Lost souls

Defining Southern Steam Table Cuisine

I didn't do it on purpose. It just sort of happened. I decided this week to go to some Southern restaurants and I found myself basically conceptualizing a new category of cuisine. Let's call it "Southern Steam Table Cuisine."

I feel somewhat ashamed for eating out of fat-laden troughs just as Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock have released their cookbook, The Gift of Southern Cooking. Their book is destined to become an authoritative text — hopefully for more than home cooks. Although the Southern dining scene has improved with Horseradish Grill, Watershed (where Peacock is chef), South City Kitchen and Greenwood's on Green Street, most so-called Southern restaurants in our area are still serving something that blends soul food with white-trash cooking. For a while folks were calling it "blue-eyed soul," but the term is an insult to authentic soul cooks.

Chanterelle's Cafe (646 Evans St., 404-758-0909) is legendary in the West End as one of our town's quirkier soul food spots. Although the restaurant has plenty of heart, I don't get the appeal.

The menu, written on a board behind the bank of steam tables, features up to three Indian-style curries. I asked a dining room employee how the restaurant came to serve curries and he replied, "This is country French cooking." I said that I knew that the owner refers to his food as a hybrid of soul cooking and country French, but — to repeat myself — I didn't understand where the curries came from. "France," he said, without cracking a smile.

OK, I know what you're thinking. I'm an asshole. This is an Atlanta favorite, the owner and staff are earnest and I should dull myself with enough nostalgia to look on the sunny side. But I can't find it.

Shrimp Creole, served over yellow rice, was full of canned tomatoes and shrimp I suspect of having hopped from the freezer to the steam tray. That is to say they were tasteless little knots. Chicken curry resembled, minus currants and almonds, a Joy of Cooking dish called Country Captain I made in huge quantities with a bottle of curry powder in my impoverished early 20s. Chanterelle's does give it a fiery zip.

I mainly count on vegetables in such places. But Chanterelle's are weird as hell. I assume the abundant use of cream sauces is part of the Frenchified effect. Gooey green peas and slimy spinach were both over-sauced. Cabbage was hit with the bottled curry spices. Creamed corn was the only vegetable I liked. The best part of the meal was the crunchy cornbread muffin, and a slice of carrot cake so sweet it made me smile despite everything else.

I suggest you keep it simple here: meatloaf, baked chicken and unsauced vegetables — if you can find any.

On the other hand, I totally enjoyed a steam-tray meal at James Paige's Collard Green Cafe (2955 N. Druid Hills Road, 404-634-3440). The tiny restaurant is located in Toco Hills Shopping Center. There's no decor, except some ceramic food items stuck on the wall. The steam trays are at the far end of the rectangular room and portions, unlike Chanterelle's, are way big.

The ambience is a bit weird, or at least it was 30 minutes before closing one night last week. We were alone in the restaurant, which does a heavier lunch business, and couldn't avoid eavesdropping on a loud conversation in the kitchen that seemed to oscillate between anger and humor.

The fried chicken is juicy and crispy with a smoky taste. Ditto for a fried pork chop. Baked chicken clings to the bone under a browned skin. The signature collards are rough-cut and barely need a shot of vinegar to bring out their full flavor. Mac and cheese is a loose variety, as I like, with plenty of caramelized cheese. Broccoli is — well — broccoli. Wayne can't resist it if it's available. Finally, I had a serving of peach cobbler. The pastry had been overly browned so that some slightly bitter notes tempered the beyond-swee'tea sugariness.

A grand dame of Southern Steam Table Cuisine is the Blue Willow Inn in Social Circle (249 N. Cherokee Road, 770-464-2131), 45 minutes east of Atlanta off I-20. Located in a palomino-brick Greek revival mansion, the Blue Willow, named after the popular china pattern, is a favorite family gathering place. Indeed, Wayne and I rendezvoused there with his mother, aunt and cousin. It was our second visit.

The experience is fun. Yes, it's kitschy. Wayne's mother wondered if we'd be able to avoid Mario Peralta, world-renowned bandoneon player who stands by tables like a lone mariachi. Actually, I find the accordion-like instrument's sound pleasant. It's used a lot in Astor Piazzolla's tango pieces, which I love.

The food here, served buffet style, is a mixed bag. The fried chicken is fabulous, really. I'm sure it's not cooked in lard but I'm guessing someone is dropping some bacon in the oil like my mother used to do to impart the flavor of lard frying. And the fried green tomatoes, if you catch them when they come out of the kitchen, are good too. Wait too long and you'll be eating mush in a coating of grease.

What is most disturbing to me here is the absence of fresh vegetables. This may be a lesson in the weird way authenticity is conceptualized by some Southern cooks. The restaurant makes quite a lot of noise in its promotional material about being called "authentic and delicious" by the late AJC columnist Lewis Grizzard (whose taste was mainly in his dog's mouth). And there is a long and informative essay on Southern culture on the restaurant's website, extolling the slow pace of life, manners and the shelling of peas. How exactly do frozen and canned vegetables fit this description?

In an old AJC article, the owner of the restaurant admits the restaurant uses canned vegetables and says that's authentic because, well, people in the South can vegetables for eating throughout the year. True, but I'm quite doubtful that most of the vegetables I tasted at the Blue Willow were "put up" by someone's grandma last summer.

I do give the restaurant credit for seasoning the vegetables authentically — or at least in the way Southern cooks historically disguised imperfections. One may reasonably ask if it matters whether a vegetable cooked forever in lots of salt and pork was fresh or canned when it hit the pot. The green beans with big chunks of pork hit such a nostalgic spot for me I couldn't stop eating them (though I missed the new potatoes my mother always added to the pot). I also liked the butter beans.

Desserts here are not good. A pecan pie tastes store-bought. A lemon-chiffon pie tastes made from a box and made me yearn for my mother's made-from-scatch pies whose foamy tops I would run my finger through in late-night refrigerator raids.

For anyone who grew up in the South, nostalgia is probably the main attraction here even though the inspiration, served from steam tables, is not perfect.

I know it's not technically a Southern restaurant, but I love the vegetables at Eats (600 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-888-9149). I skip the pasta and jerk chicken now, and go for the milder lemon-pepper roasted chicken and lots of vegetables. I love the collards, the fresh corn on the cob and the butter beans. Wayne, of course, digs the broccoli. Also, I still like Southfork (428 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-875-1550), especially for breakfast when fat biscuits filled with country ham or link sausage are available.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

Where to Eat
Food Events