Restaurants & Bars

Memphis, Tupelo, Birmingham, Atlanta, Savannah binge (long report)

Nancy S. | May 23, 200312:37 PM     1

My husband and I just got back from a 2-week eating binge across the south, and we want to thank all the chowhounders who pointed us to some terrific restaurants. My report follows:

Memphis: Ribs, ribs and more ribs. Our favorite was the Blues City Cafe downtown on Beale St.--incredibly falling-off-the-bone tender and delicious. I'd describe them as "muddy" (as opposed to wet or dry). We also loved Rendezvous' dry ribs and Neely's Interstate Barbecue's wet ribs. The latter's sauce is sweet and hot, which I loved but it was a little too spicy for my husband.

Tupelo: Well, we had originally planned to go to Oxford, but it was Ole Miss graduation weekend and not a room to be had, so we braved it in Tupelo. Locals directed us to Malone's, where the all-you-can-eat catfish dinner has people lined up in the parking lot. The catfish was of course deep-fried (and whole, but the bones are easy to remove), and it was good if that's your thing. A fun experience, though. (And if we hadn't have been so full, we would have stopped at the "Hog Roast" we passed on the way back to our inn...) The next day was Mother's Day, and believe it or not almost all of the restaurants were closed because it was Sunday. We ended up eating at a place called Vanelli's (Greek/Italian/mishmash) which is also a local favorite, but it was really awful, except for the nice waitress.

Birmingham: Terrific meal at Bottega, which is upscale Italian. Shared a very good appetizer of risotto with rabbit, wild mushrooms, pancetta and arugula. I had veal scaloppini with asparagus, prosciutto, mozzarella and sage, which sounds ordinary but was anything but; it was truly scrumptious. Next night was the Hot and Hot Fish Club, where we had a fun evening sitting at the "chef's counter", which I highly recommend if you do go there. The food was good but with the exception of my husband's entree not great, but we really enjoyed talking to the chef who was preparing our food. The best thing we had there was the "hot and hot" shrimp and grits with prosciutto, thyme and verjus--delicious! Our last night was at the Highlands Bar and Grill (same owner/chef as Bottega--Frank Stitt), which was for the most part very good, but not as good as Bottega. My husband Marty started with stone ground baked grits with ham, thyme, wild mushrooms and parmesan, which he enjoyed. I was disappointed in my shrimp and corn chowder--too thin and not enough flavor. My soft shell crabs with lardons and brown butter vinaigrette and--yes--grits were very good. Desserts were wonderful: strawberry buttermilk cake and hazelnut semifreddo cappuccino.

Atlanta: First night at Tamarind, an upscale and very good Thai restaurant. Yes, for American palates, but spicier than the usual. We enjoyed steamed dumplings and a spicy minced pork salad to start, and Marty loved his b-b-q lemongrass chicken and I felt the same about my spicy lamb with basil. The next night was our best meal of the trip, at Bacchanalia. Dinner there is a $58 prix-fixe 4-course event, and there wasn't one bite of anything that we would have changed. Amuse-bouches to start were a small cheese gougere and a tiny cup of cold asparagus soup with truffle oil--mmmmm. Marty had soft shell crabs with curry butter to start (to die for), and I loved my peekytoe crab fritter with Thai pepper. My entree was a mouth-watering sauteed red snapper with artichokes, olive and roasted red peppers. Mart also loved his roasted Maine halibut with morel mushrooms and jumbo asparagus. Third courses were Medjool dates with Parmigiano-Reggiano for Marty and roasted marinated beets with goat cheese for me, followed by a palate cleanser of chamomile sorbet with pineapple soup. My dessert was warm Valrhona chocolate cake with vanilla bean and malted milk chocolate ice creams (mmmmmm again) and Marty had key lime pie with meringue. A truly memorable meal in all respects. Our last meal in Atlanta was at The Food Studio, which is also an excellent restaurant, and a neat place to see. It's in what was a plow-making factory 100 years ago (plow-making equipment is hanging from the ceiling); it then became a clown training school (!) for a while; and now it's an arts center with the restaurant inside. They say they cook "bold American food", and we enjoyed it. Starters were salmon tartare with shiitake mushrooms, pickled daikon radish, sweet soy and thai basil oil for M. and tasso ham risotto with English peas, fried quail egg and shaved goat cheese for me. Marty then had grilled and smoked Niman Ranch pork "mignon" with fava bean succotash and tamarand barbecue demi-glace (his favorite entree of the trip, I think--he *really* loved this). I liked my grilled medallions of beef tenderloin with red flannel hash, asparagus and wonderfully decadent foie gras butter. Dessert was warm caramel bread pudding for M. and molten chocolate cake (yes, again) with roasted banana sauce and fudge ice cream for me. (I did say eating binge, didn't I?)

Savannah: First night's dinner at the Sapphire Grill, which was very good. We had been told to be sure to have the calamari starter, so we did (benne-encrusted buttermilk marinated calamari with coriander lime pesto) and it was delicious. Also shared a five-leaves salad with goat cheese, charred sweet peppers and sweet onion vinaigrette. M. had mustard-seed encrusted tuna mignon with olive tapenade, and I just loved my panko-breaded soft-shell crabs with spicy sauce, grits and asparagus. Dessert was an almond and pine nut tart and "turtle soup"--vanilla ice cream with chocolate bisque, caramel sauce and toasted pecans. Good meal. Next night was at Lady and Sons, where we tried fried green tomatoes as an appetizer (good but nothing special), and had their popular Southern Buffet. Fried chicken was truly delicious, and the side dishes were okay (collard greens were the best). On our third night we had a very good meal at Elizabeth on 37th: amuse-bouche of a PEI mussel with spicy sauce; Marty's app was southern fried grits and blackeyed pea relish with shrimp, country ham and red-eye gravy. I started with an absolutely incredibly wonderful carrot soup, which was made with a duck stock and ginger and curry, and contained 2 huge scallops that melted in my mouth. M. went on to the honey and ginger roasted pork tenderloin with blue cheese cream, cabbage and apples. My entree was grouper with a crisp sesame-almond crust with peanut sauce and roasted potatoes, and I loved it. We shared a pecan-almond tart with praline ice cream and caramel sauce for a delicious dessert. And our last meal of the trip was a main meal lunch the next day at Mrs. Wilkes' Boarding House--communal dining and a fun experience. The fried chicken was very good (but not as good as Lady and Sons), but the dozen or so side dishes that are already on the table when you sit down were all terrific. The ones I can think of include sweet potatoes, potato salad, collard greens, blackeyed peas, mashed potatoes, lima beans, green beans, cabbage, tomatoes--but there were more. Dessert was choice of banana pudding or peach shortcake, and everyone gets iced tea.

Getting on the scale the next morning at home was the hard part....but it was worth it. And yes, we greatly enjoyed our non-eating experiences too, but that's not what this site is about. In any event, a good trip.

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