Friday, February 22, 2008

Review: Don't Bother Counting Calories at The Lady and Sons

It’s hard to believe that under this sedan-driving, Ann-Taylor-frequenting, champagne-guzzling exterior, that there’s a true GRITS inside of Holly Kapherr. It might take a little bit for the “ya’ll” to come out, but one sure way to uncover the hidden Southerner in me isn’t a trip to the mud pit, or a tractor pull, or a livestock auction. It’s a steaming plate of slow-braised collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and a steaming bowl of indulgent she-crab soup. The best place I’ve found so far for this event to occur is Savannah, Georgia.

I’ve watched The Food Network go steadily downhill with the rise of a certain big-mouthed lass from Saratoga and rerun after rerun of Unwrapped. There’s only so much I can comfortably stand of a graying, post-Double-Dare Marc Summers explaining the microhistory of Ding Dongs. The amount of food-related reality TV on the schedule is unnerving. Even Emeril Lagasse, the stalwart Cajun-Creole chef has declined to resign with the Food Network for his hit show “Emeril Live,” the first show that, while admittedly inane to hardcore foodies (seriously, how many times must the audience clap for more garlic?), brought The Food Network any kind of recognition.

But the decline and fall of The Food Network isn’t what this review is really about. It’s about Paula Deen and her ubiquitous stick of butter. Or two. Sure, Michael Chiarello, Bobby Flay (affectionately referred to as “Bobby Gay” by one of my culinary school chefs), and Tyler Florence may have Michelin-starred restaurants on their resume, but Paula Deen is the real success of the star-chefs.

One look at Paula Deen’s story of how she came to the kitchen is enough to hitch a handcart to, but her restaurant in Savannah, The Lady and Sons, is enough to pull a wagon train. I was fortunate enough to have dinner there last week during a last-minute detour home from vacation in almost-dead Myrtle Beach with my boyfriend. I’d had my eye on Savannah for a while, this restaurant in particular, and a reservation at the restaurant kept eluding my infrequent visits.

Situated in the heart of Savannah’s historical district, the restaurant, a three-story temple to mashed potatoes and gravy, draws the biggest crowd almost every night of the week. And it’s not just tourists, according to our server. Locals join the crowd frequently. The mayor is a regular. When politicians show up, the restaurant has something to say, and let’s face it, our civil servants are more likely to listen to their dinner than to their constituents – at least on non-election years.

Reservations don’t exist at the Lady and Sons (although I heard through the grapevine that as long as you have a valid Savannah area code, you can pretend you’re a local and make reservations. Will try next time and report on success or failure of the mission). Instead, they use a system of priority seats, where you have to show up at the restaurant, put your name on the list, and hope it’s not 9:30pm when you finally get a table. Cliff and I showed up at 7:30pm, and that was the timeslot allotted to us. Luckily, we had some things to do, so the wait didn’t seem too torturous.

As soon as we walked in for our table, the steam from the overflowing buffet line filled our lungs. The critic in me sprange to attention: What? A buffet in a celebrity-chef's restaurant? Something must be afoot! It was, and immediately the smell of buttered grits and red-eye gravy and cheese biscuits roused my Southern girl spirit and I ordered lemonade, completely ignoring my city-girl white-wine instinct. A few hours more and I would have gone straight for the mint julep. The sweetest and lemoniest lemonade appeared in front of me garnished with a mint leaf perched on the side of my glass.

I picked up the menu laid in front of my place setting – a paper doily. I was told once by a wise woman, whose name I cannot remember, never to underestimate the charm of a doily. There must have been 100 doilies in the restaurant that night, because the restaurant was oozing charm.

We ordered a lot of seafood. Cliff is a shellfish freak like me. Being both Peruvian and from South Florida, his favorite dish is a bowl of rice heaping with anything in a shell. That’s pretty much what we ordered, only we changed accents. We traded in our rolled Rs for elongated vowels and requested crab stuffed shrimp for me and two enormous “Savannah-style” crab cakes for him (on a bed of rice and black beans, it made him feel right at home).

Did I mention that Paula Deen isn’t exactly known for diet food? The “Shore-Is-Good” seafood dip came bubbling out of the oven and sat quite comfortably in our bellies, a mélange of shrimp and crab meat, parmesan cheese, and pretty much every other kind of cheese you could imagine. I’d never tasted so much richness in a tiny ceramic dish.

Next door to the restaurant is a charming store seeling plenty of beautiful Southern-style kitchen and tableware at big-city prices. One set of brass silverware (read: one knife, one fork, and one spoon) with gorgeous cherrywood handles weighed in at $50.00 each. That’s an expensive tablescape. Other things like the tiny kitchen timer shaped like an aluminum saucepan caught my eye and sold for $8.00. You can find the modest in the Paula Deen Store, but why would you want to?

The Lady and Sons is pretty much the opposite of pretense, which is exceptionally exciting, seeing as how Paula has several television shows, tons of great cookbooks, and a nationally-distributed magazine. I guess more than just hoppin’ john starts with just a stick of butter.

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