September 2, 2014

Florida Life - Dining

Southern comfort: Restaurants in Florida revive homestyle flavor

Chris Sherman | 11/3/2011

Yardbird's fried chicken, citrus pepper watermelon and cheddar and chive waffles

Tampa's Cafe Dufrain sits on affluent waterfront, sounds French and tastes ... Southern-fried.

Not quite the colonel's chicken or the meat-and-three of a diner next to the courthouse, but many of the same ingredients are there: Pork, beans and greens.
Dufrain has chicken, chicken and waffles with local honey, of course, or chef Ferrell Alvarez's more elaborate taste of the deconstructed South: Braised pork shank with house-made sausage croquette, cheese grits and smoked apple sauce. I'd add a side of the bacon-braised collard greens. To prove the South is world-class, entrees include country ham along with tasso ham and Italian lardo. Gourmet pork rind? Well, they are made in house.

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Cafe Dufrain's hickory-grilled striped sea bass, black-eyed pea succotash salad and grilled organic trumpet mushrooms

Alvarez may have picked up that Southern accent working for years with Marty Blitz, Detroit-born chef at Tampa's Mise en Place. Blitz's flavors come from a wide world of exotics, including buttermilk fried chicken sliders with green tomato jam and house-made pickles.

Even Miami's South Beach is going down-home with Yardbird Southern Table & Bar from "Top Chef's" Jeff McInnis this fall.

The eternal comfort of down-home cooking, whether called Southern or soul food, is not new. Just look at Beach Road Chicken Dinner in Jacksonville, selling boxes of fried chicken, biscuits and cream peas on Atlantic Boulevard since 1948. It's also been a staple of small-town family restaurants and chains from Cracker Barrel to Florida's Lee Roy Selmon's.

What's new is that Southern dishes get new respect from chefs — and new prices.
Chefs in Florida and around the South who emphasized local cooking, slow food and back-to-the-farm values had to admit that the oldest flavors and traditions didn't all come from California and sushi bars.

Besides, chefs and the public have a new love affair with pork, and everyone loves hush puppies and biscuits. They get a bang out of smoking, pickling, baking and making preserves. Restaurants now slow-roast as easily as stir-fry and have lost their fear of deep-fat frying. The South also has buttermilk, watermelon, peaches, pecans, hot peppers, bushels of healthful greens, peas and beans — plus bourbon.

In recent years, many new restaurants have focused on barbecue, fish camp baskets, and the most clever of them delight in classics of the Southern dinner table, refined and spiced up with flavors of New Orleans and the Caribbean.

And they have the wit and wisdom to appreciate pimento cheese — and make their own (hold the goat cheese), to serve side dishes in "jars" in homage to old-fashioned canning. They stack fried green tomatoes in Napoleons and recognize Old Bay seasoning is as complex as curry.

Some do it elegantly; others waggishly, like First & First Southern Baking in downtown Miami. Its carefully misspelled menu has lobster bisque as well as sloppy Joes and chicken casserole, doughnuts and croissants, blue velvet cake and Jack Daniel's cupcakes.

Chef Irv Miller
Chef Irv Miller oversees the kitchen at Jackson's Steakhouse in Pensacola.

Tags: Dining & Travel

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