Dining out: City Grocery in Oxford
By Peggy Burch
Originally published 12:05 a.m., April 25, 2008
Updated 12:04 a.m., April 25, 2008
City Grocery in Oxford, Miss., is a charmed place. The restaurant occupies a building that's 120 years old, more or less, facing the movie-set-ready town square. On a recent Saturday, when the sky was cloudless and cerulean, and the temperature in the mid-80s, a wall of doors at the front was open to the street and a skylight over the bar glowed, making the view toward the kitchen look like a daguerreotype. A subtle jazz and big-band soundtrack supplied more atmosphere, if any more was needed.
The interior, with red brick walls and wide-board floors, was filled with a relaxed and mannered crowd, parents
treating Ole Miss students to dinner, pretty young women in décolleté dresses, men with jackets and open collars, well-behaved children propped on the banquette, a general atmosphere of the privileged Old South, but generous not excluding. (Well, actually, people on cell phones are excluded from the dining room -- civilization dawns in the digital age.)
The most persuasive of City Grocery's charms, though, is the food. Executive chef and owner John Currence, nominated last month, for the third year, for the James Beard Foundation's "Best Chef: South" award, is at the top of his game. Improvements to City Grocery's performance now will be mere flourishes.
The kitchen's influence is Southern and Creole, and while ingredients on the menu sound casual and folksy -- catfish and shrimp and grits are on the dinner menu -- their deft presentation is imaginative, skillful and disciplined, elevating them above qualification as regional and ethnic cuisine.
The winter lunch menu offered crawfish, shrimp fritters, a buttermilk fried-chicken sandwich, a sweet barbecued beef brisket on biscuit, and pork chops with black-eyed peas and mustard greens. The menu segued into "early summer" this week; surely destined to reappear are those flavorful "skinny" chops and peppery greens.
The new lunch menu offers seven salads. Currence is playing with and refining combinations of ingredients he's been working with since he opened the restaurant 16 years ago. The smoked duck breast salad, for instance, now has Indian spices and a tamarind vinaigrette on spinach; the duck breast salad our dining critic found when City Grocery was last visited for review 10 years ago included walnuts instead of the present cayenne-candied pistachios and a sun-dried cherry vinaigrette. Other lunch salads offer poached shrimp, smoked salmon and molasses-grilled chicken. Salad greens at City Grocery all were fluffy and delicate, with a light sheen of oil. Currence says he likes using peanut oil in dressings, because it's light but not neutral.
There are sandwiches with pit-smoked ham, fried catfish, smoked chicken, pulled pork and Asian-spiced shrimp cake. An intriguing dish we didn't get to try is the catfish blaff, an island stew flavored with lime and habañero and jalapeño peppers.
We ordered the confit of grilled quail as an appetizer at dinner, because we were curious to see what half of the ingredients looked like and how they would go together. The combination includes pickled ramp, a wild leek that has a garlic-and-onion taste; an "elephant ear" pastry; a generous portion of roasted beets; and for sweetness, a compote of apple and sun-dried cherry. It was a dish you took ingredient by ingredient, but the variety was engaging and the quail was plentiful, succulent and fell easily off the bone.
We tried two fish entrees from the new spring dinner menu. The pecan-crusted catfish was crunchy on the outside, a crisply turned batter surrounding dazzlingly white fish, which perfectly straddled the line between moist and flaky. It came with stewed okra and tomatoes and smoked crawfish hush puppies; the admirable thing about the vegetables was the restraint used in the spice.
At City Grocery, okra tastes like okra, only better. And the collard greens that came with the pan-roasted grouper tasted like collard greens, which, I thought for maybe the first time, can be an excellent thing. Currence adds a barely detectable bechamel to the greens, which were chopped with onions, for a pungency that seems innate to the plant. The dirty rice with this dish delivered a meaty flavor and the roasted red bell pepper aioli a calming, balancing effect. All these fairly restrained elements gave the grouper the stage, and it provided the drama. The crust is seasoned with a fermented pepper mash, the residue of Tabasco after the hot sauce is filtered out. It took a minute for the spice to kick in -- a very satisfying experience.
The shrimp and spicy cheese grits, with mushrooms, scallions, smoked bacon and white wine, is a standard on the City Grocery menu, unchanged since its debut 16 years ago, except that the grits are now locally ground and the paprika is a bit lighter. It's served at lunch and dinner.
After my experiment with Tabasco pepper mash, I wanted a soothing finish to the meal, and I ordered the banana crème brûlée, a truly comforting variation on the caramel-capped custard. The equally pleasing apple pie came in puff pastry with a rich and creamy vanilla ice cream scoop.
We tried the Lazy Magnolia Brewery's Reb Ale, on draft at City Grocery, and available only in Oxford. It had a pleasant, faintly fruity effect. At dinner, we asked our server to suggest an inexpensive red wine and she recommended a Marqués de Cáceres Rioja Crianza Red 2003, which, at $25, was just right.
Servers wore classic uniforms of black pants, white aprons, white shirts and ties, and moved fluidly about the dining room, confident, knowledgeable, unobtrusive. If there's tyrannical will behind their skillful practice of the art of deference, it's gentle tyranny. They seemed relaxed in their efficiency.
Address: 152 Courthouse Square, Oxford, Miss.
Service: Skillful, confident, fluid
Reviewer's choice: Confit of quail, all salads, pecan-crusted catfish, pan-roasted grouper, apple pie, crème brûlée.
Telephone: (662) 232-8080
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; dinner 6-10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; 6-10:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.
Price range: Lunch sandwiches, $10 to $11; lunch entrees $16 to $18. Dinner appetizers, $10 to $12; dinner entrees, $24 to $32.
Payment: All credit cards accepted.
No-smoking area: There is no smoking in Oxford restaurants.
Handicapped access: Yes.
Alcoholic beverages: Beer, wine and spirits.
Dress: Dressy casual.