I didn't want to be known as just a wine bar. We wanted to let people know that we also serve cocktails, which are usually associated with a lounge rather than a bar. But we really want to be known just as Ovinté, and to let people add their own assumption after that. We can be a place to enjoy wine or a cocktail but we also have a restaurant side that serves really amazing, high quality food.
6. What's the difference between tapas and a small plate?
For us, our tapas are much smaller portions and they're designed to be shared. Our small plates are half portions of our entrées. The idea is that you can come in, share a few tapas with the table, then if you wanted you could order a small plate for yourself. That would be your meal. Where most restaurants will have a filet or fish that's 6-8 ounces, all of our proteins are 4 ounces. They're scaled back to keep the price point down but to also allow you to enjoy the tapas along with the small plate. This way you get to share and enjoy a wide range of flavors, rather than just having one thing.
7. Is there a particular style to your food?
Chad: I'd say it reflects a Spanish and Italian influence.
8. Are your wine selections and cocktails designed to complement your food offerings?
Chad: Definitely. Our wine list has about 225 items. 75 of those are available by the glass. 50 are available by the glass from the bar. Another 25 are available from our WineEmotion machine. I call it our adult vending machine - you basically buy a gift card that lets you dispense wine in 1, 2 or 4 ounce pours. That gives you a lot of options to try different things. After you buy the card it's a self serve option.
For cocktails we're one of the first in our area to focus on craft spirits for the cocktails we design. These are small batch, up and coming spirit makers. They're typically domestic, boutique distilleries that are making really fun, great bourbons, vodkas, gins and other things in very small batches. There's been a big movement in wines for a long time that focuses on smaller batch production. This is similar, but for distilled spirits. It's a little more hand made and creative. In addition to these we also have a full array of all the standard spirits.
Our beers include a number of craft beers. We have 4 beers on draft, including Intuition. Then we have a full range of bottled beers.
9. Who's the audience for Ovinté?
Chad: I'd say it's late 20's to early 60's. We have a wide range of people who come through the door. Our core crowd is going to be people who want to enjoy a nice atmosphere and good quality products. We also appeal to many people who want to enjoy their experience with a locally owned business rather than one of the larger corporately owned restaurants.
10. What attracted you to the St. Johns Town Center area?
Chad: There are 3 partners at Ovinté - myself and 2 other gentlemen. One of them owned the building and reached out to me a year and a half ago and asked if I was interested in helping him do something with the building space. Beyond having our own free standing building, the Town Center is, for lack of a better word, a juggernaut of business. It seems to be recession proof. There's a constant flow of traffic out here. We knew we were surrounded with corporate restaurants but we thought it was time for an independent to show up out here.
11. Can you recommend some of your food items that can help people understand what Ovinté is all about?
Chad: For anyone who's travelled to Spain or Italy and enjoyed the fun, flavorful dishes they have, that's the best way I can describe what we do. The fresh pasta, fresh fish and filet are all amazing and will give you a good sense of what our food is all about. For a pasta dish we have an amazing Pappardelle Bolognese. It is made with pork and veal which are simmered in our tomato sauce and served with our homemade Pappardelle pasta. For seafood you can try our Ceviche, which is made fresh every morning. In our tapas section we have a large Raviolo that's served with seasonal ingredients. Currently it comes stuffed with lobster.
12. Why did you decide to make your own pasta in-house? Many Italian restaurants don't even do that because it's so labor intensive.
Chad: It was Ian's decision to do it but for me I can tell you that once you'd had fresh pasta it's very difficult to eat dry pasta ever again because there's such a textural difference. It just tastes that much better. When I go to the grocery store I go to the refrigerator section and buy that really expensive, fresh made pasta, just because it tastes so different. It's much lighter and has a lot more texture to it. Ian describes his cooking style as "scratch to table." The only things we don't make are the cheese and the bread. Other than that everything else is made in-house.
13. What would you recommend to someone who's been a few times and is looking for something a little different?
We don't have anything too off the wall. We do have steak tenderloin tartare though. Some people order it thinking it's tuna tartare when it's actually beef tartare and is marked that way on the menu. For those who appreciate beef tartare I've had many, many people tell me it's the best beef tartare they've ever had.
What's unique at Ovinté are the portion sizes and the array of flavors you can experience. We wanted to do things that were different but we didn't want to scare people away. So, for example, our filet mignon is on a fried risotto cake with a mushroom cream sauce over top. It's things people are familiar with but maybe done in a different way.
14. Do you have any hidden menu gems that people don't immediately think to try but that you know are really amazing?
We have one called Bolsa D'Angelo, which is an angel purse because it's angel hair pasta that we do in fried wonton wrappers. In house we affectionately call them spaghetti tacos. It's a wonton shell that we fry like a taco shell and then we stuff it with angel hair pasta and a marinara sauce with lots of fresh herbs on top. At first people aren't sure about spaghetti in a taco, but once they have it the textures are amazing. The wonton shell is very light. A lot of people have told us that it's now their favorite thing on the menu and they're so glad they actually tried it.
15. What's the most popular dish on the menu?
Our sliders are incredibly popular. We call them 50-50 sliders. They're 50% ground beef and 50% ground Applewood smoked bacon. We grind both together, in-house to make the patties. They're really incredible. The Raviolo has also been incredibly popular. When we first opened we featured pumpkin Raviolo and with the change of season we switched to lobster Raviolo. That dish is extremely popular.
16. What's your favorite dish?
Chad: it depends on the day! Right now I'm loving our fish, which we call Pesche di Ovinté. The fish is always a whitefish but it changes depending on what's freshest and what the chef can get that morning. The sides are always the same though. Right now we're featuring roasted turnips, fava beans, grilled asparagus, oyster mushrooms and a sweet pea puree. I had that for dinner last night. It screams "Springtime!" to me and it's really, really amazing with tons and tons of flavor.
17. Have you had any dishes that have been wildly popular that you didn't expect to be that way?
Chad: I love Ceviche but I didn't know how people would react to it. That's been really, really well received. I'm not a big fan of dates so maybe that's why I was so surprised with the huge reception we've had for our dates that we stuff with Spanish Mahón cheese and wrap with Applewood smoked bacon. People buy them by the plateful. Everything else we knew about going in - things like the 50-50 sliders. The first time I tasted them I knew they'd be a big hit. Same thing with the Raviolo. They've been really big hits, but I wasn't as surprised by them as I was for the Ceviche and the dates.
18. Can you tell us about your brunch menu?
We've created about 8 items that are brunch oriented and added another 10-12 items from our regular dinner menu and combined those into one big menu. We've included things like our 50-50 sliders, the fish, our risotto, and some of our tapas items. The brunch menu has a bit more of a Spanish feel. For example, we have things like a breakfast tamale, which is a house made tamale filled with ground chorizo and with an olive-oil fried egg on top, then all covered with a tomatillo salsa. That's one item. We also do our version of Eggs Benedict. You can get your choice of smoked salmon or crispy Serrano ham. We do them on grilled bread as opposed to an English muffin. We also have steak frites with a poached egg on top. We have a 100% gluten-free pancake that's amazing. It's made with corn flour and ricotta cheese. It's fluffy. It looks like a whole wheat pancake and it's really good. We pride ourselves on calling out our gluten-free and vegetarian items all over the menu for both brunch and dinner.
19. Have you seen a lot of demand for gluten-free dishes?
Chad: I dated a girl for over a year who was celiac. I became very aware of gluten-free. She would ask a lot about gluten-free items before we went out. We found that a lot of the independent restaurants have a gluten-free menu. Because I realized how many people couldn't eat gluten, or chose not to, I wanted to make it a priority to show the gluten-free dishes on our regular menu. I didn't want people who were already struggling with eating gluten-free to have to ask for a separate menu. Sometimes they feel weird about asking. This way it's just out there. We've had a lot of people thank us for doing that. Because we make everything in-house, from our stocks to everything else, we can really stand behind what's gluten free.
20. Where do you like to eat when you're not at Ovinté?
Chad: Taverna San Marco and Orsay are great. I love both those restaurants. Taverna has been one of my staples for the last year and a half or so.
Ian: There are many great places around Jacksonville to eat but to be honest I would rather spend time with my family and eat a meal my Mom has prepared. I spend a lot of time away from my family so I cherish the time I get with them.
21. Ian, can you tell us about your background?
Ian: I was born in Denver, Colorado but spent much of my childhood moving around – living in beautiful climates like California, Ontario Canada and even in Hull, England. While most kids would deplore this much shifting around to new schools and cities, I embraced it – absorbing as much of each culture and cuisine as I possibly could.
Ian: I fell in love with cooking at the age of 10 while helping my mother and grandfather prepare holiday meals; learning first how to make their traditional holiday appetizer, and family favorite, p-rox. At university I studied Hotel and Restaurant Management then enrolled in Johnson and Wales University back in Denver to learn to be a Chef. The reason I became a Chef is definitely because of my mother. I loved to spend time in the kitchen with her growing up. Through university I landed an internship at the Bistro Aix in Jacksonville, working under award-winning chef Tom Gray. I worked my way up from an intern to Executive Sous Chef in a few years time, specializing in butchering, grill and catering functions. Following Bistro Aix, I spent time as a consultant, helping new restaurants establish their menus. I missed being in the kitchen though, so I returned to the scene with an Executive Chef position at the Chef’s Garden catering company, which led to where I am now as Executive Chef of Ovinté.
22. How would you describe your style of cooking?
Ian: It's what Chad called "scratch to table." I like to combine my global experience with fresh, seasonal and whenever possible, organic ingredients to create unique and tempting tapas. Over time my cooking style has evolved to a less is more type of approach. Use the best possible ingredients and enhance their flavors. Cook regionally. I try to create and or recreate recipes to make them my own.
23. What do you like most about being a chef?
Ian: I really enjoy cooking for a number of reasons. The main one is that instant gratification I get when I prepare something and our guests enjoy it. I get an incredible feeling when I see someone enjoying the food I have created.
24. Chad, can you tell us about your background? And for people who don't know, can you tell us what exactly a sommelier does?
Chad: In layman's terms, a sommelier is just a fancy French word for someone who knows something about wine. Basically it's a fancy word for the wine director. In our case it's the person who oversees the wine list and makes the decisions about choosing the wines we carry. I'm also responsible for training the staff on the wine list and keeping the wine list up to date.
25. How do you choose your wines?
Chad: For our list I fretted for months. I wanted to write a list that had a good number of wines that people were comfortable with - some brand names. I didn't want to create a list made up of oddball wines that nobody had ever heard of. Then, I wanted to mix in some wines that would be new to many people. That allowed me to steer them into a direction of trying something that might be outside their comfort zone. Within that I wanted to focus on Italian and Spanish wines because that was the inspiration for our menu. On top of that, Pinot Noir and Cabernets from California are always big hits so that was a natural focus for us as well.
26. Because wine is such a part of Ovinté do people come to you looking for wines they're familiar with or are they looking for something new and different?
Chad: I think it's probably 50-50. Most people assume that a place that prides itself on it's wine will carry things that are going to be pretty good. A lot of people have types of wine they like but with our many options by the glass they can experiment and branch out from what they like to new wines that they may not have tried before. I talk to people every night who ask to be walked through our wine list - I'm always happy to do that.
27. Are there any particular trends in wine today, for the regions you're focused on?
Chad: Pinot Noir is hot. It started with the movie Sideways years ago but it's still really, really big. We sell a fair amount of Italian wine, which I'm really excited about because it's one of my favorites. It also just goes so well with food. We're starting to see a lot more people try Italian wines with their dinner. They're getting out of their rut of California Cabernet. Pinot Noir and Italian wines are a big focus for us.
28. How did you become a sommelier?
Chad: There are a couple of different ways. There's an organization called the Court of Master Sommeliers that is a national group that conducts testing. There are 4 levels of testing to reach the designation of Master Sommelier - I've passed 2 of the levels so far.
29. What makes for a good sommelier?
Chad: If you ask 10 sommeliers you'll probably get 10 different answers but I personally think it involves listening to a guest and asking questions. My goal as a sommelier and as an owner of the restaurant is to get every guest the best glass or bottle of wine based on what they're conveying that they're looking for. If someone comes in and says they want a light, easy drinking red wine, I'm not going to point them in the direction of a Cabernet. A good sommelier asks the right questions and then listens to the answers in order to steer the guest to the right wine. I've met a lot of wine directors around the country who want to steer everyone to what they personally want to drink, rather than what the guest is looking for. I think it should be all about the guest.
…so, a sommelier isn't necessarily about being a wine critic…
Chad: Some would say it is and it's about having a discerning palate. For me, I've grown up in Jacksonville and watched it grow into a nice little wine town but when I first started people were afraid of wine. I wanted to break down the barrier to make wine less intimidating. I've always been fairly casual about how I talk to people about wine. I don't ever say one thing is better than another. It's all based on whatever that person likes. What I like may not be what someone else likes. In this market I think it's important to expose as many people to wine as possible.
30. What are some of the challenges of being a sommelier?
Chad: Sometimes it seems like everyone's a critic and you can't always please everyone. As we say in the industry, a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. You'll get someone who's read a few things and knows a little about wine and they can be the harshest critics, wanting to know why we don't have this or that on our wine list. I have to just bite my tongue and acknowledge that there are thousands and thousands and thousands of wines out there and it's not possible to have everything.
31. Are people, in general, becoming more knowledgeable about wine?
Chad: Absolutely! I've been in wine and restaurants in this town for 16-17 years and it's amazing what changes I've seen. People are becoming very savvy, and they know what they want. It's much less intimidating for many people. There's still people who are learning but the overall level of wine education is rising all the time.
32. What types of changes are you referring to?
Chad: Just in the level of sophistication and knowledge about wine that people have now.
33. What attracted you to Ovinté?
Chad: It's a concept that I've had brewing in the back of my head for years. When I sold my last business and moved to California I didn't even know that I'd ever be back in the restaurant business, but I said that if I ever do get back into restaurants I had this really cool concept that I'd want to try. I always knew that it would take an area with a lot of foot traffic. I never thought of the Town Center originally. Being able to realize my vision is what attracted me to Ovinté.
34. What did you do before Ovinté?
Chad: Directly before I owned a small wine wholesale distribution company based here in Jacksonville. Prior to that I lived in Santa Barbara and was the Director of Education in retail operations for the Foley group of wines. Bill Foley is the Chairman of Fidelity National Financial here in Jacksonville, which is how I met him through a previous business - I used to own The Grotto in San Marco. When Bill first moved to town we became friends, which is how the deal for California started. When I began with Bill he had 3 wineries. By the time I left he had 14.
35. Is there an educational aspect to Ovinté?
Chad: We've talked about it. We're new and so we're still getting a sense of who our audience is and what they want. We may do something in the future. We definitely want to hold some nice wine events. I'd like to parallel some of the events that are done in wine country and do them here. But that's in the future.
36. Have there been any big surprises launching Ovinté?
Chad: There haven't been any major surprises. My background has all been in Avondale and San Marco, so for me, learning the consumer market and trends in this area of town has probably been the biggest learning curve for me.
37. What are the main differences between the market in Avondale and San Marco and the St. Johns Town Center?
Chad: At the Town Center you get a much wider array of clientele. It attracts people from all corners of the city. Finding out the best way to introduce what we're doing to everyone is what I'm focused on.
38. What's next for Ovinté?
Chad: We'll continue to grow and do things here at Ovinté. We always need to keep working to get the word out. I think Jacksonville is the biggest small town around. Because Ovinté is so unique in what we do I will need to spend a lot of time on marketing and PR so that people can understand what we do and come by to try us out. Otherwise, we're already looking at the next project. My partners and I are working on a building downtown that we want to renovate into a cool restaurant. I'm working on the conceptual side of that now. We're probably a year and a half away but we're getting there slowly but surely.