There is no question that the South has long been known for its food and for the many guises of Southern cuisine. Even before the War Between the States, Northerners would often spend more ink in their letters home or journals speaking of the food they ate than much else when they were visiting the South, seemingly overtaken by the embarrassment of riches a plantation economy robust with foodstuffs could provide for the dinner table. However, as celebrated as Southern cuisine is today, the South often stands in something of an awkward position of having its own cooking well-regarded yet other cuisines thought of as inferior in even large Southern cities. I’ve met plenty of people who were surprised they could get good Indian in Savannah or excellent Cantonese in Atlanta or quality Thai in Charleston, while they probably wouldn’t give a second thought to the ability of Boston or Detroit to turn out exotic foods in fine form. The reality, however, is that not only are foreign and ethnic cuisines often very well represented and produced in the South, but fusion cooking and diverse inspiration have really taken off in recent years in Southern locales. Part of the reason for this may indeed be the high-regard and matchless quality of native Southern cuisines: if a restaurant wishes to draw patrons away from top-notch fried chicken or ribs, they had better have a very solid game plan ready. Thankfully, three very diverse restaurants in three different cities in the South have done just this.
The Public Kitchen and Bar, Savannah, Georgia
Savannah is renowned for outstanding food: only Charleston may possibly claim an even greater, nearly religious, devotion to food and restaurants. Little wonder, then, that the folks behind The Public came from very strong and successful restauranting backgrounds and were able to transform a small space at a prime intersection from the touristy gift shop it had been for years into a sleek restaurant and bar. In doing so, they created food worthy of this novel setting: typical yet well-crafted American sandwiches—BBQ pork, clubs, a ham and Brie melt—burgers, and salads that would need no introduction anywhere, plus some Low Country favorites such as shrimp-n-grits and even the hallowed Frogmore stew famous in this region, yet now hard to find in restaurants. However, they didn’t stop with resort favorites and local standards: the dinner menu really gets interesting with a duck confit, veal pillard Oscar, and a Thai coconut red curry. There is also an updated take of sorts on angels-on-horseback, that favorite of the country club set during the Space Age, but with shrimp wrapped in bacon instead of oysters. Most remarkable to me though, despite its seemingly humble and uncomplicated origins, was their hummus plate with possibly the best red pepper hummus I’ve ever tasted. A full bar that’s well-stocked and well-staffed with bartenders who really know their trade also makes a visit to The Public a very enjoyable experience.
When I was there, I asked the bartender who served me about the origins of the hummus plate as this was so exceptional, tasty, and a welcome pairing with either beer or a cocktail. The bartender explained simply that they had considered a number of bar foods and starters but looked towards those that were healthy, would appeal to a variety of customers, and would go well with drinks. This red pepper hummus certainly was a winner and something more bars should consider if they can pull it off anywhere near the caliber of The Public’s grand effort. The desserts at The Public are in keeping with their ethos of food that is alluring, delicious, but not overly-fussy: a port wine poached pear with spice cake is a real stand-out and displays Chef Brandy Williamson’s devotion to French and French-inspired cuisines. Williamson and Chef Brian Gonet together have created the menu of this small yet mighty restaurant to reflect French roots which in all honesty, we can find going very deep in Low Country cuisine if we dare venture to look for such.
The Floridian, Saint Augustine, Florida
Truth be told, in the four years or so I’ve been visiting The Floridian it has become nothing less than my ad-hoc standard for new Southern cooking in Florida. Located in an old home which has been lovingly restored and furnished with all manner of bric-à-brac from Florida’s golden age of sun-worshipping tourism and painted in seafoam greens, bright aquas, and other tropical, nautical, colors, even just walking in you may feel as if you’re at the epicenter of all that Florida was in its fabled yesteryears. Somewhat akin to the approach taken at The Public, The Floridian aspires to offer a combination of locally-sourced Southern—in this case, Floridian, of course—standards and imported creations that work well together on a comprehensive menu. Many visitors to Saint Augustine may not be aware of it, but the area between Palatka to the southwest and Saint Augustine itself—a sweeping geography of flatlands before one reaches the coast—is home to a powerful and longstanding tradition in truck farms and vegetable production, especially in potatoes and cabbages. The produce grown right here in this neighborhood of farms winds up on The Floridian’s tables in such dishes as the Elkton Salad and the Cornbread Panzanella.
Part of the magic with The Floridian is that they can produce a top-notch, very traditional, very Southern, salad (which is ample enough for dinner) with fresh Mayport shrimp from nearby Jacksonville and local greens, but they also have the insight to bring into their menu a Thai Tom-Kha curry. Why do both The Public and The Floridian—neither Thai nor even Asian restaurants—bother with their curries? Simply put, it’s because Thai curries offer savory, robust fare that pairs well with beer and also with many salads and starters. The Thai curry is an evolution of flavor and substance born of pragmatic reasons and native Thai ingredients but also a dish that easily adapts to new surroundings, as it has here. For that matter, while it is Thai curries that seem to now be in vogue in the American South, Indian curries have found a similar trajectory in England where they have evolved from their authentic roots into localized standards nearly as popular as fish-and-chips with Brits. The spicy nature and hearty sauces of curries seem to be a winner everywhere.
Other main dishes at the Floridian are also quite innovative and inspired by world cuisines; however, desserts at The Floridian lean strongly towards tried-and-true Southern traditions: pecan bars, dense chocolate brownies with hints of caramel, and a rotating assortment of cupcakes—carrot cake, strawberry, and other flavors reflecting ties to the seasonal bounty of the land are favorites. Part of the genius of the desserts here is that most, while designed for eating after supper in-house, are perfectly adept at travel, allowing guests to take their dessert with them if they would rather. While The Floridian doesn’t sport a full bar, their selection of wine and beer—especially the beer—is superb.
Crane Ramen, Gainesville, Florida
Of these three restaurants, Crane has the distinction of both being the newest—having opened for business in December of 2014—and also being the one to lend a narrower focus to its cuisine. As The Public and The Floridian have looked afar for inspiration to curate Southern roots while also evolving them with exotic touches, Crane Ramen instead aspired to bring true, traditional Japanese ramen and associated dishes to the South. Crane isn’t alone in this mission: Otaku South in Nashville has also been impressing folks with the fact that, at its purest, ramen isn’t just the last resort for starving college students but actually a vital and time-honored tradition in Japanese comfort food. Like rice in Hong Kong or grits in Charleston, ramen in Japan offers an easy base to build complex flavors with savory broths, slow-cooked meats such as pork and chicken, healthy inclusion of egg, and flavorful additions of nori, soy, and scallions. To stand alongside ramen so robust and bursting with sublime, homey flavors, equally savory dishes such as conventional pork gyoza (fried dumplings) are essential—and, by the way, at Crane, I’ve found some of the very best gyoza I’ve ever tasted, despite having lived in San Francisco and dined upon Japanese cuisine there constantly.
While Crane’s dedication to ramen’s heritage is forthright and compelling, I would not call Crane a traditional nor typical Japanese restaurant: walking in right after they opened in the late afternoon for dinner, I noticed Buck Owens playing on the sound-system and an impressive enough selection of Bourbons seated on the shelves of their bar. Beyond the sleek furnishings and Japanese influences, it was clear as day that you were in the South, and when you think about it, in a sense ramen really is not that far a cousin from many Southern culinary approaches: the combination of hot broth, fresh vegetables, and pork or chicken as meats would resound with Southern grandmas even if they had few notions about Japanese cuisine. To move the atmosphere even further towards a festive one, Crane has developed a variety of cocktails that draw upon both Southern traditions and Asian touches. An old-fashioned based around Four Roses Bourbon and Crane’s own homemade cherry-yuzu soda is a fine example: yuzu is a citrus native to eastern Asia similar in taste to a lemon, which compliments the sweet cherry flavor surprisingly well. Building a classic cocktail around this was a natural.
Given its universal appeal as comfort food, it should not be a mystery that ramen is enjoying such success in the South, but another impressive aspect of Crane is its devotion to sourcing local ingredients, much as The Floridian has also done. In a sunomono salad I had at Crane—cucumbers and other veggies marinated in a tart vinegar-based dressing—local turnips were used. One may not think of turnips as associated with Florida, but actually Florida—especially the north-central portion of the state—long has been dedicated to agriculture, and turnips along with other root vegetables have been a mainstay of Cracker cooking. So the cooking at Crane, despite having authentic origins in recipes from a world away, is making use of ingredients not only found close to home but with deep roots in local foodways.
What The Public, The Floridian, and Crane Ramen all three are accomplishing really is a pragmatic approach to providing quality, innovative, food people will enjoy while also building relationships within their local communities—especially with local food producers—that benefit those communities markedly. Another point of note with these three restaurants is that they all went into physical spaces which provide ideal locations in their towns but had been left in less than the best of repair. The space The Public now occupies is a prime example: the small touristy T-shirt shop that was there for years, while probably successful, did little to improve on the building, clean up its façade, or otherwise make a contribution to how the vital corner it sits on appeared to passersby. While all prime real estate, the buildings The Public, The Floridian, and Crane have gone into are all the type of small spaces that could suffer from the lack of a caring tenant or attentive owner, and while it may go too far to say they’ve been “rescued,” certainly the use of these buildings is astute and a credit to their whole neighborhoods. In another example of stewardship, Crane Ramen obtains its pork and chicken from farms near Ocala, Florida, also using local sources in a way that provides a customer for these farmers and reduces cost and impact in the interstate transport of food. Best of all though, new flavors have come into Southern cooking—not as visiting foreigners but as valid novel contributions to an evolving legacy.
The Public Kitchen and Bar, 1 W Liberty St, Savannah, GA 31401
The Floridian, 39 Cordova St, Saint Augustine, FL 32084
Crane Ramen, 16 SW 1st Ave, Gainesville, FL 32601