By Emily Codik
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It's been somewhere between a few decades and a century since South Florida was considered part of the American South. Still it's easy to find most Southern regional cuisines here. In fact, hearty Cajun cooking, originated by French Canadian "Acadians" who migrated to southern Louisiana's bayou country, has been so popularized by chef/supermarket spice-pusher Paul Prudhomme it's now hard to find any Miami restaurant that doesn't serve blackened something or other.
Sophisticated Creole cuisine, brought to the same New Orleans area by aristocratic city dwellers and plantation owners from Europe (mainly France and Spain), is represented by jambalaya, French-style beignets, and roux-thickened gumbos -- or, naturally, shrimp Creole. Some version of these can be found everywhere in Miami-Dade, from humble fish shacks to high-profile places like Emeril's and the District.
From the Deep South regions west of Atlanta (Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and according to some, states stretching north to the Mason-Dixon line) came soul-food dishes like fried green tomatoes, found on the menus at Miami spots like Roger's and Prime One Twelve.
Barbecue? It's everywhere, even at the annual South Beach Wine & Food Festival's "Bubble Q," where it's served with champagne.
But one type of Southern regional food has been underrepresented in Miami, especially in upscale restaurants. That's Low Country cuisine from the coastal plain between Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. It's a pity, too, since the food from this little 105-mile strip is arguably the most interesting of all Southern cuisines. According to much of the food folklore I encountered last time I was in Charleston, this is because that historic port city not only trafficked in slaves (imported from Africa through Caribbean islands like Dutch colonial Curaçao), but more than other American slave-port cities, actively welcomed their input into its gentry's kitchens. The Deep South's huge inland plantations, the explanation went, encouraged isolation of field hands and white landowners. In the Low Country's closer quarters, the European-descended citizens couldn't help but notice that their ancestral Scotch eggs weren't nearly as tasty as those prepared by their slaves.
What's undeniably true is that Low Country cuisine incorporates healthy doses of African and Caribbean influences (including spice-trade remnants from the East Indies like curry and cumin) along with old-world French, Spanish, and British refinement. And for a good fifteen years innovative Charleston restaurants have been reinventing Low Country classics, using rediscovered regional ingredients: heirloom tomatoes and corn, stone-ground grits, flavorful (and until recently, almost extinct) Carolina gold rice. In Miami, however, such treats haven't been available since the last time Marvin Woods worked here, in the Nineties, at his restaurant Savannah and at the National Hotel. Both stints were brief. With luck, his new M. Woods will be a keeper.
Despite an easy-to-miss location in a nondescript strip mall, the casually chic and sleek interior is inviting. So was the amuse-bouchée, a small, tender-crusted empanada stuffed with spiced blue crab. Breads were even more encouraging: Old South standards, biscuits and cornbread, elegantly presented as minimuffins. Butter had been blended with minced corn and scallions, making it lighter as well as more interesting. The biscuit, however, had enough rich, subtly sweet flavor on its own to need no spread.
Hushpuppies were also far from traditional, or from any nouvelle interpretation I'd ever encountered. The most common story of origin -- that fishermen cooking dinner tossed cornmeal dough balls to their hungry dogs to quiet them -- would not have been an appropriate use of Woods's "Signature Hushpuppy of the Day," thin layers of cornmeal wrapped around strips of filet mignon. "They're more like little luxury corn dogs," explained one Southern-rooted dining companion. The "Burner's Que Dipping Sauce" drizzled under the finger-shaped sticks turned out to be a sweet/tart barbecue sauce. Slaw of some sort, or anything crunchy, would've benefited this starter. The three baby lettuce leaves in the plate's center were a tad minimalist.
Fortunately we'd also ordered chicory salad, a substantial serving of mature chicory (not frisée) with a bright red poached pear, a disk of creamy crumb-coated Georgia goat cheese, and pecan brittle. The sugar-coated pecans looked like they'd be tooth-achingly sweet, but the lightly dressed bitter greens, tart cheese, and firm, juicy pear all balanced beautifully.
Carolina jumbo lump crabcake had shreds, no lumps. But it also had no starchy binder. The large patty was all sweet, fresh meat countered by cayenne heat, held together by a thin, crisp coating.
Lady blue crab soup was extremely thick but less cloyingly cream-laden than classic she-crab soup. The taste was more like shellfish stock, a nice change. Not so nice was the absence of roe. Could our bowl have derived from a he-crab? The soup would also have been superior had it been served hot; it came to the table barely lukewarm.
An entrée of lobster and lobster dumplings in vanilla natural stock did arrive hot, and was wonderful. The concept may sound strange but in Woods's complex broth, vanilla (obviously a real bean, not alcohol-laced extract) was an assertive but not overwhelming taste, played off against fennel, scallion, diced red peppers, and a little cayenne. Dumplings were the old-fashioned kind more commonly paired with stewed chicken -- chewy, homey comfort food, though exotically flavored by lobster, and lots of it, too.
Grilled Caribbean salmon arrived, perfectly moist and aggressively spiced, atop a bed of terrific al dente three-cheese macaroni. The "tropical sugar snap peas" on the menu were actually string beans -- the skinny French kind. While those are my preferred string beans, the substitution for peas should have been mentioned. The fish fillet was topped with what looked like shoestring potatoes but turned out to be fried noodle dough. Packaged and mass-marketed, this delicacy could become a national addiction.
Crispy, flash-fried yard bird, Woods's take on Southern fried chicken, had a greaseless dark brown coating so airy it didn't look breaded so much as exploded. The texture was crackling but the coating didn't adhere to the bird's skin. And the chicken's meat was not merely a touch underdone but vivid pink. This is something I far prefer to overdone breasts. My more bacteria-conscious companions, however, turned as white as they'd have liked the poultry to be. Accompanying circuit hash (or succotash) was predominantly corn, a mix of fresh kernels, carrot disks, red peppers, scallions, and very moist Thanksgiving-type bread stuffing that had just enough cayenne heat to leave the inside of your mouth pleasantly warm. The grits were not the side dish we'd expected, but rather dumplings, lumps of hand-molded grits mixed into the hash.
For dessert Woods's seven-layer red velvet cake has to be the universe's best. As traditionally made, the chief ingredient in Elvis's favorite sweet treat is the better part of a bottle of red food coloring. Woods got the same eye-popping red color -- and a helluva lot more flavor -- with raspberry juice.
On a second visit for just a snack, a wilted green salad was not so much a salad as the greens of my dreams. Curly purple kale and collards were rendered tender but still crisp by a tangy, spicy-sweet warm dressing that had just enough applewood bacon to be smoky without overwhelming all other flavors. Sitting at the bar overlooking the kitchen was fun, but you needn't sit by the stove to interact with the chef. Woods circulates as well as cooks. With my table, he discussed his newborn daughter's weaning plans. "I'm playing with the idea of a poached pear/sweet potato purée," he mused. Lucky baby.