Florida dining: Southern surge
Southern cooking has surged into fashion in the past five years, popping up everywhere from brewpubs to upscale restaurants like Yardbird in South Beach and Pensacola's Iron Skillet.
Today, dozens of uptown chefs are marching across Florida, cheerfully applying Culinary Institute of America-honed palates and practices to Southern staples like pimento cheese, green tomatoes, buttermilk, pickle relish, oysters and Charleston's benne seeds.
In Sarasota, the best fried chicken is found downtown, right on Main Street at a place called Made. The chicken is unstuffy and delicious, moist and crackling crisp, double-dipped in buttermilk and Cholula brine so it's sweet and spicy. The accompanying crispy waffle is spiked with gruyere and pepper and garnished with greens "du jour" — on my visit, collards with cinnamony billionaire's bacon. Or you can have chicken-stuffed chicken or Cornish game hen cooked beer-can style.
There is a stylized 20-foot American flag behind the bar, but it's waving in faded paint on corrugated metal, and the culinary allegiance is to the South. The restaurant loves simple foods that are dear to the hearts and appetites of the public. It makes them all but with extra finesse, like corn pops and potato tots rolled in panko crust.
Richard Gonzmart's Ulele is big on Florida beef and frog legs, game, limas, okra fries, cornbread and hush puppies — Southern served Florida Cracker style. Its Florida Native Chili is packed with alligator, duck, wild boar and venison.
Pot Roast & Pinot
Pot Roast & Pinot modernizes comfort classics from around the country, including its namesake served with carrots, mashed potatoes and wine ordered from an iPad. Plus chicken and waffles with cashews and deviled eggs tricked out with lobster and pork belly.
Highball & Harvest
You can't get higher on the hog than Ritz-Carlton's Highball & Harvest in Orlando. Diners in plush wing chairs can nosh on pig cheeks and potatoes, "truck stop" nuts or chef Mark Jeffers' molasses jerky. Even if you live it up with blackened grouper, it comes with hominy ragout and okra.
The hotel's grand bakers turn out citrus shortcake and retro Parker House rolls. Remember those?
Fodder & Shine
The Refinery's Fodder & Shine aims for a Florida Cracker version of Southern — as does Ulele. At F&S that means quail, rabbit, liver, beef from native cattle, lima beans, beets in cane syrup and the old cafe favorite of "meat & two" veggies, or a pilau with Minorcan sausage. Prize resurrection is sofkee, a native Floridian alternative to grits.
At Soco (southern contemporary) in Orlando, turnip soup is dolled up with truffle essence, while pork belly biscuits get old-fashioned jalapeño jelly and chow-chow (hurray). The fried chicken is fired up Korean-style, hushpuppies are stuffed with shrimp, cassoulet is garnished with boiled peanuts, and the pork chop is dressed with pimento cheese. Collard greens and grits are always available, as is a more adventurous casserole-baked squash and … watermelon rind.
At Blind Rabbit's two locations in Jacksonville, Scotch is allowed, but bourbon and other whiskies fill the bar's chalkboard. Food includes pure Southern fried chicken with red beans and rice and pickled okra. The Southernmost burger has every trimming in Dixie: Fried green tomato, pimento cheese, peach habanero sauce, cane syrup and okra pickles.
Loba has Colombian roots, but the new hot spot from Jessica Sanchez and her restaurant family is as comfortable as it is hip. Ceviche and oxtail soup, but also succotash, 18-hour pork belly, barbecued ribs in benne seeds, and its own fried chicken.
Cock of the walk may be the Coop in Winter Park, the chicken-centric venture from John Rivers of the 4 Rivers Barbecue chain. His carefully crafted chicken is brined in buttermilk and water, kept extra crispy and served in Plenty Plates and Generous Plates with cornbread — or 'n waffles, n' biscuits, as well as Cobb salad and tenders for the non-traditionalists.
As with barbecue, the key is sides, and the Coop musters almost 20. They're all as Southern as creamed corn and okra and tomatoes. Breakfast is a pileup of eggs, biscuits and waffles, with indulgences like catfish and grits or a tamale pancake with the beloved pulled pork from 4 Rivers.