I had been looking forward to reading Pat Conroy's latest best seller, Beach Music, for two reasons: I admire Conroy's flowery style, and the Southern-boy protagonist in this novel, Jack McCall, is a food and travel writer. Devouring page after page of well-crafted, poetic descriptions of different dishes and cities, I figured, would be the literary equivalent of savoring an outstandingly prepared meal in an exotic land. As I usually do when I anticipate mental satiation (such as when I first read Conroy's Prince of Tides), I even laid in a stock of gourmet snacks to enhance the experience.
I needn't have bothered. Beach Music is a torturous read, so overwritten -- packed with observations like "For me memory was the country of the usable past but I now began to wonder if there was not also a danger to unremembrance" -- that I began to wonder if an editor had so much as glanced at it before sending it off to press. Worse, the passages about food -- "I could not imagine that nectar in Paradise could have tasted any better than that freshly picked tomato" -- were way over the culinary top. After several futile attempts, I put the book down out of sheer frustration, vowing never to pick up the self-indulgent tripe again.
The same compulsion that requires me to down the leftovers in my fridge before I can review another meal, however, led me back to Beach Music again and again. Reading bits and pieces seemed to do the digestive trick, and as with a forkful of a heavy dessert, I discovered the titillation of a small taste. What's more, I eventually found Conroy's passion for his subject -- the swampy coastal regions of South Carolina's Low Country and the area's rich heritage of food and culture -- somewhat inspiring. If Conroy were a chef, I began to realize, I'd probably laud his commitment.
All this to say that despite the usual stockpile in my pantry, a craving for grits and gravy was perhaps inevitable. And while Conroy may not cook this time out, Marvin D. Woods, executive chef at Savannah, most assuredly does.
Open for a month on Washington Avenue just below Fifth Street on South Beach, this 163-seat Low Country restaurant, lounge, and cabaret fills what I have long felt to be a yawning void in Miami. Although several local chefs employ Southern influence and ingredients (Kerry Simon of Mercury and Johnny Vinczenz of Astor Place come to mind), none has gone the fairly strict Carolina route the way Woods, late of New York City's Cafe Beulah, has. His menu, which takes fried chicken and okra upscale, highlights Southern cooking's African roots without regard for stereotypes. Black-eyed peas and collard greens have never been prepared so elegantly, nor served with so much pride -- at least not around these parts.
Woods reinvents everything, beginning with corn bread and biscuits, which are doled out one by one by busboys who stop by all too infrequently (one per customer was the norm). A delicious spread composed of pureed corn, garlic, and butter accompanied the bread. Filled hush puppies, different varieties of which are offered nightly, were another familiar food rendered imaginatively here. We ordered salmon pups as an appetizer but wound up with beef tenderloin; four light, crunchy dough balls stuffed with chunks of juicy, medium-rare filet. One bite of these and we resolved not to send them back in exchange for our original request. A tangy barbecue sauce complemented both the hush puppies and an order of chicken drumettes -- hefty chicken wings coated in a spicy batter and deep-fried to a greaseless finish, then served around an arugula centerpiece. Hooters could take a lesson here.
A multitude of textures, including stone bricks (like you see on houses in Charleston), blond wood, woven canvas fabric, leather, and long oval mirrors, all surrounding a lacquered grand piano in the dining room, unite into a beautiful whole. Likewise, a host of cultural influences put a spin on the fare but don't knock it off track. Two different kinds of roti, for instance, project India onto the appetizer list. Once again, though, we wound up being served what we hadn't ordered, and this time we sent back the beef version and demanded the one made with seasonal vegetables: julienned squash, zucchini, and carrots roasted and enclosed in warm nan that tasted too much like pita bread. The bread was brushed with a ground yellow-lentil dal, adding nubbly texture to each bite, but a billed cucumber "coolant" was more plate decoration than sauce, a dumbed-down raita. The dish, as a result, was a little dry. Utilizing Indian -- or even truly seasonal -- vegetables might also give this recipe a lift.
Under a "Lite and Low" menu heading, several salads are arranged. A pile of fresh green arugula drizzled with warm blue cheese and fried okra prove this to be false advertising -- everything but the greens packed a caloric punch. Still, the peppery combination of arugula and okra, soothed by the creamy and pungent cheese, was worth the fat grams. Confit of duck is a less-filling salad, though not quite "lite." Nuggets of barbecued bird were interspersed with baby lettuces, with sunflower seeds and couscous adding interesting, nutty garnishes, and an unobtrusively sweet honey-mustard vinaigrette tying together all the ingredients.
Eleven entrees isn't a large menu; dine with friends once or twice and you'll about cover the spread. Woods's job, then, becomes that much more difficult: He's got to make sure his recipes are a repeat draw. That said, I'd come back for the signature Savannah home-style fried chicken, half a chicken perched on mashed yams and moated with sauteed collard greens -- a Southerner's dream. The crisp, spicy coating on the chicken was perfection, as were the citrus-infused creamed yams, scented with cinnamon, and the collards, sweetened with carrots. What made this dish completely worthy of its seventeen-dollar price tag, however, was the labor that went into it -- the chicken had been boned before being fried.
Skip the preprandial cocktail if you plan to order the pork chop soaked in bourbon. Another stellar presentation, this inch-thick chop had been grilled to medium-rare as requested, and was delivered to the table sans steak knife. No matter. The meat was tender enough to be cut with a butter knife, and oozing with juice. An apple-flavored glaze and fried sweet onions garnished the meat; sides of fragrant mashed rutabagas and buttered, still-crisp sugar snap peas completed the satisfying plate.
Not quite as successful, a grilled ribeye steak was a generous cut of medium-rare meat that had been rubbed with spices that tasted like curry. Charred on one end, the steak was doused in a gingery gravy and topped with shoestring fries (a little soggy) made from white and sweet potatoes. A cornmeal-dusted snapper was more good fare that fell short of awe-inspiring. The flaky fish was ocean-fresh but bland, and at $23 too pricey for what amounted to local chow. The sturdy red lentil ragout that accompanied it was a standout, while a second side dish, herb-flecked Carolina rice, lacked even the subtle flavor of the grain.
One-dish meals were a challenge to finish, particularly a Low Country shrimp and okra pilau (West Indian pilaf). This casserole combined short-grained rice with wonderfully sweet jumbo shrimp that probably would have inspired Conroy's pen to new shades of lavender. Okra and corn gave the dish a bit of crunch. Ditto for vegetable gumbo, which was, surprisingly, less spicy than the pilau. Still, it boasted more of the South's special produce -- okra, black-eyed peas -- along with tomatoes and corn. A touch of celery lent the stew a wintery, snowbird kind of appeal, reminding less of the warm South than of the cold North, and the comfort of drinking down a cup of hot vegetable soup after a long day of shoveling out from under the latest blizzard.
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SHOW ME HOW
Dessert is a hard course to handle, apparently. On one visit to Savannah we were left sitting without menus for so long that we lost interest in sweets. A second time we managed to order carrot cake (loaded with coconut and iced with cream cheese), only to wait fifteen minutes for it to arrive. Southern hospitality is very much in evidence at Savannah; every time I've walked through the door, even without a reservation, I've felt welcome. But the actual service, though extremely polite and well meaning, seems in need of improvement. Perhaps experience will even out the pacing problems.
Which is more than can be said, I suppose, of Pat Conroy.
Then again, he sometimes gets it right. In Beach Music Conroy's narrator speaks of a "new generation of Southern cooks who were both classically trained and dedicated to revolutionizing the fundamentals of Southern cuisine ... [and] who preserved their fondness for grits and barbecue despite their desire to sneak goat cheese into the tossed salad." Replace the goat cheese with blue and you've got an apt description of Marvin Woods, the most important culinary newcomer to our neck of it in a long time.
437 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 604-8080. Open nightly from 6:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.
Confit of duck salad
Bourbon-soaked pork chop
Shrimp and okra pilau