All too often, when chefs create modern interpretations of classic dishes, it is more about the chef’s ego than the customer’s happiness. But such skepticism vanishes when you bite into a Root Cellar appetizer listed on the menu as southern egg roll. From the outside, it looks like a regular egg roll with crisp, crunchy-fried thin skin. But inside, instead of the usual Chinese-restaurant vegetable melange is a swirl of powerhouse pimento cheese and succulent pulled pork. Brilliant!
The pork is itself worthy of attention, especially when it becomes part of a Root Cellar chef’s salad. Here, too, kitchen tradition (in the form of cold cuts) is discarded in favor of the good, smoky pork and a very yummy fried chicken tender cut into forkable slices. With sliced avocado, chunks of tomato, and mixed greens, this is a unique, formidable salad.
About Root Cellar chicken. Buttermilk fried chicken is a signature dish here, which co-owner (with her husband, Blair) Ashley Sims swears is the “healthiest fried chicken in the south,” explaining that every bit of skin and fat is removed before it is marinated and dredged in zesty buttermilk batter. However it gets done, it is grand. Served atop a spill of yellow grits and under a mantle of pure white gravy, this chicken is moist, tender, and full flavored — especially remarkable considering it is white meat, not dark.
The side dishes I’ve tried are, in fact, more traditional: sweet potato casserole that is simple and pure and earthy (as opposed to those that come as dolled up as dessert) and macaroni & cheese that is homey more than exciting. Other options include collards, fried okra, baby lima beans, sea island red peas, and a loaded baked potato. Sauteed Brussels sprouts are immeasurably enlivened by a good measure of bourbon-spiked bacon jam.
When it comes to dessert, creativity rules. You can get a slice of red velvet cheesecake (billed as “a southern classic meets NY sophistication), six (6!)-layer carrot cake, chocolate cake layered with chocolate mousse, or banana pudding pound cake — an inspired invention. This is classic banana pudding (made from scratch, not a mix), but with one big difference. Instead of Nilla wafers, it is made with large crumbles of creamy yellow southern-style pound cake. The cake is soft and extra-rich, making a pudding that is truly swanky … and truly southern. Probably the most purely southern dessert — southern summer dessert, that is — comes in the form of fresh local peaches, sauteed and served warm under a mantle of melting-fast vanilla ice cream.