A week in the deep south of the USA

Saturday, March 08th , 2008

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I spent most of this week in Savannah, a beautiful city with a very well preserved historic district. The city was founded in 1733 and has many pretty squares which are very well landscaped (see pictures), around which are some grand buildings that were mostly built on the fruits of the cotton trade. It also has a range of restaurants serving southern US food, which tends to feature corn in many guises and a comfort with spices unusual in most American cooking. 
Another rule of eating should be never to eat in a place with the spelling “Olde” in its name, as it just reeks of tourist trap. The Olde Pink House is an undeniably pretty historic building but seems to me to be resting on its laurels, serving up adequate but uninspiring food with ladles of marketing. There was some decent tuna but nothing else of any real quality. When your waitress confides “did you know this place is haunted?” it is time to run for the exit, and not because of anything spectral. 
The eccentric Mrs Wilkes Dining Room served up a better meal at the distinctly old fashioned price of $16 for as much as you could eat.  Sure, you sit at communal tables and have to take your own plate back to the kitchen when you have finished, but there was an honesty about the cooking which I liked. Real baked beans and spicy brown rice were highlights, as was fluffy corn bread straight from the oven.
It was left to Elizabeth’s on 37th to deliver some serious food, with consistently good ingredients shown off in a simple beetroot salad, and good technique in red rice with local shrimps. Even grits tasted good: no mean feat. The owner is charming and really interested in his customers, and when I was shown the kitchen the chef knocked up a few free nibbles for me despite being busy with service. Now that is what I call southern hospitality.    
Back home, I was pleased to see that Udit Sarkhel is back at the stoves after his departure to Brighton following a divorce that cost him his restaurants. He is not quite back to form at Mango and Silk as he is very stretched in the kitchen and this shows, but flashes of the old Sarkhels quality came through. Even with some unevenness this is still streets ahead of most Indian restaurants, and prices are very fair.
In other news, Noisette closed its doors this week.  To be honest, it will not be missed. This site has now seen the death of a string of high profile chefs: Monte’s never really worked despite Ducasse and later Jamie Oliver being involved, then it saw off the capable Ian Pengelley (the night we went there we were practically the only diners). Even the Gordon Ramsay name and a previously Michelin starred chef were unable to draw in diners to this unappealing room in what would appear to be a fine location on Sloane Street. They should bulldoze this room and salt the earth on which it stands so that no other poor chef has to suffer the same way. Bjorn van der Horst can genuinely cook, and hopefully he will have better luck in a new setting.