Peter Dale at City Grit


When you serve good food on a big table you build a bridge to many things–family, fellowship, and friends to name a few. Tonight, City Grit built a bridge from New York all the way from Athens, GA.

Having moved to New York from South Carolina, I fancy myself an ambassador of my homeland. Sarah Simmons shares this passion with her creation of City Grit, a supper club in lower Manhattan dedicated to Southern food traditions.

So with two tickets in hand, I invited my friend Jeff for a taste of the South. Originally from upstate New York, he intends to move South. Has he visited? Nope, he just knows it’s that great. The family-focused, laid back lifestyle draws him in, but I wanted to show the food-focused life is worth the move, too.

Peter Dale, chef at The National in Athens, GA prepared a great 5-course meal, featuring his Ecuadorian heritage and Southern roots. We started with a New Year soup of blackeyed peas and amazing cornbread croutons. Cornbread croutons–brilliant.

Next, Peter stewed some amazing shrimp in a plantain sauce with peanuts (from Georgia, of course).

He gave a culinary shout out to my home state and the Palmetto Tree with an amazing beef tartare with hearts of palm. It was a close second to my favorite entrée, the chicken thighs with endives and a surprisingly refreshing orange marmalade. Definitely a new spin on chicken thighs for me.

But oh my word–the Carolina plantation rice pudding stole the show. The lady beside me phrased it perfectly: “It’s like rice pudding got in a fight with crème brûlée and they both won.”

The only un-Southern thing about this supper was I couldn’t go back for seconds, which I would have with rice pudding…multiple times.

Photography by Kley Sippel

Rhett House Inn

We all have attachments to our childhood. For some of us, the cravings or longings to return to the places of our youth are based on memories of families, seasons, friendships and first loves. For others, the wish to return home is founded on idealistic notions of a life we wished we would have had.

I fall into the first category. When I think of my home in foothills of the Smoky mountains, I get an overwhelming sense of belonging.  Nostalgia flows over me and I get lost in memories. In a more honest moment, I admit my intense love for the Palmetto State might be shaped by a wish for simpler times. Who doesn’t miss a life with fewer responsibilities, and a time before the realities that come with growing older?

But there is much more than memories for this historically rich, complex state.

I got a chance to go back home this past weekend. Not the upstate I usually call home, but a visit to the Lowcountry. The culinary super-fest,  Music To Your Mouth, was held in Palmetto Bluff.  My timing was a little late on booking accomodations at the resort so I thought I would make the most of it and book something in nearby Beaufort.

At the last minute, I came across the historic Rhett House Inn located in the heart of downtown Beaufort, just overlooking the water. It’s a beautifully restored Greek Revival antebellum home turned bed and breakfast. The property is surrounded by live oaks draped with spanish moss and resurrection fern. My favorite feature was the wrap around porch with the blue-painted ceiling.

We were greeted at check-in with a glass of champagne before being shown to our first floor room off the parlor. We hardly had a chance to put our bags down when were offered a plate of rich mini red-velvet cupcakes. This place was amazing.

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Before we rushed out the door that night, our host let us know that every evening guests of the inn were invited to the parlor for drinks around the fire. It looked so cozy but we didn’t have time. That is until we were stopped in our tracks with the quintessential Southern melt-in-your-mouth cheese wafers brought out warm from the oven. I couldn’t stop eating them and to be honest, I helped myself to more than my fair share over the weekend. They were so good in fact, I begged for the recipe before I left and they were kind enough to oblige.

The hospitality wasn’t limited to food and imbibing. It was so comforting to be back in a place where the words “y’all” and “honey” dripped off everyone’s lips. I felt so at home and felt the comfort of familiarity even though this was my first visit. This Carolina bed and breakfast is definitely on my “must stay” list.

Photography by Evelyn Laws

Music to Your Mouth

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Whoever first coined the phrase “you can’t go home” was probably in the middle of a long weekend at Palmetto Bluff, the setting for the 6th Annual Music to Your Mouth Festival (MTYM).

MTYM is a food festival to end all other food festivals.

It’s hard to explain the first time you enter the 20,000 acres that is Palmetto Bluff. The vast beauty of the conservation preserve filled with spanish moss and 32 miles of riverfront is breathtaking. Without a festival to attend, one could still get lost for days in the beautiful residential community with a resort spa and Jack Nicklaus signature golf course. And if being pampered or hitting the links is not your thing, there’s always kayaking, biking, and fishing.

Adding a weekend of culinary indulgence to this serene environment, and you’ll think you’ve gone to heaven. It’s hard to name another event that features so many of the South’s finest chefs in such a relaxed, approachable setting.

Sean Brock, Drew Robinson, Hugh Acheson, Chris Hastings, John Currence, Allan Benton, and Ashley Christensen were just a few in the all-star lineup. The James Beard Foundation and Southern Foodways Alliance were active participants with awards and showings of short films showcasing the legendary bourbon-maker, Julian P. Van Winkle, III and the godfather of pork, Allan Benton.

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Two days of bluegrass music created the perfect soundtrack to this Southern foodie weekend. But the best part, for me, was walking from table to table sampling the best in culinary creations while listening to interviews by John T. Edge and demonstrations by some of the finest chefs of the South.

Limited tickets meant no long lines, which is a good thing when you are transfixed by the smoked ham and cast iron skillets of bacon on Allan Benton’s table. Or when you’re being served a plate of Jim ‘n Nick’s perfectly smoked pork on white bread drenched in BBQ sauce and a couple of their divine cheese biscuits. Hungry yet? And since there was only a small band of Southern food worshipers,  finding a spot at fire pit to roast your gourmet s’mores was easy.

The MTYM folks got it right even more by donating a portion of every ticket to Second Helpings, a local organization set up to fight hunger.

From the potlikker block party to the oyster roast, the event was Dixie at its best. After all, a festival which sports a Bacon Forest and Game Day Beer Garden just takes things to another level, right?

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I survived the weekend of indulgence. My waistline wasn’t so lucky. But I have a year to work off the damage before next year’s Music to Your Mouth Festival!

Photography by Evelyn Laws

Cochon Butcher

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It’s website says it’s a butcher shop, a sandwich shop, and a wine bar. Sold. On our way out of town we decided that trying the little outpost under the same roof of Chef Donald Link’s fabulous Cochon, Cochon Butcher in the CBD, was just the eatery to help us bid farewell to the city and is the second restaurant that made in onto our MUST EAT list. No disappointments here, what with house-cured meats done in small batches, delicious ingredients, fantastic service (though not much room and very small tables), we couldn’t see a reason to leave this little gem off of one of favorite places we’ve been so far.

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The creative menu included the like pimento sliders and a homemade mac and cheese that made you want to slap somebody, and bacon pralines for goodness sake! I have to admit that our meal was nothing if not SILENT. All we could do was utter noises and look at each other with wide eyes glances that definitely should never be photographed as we inhaled our last meal. We tried the enormous Cuban, the to-die-for muffaletta, and the INSANE pork belly sandwich which all tasted great with the sweet potato hot sauce that they leave on the smallish bar size round tables and the homemade chips.

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We left with andouille, a souvenier gifted to us by a very engaging employee. He wasn’t the only friend we made though, there was this guy who was more the strong and silent type…

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Photography by Evelyn Laws

Mother’s Restaurant

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At first glance, it doesn’t appear that Mother’s, on the corner of Poydras and Tchoupitoulas, (pronounced Chop-a-too-less. Ok, then!) is worth giving a chance. You’d have to stop by and see the line for dinner or have heard the good rumors. Naturally, as luck would have it, we did just that and were pleasantly and abundantly surprised at how delicious our meal was, given the typical cafe style where you order and pay at the cashier, sit down, and wait for a server to bring the food to you. It’s definitely a dive, but it has remained a place where, almost any time of the day you can get a fabulous meal, sober or hung over. It’s a valid point, being in the French Quarter and all. From what I understand, it’s a place to be after a night out on Bourbon St.

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Ever heard of the term “debris?” Well, let me clue you in on a little secret. There is a new meaning to debris that I was not privy to before eating at Mothers and it is their term for the pan-bottom scraps of roast beef that have cooked in the drippings during the roasting process, and are put on everything from their biscuits to their grits to the crawfish etouffee omelet to the famous Ferdi Special. I will never, in my lifetime, be able to think about eating grits or biscuits without dreaming about them covered in debris. Ever. If only there had been more stomachs to feed at our table, so we could try everything on the menu! I think we rounded house, however, with just the two of us trying more than our fair share of the offerings at this family owned cafe that has been around since the 30’s.

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Photography by Evelyn Laws

NOLA

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After spending a night in The Big Easy getting acquainted with the interesting cajun concoction that is boudin, and basking in the glory of the historical and iconic Roosevelt Hotel, Susan and I were ready to get out and explore the visual and culinary richness on the banks of the mighty Mississippi.

I’m not really sure if there are enough words to describe this city in the fall….the fabulous food, introducing Susan to her first “Second Line” experience, the colorful architecture that seems to hold so many untold stories, and the joie de vivre attitude mixed with the cooler weather that lured me in, hook, line, and sinker!

Many a paragraph could be written about our 48 hours in the French Quarter, but suffice it to say we left feeling full in more than one way and refreshed beyond belief. The discussion on the way home, as you can imagine, surrounded talk about the next NOLA/South Louisiana escapade. Lucky for me, I’ll never run out of reasons to pass up a trip to this southern city, or run out of restaurants and festivals to write about.

Photography by Evelyn Laws

Boudin & Beer

How cool to attend a food festival called Boudin & Beer in none other than the Boudin capital of the world – New Orleans. Okay, maybe it’s not the capital of Boudin…probably more bourbon, beignets, or jazz. But wherever the origination of this Cajun speciality, the festival did the Crescent City proud.

I have to admit, I am no boudin connoisseur. I had never heard much about boudin other than its a Cajun sausage sometimes sold at gas stations. So, the draw to this festival was two things: I liked saying the name and the headline chefs were Emeril Legasse, Mario Batali, and Donald Link. Enough said.

My old Louisiana-born friend and SXNE photographer, Evelyn was quick to join me for the weekend of eating our way through good ole Nola. We hopped in her car and headed west. Our short road trip originated in Pensacola, FL. Nothing like having to evacuate to Florida to escape a hurricane headed for the Northeast (another post entirely).

Over 50 chefs participated in showcasing their boudin-making talents. It was a who’s-who of chefs from the South and across the country. Names like Mike Lata of Fig, Chris Hastings of Hot & Hot Fish Club, Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner, John Currence of City Grocery, Josh Laurano of Babbo, Dan Drohan of Otto, Tory McPhail of Commander’s Palace, andAlon Shaya of Domenica took the lead in crafting the best boudin I’ve ever had. It was a great way to spend an evening and help raise money in support of children’s causes.

Attending this event was a no brainer, but Evelyn and I hit the jackpot when we met up with the unofficial mayor of New Orleans, Julia Reed. She guided us through the tents of sausages, beer, and bourbon like a pro. We floated with ease from table to table as Julia greeted every famous chef like they were her long-lost cousin. Her Southern tenacious charm made it so easy to cut in line to get a refills on drinks. I don’t know that I ever want to do New Orleans without having Julia by my side.

Food and drink wasn’t the only attraction. The Francophonic sounds of the Cajun band Feufollet were greeting us as we walked in. They’re a group of young prodigies out of Lafayette, LA whose music pays homage to its traditional Cajun roots yet produces it with a new sound that attracts younger listeners. My 9-year-old is one of them. Their songs are in French and she doesn’t understand a word she’s singing but she belts them out. Her favorites are “Au Font du lac” and “Femme l’a dit”. I think the lyrics might be a bit dark for a little girl, but as long as she doesn’t know what she’s singing, right? You’ll find yourself trying to sing these all day long.

 

The other incredibly entertaining moment came when the 60-man group, 610 Stompers, performed for the rowdy crowd. This group of men, dressed as if they could have been Napoleon Dynamite’s brother, performed very memorable choreography to “I Need a Hero”. In fact, the hip thrusts are forever seared into my brain…and I kind of wish they weren’t.

By the end of the evening I didn’t have to look to Evelyn for pronunciation of the word boudin. Maybe it was practice or maybe it was bourbon. Probably both. Whatever the case, I was feeling pretty good about the way N’awlins and the super-chef community came together for a great cause.

Photography by Evelyn Laws and Susan Scarborough.

Highlands Bar & Grill

Every blue moon I’ll have a random night that just goes perfectly. All is content, the moment is chill, life is happy…such nights usually involve food and friends. They’re impossible to plan and difficult to recreate.

But Highlands Bar & Grill (Birmingham, AL) has a magical ability to create them every time I eat there. Between the great servers, local ingredients, and french-chic Southern atmosphere (yes, that’s possible), I understand why it packs out each night.

Last year I moved from Birmingham to New York, and my last night in the ‘Ham was one that just went well. A close friend treated me to my last meal, and though I told him pizza was fine he read my mind and drove to Highlands. Stitt’s magic went to work and the evening was a great celebration of friendship, food, and life in a city that had become home for me.

I’m sure the libations helped fuel the good times, but fellowship and food made it a great evening. Through several courses, we enjoyed some of Stitt’s best dishes. The oven-baked grits won the evening, though. They always do, and always will. Hands down.

It is genuinely worth the trip, flight and all, just to savor these grits. (Go ahead, book your flight here and make reservations here.)

Several months have passed since I left Birmingham for the Big Apple, and I only miss three places. Highlands is one of them, and while the friends made each night special, you can’t gather around the table unless there’s good food on it — Stitt and his staff always exceed expectations there.

If you can’t make it to Birmingham to experience Highlands firsthand, you can cook up some of Stitt’s Southern magic in your own kitchen.

Another good friend gave me Southern Table for my birthday (I have great friends) and I’ve cooked recipes from both from books. While you might have to plan ahead to have all the ingredients, the recipes are easy to follow for anyone who knows their way around a kitchen. The photos are great, too.

I obviously recommend making the oven-baked grits, and the pizza recipe makes a great Italian crust. Order Southern Table here and Bottega Favorita here.

A New England Fall

I have lived in New England for a better part of five years. After living in a one-dimensional climate in Florida for years, I’m thrilled to have all four seasons again.

This time of year takes your breath away in New England.  The vista on the back roads of Connecticut is vibrant and the skies are the truest blue. The chill in the air gives you a charge that lasts almost long enough to get you through winter. Halloween and Thanksgiving are just around the corner.  Football is on TV, soups are on the stove, and fires get lit for the first time in a year. Autumn in New England lives up to its billing and makes me nostalgic for a season I haven’t even experienced yet.

Photography by Evelyn Laws and Susan Scarborough.

Ole Miss Homecoming, Day 2

Before heading over to the Grove Saturday morning, we stopped by Bottletree Bakery.  We were warned that this popular pastry shop would be packed with locals and out of towners who all seemed clued in to what an amazing place this was. We were lucky to get a table but to be honest, I would have taken a to-go box of pastries outside to the curb.


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The apple brioche was to die for. And while the chocolate croissant was a fav with the kids, we all agreed the cheddar cheese biscuits filled with homemade sausage was worth every bite of cheesy, calorie-laden goodness. And don’t get me started about the famed strawberry humble pie.

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Service was fast and friendly from our groovy waiter. Really wanted his t-shirt.

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Knowing tent after tent of deviled eggs, BBQ and sweet tea would be greeting us in a couple of hours, walking around the Square, as a little shopping seemed like the thing to do.

We stopped in at Square Books’ main store and their two outposts, Off Square Books and Square Books, Jr., which are all located within a couple blocks of each other. I’m not surprised that three bookstores anchor the Square given the literary history of Oxford.

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By the time we made our way to the Grove, a sea of blue and red had already been pitched and BBQ filled the air. Game day television was on and the Ole Miss band was marching through on their way to the stadium. Winding our way through the crowd, we ran into Senators, old friends from Florida and legendary authors like Curtis Wilkie.

As if we hadn’t eaten enough already, my friend Evelyn and I couldn’t resist trying another of Chef Currence’s establishments, Snack Bar.

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Snack Bar has a much more relaxed vibe than City Grocery. In fact, it’s located in a strip mall. But once inside, the food and influence of @BigBadChef (John) takes over and you get lost in another culinary trip of unexpected twists on Southern food.  An unlikely combination of flash fried okra, peanuts, garlic and Indian spices was impossible to to stop eating.

Ole Miss Homecoming

This past weekend I enjoyed one of the most time-honored traditions in the South. My family and I flew to Oxford, MS and tailgated at The Grove for homecoming.

The South takes football–the game, the food, the fun–to a level unmatched anywhere else.

Football is ingrained into the way of life. I love the passion with which the fans embrace the whole weekend, not just the game. Tailgating is central, and I have eaten my way through the most elaborate parties in parking lots. These college football fans break out chandeliers, fine linens, floral arrangements, and mouthwatering game-day food.

I have to say, this trip to Ole Miss didn’t let me down. This school loves their team and loves celebrating their team — win or lose.  Someone once said of the Rebels, “Ole Miss may not win the game, but we will always win the party.”  I agree.

But my trip to the Delta couldn’t just include football and food in the parking lot. While in Oxford, I checked off a couple of my “must eats”.  I had been wanting to visit the restaurants of James Beard Award winner, Chef John Currence ever since I heard about his role in highlighting the culinary richness of the Mississippi Delta.  Friday night we hit up his restaurant in the heart of town, City Grocery.

His signature shrimp and grits with mushrooms, medallions of ribeye over horseradish potatoes and jerk-rubbed chicken thighs with sweet potato hash took us into the next course. We topped it all off with an incredible apple tart served with an apple cider sorbet and creme anglaise.

That visit was a success, and Currence’s City Grocery moved from the “must eat” to “visit at all costs”.

Sarah Simmons at City Grit

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Could there be a better discovery for a transplanted Southern girl than the City Grit Supper Club in New York City? I doubt it.

Chef Sarah Simmons is the mastermind behind this innovative mix between restaurant and private supper club. Her weekly dinners, held in a makeshift dining room in an old Manhattan school house, feature both established and emerging chefs who offer exciting variations on the Southern menu. I’ve had this downtown New York destination on my list for a long time and this week, a friend and I signed up for our first dinner — Butts, Legs,and Thighs.

The “butt” was roasted pork served up on butter lettuces leaves with sticky rice grits. It was layered with kimchi, fried oysters, ginger scallion sauce, spicy mayo, and dragon sauce. The “legs and thighs” were the classic Southern staple, fried chicken served steaming hot. Delish.

Sarah rounded her main courses out with sides of fried rice hoppin’ john and sautéed spinach with pickled raisins.

Throughout the evening, her Southern hospitality showed as she moved crossed the room, checking up on guests like the perfect host. I am charmed and can’t wait for the next City Grit offering…wanna join me? Learn more about Sarah and grab your tickets here.

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Garden & Gun Dinner

Though a rare occurrence, I always get excited when my two worlds collide.  Those two worlds being the South, where I grew up, and the Northeast where I’ve lived the past five years. Typically these regions challenge the notion of “one nation…indivisible”, but when the influential last word on all things Southern and New York City come together, great things happen.

I found myself last night in a perfect cross section of these two worlds.  Bunny Williams hosted a Garden & Gun Club dinner in her shop, Treillage, on the Upper East side.

Not only were the hosts Southern, a lot of the guests were too.  For this transplanted Southerner, it was pure heaven.  Being in Bunny William’s chic but cozy world which I had so often admired was such a thrill. Mix that with the rustic, deep south décor and you get an appropriately elegant dinner setting. In keeping with her impeccable, perfectly appropriate style, dinner was a showcase of Lowcountry cuisine with shrimp and grits, short ribs and rum cake.

I was particularly lucky to have Rebecca Darwin, President of Garden & Gun magazine, as my table mate. What a lovely person who has a great story to share of how the magazine, a quickly growing Southern staple, came to be.  On my other side was Rebecca’s childhood friend, Liz O’Connor who shared an equally great story of how Rebecca came to be.  And to complete the night, a colorful toast was raised by my favorite person in the world and regular Garden & Gun contributor, Julia Reed.

Thanks Garden & Gun for inviting me to dinner and giving me a big “hug” from home.

Variations on a Theme

On on the seventh day, the food gods made pimento cheese. Sometimes it is best to leave well enough alone. Doesn’t it seem like everyone is trying to reinvent this classic southern staple?  Chefs and foodies everywhere are trying to improve on perfection with by using the latest in culinary trends and turning it into some new, jazzed up version.

Enough already. Just give me my traditional bowl of sharp, creamy cheese heaven and get out of my kitchen. Straightforward. Simple. Southern.

But if I have to grant anyone grace in this area, it would be Hugh Acheson, the author of The New Turn in the South.  He created his own version that incorporates smoked paprika and grilled red peppers. I shook off my skepticism and tried out his PC recipe this 4th of July and found the smoky addition to be nothing short of amazing. Oh, and while we were flipping through the book, we found a nice little recipe for Southern Pimm’s Cup.  It was the perfect libation on this hot summer day .

Thanks to Hugh, I am no longer a snobbish pimento cheese purist. My family and I thank you, Mr. Acheson.

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Photography by Evelyn Laws. Pimento cheese image by Rinne Allen