Rebranding the Santa Rosa South Market into sister restaurant Bar515 Cocktails & Tapas this past summer was more than just a change in menu. It was a culinary experiment to use food as a way to bring people together.
Bar515 Cocktails & Tapas, located in the retail strip at 4495 Chumuckla Highway, began its opening process in June by slowly testing out its sharable menu items before securing them a permanent place on the menu. Even now, Executive Chef and General Manager Jason Brewer is still trying out new rotating specials to keep the dining experience fresh each time.
"I definitely think that we're catching on, we're growing and people are starting to see what we're doing and appreciate it," Brewer said.
Today, several months after opening, Brewer can see the vision he used to shape his small-plate menu come to life. Every weekend, groups of friends order a table full of small plates to snack on while spending the evening enjoying drinks and listening to live music. The menu notes that all items are designed to be shared across four people, with each person able to have a couple of bites.
With the spread-out courses, Brewer said the portion sizes make it possible to spread out a meal in phases. The tapas range in a variety of flavors, but all average out to be about $10. They include hand-cut truffle fries ($8), Grecian meatballs ($11), sesame ahi tuna ($11) and jerk shrimp ($8).
Brewer crafted the small plate menu using a combination of secret recipes and skills he has accumulated in the past 25 years as a professional chef. But he is quick to add in new specials during his frequent spells of inspiration.
Brewer said he has learned something new at each place he has worked, both in Pensacola and in New Orleans, where he worked under world-renowned celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse at Delmonico Steakhouse.
While in New Orleans, Brewer explored other realms of fine dining, such as working at Gautreau’s Restaurant and Fortissimo Bistro and Deli. In Pensacola, Brewer was a chef at Dharma Blue early in his career and moved up to run the kitchen as executive chef at Skopelos at New World before joining Bar515.
"I have had the honor and privilege to have cooked for and met a lot of celebrities over the years," Brewer said.
Making his experience in fine dining fit into an "upscale comfort food" atmosphere seems like it would be a challenge to many, but Brewer said the different cooking experiences he's had all go together.
In one of his signature "composed plates" at Bar515, or chef's entrée with pre-selected sides, the main dish is prepared using an original recipe he has held onto for the past 20 years.
The signature sauce, Creole cream, came from playing around with different flavors while in New Orleans. It is now a staple menu item served each night with his blackened redfish, mashed potatoes and roasted brussels sprouts for $26.
Some of the newer recipes he has toyed with, like the chargrilled duck breast served with a homemade whiskey fig compote and goat cheese, were not planned when the restaurant opened. He figured it would be worth a try as a special to start, and now it's a best seller on the permanent menu.
Out of all the different menus rolled out in sequence, brunch became the last to finalize.
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Brewer said he knew there were some items that had to make the menu, like an eggs Benedict, but didn't want to have the same version as everyone else. Instead, he created a braised pork shoulder Benedict.
The creation he came up with starts out on a bed of fresh biscuits with slow braised pulled pork shoulder, topped with poached eggs and Bearnaise sauce for $17.
The menu became a compilation of twists on brunch classics with his culinary fingerprints all over it, such as offering Creole beef grillades, pain perdu and biscuits with Andouille sausage gravy.
Room at Bar515 is limited in the 2,500-square-foot space, also reducing the amount of available food storage. Because of this, Brewer said 99.8% of menu items are made completely from scratch using fresh ingredients.
Despite the smaller space, Brewer said he hopes to continue to bring in new customers from the Pace community to give the spot a try. A Pace High School graduate himself, Brewer said he never imagined Pace would grow into the developing neighborhood it is today. He said he is proud to help create a space to bring people together over a meal.
"Our customer-base has grown so much. (I'm) proud to be able to give back to the little town that I grew up in. There was nothing here when I was a kid," Brewer said. "I remember where the Winn-Dixie used to be a field and a house out on the corner, where Walmart is used to be all woods. … I never thought that this would be possible out here."
Bar515 Cocktails & Tapas is open from 4 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday through Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 to 10 p.m. Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. Seating is available on a first-come, first-served basis with no reservations. More information and updates on specials can be found on the Bar515 Cocktails & Tapas Facebook page.
This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Bar 515 Cocktails & Tapas serves up small plates and specialty drinks