Chefs in the land of corn bread and jambalaya are experimenting with new flavors and preparations—and that's a good thing
*-By JJ Goode
-Photographs by Juliana Sohn*
Cochon includes a restaurant that makes liberal use of cracklings.
The charm of southern cuisine used to be its unabashed celebration of the past. Cooks fried chicken in seasoned skillets, patiently stirred roux for deep-dark gumbo, and made biscuits from recipes that hadn't changed in generations. But eating Dixieland fare no longer has to feel like going back in time: An ambitious bunch of chefs from New Orleans to North Carolina are reinvigorating the classic menu, embracing local ingredients and small farms, reimagining regional specialties, and hauling endearingly stodgy dishes into the 21st century—lard and butter still included. There's never been a better time to tour the four culinary capitals of the New South.
Talk about bad timing: Chef Allison Vines-Rushing and her husband, Slade, left the successful Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar in New York and opened Longbranch, an hour from New Orleans, just weeks after Katrina struck. That restaurant closed, but they've come roaring back with MiLa. Vines-Rushing's signature deconstructed oysters Rockefeller shares the stage with other smart expressions of local flavors, like foie gras terrine in a pepper-jelly sauce and a pork chop with turnips and "pot liquor" sauce—a play on the tasty by-product of cooking greens. [817 Common St., 504-412-2580; milaneworleans.com]
At Cochon in New Orleans, even the pickles (opposite) are homemade.
No one is going to expect subtlety from a restaurant named "pig," but Donald Link manages to surprise you. Though his Cajun-inspired food is a tribute to flavor and fat—the guy crowns pulled-pork patties with cracklings and tops toast with pepper jelly and fried rabbit livers—his skill at achieving balance means his creations are never so rich you can't clean your plate. If you don't score a reservation in the buzzing dining room, head to the butcher shop next door, where Link and his co-chef, Stephen Stryjewski, sell house-made boudin and a superior muffuletta. [930 Tchoupitoulas St., 504-588-2123; cochonrestaurant.com]
Chefs are giving love to both high-end dishes, like the slow-poached egg at August in New Orleans.
Even as John Besh expands his empire—he has four restaurants and another on the way, a line of commercial sauces, and a list of TV appearances that rivals Bobby Flay's—his flagship restaurant remains one of the city's best. Born and raised on the bayou, Besh injects thoughtfully prepared haute cuisine with southern charm, spooning blood-orange-and-crawfish ragout over slow-roasted pork belly and pouring ham-hock consommé over an egg that's been slow-poached—for two hours at precisely 141 degrees. [301 Tchoupitoulas St., 504-299-9777; rest-august.com]
CLASSIC: K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen
Thirty years after Paul Prudhomme opened K-Paul's, which helped make New Orleans an international culinary destination, a lot of his dishes seem almost comically frumpy. Pork chops are stuffed with three cheeses and doused in red-wine sauce. Sun-dried tomatoes are everywhere. Yet a meal here (now crafted by executive chef Paul Miller)—particularly one composed of NOLA classics like blackened drum fish and shrimp étouffée—demonstrates exactly why people loved this stuff before they decided they knew better. [416 Chartres St., 504-596-2530; chefpaul.com]
After-work revelers in suits snack on deep-fried pickles and sip bar genius Greg Best's Coca-Cola and amaro cocktails on cushy stools. At tables, hand-holding couples share champagne and toasted brioche topped with house-made crème fraîche and caviar from Georgia's Altamaha River. The something-for-everyone spirit is courtesy of the chef, Linton Hopkins, who lets loose on the menu, serving Japanese-inspired yellowtail cheeks with yuzu sauce right alongside striped bass with gnocchi and blue crab. [2277 Peachtree Rd., 404-355-0321; restauranteugene.com]
Shrimp and grits are a classic pairing, but the husband-and-wife team at Quinones in Atlanta turns to squab instead of the crustacean for a dish topped with chanterelles and consommé.
Bacchanalia and Quinones
When Anne Quatrano and Clifford Harrison opened the tasting-menu-only Quinones downstairs from their acclaimed flagship, Bacchanalia, in 2005, they solidified their restaurant's position as the South's answer to the California culinary mecca French Laundry. The à la carte meals upstairs and the 10-course feasts below all show love for Georgia ingredients (including those grown on the couple's organic farm). Plenty of diners swear by the airy, sorghum-sweetened bread pudding and squab with grits in ham-hock consommé, but it's the crab fritter in a sauce infused with Thai chilies that would have Thomas Keller taking notes. [1198 Howell Mill Rd., 404-365-0410; starprovisions.com]
The pimento grilled cheese at Watts Grocery in Durham
When your fried chicken draws comparisons to that of poultry master Scott Peacock, you're doing something right. When people start whispering that it's better, you damn near have to fight them off with a drumstick. Besides that crowd-luring recipe, Ford Fry, the aptly named chef, whips up flavor-packed food like bacon-wrapped Georgia trout with heirloom Carolina rice cooked in corn milk and an arugula-apple salad flecked with country ham and caramel corn—a combination you'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the country. [1198 Howell Mill Rd., 404-355-2252; jctkitchen.com]
CLASSIC: Busy Bee Café Busy Bee Café doesn't look like much, with its worn brown booths and bright-yellow walls that try in vain to convey cheerfulness. But it's humming with people, and—once you take your first bite—you'll be euphoric for days. The kitchen turns out expertly made soul-food classics like tomato-tinged meatloaf and smoked-turkey-infused collard greens, which are exactly what eating in the city of Gladys Knight, Morehouse College, and Martin Luther King Jr. demands. [810 Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. SW, 404-525-9212; thebusybeecafe.com]
CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA
Chicken and waffles get a makeover at McCrady's in Charleston, where Sean Brock uses foie graschicken-liver terrine.
George Washington may have eaten upstairs at this 18th-century social club, but to Sean Brock's credit, McCrady's feels anything but old-school. The native Virginian merges two very current culinary obsessions: farm-to- table food (he runs a farm—by himself—that stocks the restaurant kitchen with produce and pigs) and molecular gastronomy. The resulting food is always playful but never descends into wackiness: Think a square of chicken-liver pâté on top of a waffle, and General Tso's sweetbreads with broccoli purée and a rice ball fried in pork fat. [2 Unity Alley, 843-577-0025; mccradysrestaurant.com]
Baby-faced chef Aaron Deal looks like he should be stumbling down King Street looking for another place to test his fake ID. But the 26-year-old rising star tinkers with southern flavors like an old hand, turning country-ham bones into an intense jus that he serves with striped bass and concocting the perfect she-crab soup capped with parsnip froth. His youthful exuberance shines through, though, especially in his seared duck breast over red beans that have been spiked with molasses, bacon, and OJ—a cross between duck à l'orange and pork and beans. [55 South Market St., 843-534-2155; tristandining.com]
At fig in Charleston, radicchio gets an upgrade with shrimp, vinaigrette, and a pancetta chip.
You could call Michael Lata, leader of Charleston's culinary awakening, a professional shopper: His menu at FIG is a roll call of the area's best produce and proteins. But his cleverness in the kitchen takes the ingredients to the next level, bringing together wild shrimp and radicchio delicately wilted in a warm pancetta dressing and contrasting the meaty-yet-flaky texture of grouper with smooth mashed potatoes. Even Lata's richest dish, fried pig's feet with creamed corn, doesn't feel biscuits-and-gravy heavy. [232 Meeting St., 843-805-5900; eatatfig.com]
Nearly 20 years ago, Donald Barickman made the humble, seafood-focused Low Country fare seem worthy of a white tablecloth, and his food is still impressive. Plump crab cakes come with shrimp pirloo, a sort of regional rice pilaf that's rarely seen outside of home kitchens. Grits are served with lobster and scallops instead of the standard shrimp. You can even get a gussied-up seafood boil: a soupy heap of local shrimp and andouille with sweet corn and okra that the menu cheekily calls bouillabaisse. [185 East Bay St., 843-577-7771; magnolias-blossom-cypress.com]
THE TRIANGLE: RALEIGH, DURHAM, AND CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA
The pimento grilled cheese at Watt's Grocery in Durham
New rule: A chef's aptitude should be judged by her pimento cheese. Amy Tornquist's version—which contains, as your waitress might explain, three cheeses, bourbon, and "maybe some mayo"—gets the grilled-cheese treatment at the lunch hour. Its profound tastiness heralds the more elaborate but never fussy food served after dark, like deep-fried boudin balls with sunchoke pickles and a bubbling one-pot meal of rabbit-and-sweet-potato dumplings. Now if only Tornquist would serve pimento cheese at dinnertime. [1116 Broad St., Durham, 919-416-5040; wattsgrocery.com]
Andrea Reusing of Lantern in Chapel Hill might cook decidedly Asian dishes—like kimchi that's served with braised short ribs and a sweet-potato pancake—but she uses only local ingredients.
Finding great green curry in the South is like finding serious gumbo in Vermont—which is exactly why Andrea Reusing's cooking is so revolutionary. She doesn't just toss around soy sauce and Kaffir-lime leaf but rather cooks through-and-through Asian food with ingredients obtained from farms just miles from Chapel Hill. Locals freak out over the Harkers Island scallops in a pool of pungent house-made XO sauce and fork-tender braised short ribs accompanied by a sweet-potato pancake and kimchi, and so would the people of Burlington. [423 West Franklin St., Chapel Hill, 919-969-8846; lanternrestaurant.com]
Most of the Triangle's restaurants have a college town's jeans-are-fine informality, which makes Heron's, the spot attached to the Umstead Hotel and Spa (a 15-minute drive from Raleigh), an outsider. The stuffy décor is two parts lounge mixed with one part boardroom, but the new chef, Paul Kellum, skillfully walks the line between fancy and lighthearted, making humble ingredients haute (like the grits soufflé he serves with grouper) and giving the loftiest elements an everyday feel: His take on biscuits and gravy is a diminutive buttermilk biscuit with chicken-fried foie gras. [The Umstead Hotel and Spa, 100 Woodland Pond, Cary, 919-447-4200; heronsrestaurant.com]
CLASSIC: Crook's Corner
Opened more than 25 years ago by Bill Neal, an early champion of hush puppies and spoon bread, Crook's manages to glorify the region's iconic foods while dodging pretense entirely. Locals knock back bottles of Cheerwine, a beloved soda made nearby, as they dig into hoppin' John (a bacon-imbued dish of black-eyed peas and rice) and the place's rightfully legendary shrimp and grits. For dessert, order a dish of bacon-enhanced butter-pecan ice cream. Then order another. [610 West Franklin St., Chapel Hill, 919-929-7643; crookscorner.com]