PART 1: Country Cookin'
Mr. and Mrs. O made their annual pilgrimage to their old haunts October 7-13 this year, partly to visit friends and attend our annual gathering up at Wigwam Village and partly to eat a lot of Southern stuff, both plain and fancy. The bulk of that last fell into the "plain" category, and that's what we'll discuss first. We aren't sure whether the meat'n'three competition has gotten tougher, but it seemed that food quality in general has sharpened up over the past years. Or it could just be that we've gotten used to the merely adequate versions of these things that we get in LA County. Anyway, we very much enjoyed...
SYLVAN PARK, MELROSE. When we lived here this place was called Dennison's, and we had the habit of stopping in for breakfast on Flea Market Saturdays. Under the Sylvan Park banner it got a little freshening up, both in the room and on the menu. We got here too late for breakfast on Thursday, since they serve it all day only on Saturdays (boo!), and so had to settle for lunch. NOT a hardship. Our local friend B had the catfish, Mrs. O the roast turkey and dressing, I the meatloaf. My sides were fried okra, green beans and yams, with cornbread; Mrs. O had mashed potatoes with gravy, fried okra and green beans, B the potato salad and coleslaw. My meatloaf was astoundingly good, meaning right up there with my own, which does not happen very often. The green beans were of course perfect and the okra quite good; the yams however could not have been sweeter if I'd dumped sugar on them, and someone had gone nuts with the pumpkin pie spice too. The corn muffin was a huge disappointment, being lukewarm, dry and heavy, with no particular flavor. I HAVE HAD BETTER IN LOS ANGELES; I can't think of anything worse to say than that. B's catfish was almost perfect, though, and my bite of Mrs. O's turkey was rich and succulent. We wrapped it all up with banana pudding, easily the best I've ever had. About $10 each, plus tax and tip.
TOWNHOUSE RESTAURANT, FRANKLIN KY. This was the beloved lunch stop on our annual trek to Cave City for about twenty years, and then a couple of years ago we were horrified to see it had closed. Imagine our delight at finding it open again, under new ownership. The food is at least as good as before, in some cases better - my catfish was done to the exact point of perfection and not one bit farther. The fried okra was also that little bit both crunchier and more tender than Sylvan Park's, and the cornbread was tender and light with a lovely corn flavor, and (praise be!) not sweet. The white beans could have stood more seasoning, but the turnip greens were on the money. Mrs. O had the fried chicken, a specialty available every day, and highly recommended. She also had the white beans, REAL mashed potatoes with an adequate gravy, and some pretty good coleslaw. For dessert we were offered banana pudding and chocolate pie, so we got one of each and shared them. The pie was an oldfashioned cornstarch pudding in a prefab tart shell, but a good one, with whipped topping most likely from a can; the pudding was the Southern Classic in a little ramekin ringed with vanilla wafers, nice filling and the same topping. Nothing to make a bigtime pastry chef break a sweat, and not up to the level of the homebaked pies offered under the old regime, but a nice finish to a good meal. Under $10 apiece, and we WILL be back!
CRACKER BARREL, CAVE CITY. Most of the dinner choices in the area are limited almost entirely to McKFC Hut Whatever; we wanted the closest thing to a real restaurant we could find, and this is it. No notes were taken nor any menus swiped, but I recall that the server was pleasant enough and the biscuit quite edible, and that whatever we ate was about half again the price of either of the two previous ones mentioned. On the other hand, neither of those has a gift shop...
WATERMILL, CAVE CITY. This is a buffet joint that was probably installed in the landscape shortly after Mammoth Cave, and it has been the site of our group's Goodbye Breakfast for the twenty-some years we've been doing this. The food has actually improved over the last several years, though the chances of a James Beard Award are not good. Though it's a fact that iceberg lettuce is as green as the salad section gets, you can have a decent meal, or (given that it's AYCE) a downright indecent one; a salad plate and then two main-course ones is as much gluttony as I care to undertake nowadays. I loved that they had one of my grandma's favorite presentations, the mound of cottage cheese with a canned pear half on top, and I threw some lettuce and stuff alongside. The fried chicken course was next, though I was annoyed to find nothing left but breasts. Some surprisingly good mashed potatoes, gravy and green beans wrapped up that one. For "dessert" I had fried catfish, mac'n'cheese, more green beans and a hushpuppy, then found one lone drumstick left in the chicken pan and nabbed it. There's no point in commenting further on the grub, except to say that it's about $12 a head including tea, and much more than worth it. And the grossly overworked waitress was as nice as she could be. Mrs. O ate more or less what I did, plus a serving of peach cobbler laid over a dish of banana pudding, a favorite indulgence of hers.
CITY CAFE EAST, NASHVILLE. This was our lunch-bunch favorite when I worked in the area back around '98, especially for the luscious baked chicken and dressing, but I'm told it had slid down beyond mediocrity until George Reed (of Sportsman's Grill fame) took over and rassled it into something this side of Pretty Damn Good. That was the story, anyway, so that was the venue for the Obligatory Family Lunch on Monday, with brother, son, son's wife, Mrs. O and I. We visitors absolutely had to have the deepfried pork chop, just on general principles, while the others very sensibly went for the country-fried steak. I got mashed potatoes and green beans, and alone among us took up Chef George's suggestion of the Cajun Corn Cake. I also accepted a sample cup of the gumbo being offered as a side dish, and found it tasty but hideously salty, so I politely refused any more. I recall that Mrs. O got the mac'n'cheese, which I sampled and found just okay, as were the somewhat watery potatoes, for which I had neglected to demand any gravy, my bad. The pork chop was perfectly cooked, tender but firm, very edible. The Cajun Corn Cake, alas, was a sweet nothing in every sense of the term, and left behind after two sample bites. The regular corncakes were apparently liked by them as got'em, as was daughter-in-law's yeast roll. At the end, Mrs. O offered her chess pie for general tasting, and we all agreed it was okay, but disagreed as to whether it was over- or under-spiced. $12 each, plus tax. No table service = no tip.
NOSHVILLE (21st AVE.), NASHVILLE. Meeting friends for breakfast here has become a tradition for us, this time just one. After two previous, disappointing tries I skipped the scrambled eggs w/lox - it sounds so good, but it's always been salty and rubbery - and went for the corned beef hash, with those "dollar" fried potatoes, two eggs over easy and sourdough toast. Mrs. O had a couple of poached eggs and hash browns; I do not recall our friend's choices. The coffee was very good and the hash, made in-house from their own trimmings, much richer and beefier than the usual canned stuff, but all in all I think I'd prefer to have lunch here and save breakfast for a place where pork is central to the cuisine, rather than slipped in to please the local clientele. Biscuits and gravy, I'm thinking... Still, Noshville's popularity is genuine and justified, so if this is on the agenda next year I shall not make a fuss.