Sunday, February 19, 2012

Snackbar - Oxford

It was a few weeks before Christmas and I found myself barreling down I-55 on my way to Oxford. Although I was heading north under the guise of picking up a year’s supply of first editions from Square Books and looking into hand crafted wood works, the real reason for the trip was a pilgrimage to the third of John Currence’s Oxford Empire, Snackbar A year’s supply of positive press had left me dizzy with Snackbar’s potential, but with pleasant yet slightly underwhelming experiences at Big Bad Breakfast and City Grocery, I was curious to see if Snack Bar could live up to the food and travel press hype.

Unfortunately, Sam and I arrived in Oxford a little too early and ran out of things to do and extra money to spend. Instead of milling around the seasonally vacant square, we drove to North Lamar just in time for the oyster bar to open.
Of course, we did what comes naturally at an oyster bar. First was a taste of seasonal cider based libations.

Next was an order of the smallest & briniest Apalachicola oysters Snackbar had to offer.
and another order


and another.

Several cocktails and 30 something oysters later, the restaurant was finally open and we shuffled the ten feet from the bar to our booth. Once seated, it was time to explore the real Snackbar, starting with an order of boudin balls.
A duo of well-crafted pork and rice creations arrived in a pool of mustard with a side salad and a few cornichons.
Years of trips to Houston have given me plenty of opportunity to explore the various boudin ball shops along I-10 and these rank with the best that south Louisiana has to offer.
Beneath a divinely thick, crispy skin is an earthy filling of pork and rice. Spicy and meaty on its own, but better with the mustard, the only true complaint was the quantity. Why must there only be two of these deep-fried beauties to an order?

After hours of driving and waiting, one appetizer wouldn’t suffice. This meant an order of duck pate wasn’t far behind the boudin balls.
Besides an overflowing cup of pate, this plate came armed with grainy housemade mustard, caramelized onions, a side salad with tart vinaigrette, and a few more cornichons.


True to its name, this pate was smooth, meaty, and brimming with condensed duck flavor, but what was surprising was the bold flavor of thyme.
Despite how it sounds, the thyme didn’t overpower the duck; it was a pair of equally prominent flavors that was only ameliorated by a dose of caramelized onion and nasal clearing mustard.

Call it enjoying the menu to the fullest or call it being greedy, but I convinced Sam we had to try the burger. So, in addition to our entrees, one Snackbar burger made an appearance at our table.

Reminiscent of so many quality Atlanta burgers, this cheeseburger featured a foundation of White Oak Pastures beef with BBB bacon, house cheddar, onions, pickles, spicy yellow mustard, greens, and house ketchup all on a house brioche bun.
With a solid patty to bun ratio, this burger carried a relatively subtle beefiness that was accentuated by the spice of BBB bacon and the vinegary crunch of the pickles.

Cooked to a picture perfect medium rare, this patty had the BBB bacon built in. Hitting the high notes of well-rounded beef flavor and a spicy kick, the only thing that kept this burger from near perfection was a good sear. As much as I enjoyed this made from trimmings burger, I was missing the ethereal contrast of well-seared crust to medium rare interior. It’s a personal niggle but it was the only thing this otherwise superb burger was lacking.

Accompanying the burger were the relatively inconspicuous fries.

Not particularly crispy and paling in comparison to the burger, these fries were still a quality side. A healthy dusting of peppery, smoked paprika didn’t hurt either.

Setting the burger & fries to the side, the purportedly rarely offered grillades and grits played the role of my entrée.
To the untrained eye, that may look to be little more than chunky tomato sauce with a few green onions on top.
Underneath that mass was a pair of sizeable veal grillades, sublimely juicy and covered in hearty poblano tomato gravy.


This was Louisiana comfort food done expertly well. It was a stick to your ribs affair that left me savoring every bite of grits and veal with just the trail of spice on my lips to show for it.

More often than not, I arrive at a restaurant that has been showered with local, statewide, and national praise and leave feeling mildly if not completely disappointed. However, Currence and his masterpiece named Snackbar bucked that trend. Every drop of ink that’s been spilt to extol the virtue of Snackbar has been worthwhile. From the sublime Apalachicola oysters to the BBB bacon infused burger to the veal grillades, nearly every dish was worth the drive. Without succumbing to ridiculous gastronomic hyperbole, Oxford, Mississippi has a poorly hidden gem in Snackbar and John Currence. If you’re within driving distance of Oxford, drop what you’re doing and head to Snackbar; it’s worth it.

Snackbar Address & Information

721 N Lamar Blvd, Oxford, MS 38655 // 662.236.6363 // Snackbar Website // Snackbar Menu

Snackbar on Urbanspoon

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Walnut Hills - Vicksburg

A mainstay of small, southern restaurants, one could say that the roundtable is a great equalizer. With a lazy susan typically at the center of the table, people of all social statuses, colors, and creeds can rub elbows and enjoy a meal of fine southern cuisine. Well, I suppose that’s the idea behind the tradition. I’ve never been one to clamor for the opportunity to dine at a roundtable, but there aren’t too many options in the small town of Vicksburg. Fortunately, the Walnut Hills restaurant offers both the round table and the more traditional dining option. Eschewing the roundtable and taking a seat in the back near the bar, I was curious to see what sort of restaurant had garnered the titles of Best Fried Chicken (Delta Magazine), Best Home Cooking (The Vicksburg Post), and Best Country Food (WAPT)

Enticing as cayenne laced fried chicken may have been, it would have to wait until after a bowl of Walnut Hills’ award winning and authentic French waterfront seafood gumbo epinette.

There’s no mention of who bestowed this award upon the Walnut Hills restaurant, but whoever they were, they are sadly mistaken.
With no depth to the roux, this gumbo was left with large pieces of okra and a smattering of small shrimp and in the end was little more than a large cup of rice and insipid, oily flavors.

Doing my best to forget the gumbo, my plate of fried chicken wasn’t far behind.
Making sure to ask for dark meat, I was pleasantly surprised by the juiciness of the bird, but the actual taste left much to be desired.


True to its description, this fried chicken from Miss Herdcine Williams carried a tail of cayenne pepper, but the accompanying puddles of grease and one dimensional flavor quickly lost their novelty.

Of course, there was more to this plate than three pieces of chicken. A small bowl of purple hulled peas was the first side dish.
Happily, these peas avoided the all too common fate of chalky texture, but then again there’s not much else to say about these peas, a middle of the road side dish.

The second side came in the form of extra smooth and creamy mashed potatoes. Armed with a slight tanginess, these potatoes were let down by the listless gravy.

Less than buoyed by the “award winning” chicken and gumbo, I was hesitant to revisit the Walnut Hills restaurant but a few months later the opportunity presented itself. Once again shunning the roundtable, it was time to see if my first time had been a fluke.

Missed the first time around, the cornbread at Walnut Hills deserves a mention.
It may be on the smallish side but this cornbread skillfully treads the fine line between not too sweet and not too salty.

Sadly, the Vicksburg favorite, potato rounds, didn’t fare quite so well.

Like a half shod version of TGI Friday’s potato skins, these potato slices were salty, limp, and greasy.

There’s an option to add shrimp to these potato rounds. I’m not sure why you would want shrimp here, but it is an option.

Hoping to strike gold with the southern favorite of chicken and dumplings, I was surprised to find that my lunch plate was comprised of three small bowls.

An interesting idea but it did lead to a sizable amount of the chicken & dumplings spilling out of the small bowl.


As for the actual dish, it was a collection of large pieces of dry white meat, big doughy dumplings, and a thick broth with an oddly pronounced taste of celery.

If the star of the dish was a letdown, then the sides were a mixed bag.


Butter beans or lima beans, regardless of name, these beans had a light porky taste but a miserable overcooked texture.


On the other hand, it’s hard to speak ill of the niblet corn. Being small, sweet, and tender, it ticked all the right boxes.

Unfortunately, this scenario plays out far too often. I want to like The Walnut Hills Restaurant. Although I may not partake, the round table is a charming idea and a restaurant that serves fine southern cuisine from an antebellum mansion fits perfectly in historic Vicksburg. Sadly, the charm of the Walnut Hills restaurant cannot overcome what is mostly a selection of mediocre to poor dishes. I arrived at Walnut Hills looking for quality cuisine in old southern atmosphere and I left once again confused about how these places win awards. When it comes to dining in Vicksburg, I guess I’ll stick to hot tamales.

The Walnut Hills Restaurant Address & Information

1214 Adams St, Vicksburg, MS 39183 // 601.638.4910 // The Walnut Hills Restaurant Website // The Walnut Hills Restaurant Menu

Walnut Hills on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Old Capitol Inn - Jackson

I've been holding on to this one for a while, but it's time to take a look at The Old Capitol Inn. It begins on a midwinter day last February and the scene is set on the small but comfortable dining room in the lobby of this boutique Jackson hotel. As with every meal at The Old Capitol Inn, a generous serving of artichoke dip is the first thing to arrive.

Cheesy, rich and brimming with artichokes, this dip is best served slathered on the accompanying wedges of pita.

Moving past the thistles, a bowl of French onion soup was next on the list.

A well browned layer of bread and cheese gave way to a beefy liquid with just a touch of sweetness.

While full of the requisite onions, cheese, and bread, there was an unwelcome bitterness to this soup, likely from the overly browned crust.

Rounding out the February meal was a heaping portion of bacon wrapped meatloaf.
Coated in a deep & rich wine sauce, this was heartwarming simplicity.

With little more than meat, bell peppers, and onions under the sauce, it was fine example of a classic dish done well. I wish I could say the same for the gummy, undercooked mass of rice pilaf on the side, but any shortcomings were drowned out by the meatloaf’s sauce.

Although a downtown lunch is best enjoyed in a restaurant setting, every restaurant should be fully able to accommodate a take-out order. In the case of The Old Capitol Inn, that test came in the form of a turkey reuben.

Right off the bat, this sandwich seemed destined to set to fail. There’s something unwholesome about pastrami being replaced by turkey in a reuben, but in this case, it worked.
Working inwards, there multigrain bread was well toasted, there was a fair but not overwhelming amount of caramelized sauerkraut and a creamy, dressing filled in the spaces. The jury is still out if this celery filled sauce was Thousand Island or Russian dressing but, regardless, it performed admirably.

At the heart of this sandwich was the turkey. True to its reuben roots, this turkey brought a salty, brined taste to the party but that extra layer of pepper was missing. Turkey may not make the first string, but it’s a fine backup to real pastrami. The Old Capitol Inn should have been doomed from the start with this sandwich, but this takeout lunch was a winner.

For reasons I’m still not quite sure of, the next Old Capitol Inn venture again featured a take-out scenario. This time, a cup of chicken tortilla soup started things off.
Black beans and corn were the main feature of this tomato based soup.
These tortilla strips may have been crisp in the kitchen, but steam is the enemy to all things crispy.
Once mixed, this tortilla soup lived up to its name with a lightly spiced flavor, creamy texture, and the occasional taste of cilantro. The only real downside was the dry chicken, but what else can you expect with white meat?

When I saw roast beef po-boy on the menu at The Old Capitol Inn, I was curious how this restaurant would approach the New Orleans classic. Surely, the traditional, gravy laden heart attack on a plate would be far too uncivilized for a business lunch.

There seemed to be a bit of a communication issue. I read roast beef po-boy but I received a lovely slice of roast beef on bread. The ingredients may be the same, but there’s a vast difference in the presentation.

To be fair, this was a perfectly fine piece of roast beef. Tender, herby, and accompanied by a few ladles of flavorful gravy and lumpy mashed potatoes, this roast beef was closer to well done than I prefer but still a perfectly suitable lunch. However, it was not a roast beef po-boy.

Although this has already spanned three separate occasions, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include at least one of The Old Capitol Inn’s trademark dishes. While I don’t have anything against their “crispy down in Dixie” crab cakes, the pull of Shrimp & Grits O’Brien was too much to handle.

It seems best to ignore the suspiciously out of season vegetables and focus on the shrimp.

Like many other dishes at The Old Capitol Inn, shrimp & Grits O’Brien was rich. With a layer of buttery grits on the bottom and a creamy sauce on top, it’s amazing that the shrimp had a chance to shine through.

But shine through they did. Each shrimp was plump, well-cooked, and dusted with a smoky touch of pepper.

Much like the restaurant, this plate of shrimp & grits was cautious and well-planned. This dish wasn’t pushing the boundaries of what shrimp & grits could be, instead it was a satisfying and even-keeled indulgence.

Odd as it sounds, the shrimp & grits O’Brien really do epitomize the dining room at The Old Capitol Inn. The food, with a few minor exceptions, is a cadre of familiar favorites that are executed with well-rehearsed finesse. You’ll hardly be pushing your gastronomic limits with a meal at The Old Capitol Inn, but chances are you will enjoy a fine meal at an underrated restaurant.

The Old Capitol Inn Address & Information

226 North State Street, Jackson, MS 39201 // 601.359.9000 // The Old Capitol Inn Website // The Old Capitol Inn Menu

Old Capitol Inn on Urbanspoon