Sunday, June 13, 2010

City Grocery and 208 in Oxford, MS

The rules are clear, you are not a real southerner unless you are born here and even then it can be questionable unless your kin were also born here. Knowing these rules, I still could not help but feel like a southerner when I arrived at my work cocktail party at the City Grocery upstairs bar, in my blue and white seersucker jacket. My friends squealed with delight at my adoption of such a southern fashion, despite the fact that I continued to tell them I have owned the jacket since my New Hamphshire days. The party was great and I basked in the southern glow for quite sometime. At one point I made my way to the beautifully appointed hors d'oeuvres table where my friend Liz, who like me is no salad picking eater, was enthusiastically enjoying a pimento cheese sandwich. Having just read an article in Garden and Gun Magazine about the tradition of pimento cheese, which much like deviled eggs and potato salad, everyone has their own rendition and all claim their mama's is the best, I strolled up and asked Liz how she liked the "Pih-Men-Toh (Long "O") Cheez" sandwich. Liz immediately groaned, as did everyone around us, and proclaimed that she was taking back my southern rights. For those of you Yankees reading this, she went on to explain that it is "Pih-Mentah Chee-uz" or something like that. So much for all that southern glow. Prior to living in Mississippi, I had never heard of Pimento Cheese, but recently I have come to appreciate this southern dish, made generally with shredded cheddar and monterey jack cheese, mayonnaise, pimentos and then your favorite secret ingredient which may range from cream cheese to onion and garlic. Typically it is served on crackers as an appetizer or in a sandwich. I have been on a bit of a binge recently and had an amazing version at The Main Attraction in Water Valley, MS on a croissant and at Big Bad Breakfast as an add-on to my egg and andouille breakfast sandwich (pictured).

Following the party at City Grocery, a group of us walked around the corner to 208 for a late dinner. We were fortunate to land a table in the packed dining room and settled in with a great zinfandel. Our table was near the somewhat open kitchen and a few minutes into our stay, I waved hello to my good friend and chef, John. John has been with 208 for a few months now and in looking a the menu, he has done a wonderful job of respecting the restaurant's integrity while adding his own signature items. Our favorite Oxford waitress, Erica, quickly arrived with an unnecessary, but completely appreciated amuse-bouche from the chef and this is where I will begin to publicly profess my adoration for John. If you have read any of my previous blogs, you will know that I have a thing for liver. Perhaps it was my mom's delicious chicken livers and onions she made in the electric fry pan growing up, or the foie gras that Mark introduced me to for the first time in San Francisco at Farallon Restaurant. Regardless of the origin, I am a glutton for liver in all of its forms and proceeded to dive into the salty, smooth, airy chicken liver pate on crostini, licking my fingers as I finished my share, praying it was not over. I am here to tell you that it is the best pate I have ever experienced and my only complaint is that it is not on the menu...yet. Also served were fresh anchovies, atop sauteed spinach and onions. I kept referring to the delicious little fish incorrectly as sardines as I have previously only seen the cured version and this was a fantastic new treat.

I hesitated when ordering as I really wanted the locally raised quail, but also was draw
n to the fresh sounding fish special, served in a putanesca sauce (fitting since this dish was known in Italy as harlot's pasta as women of the night placed the dish in their windows to attract customers). Solving the problem, our waitress suggested an appetizer serving of the quail followed by the fish for my meal. The quail was seasoned, seared stovetop and finished in the oven creating a crispy and juicy bird. I made the mistake of offering to share my dish, but despite doling out leg quarters to my friends, I still found a good deal of meat on the little fowl. The quail was served on a bed of locally grown patty pan squash, which were served al dente and benefited from the salty juices of the quail.

The putanesca sauce was very fresh and included plenty of tomatoes, the lamb looked beautiful (pictured), but by far, the winner of the night was the pasta bolognese (pictured). Doug and Jane appreciate a good bolognese and I could almost sense this was a quest to find a great local version.
Despite the fact that Oxford, Mississippi is home to a 2010 James Beard winning chef, where culinary delights reign, good Italian f
are is difficult to find, that is, since L&M closed over two years ago. I never made it to L&M as it closed before I moved here, but I know the legend. People refer to it almost in whispers and then proceed to shake their heads in disbelief that such a culinary institution is gone. It reminds me of how people in Portsmouth, New Hamphshire refer to the famed Blue Strawberry Restaurant. Both Doug and Jane dig into their meals and in somewhat shocked voices, ooh and ahhh over the dish. They compare notes. They eat some more. They make the rest of the table taste the bolognese and then in a moment of sheer delight, Doug raises his fork and loudly declares that this is the best bolognese he has had since L&M and equally good if not better than a version he had at Mario Batali's restaurant. I giggle and give him a moment to settle down before I fill him in on the secret...John Stokes was a chef at L&M and he is back, now as the head chef here at 208!

Unfortunately Mark was unable to join me for these eating experiences as he had a gig at Proud Larry's with Kenny Brown. He looked amazing on-stage. Recently he lost some weight, which is not easy to do here in Oxford and he proudly announced that his treat for losing more weight will be a pair of seersucker jeans. I kid you not.

208 Oxford on Urbanspoon

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