The Subaru salesman who was in the process of selling me a car a couple months ago was nearly as excited about my impending road trip to Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina, as I was. "I just got back from Savannah," he said. "You've got to try this one restaurant. It was awesome." "Yeah? What's it called?" I asked. "The Chart House," he replied.
I could only manage a noncommittal nod. I'm not completely antichain; some serve quality, even upscale, products, and the Chart House is known for its beautiful locations. Still, I won't waste a vacation meal on fare I can get just about anywhere. And, besides, in cities like Savannah and Charleston, ambitious chefs are updating Low Country cuisine, the ethnically motivated regional fare with roots dating back to Colonial times.
Low Country dishes come from the swamp regions of northern Georgia and South Carolina. Ingredients include black-eyed peas, peanuts, pecans, rice, shrimp, and quail. The settlers who populated the region, ranging from Spanish explorers to English plantation owners to African slaves, adapted their own cuisines to the indigenous crops and catches. In recent years, as a response to the New American regional cuisine movement, restaurant professionals have raised Low Country staples like grits, hoppin' John (field peas and rice), gumbo (stew), and fried green tomatoes to higher gourmet levels.
As expected, I ate ridiculously well in the Low Country. What I didn't anticipate was continuing my culinary journey once I returned to South Florida, via the month-old Reed's River House. Located on the New River, in Himmarshee Village, the predominately Low Country restaurant also provided me with a delicious little moment of irony: It has replaced a former Chart House location. Apparently I could have spared my new car a lot of needless mileage.
Like the restaurants in Savannah and Charleston, Reed's River House has a history. The 270-seat eatery was once two historic homes, built in 1903 and owned by brothers Reed and Tom Bryan, Florida pioneers who helped lay tracks for Henry Morrison Flagler's railroad. Decades later the two houses, joined by a mulberry-wood staircase, were converted into an inn. The new owner, Ron Morrison, has kept the now-single structure intact, but he renamed the west and east sides of the property Reed's River House and Tom's Mosquito Bar, respectively. He's also taken steps to restore the interior -- six rooms on the first floor, including bar, sitting room, and waiting area; and a maze of interconnected, carpeted dining rooms on the second -- to more accurately reflect the building's history. Among the furnishings are original paintings and authentic lamps.
The meandering layout poses something of a problem. Because the kitchen is located on the first floor, our dishes arrived at our upstairs table cooler than they should have been. The service didn't seem to be the problem, because the staff was expedient and fairly knowledgeable for such a new restaurant. What the restaurant needs are food runners, who deliver the dishes as soon as they're made. The other option is to sit on the cobblestone patio outside. It's not only closer to the kitchen but just a few steps from the river, where the view of passing boats is both lovely and peaceful. I can't imagine a more relaxing hour or two, sharing a bottle of wine picked from a list of 500 -- offering American, Italian, and French wines -- and eating oysters served with a bracing wasabi sauce.
Morrison is known in Fort Lauderdale for his popular restaurants Mistral, a Mediterranean place, and Evangeline, a Cajun-Creole eatery. He also owned the French country restaurant Sage. Although he sold it, he held onto Kevin Kelly, who is now executive chef at Reed's. Each Morrison restaurant offers a specific culinary theme, and at Reed's it's been dubbed "Southeastern," meaning the coastal regions from South Carolina to Key West.
It's Southern all right -- as the fried-green-tomatoes appetizer attests. Traditionally the dish offers a way to make use of unripe tomatoes, and in this case a trio of batter-dipped tomato slices were deep-fried and pepped with a red-onion confit. Underneath, a thick, pan-fried, black-eyed pea cake provided some earthy roots.
One of the Low Country starters was stone-ground golden grits, which were both nubby and creamy, spiked with vibrant goat cheese. Smoked onions and succulent, grilled portobello mushrooms livened up the dish even further. Not nearly as exciting was the butternut squash soup. As thick and smooth as a Southern accent, the broth suffered from the addition of a shaved celery root. Stringy and woody, it was an unnecessary distraction.
John Martin Taylor, author of Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking, defines the fare as "a cuisine of the Sea Islands... where the fertile former cotton fields now support truck farms of greens, corn, melons, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, and onions." No doubt he would have been pleased with Reed's outstandingly fresh mixed field greens. Splashed with an herb vinaigrette, they preceded every entree.
Taylor also would have approved of what accompanied the farm-range chicken entree: savory mashed potatoes, cabbage braised with bacon, and a cinnamon-spiced pecan chutney. He would have been disappointed, though, by the overdone oven-roasted bird, which was as dry as a creek in a drought. Fortunately some sweetened brown sauce lent moisture to the poultry.
Speaking of moist, the juicy rack of lamb was so reasonably priced, we couldn't pass it up. The medium-rare, herb-crusted double chops were beautifully done, with a fruity pear relish giving them unmistakable Southern flair. Garlic mashed potatoes and a pungent red-wine sauce were almost identical accompaniments to those served with the more unusual entree of pan-fried alligator medallions. In the wrong hands, alligator meat comes out as leathery as its hide, but at Reed's it was pliant and layered over horseradish mashed potatoes and soaking up a black butter-pecan sauce that had been reduced with wine.
Moving beyond Low Country, the menu meanders down the Florida coast. The Everglades frog legs, in particular, were wonderful, the tiny bones sporting a wealth of mild flesh. The legs were pan-fried in garlicky butter with mushrooms and a twist of key lime. I don't endorse exploring the tropics further, though. An entree of grouper fillet was topped with macadamia nuts and black pepper, an odd combination, and baked until tough. A coconut-rum broth did little to relieve the fish of its aridity. Nor did a host of tropical fruits -- plantain, mango, kiwi, and papaya -- despite being as pretty as parrotfish swarming a reef.
The same fruits reappeared as dessert, garnishing two slices of sponge cake. An incredibly tart sauce destroyed their natural sweetness, though. The kitchen should look into some more Low Country goodies, like pecan pie or peach cobbler. While Southern-style cooking may not be common in this area, it certainly suits the restaurant's New River setting, which is reminiscent of both Georgia and South Carolina.
Reed's River House. 301 SW 3rd Ave., Fort Lauderdale, 954-525-7661. Lunch Monday to Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m; dinner from 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Sunday brunch from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Butternut squash soup
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Herb-crusted rack of lamb