Season's Eatings

 

hanksgiving leftovers mean everything. Don’t refer to that Tupperware full of turkey and herbed oyster stuffing as refrigerated; it’s a Phoenix, reborn from the microwave as an emotional placeholder on the timeline to the Christmas ham.

But each December, New Year’s Eve resets the culinary calendar, with clinks of glasses holding champagne from the appropriate French region and elegant meals culled from around the globe. The following morning, as streamers and confetti lie strewn on floors across the South, the superstitious devour plates of regional staples like hoppin’ john—black eyed peas littered with seasonings and chopped vegetables—collard greens, cornbread and proletarian meats like hog jowls and ham hocks. According to Southern lore, swallowing spoonfuls of black-eyed peas and stuffing stewed collard leaves in the belly is as good as stuffing forkfuls of loose change and greenbacks into the pockets.

If there’s been some distance between your mouth and the South, there are several ways to revitalize your palate with some soul, as a slew of Savannah restaurants serve up the seasonal demands of area diners. From Geneva’s classic plate to Vic’s elegant, continental spin on Southern cuisine, these chefs are cooking their way to a tastier 2008.

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45 Bistro inside the Marshall House on Broughton Street will elegantly ease the departure of 2007 and provide some of the best-layered cuisine in Savannah. The ambience is first rate, containing columnar elements in the central bar that simultaneously evoke old Savannah mortar as well the architecture of Ayn Rand novels, and it’s not uncommon to hear the staff shouting quotes at one another from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Executive Chef Patrick Best and his crew are a literary bunch who believe artful cooking should mirror “a jazz standard, where every musician learns the same song, but executes it differently.” The plates are created in this fundamentally organic way, harkening back to traditional European techniques, with great eye for detail and much ado about using local market ingredients and exotic premiums. he menu contains a host of fine dishes, like slow roasted bob quail and braised pork belly with pickled wild mushrooms and tarragon, dressed with a seasonal flower of the herb when it is in bloom. Supremely autumnal in creation, a chili flake infusion throughout rice wine vinegar gives the pickled mushrooms great complexity, with tarragon notes that float in and out of thyme, like stitches keeping an old sweater together. The pork belly is naturally buttery, and is cured for three days before it’s braised in whatever complementary poultry stock that suits the chef’s present fancy.

Approach the seared sea scallops encrusted in pink lentils and green peppercorns with a red pepper reduction and grilled frisée slowly; notice how the first bite has a distinct tomato scent that is more fragrant in the nose than on the palate, and that the scallop is a distinctly aromatic affair of turmeric and white and green peppercorns, which is given intense depth through careful attention to texture. It has a true sear and is served rare with an au poivre-like crunch, and is a pure highlight for the restaurant. Other items like the Prince Edward Island mussels and New England littleneck clams in a tomato, chorizo, tarragon and fennel broth, might raise your dining standards for the upcoming weeks and months. Take this chance to sit down with the chef and philosophize about how Southern New Year’s cuisine came to be.

When given the opportunity for a history lesson in Southern holiday food, some folks may mutter something about Vidalia onions akin to “Bah Humbug” and let the topic go; but Chef Best insists on finding time for the simple dishes born from the “working class at the turn of the century, whose techniques and ingredients are survived from early African-American culture,” he says. “Everyone’s mom makes peas and collards in a different way, and finding that memory or emotion is what New Year’s food is all about. The preparation and eating is a meditative act, which speaks to you about your own significance in this world and shouldn’t be taken lightly.”

Two ingredients encompass the lesson: Black-eyed peas and collard greens. Simple to prepare, yet complex in symbolic origin; often considered unnecessary to haute cuisine until a recent revision in culinary thinking, yet vital to the South’s survival during the Civil War, and a reminder of a turbulent past spanning seas.

45 Bistro, 45 East Broughton Street. 912.234.3111.

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No one provides a more appropriate slogan for the value of these Southern sta- ples than Sweet Potatoes on Waters Avenue, which serves up “endearing food” year ‘round. The restaurant’s decor radiates a pastoral sunny day in blues and greens, with colorful flowers, fun appointments and multicolored light bulbs. Owner Steve Magulias and Chef Mike Ellison have some progressive culinary values that embrace customary Southern first-of-the-year dishes.

Magulias explains that collards symbolize money on New Year’s Day, and Sweet Potatoes’ version is done in an eclectic Mediterranean style that shows off the intercontinental versatility of the Southern green. The dish is a lively and heart- healthy translation without the traditional pork or bacon fat, and is instead flavored with olive oil, lemon and some light vinegar.

“The black-eyed peas,” says Magulias, “are what bring you luck. The rule is you’ve got to eat 365 peas on New Year’s Day to make it all the way through the year; if you only put 160 or 170 on your plate, you’re not gonna make it.” Sweet Potatoes lays their peas over white rice and again excludes the traditional animal fat rendering to help tie the pea’s vibrancy to a newer, brighter method of preparing Southern food. Chef Ellison’s recipe uses a puree of Sweet Potatoes’ home- made bread-and-butter pickles, which is folded in to create a light, mildly sweet

New Takes On Old Favories: Sweet Potatoes beer battered salmon with soy-based drizzle. relish, and the resulting flavor is energetic rather than heavy. Tasting the sweetness of the cucumber as it bends around the earth of the peas provides an image of home-pickled summer vegetables being pulled from the pantry to add depth to winter meals, and the flavors are friendly, clever and often show some impressive restraint.

To accompany your New Year’s staples, Chef Ellison also serves an excel- lent beer-battered salmon with a soy-based drizzle, an okra and tomato stew and there is, of course, always some representation of the restaurant’s titular ingredient—the sweet potato—on the menu. Try it baked and split open with warm pecan butter drizzled across its interior. After you pay your check, listen for some sage advice before stepping back out into the cold. “Approach New Year’s cuisine with an open mind,” Magulias will tell you, “because eating is like reading with your senses.”

Sweet Potatoes, 6825 Waters Avenue. 912.352.3434.

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Searching high and low for the quintessentially down-home, Southern-cul- tured neighborhood restaurant takes years of work, but Geneva’s Home Plate on Bee Road just might be it. Seat yourself amongst the eclectic mix of furnishings and absorb the scene. Certain items give off the homey atmosphere of a Southern seafood house, while other elements channel classic small-town cafeteria ambience; way in the back, there’s even a single kitchen-style dining setting tucked amongst some booths. The menu contains intriguing items like the Home Plate fried green tomato omelet or Shotgun ribs, and owner/chef Geneva Wade offers cornbread served hot enough to thorough- ly displace any chill outside. The exterior of the tiny loaves are crisp—less so than a hush puppy but more so than what you’re used to— while the insides are still cakey and gooey from sealed heat.

Here, you can find the most traditional Southern New Year’s dishes, pre- pared and presented as directly as possible. The menu features Southern col- lards and black-eyed peas, fried fish and grits, crab cakes with lime sauce, broccoli apple slaw and cornbread dressing, along with an unexpectedly wide ethnic selection. The fried fish and fried grits are unique indeed; the fish is a skin-on deep-sea whiting battered in something relatively light, not unlike traditional fried calamari, and served with bitter seafood gravy full of dark lemon. The fried grits could easily be mistaken for hash browns until you get the thick body of cornmeal, which pairs well with the whiting and makes a tastefully indulgent side. Geneva’s crab cakes have a fine shred, and are cooked very moist with green pepper, onion and a rich egg backing. The sour cream-based lime sauce is a unique and welcome alternative to the mayonnaise-dominant tartar that you get in many restaurants. Geneva’s dressing is full of the same crusty cornbread that accompanies the meal, and its savory chicken stock flavor might reignite a craving for that wondrous roasted turkey with cranberry relish from Thanksgiving.

At Geneva’s, the archetypal New Year’s Day meal of black-eyed peas and collards are so naked they are almost stark; their bowls provide a flash of color surrounding the drab hues of mother earth’s least complicated productions. Since 1983, Wade has been telling folks, “Smoked turkey is our best friend,” when it comes to adding meat tones to vegetables, and she uses the bird as a successful substitute for the usual pit ham. The peas at Geneva’s are always made from scratch, with an honest flavor and dark liquor that teeters on the edge of a deconstructed dal, with basic seasonings like salt, pepper and vegetable oil. The collards are stewed down and, surprisingly, do not contain vine- gar; their taste begins with no pretension, and the poultry stock brine soon becomes slight, acquiring sweetness with hints of late smoke, before a touch of red pepper rears its head to give you some much-needed heat.

Geneva’s Home Plate, 2812 Bee Road. 912.356.9976.

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At Vic’s on the
River, spend some
time noticing the
charm of the sounds
as you enter. There are
dainty piano notes perpetually hanging around the high ceilings, and between the music, silverware and chatter, you will occasionally hear an elevator softly ding as it reverberates across the floor to your table; these ambient noises add personality to the space and the meal itself. Chef Jay Cantrell’s menu runs the Georgia gamut, taking inspiration from both North and South and, occasionally, from out of state elements. Vic’s sea- sonal New Year’s dish is progressive yet down-to-earth, building culinary bridges from veal-stock-braised lamb with bing cherry shades to col- lards with brown sugar and a seared black-eyed pea cake. Cantrell can certainly send out a plate; the fried green tomato appetizer shows attention to color and a sense of structural nuance. The golden disc is mounted with goat cheese to round out some acidity, along with ginger tomato chutney and a balsamic reduction; the bravest explanation might be a Southern caprese. Cantrell’s pulled pork egg roll appetizer is equally original and just as fun as it sounds, with apple and maple wood-smoked pork rolled into a coned duo with shredded white cabbage. A house-made Memphis/Carolina barbeque sauce with lines of spicy Creole mustard and a dollop of deep peach chutney is integrated to the plating; make sure to get chutney in each bite, as it will help develop the flavors. All roads lead to Vic’s duck two ways entrée, which, according to Chef Cantrell, is “broken down to utilize as much product as possible” from the bird. Half of the dish is a pan- seared breast over andouille sweet potato hash and orange truffle jus de viande; its foil is a leg quarter confit with haricots vert and strawberry maple glaze. Start with the confit, as it’s naturally more controllable; after you approach the hash your plate will become disordered by all your scraping. The confit is fork ten- der once you crack the crunchy skin, and dissolves in your mouth around the unobtrusive- ness of the simple salt and pep- per seasoning. On the other side of your plate, the breast is cooked to temperature using a cold-skillet technique that yields some tremendously flavorful crust on the skin, letting the orange peel soar through before the texture of the meat itself. Below the breast, a dense hash with moderate molasses compliments the progression from the top of Georgia to the bottom, and the andouille focuses the spicier, bolder flavors of the Lowcountry into familiar territory.

Vic’s on the River, 15 East River Street. 26 East Bay Street. 912.356.9976.