Midnight in the garden of gay and EVOO

Expect not just olive oil, but butter and lard on a low-country culinary tour of historic, gay-friendly Savannah. But it’s so worth the extra time on the treadmill

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FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD | The chicken and waffles at Rocks on the River are just one Southern take on the buttery low-country food that marks a culinary tour of Savannah. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

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ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Like Charleston, S.C., its neighbor to the north, Savannah, Ga., is a coastal community steeped in history and tradition — a characteristic that extends naturally to its culinary scene. “Low-country cuisine” is a discrete genre of Southern cooking, marked by its Afro-Caribbean influences (okra gumbo, hoppin’ john, and red beans and rice are staples) and predominance of seafood, especially shrimp and crab.

But it’s not just low-country food that distinguishes Savannah’s food scene — or the city as a whole, for that matter. It’s a place that oozes gentility with a welcoming attitude that supersedes its Old-South atmosphere. Whether going there for historic walks down its charming streets or to focus on a fattening but oh-so-worth-it foodie tour, Savannah is a great gay destination.

Without waving its rainbow flags too boldly, Savannah still celebrates its gay-friendly faves (hag chef Paula Deen is a local; composer and native Johnny Mercer has his name slapped on countless roads and landmarks) and even its queer scandals — Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, gay author John Berendt’s phenomenally popular 1994 yarn about how an antique dealer Jim Williams shot his lover, remains the unofficial history of the city, and is proudly on display throughout the city even still.

Such longevity is not altogether a surprise. People speak of the city’s most famous residents, past and current, as if they are personal friends who might pop around the corner at any moment.

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WALKING HISTORY | Savannah’s rich past includes an architectural tradition unequaled in most of the U.S., from lovely gardens and beautiful ironwork to ivy-draped mansions and Spanish-moss looming over the monument dotting the two-dozen squares that made up the city’s grid. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

They very well may. Even the dead ones. Savannah has a mystical quality to it. Elders proudly tout its reputation among paranormalists as the most haunted city in the U.S. Even non-believers may sense an aura of the supernatural. About two dozen squares dots the downtown district, imbuing the city with the shadowy, Victorian mood of a Bronte novel. Scattered among the squares are houses with long-standing ghost stories attached, and cemeteries that glow under a full moon with spooky drama.

Want to know just how much? Take a walking tour of the city’s graveyards and haunted squares, courtesy SavannahTours.us. This dusk-to-darkness stroll depends, of course, on your guide; we had a good one, who took us by the convincingly creepy 432 Abercorn on Calhoun Square.

The gay scene is undeniable here; even the tour guides mention it. But it’s not just the historic touches, but the current. Yes, The Lady Chablis became America’s most famous drag queen (sorry, Ru!) after the publication of Midnight, and she still performs regularly at Club One, the premiere dance club in the city. The gay club Chuck’s Bar abuts the river.

Savannah’s Riverfront is another draw of the city. A cobblestone thoroughfare fully 30 feet below street-level, it’s a touristy but fun way to spend an afternoon. Docked sailing ships are available for walk-throughs, and you can take a slow riverboat ride up and down the waterway.

On land, shops sell everything from knickknacks and T-shirts to pulled taffy and other confections, including the best damn pralines you’ll ever have. Indeed, the Savannah Candy Kitchen is about as close as you can come to feeling like Charlie Bucket let loose in Willy Wonka’s factory.

Which raises a point: For all the charming history and attractions, Savannah’s food beckons. Along River Street, Rocks on the River provides a distinctly Southern take on soul-food classics like chicken and waffles drizzled in a fruit demi-glace, or a sea scallop on spoetzl courtesy chef Jonathan Massey, amid a rustic atmosphere and exceptional service.

Rocks on the River is inside the Bohemian Hotel, a funky-assed property with moody lighting, intriguing décor and plush rooms. The resto is at ground-level; go to the top floor for Rocks on the Roof, a buzzy, gay-friendly bar that serves a kicky brunch.

Low-country cooking is plentiful, but not the exclusive option in this savvy city of savory sophisticates. We happily ventured over to Gallery Espresso, Savannah’s oldest coffeehouse and another bit of bohemian in this staid Southern ’burg.

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DIY DELIGHTS | Chef Darin Sehnert, who runs the cooking school at the Mansion on Forsyth Park, escorts you through the techniques needed to turn out your own Southern cooking. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

Moon River Brewing Co. is the local micro-brewery not to miss, with a selection of in-house suds available along with its bar menu. Their Hefeweizen (a citrusy, Belgian-style wheat beer) and chocolatey porter are must-tastes for avid beer drinkers. (Like much of Savannah, the building itself is almost as much a destination as what’s inside it. Ask nicely, and you might get a tour of the attic here, with lovely bones, like exposed latticework and beautiful masonry.)

You can sample an authentic afternoon tea at Davenport House, including a participatory recreation of any antebellum interaction with actors in period costume.

Head outside the city to tour the Savannah Bee Company and sample some locally produced honeys (the whipped winter white is heavenly on scones). Keep driving for an even better excursion: a kayak trip out on Tybee Island.

You’ll be hungry when you get back, so that’s a perfect opportunity to sample more low-country cooking. Of course, this is Paula Deen territory, but don’t be fooled: All the locals will tell you, the better food is at Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room. No reservations are accepted so arrive early — the lunch line snakes around the block quickly. Seating (and service) is family style, so expect to dine with strangers. But you won’t have to fight over the food — there’s simply too much of it to consume, including the best banana pudding and mac & cheese you’ll likely taste anywhere. (The motto here: “If the colonel made chicken this good, he’d be a General.” No truer words spoken.)

Don’t be put off that the Mansion on Forsyth Park used to be a funeral home; it’s just another otherworldly aspect of Savannah that you have to accept. Anyway, you’d be lucky to lie in repose here. Part of the Kessler Collection of boutique properties (it also includes the vastly different Bohemian), the Mansion offers an enchanting spa experience in its basement (please don’t call it the embalming room) and spectacular rooms with cushy beds, beautiful décor and spacious claw-foot tubs.

The art here is not to be missed. Mr. Kessler, whom you’re likely to meet walking through one of his hotels, or even around the city, is a furious art collector who proudly displays his eclectic tastes in every room. There’s even a gallery attached that’s worth a gander.

Some of the art here isn’t on the walls; it’s on the plate. 700 Drayton, the hotel’s elegant new restaurant in an old-school setting, offers, once again, Southern specialties presented with culinary flair. Chef Michael Semancik tweaks the standbys, like blackened shrimp and grits abed microgreens, stunning fried green tomatoes and a blueberry crème brulee than will lead you back to eating crème brulee again.

But the restaurant isn’t the only way to eat here — though the other way requires some work. Chef Darin Sehnert leads the 700 Cooking School, a three-hour experience in learning to make your own low-country food, from red-eye gravy to blackeyed pea salad and rosemary biscuits. You do a lot of the work, but Sehnert guides you with exceptionally useful advice from knife techniques to seasoning. Plus you get to eat what you cook at the end. It’s a fabulous way to spend an evening, and a great conclusion to a culinary adventure in Georgia.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 10, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

Competing for your confection

Not all gourmet cupcakes are created equal

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LET ’EM EAT CUPCAKE | From top, Gigi’s, The Cupcakery and Sprinkles’ vanilla cakes vary in their potency of flavor. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

howard lewis russell  | Contributing Writer
hlewisrussell@aol.com

With the fanfare surrounding the arrival of Sprinkles in Dallas five years ago — and its concomitant gangbusters success — a proliferation of me-too cupcake markets inevitably followed.

So which is best? At nearly four bucks a cupcake (about $1 per bite) we decided on a side-by-side comparison of three flavors (vanilla, chocolate, lemon) was warranted. We chose three area competitors: Sprinkles, Gigi’s Cupcakes and The Cupcakery. Each was devoured with a glass of milk.

Let’s just say that all $4 cupcakes are not created equal.

First, the good news: All three cupcake purveyors were impeccably clean, their staffs professionally (even gregariously!) friendly. Were I going in for a surgical procedure rather than a cupcake, they’d each receive four stars.

Indeed, just entering through the doors of these aromatically sparkling stores would send Willy Wonka himself into a swoon.

Sprinkles’ currently offers 24 weekly varieties, although cleverly, not all of them are available every day of the week. Dark chocolate and vanilla are staples, but lemon is only available Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays; ginger lemon takes over the Wednesday citrus spot, while orange fulfills Tuesday’s vitamin C-craving patrons and lemon coconut pinch hits on Friday  (poor, busy Saturday gets left out completely).

The Cupcakery, with five locations including one across from the Crescent, offers 30 styles, including (as do all these confectionaries) seasonal and limited-edition flavors; it will also prepare sugar-free and vegan incarnations. (The Cupcakery’s most distinctive feature is its signature lounge and champagne bar “for sharing your favorite cupcakes on fine porcelain plates with silver forks . . . with that perfect glass of red wine or aged port.”)

Of the three, Gigi’s probably appeals most to children and an adult’s inner child. Each of Gigi’s cakes is topped with something kid-friendly swirled in among the frosting. Its version of vanilla, called “Wedding Cake,” has buttercream frosting sprinkled with white nonpareils; the “Midnight Magic” chocolate is showered with cocoa chips; the “Lemon Dream Supreme” beacons with sparkly yellow sugar crystals and candied lemon slice. Gigi’s also has a loyalty program, offering one free cupcake for every dozen purchased.

That’s all good, but none scored a home run, though two came close.

Sprinkles and Gigi’s chocolate and vanilla cupcakes both received four stars out of a possible four from our two-man panel, while their lemon varieties garnered three stars each. Sprinkles’ lemon was a trifle skimpy on citrus flavor (although the frosting had a tart punch), while Gigi’s lemon faltered with a curd filling that tasted slightly canned (though the lemon jelly-wedge atop was a whimsically delightful flourish).

The Cupcakery’s highest score on any of its three cakes was a disappointing two, bestowed on its chocolate, despite a distinctly weird under-taste (one of us described it as raw, Swiss Miss cocoa; the other felt it tasted bizarrely metallic). The Cupcakery’s one-star vanilla came with an inexplicable pink frosting that tasted, oddly, of nothing but the color pink, while the cake itself had no discernable vanilla flavoring to speak of. Its lemon cupcake was … well, the best said is that it was at least unmistakably yellow (neon/saffron yellow) with watery frosting.

In a world competing to sell cake at $1 per bite, one’s bite-of-cake experience had better darn well be every bit as delicious, or more so, even, than sex itself.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 10, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

Play it again

With flavorful Moroccan dishes, Baboush brings Casablanca to Uptown

Baboush-lamb-kebab

MMMM... STICK-MEAT The lamb kebabs at Baboush are remarkably tender, and made even better by the tomato relish and juicy raisins in the saffron basmati rice. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Just a quick glance at Baboush — damask bolsters on the banquettes, invitingly overstuffed ottomans, tapestries clinging to the stuccoed walls with Persian tile behind the bar, all while Arabic music plays in the background — and you’re immediately caught up in its distinctively lush Moroccan atmosphere, without being drowned in clichés. The front wall of windows looks out on a grassy field along the distaff corner of the West Village, providing tons of light during the day and a twinkling calm at night. All that’s missing are Nazis coercing Rick Blaine while Sam plays “As Time Goes By.”

Dallas’ recent flirtation with Middle Eastern influences — from Samar to Kush to Fadi’s and more — is a welcome addition to a culinary landscape dominated by steakhouses, taquerias and, of late, Asian bistros. Baboush’s execution of the food helps validate the trend.

Certainly the kitchen doesn’t scrimp when it comes to forward flavors, a point of view that may catch inexperienced palates unawares. Take the spinach “cigars” ($7) — basically thick spanakopita tubes with goat cheese. My dining companion wanted more cheesiness to supersede the citrusy tang, though that didn’t bother me. But be prepared for lemony accents in many of the dishes.
Their babaganoush is garnished with pomegranate seeds, which don’t add much flavor but make for a nice presentation. While slightly sour, the lemon bite is nothing compared to the dolmas, which push citrus through the roof. That’s not a downside in my book, though my guest, unaccustomed to the staples of Mediterranean cuisine, found it excessive. (A greater issue with the dolmas was an inconsistent texture: leathery one time, mushy another.)

One of the things to love about Baboush, though, is the boldness of its flavors. Case in point: Mergueze ($9), a lamb sausage that’s as spicy as a Mexican soap opera. It packs a wallop, though the effect is insidiously cumulative, growing heat on your tongue with every bite. If comes with a Moroccan tomato relish (also available on its own as an appetizer spread, $5), which comes as delightful surprise. Thicker than catsup but salsa-like in its consistency, the acid from the tomatoes and chunks of garlic are softened with a hard-spice cinnamon savoriness as well as a hint of sweetness. It’s a complex dip, both familiar and unique.

I’ve often cast a jaundiced eye at kebabs: Stick-meats are hard to get right, especially if more than one type of food is on the skewer. That’s not a problem here, where a single protein per stick allows even cooking. That was true of the shrimp kebabs ($12), well-spiced and not overcooked; the lamb kebabs ($14) were an even greater success — the meat incredibly tender and deftly seasoned, given a soothing finish by the juicy raisins in the saffron basmati rice.

The falafel ($7) is Egyptian-style (a green interior), with sesames covering the moist, crisp patties; and the spiced-beef kefta burger ($8, available at lunch) gets a final push from the smooth dipping sauce.

Although limited, the dessert menu is a definite attraction. The baklava here ($7) is among the best I’ve had in town: crisp but deeply saturated in honey with a great crunch of nuts. And the ganache-filled ice cream ($9) — a mini-bombe, sort of an exotic ice cream sandwich — was entirely indulgent.

It’s too bad service, while adequate, has failed to impress. On our first visit, we asked a few questions of our waiter (fairly uncomplicated ones about Middle Eastern food) that he couldn’t readily answer; on another visit, we were given lunch menus at dinner; on other, there were (short) delays in having the entree order taken and getting all the apps out. I’ll tolerate that in a shared-plate restaurant like this, where breezy hospitality trumps minor glitches. Baboush might not be the Casbah, or even Casablanca, but it is something better: It brings that sensibility to us.

Baboush, 3636 McKinney Ave., Ste. 160. Open daily for lunch and dinner. BaboushDallas.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 2, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Beyond Turkey

There’s so much more than the ordinary to be thankful for from Dallas restaurants

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LITTLE LAMB | The earthy depth of lamb, mushroom risotto and a rich demi-glace conjure up autumn without cleaving to traditional ideas of the holidays. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

Thanksgiving always conjures up thoughts of turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie, and while those staples are comforting, there is so much more to an autumnal menu than those familiar standbys. And Andre Natera, executive chef at Pyramid inside the Fairmont Hotel Downtown, has come up with some inventive ways to ring in fall without cleaving to the ordinary.

Mixing it up not just for the season, but for specific plated dinner offerings on the Thanksgiving and Christmas meals, Natera’s theme exudes sophisticated comfort, starting with the butternut squash bisque (available now only on Turkey Day, but hopefully on the full menu soon). A dollop of oil and slight bite from chorizo turn a simple vegetable soup into a tremendous savory experience.

But you don’t need to be there on Thursday to fully appreciate the scope of the flavors, from a surprising heirloom carrot salad ($10) wrapped around goat cheese to a butter-poached lobster perched on a stone-grits-stuffed ravioli provides a whimsical — and wholly satisfying — variation on the Southern specialty of shrimp and grits.

The hearty, earthen flavors of roasted lamb ($33), served with mushroom risotto and crisp Brussels sprouts, are accented by a rich Zinfandel demi-glace and pitch-perfect preparation.

As always, desserts are a winner, especially the smartly conceived pineapple upside-down cake, which turns a ‘70s-era dinner party joke into a robust and tangy closer. With his current fare, Natera has devised probably his best menu since coming to Pyramid: Inventive, thematically unified, intensely seasonal and executed with all the warmth of a hearth on Christmas Eve. And he did so without relying on turkey or ham. That’s something to be thankful for.

Pyramid is open for brunch buffet and a plated dinner on Thanksgiving Day ($49.95), and offers “turkeys to go” as well.

TASTING NOTES: THANKSGIVING EDITION
Many Dallas restaurants will be open on Thanksgiving, offering those who don’t feel like cooking at home the chance to still enjoy a feast. Among the specials:

Craft — Prix fixe dinner including appetizers, desserts, a selection of side dishes and choice of turkey, prime rib, salmon and more for $85/adult, available 11 a.m.–8 p.m.

Nana — Both a four-course brunch and a select menu for dinner (including bottomless mimosas) are available, starting at $65/adult.
The Second Floor — Chef J Chastain has the kitchen at his Galleria restaurant going all day, with a three-course dinner from 11 a.m.–11 p.m. for $49 (add $20 for wine pairings).

Mignon — In Plano, enjoy a traditional buffet of butternut squash soup, roasted turkey, stuffing, dessert and more from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. for $40/adult.
Some restaurants have pre-Thanksgiving takeout services. The Grape will prepare a smoked Amish turkey dinner or a maple-glazed ham with all the fixin’s from $165–$275 (serves up to 15). La Duni is offering its luscious cakes for pickup on Wednesday until 9 p.m. Pre-order online at LaDuni.com and get a 5 percent discount with the promo code CAKE.

The annual Beaujolais Festival, which for me has always symbolically kicked off Thanksgiving week, comes to a new locale (the new Omni Hotel) on Nov. 18, 7­–9:30 p.m. You can roam around the fancy new digs while swigging some good French (and even Texas!) wines, and tasting bites from local chefs. Tickets are $55. Visit FACCDallas.com for more information.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 18, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas