New Southern Comfort Cooking: From Alligator Soul to The Loveless Cafe

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Loveless Cafe
Loveless Cafe Nashville

The food and beverage offerings in the southeastern U.S. are as dramatically unexpected as the intensely colorful Oz that once swept Dorothy out of her normal life. Instead of the bacon-drenched, carbohydrate-filled meals The South was once known for, creative and mindful chefs are reinventing Southern cuisine with lighter twists on conventional comfort foods. Here are some Southern kitchens changing the scene.

Greensboro

Greensboro restaurants offer more than 16 styles of cuisine in more than 500 restaurants “from world class haute cuisine to down home, tangy, pit-cooked barbecue,” says Ava Pope, director of sales for the Greensboro Area CVB. The big surprise about Greensboro’s dining scene is the number of vineyards and breweries located within a short distance of the city.

Just seven miles outside of Greensboro, the award-winning Grove Winery & Vineyard offers groups up to 224 pax the opportunity to sample wines and nosh on appetizers, while relaxing on a patio overlooking Lake Cabernet. If European-style wines tickle your palate, check out this artisan winery known for its Italian, French and Spanish grapes thriving on this 44-acre mineral-rich land. Nearby, Stonefield Cellars Winery offers groups wine education classes, tours, private tastings and get-away luncheons.

Red Oak Brewery makes authentic Bavarian-style lagers brewed according to the 1516 Reinheitsgebot, the world’s oldest consumer protection law. The final product is unfiltered and unpasteurized for a rich, smooth taste available to groups participating on the brewery tour. Meanwhile, Natty Greene’s Pub & Brewing Company’s casual atmosphere brings groups together for comfort food and specialty house-crafted brews on tap, including the Guilford Golden Ale and Old Town Brown Ale.

 

Savannah

The elegance of Savannah is the happy marriage of its storied past with its vision of the future, all wrapped up in one of the country’s most charming urban cores. This might be the only city we know where a downtown parking lots was removed to rebuild the original park once there.

Nowhere is that coupling more apparent than in the local cuisine. The Olde Pink House is a 1789 masterpiece of colonial architecture with a sophisticated dining room upstairs and the more casual Planter’s Tavern downstairs. The menu is a contemporary take on the Lowcountry: blackened oysters, crispy scored flounder with apricot shallot sauce, a BLT salad featured on the Food Network series, “Best Things I’ve Ever Eaten.”

The sushi appetizer of smoked shrimp and grits rolled in coconut-crusted nori is not to be missed, according to Jeff Hewitt, vp of destination services for Visit Savannah. Hewitt recommends other vaunted restaurants like Vic’s on the River, routinely voted the best shrimp and grits in the city and Alligator Soul, where fine dining dishes include a local farm raised suckling pig with a zesty mojo and honey rum guava glaze, served with sweet potato, plantain gnocchi and pork cracklings.

Atlanta

Planners are discovering that Atlanta has over 700 Zagat-rated restaurants. “More than 300 restaurants are within a mile radius of the Georgia World Congress Center,” says Cookie Smoak, director of convention services for the Atlanta CVB.

The bureau’s efforts to increase the visibility of Atlanta CVB member restaurant chefs bore a contest of sorts. “Featherfest” was a food competition launched during the Poultry & Egg conference, offered 23,000 attendees a chance to sample and vote for poultry dishes created by the local chefs. The interactive challenge so stimulated interest in Atlanta’s culinary community that come January, the American Meat Institute will join the Poultry & Egg competition.

“With a meat dish added to the mix and 35,000 attendees now eligible to vote, it’s a win for Atlanta, the conferences and the restaurants,” says Smoak.

When not competing, new restaurant chefs are doing their best to modernize Atlanta’s culinary staples of buttermilk fried chicken, cornbread and black-eyed peas. The newly opened White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails, led by chef Ben Vaughn, features upscale Southern cuisine in a 17,000-sf building on Peachtree Street with three private rooms for 300 max. Fusing another flavor in the pot, Iron Chef winner Kevin Rathbun added his fourth Atlanta restaurant to the Buckhead area. The 120-pax KR SteakBar will feature an outdoor patio bar and small plate steak dishes with an Italian flare.

Ritz Charlotte Cocoa
Ritz Charlotte Cocoa

Charlotte

Something changed in Charlotte after Johnson & Wales University settled here in 2004. Eight years later, skilled alums have elevated restaurant and hospitality standards by opening unique restaurants, and the locals couldn’t be happier. Famed JWU alumni Emeril Lagasse, opened e2 Emeril’s Eatery in the Levine Center for the Arts complex and won “Best Chicken & Waffles” by Charlotte Magazine voters. The restaurant is also centrally located to multiple cultural venues for a dinner and a show.

“Groups seeking fun activities surrounding dinner can combine a visit to any of the three museums or theaters within a half-block of e2,” says Bill McMillan, senior director of sales for Visit Charlotte. McMillan also recommends the area’s hottest entertainment district, the NC Music Factory, which boasts an incredible new rustic Italian restaurant Osso, as well as Bask on Seaboard, also opened by JWU grads.

Like the city’s culinary profile, the good ‘ol burger has gone through a makeover. At Bask, the Sweet Burger contains cinnamon, apricot aioli and brie. At The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar, the signature “burgushi” marries sushi rolls with burger components. And at chef Jim Noble’s not-for-profit King’s Kitchen, traditional Southern items like Aunt Beaut’s pan-fried chicken and banana pudding are creating long lines.

The 3-hour Urban Chef teambuilding experience in the Cocoa Lab at The Ritz-Carlton Charlotte offers 12 enthusiasts an opportunity to prepare decadent chocolate dishes alongside the hotel’s chefs.

At Charlotte’s new 7th Street Public Market, attendees can browse local food purveyors’ products, observe cooking demonstrations and sample French wines paired with artisan cheeses. Organized cooking classes can be sweetened with an ice cream tasting, sustainability discussions, or fitness tips led by Carolinas Medical Center. Those, who take the latter seriously, can walk the mere five blocks back to the Charlotte Convention Center.

Nashville

“The TODAY Show recognized Nashville as one of the top food scenes in the world, along with Paris, New York and Chicago,” says Jessica Williamson, convention services manager for Visit Nashville. “Our musicians’ creative spirit and their collaborative vibe inspires chefs to be more adventurous.”

Coupled with the city’s new convention center opening in 2013 and the growing influx of young professionals flocking into the city, Nashville’s group infrastructure is starting to hit the high notes.

Fried chicken and biscuits paid for each expansion of The Loveless Café, including the recent 4,800-sf Loveless Barn, purposely built as an event space for up to 1,000 max with open interior space, heated porches and a landscaped courtyard. Williamson says it was the persistent queries for the flaky biscuits recipe and groups looking for an interactive experience that initiated the creation of Iron Skillet cooking classes at the Barn.

Just southwest of the Nashville city limits, Belle Meade Plantation earned legendary stature through its horse racing achievements. Today, the history estate capitalizes on its winemaking industry. Book the Mansion tour and the wine tastings at The Winery at Belle Meade Plantation if time is a factor. But if you do have an afternoon available, definitely look into the 19th century Southern cooking classes in the Plantation’s original kitchen.

Lastly, famous country singer Kix Brooks of the country-duo Brooks & Dunn is now a celebrated winemaker. His 75-acre Arrington Vineyards is winning accolades from groups for its wines and for the spectacular views of sunset from the covered event deck.

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