Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Best and the Worst in Georgia Cuisine

We've decided this trip is about juxtapositions, like camping by a garbage strewn lake and then staying in a beautiful luxurious hotel. Or maybe that that South is about such juxtapositions, but I'm not ready to make such a generalization yet.

Yesterday we woke up in our very soft but comfortable bed in Charleston and then went for a lovely kayak adventure on the Ashley River. Apparently the American Alligator (alligator mississipiensis) is common in those parts. Justin, who rented us the kayaks, told us a story about how he actually ran his kayak into an "eight footer" who "likes to hang out by the south field drainage tunnel". All this he reported to us with a kind of shrug in his voice. He later asked: "You're not used to running into alligators are you?" To which I replied: "Definitely not."

With such a preamble, perhaps you were expecting a harrowing tale of how we encountered a big gator and narrowly escaped becoming lunch. Sadly for me (but happily for Rebecca, who had no interested in viewing the enormous aquatic reptiles) we saw nothing but herons, cormorants and a giant grasshopper floating on the water. It was nice to be out on the river in a small boat, paddling through the high grasses and wild rice. It was cool, and the breezes were generous.

We drove through Savannah to Tybee Island, GA yesterday afternoon, to the glorious Ocean Beach Plaza Resort. It was hot when we arrived, but we were not yet prepared for the blast of arctic cold that we would experience when we arrived in our glorious (and remarkably expensive, given the quality) hotel room. One of the great contradictions of our journey through the south is being almost unbearably hot outside, and almost unbearably cold inside. Rebecca has taken to carrying a sweater. A few design details to point out about our accomodations (courtesy of the architect in residence of the room): there are six different patterns in the room, all of which are only tangentially related in color. The baseboards in the room are made of carpet (a nice touch), and our beautiful glass double-doors look out onto...the parking lot. We do have a view of the swimming pool as well, because the swimming pool is in the parking lot.

We left the glories of our hotel room and sauntered down to the beach for our first ocean view of the trip. The Atlantic was surprisingly brown and very choppy, but there were plenty of intrepid souls wading in and getting pounded by the waves. The bronze, buff lifeguards lounged in their little huts, and groups of adolescent boys and girls wandered the beach, ogling and flirting with each other.

We decided that we would get a cold beverage, so we went to the Dolphin Reef , a seafood restaurant and sports bar attached to our hotel. It was about four o'clock when we walked in (or rather, elevatored in, since there were no stairs accessing the restaurant that we could find). The advertisement said: "The only thing more spectacular than our food is the view." We had high expectations. There were no fewer than 8 people working in the cavernous space; they ranged in age from 16 to maybe 20. We were seated by the giant glass windows and waited for one of the many servers to come take our order. While we waited (and waited) we took in the view. Yes, we could see in the distance the yellow sand dunes and the breakers and the people sunning, but the first thing that caught my eye was the parking lot. Round hairy men hauled their coolers to and from their cars; families towed children and beach chairs and inflatable rafts; and line after line of truck and sport utility vehicles sat taking in the sun.

After absorbing the view for quite a while, a young red-headed man came over and took our order. He appeared to have trouble forming words, but he got them out finally. We ordered two Shock Tops and the spinach and artichoke dip. He replied that he would have to ask if they did, in fact, have the spinach and artichoke dip. We did not point out that it was the first item on the appetizer section of the menu. He sauntered away, as slowly as he spoke. I should mention at this point that the Dolphin Reef sports bar, with the thirty foot high ceilings and many empty tables and many enormous flat-screen sports-projecting television screens, where we sat was approximately 65 degrees, and Rebecca had goose bumps. We watched Red (as I have now dubbed him) fumbling with the lever for our beers; nothing but a sea-spray wash of foam poured out. After trying to get the tap to work a few times, he gave up and returned to our table, informing us that they did, in fact, have the spinach and artichoke dip and that they had to change the keg for the Shock Top. Would we like a glass of water to tide us over?

Certainly. Out the window a flock of seagulls cruised by, a red dune buggy sped down the beach, and a very large woman with an American Flag bandanna on her head fed the parking meter. Our server returned with two waters on a tray. He placed one glass on the table, and as he leaned forward to do so the tray began to tip forward. Both Rebecca and I watched it all take place as if in slow motion, the glass tumbling and the ice and water spilling out all over our trusty map and her sunglasses. Red scrambled to contain the spill, but there was a kind of leisure to his scramble. He did nothing quickly. R and I used our still wrapped in napkins forks and knives to make a dam that kept the water from spilling into our laps. After wiping up the water and before he walked away he asked: "Is your map okay?" My heart broke for him just a little.

Red returned a few minutes later with another glass of water, which he set down on the table successfully, and informed us that they no longer had Shock Top; they had Longboard instead, which he "had never heard of" so he couldn't "tell us anything about it at all." Two Longboards would be just fine. He did manage to successfully produce those two beers, and few minutes later our spinach and artichoke dip came out. The chips were stale, and the dip consisted mostly of mayonnaise, as far I could tell. He came back a few minutes later and asked how the dip was: "It's okay," I said, but we both knew I was lying. We had eaten all of the chips and almost none of the dip. We were hungry enough for a snack, but we didn't want to ruin our appetite because we had big dinner plans. And the dip just wasn't worth wasting our appetite on. We got the check: 15 bucks. I left him a dollar.

That evening we drove into Savannah to Elizabeth on 37th, a restaurant formerly owned and run by the mother of a close friend of Rebecca's. It was the polar opposite of the Dolphin Reef, though it had one thing in common: it was over-air conditioned. Luckily I brought my suit jacket, which Rebecca wore and which made her look like a female lead from a John Hughes film. The restaurant is housed inside an enormous turn of the century house; we sat at a large, two person table in one of the parlors. Our waiter, who had been there for many, many years and had a crazed, Einstein sort of look about him, knew his stuff backwards and forwards. He had this remarkable way of describing the food using the first person plural pronoun "we". For example: "along with the gazpacho, we serve pickled okra and a little vodka, which we infuse with celery and peppercorn." We both immediately liked him. It helped that he remembered Rebecca's friend Celeste, even pointing out where her bedroom used to be relative to our table.

I won't do justice to the food here, but a few highlights: the black-eyed pea patty; the little Prince Edward island mussels with a smoky and spicy aoili that were brought to us on the house; the grouper Celeste (formerly named for Alexis, Celeste's sister), which had a sesame crust and a peanut sauce; the red snapper served on top of a delicate array of vegetables and ham and creamed corn; and the blueberry peach cobbler, which took a little while to come out because it was made from scratch for my pleasure. All in all one of the finest meals I've ever had.

So if you're ever in the Savannah area and have some cash to spend, I highly recommend you check out Elizabeth on 37th. And though I wouldn't recommend the Dolphin Reef, if you end up there I think you must try the Fried Cheese Cake. This description is from the menu I pulled off the elevator: "Fried Cheese Cake: Wrapped in Tortilla and Fried. Laced with Fruit sauce and finished with Whipped Cream. $7.00".

Bring a coat. And then you can decide if the food is better than the view.

1 comment:

  1. Gil in the deep south - this should be good :) don't miss a chance to try boiled peanuts - best purchased from a road side stand out of a boiling vat and consumed with a really cold beer. ENJOY