Desperately seeking southern 

The search for home cooking in Atlanta

"Where do I get some real Atlanta home cooking?"

I hear that question about as often as I meet visitors to our city. Having lived here most of my life, I still don't have an answer and I usually reply, "Try a Huddle House ... or go to New York."

When I was growing up, we usually took visiting relatives to Aunt Fanny's Cabin or Johnny Reb's. Aunt Fanny's Cabin, located in a former slave cabin in the woods of Smyrna, was the city's most famous restaurant, specializing in plantation cuisine cooked and served by black people for white people. The lobby's walls were covered with pictures of all manner of celebrities. My father took us there nearly every weekend for years, and I remember falling deeper in love with my Yankee grandmother when she announced that she hated the place -- from the overcooked vegetables to the embarrassing celebration of the glory days of slavery.

Johnny Reb's was worse. I mean the food was worse. For years, the guy who played the accordion in Gone with the Wind was the fixture there, playing an organ. While you ate your fried chicken and dabbed your mouth with a napkin imprinted with the Confederate flag, the organist played a raucous aural depiction of the Battle of Atlanta.

Hell yeah, give me a Huddle House.

Real home-style cooking was hidden away in the city's soul food cafes, all but invisible to white people in the segregated city. It's really remarkable that in the last 25 years, with the whole nation developing an interest in regional cuisines, that Atlanta has remained so disinterested in its own culinary traditions.

The doyenne of Southern cooking, Edna Lewis, made her name not in the South but in New York. She retired here and died a few weeks ago. Her protege, Scott Peacock, has become one of the leading cooks of our region. And his restaurant, Watershed, with a few others -- like South City Kitchen and Horseradish Grill -- are the only ones that really promote serious Southern cooking in our city. Sylvia's, a branch of the famous New York restaurant, attempted good soul food for a couple of years downtown but crashed.

All of that went through my mind when I approached the door of the Harlem Bar (262 Edgewood Ave., 404-588-0014) last week. Another Southern restaurant with a New York imprimatur?

Kinda. The restaurant, across from the Sweet Auburn Curb Market, is barely conspicuous, almost as hidden as a speakeasy. The interior is funky and cool. A staff of energized and very attractive women move amid tables set before a long wood bench. The music -- some jazz, some gospel -- is loud and seductive. The place is not glamorous but it is, according to the menu, "sexy, stylish, soulful."

I'm afraid that would be a bit of a stretch to describe the food, which ranged from good to mediocre. My first warning: Do not order one appetizer per person because each could serve as an entree. Wayne's huge plate of fresh-from-the-fryer catfish fingers, coated with crunchy cornmeal and served with a spicy sauce, may have been the best thing we ordered.

I also liked my starter of shrimp and grits -- a radical departure from the usual style. Here, the shrimp were stood in creamy grits that had been sauced with a buttermilk cream gravy that I swear was spiked with sherry. The sauce was savory, the shrimp were juicy and plentiful but the grits were too dry.

If you eat either of these starters and the fabulous sweet corn bread served with it, you will only pick at your entrees.

But my fried chicken, which the server swore was "finished in a skillet," was just about perfect. The breast was moist and juicy, the skin crackling and puffy. Collard greens on the side were decent. The server warned me they were cooked with turkey to be more healthful. Yeah, OK, but I prefer pork followed by my Lovastatin. The one thing I could not abide was my side of "cream corn." The corn was obviously frozen or canned and the whole kernels were floating in some thin liquid. Being directly across the street from the Sweet Auburn Curb Market makes such a dish unforgivable.

Wayne ordered baby back ribs. True, it was the most expensive thing on the menu at $19 but, my God, it was two gigantic racks of ribs. Wayne toted home more than half of them. The meat was slightly overcooked for my taste and the sauce too sweet, but Wayne declared me a fool. Of course, he never met a huge portion he didn't think tasted good. His side dishes -- spinach sauteed with garlic and grits -- were about on a par with mine. The restaurant definitely needs to treat its side dishes with more attention.

We carried home a slice each of red velvet and Key lime cake for later eating. These, made by an outside baker, were mediocre.

A few days later, I checked out Shirley's Home Cooking (900 Dill Ave., 404-755-5110), a tiny cafe in southwest Atlanta. This may be the strangest restaurant I've visited in years. Now, I mean good-strange. Not bad-strange.

The restaurant has only three tables, excluding the narrow table where a woman -- Shirley? -- sat behind a heap of bric-a-brac declaiming throughout my lunch. I'm used to being the only white guy in lots of places but these people all seemed like family and were cracking jokes I could not follow.

I ordered meatloaf, green beans with potatoes, and squash cooked with onions. Shades of Harlem Bar, one of the women told me the veggies were not cooked with pork. You could have fooled me. They were delicious -- cooked for several eternities, of course. The meatloaf was surprisingly lean, too, topped with your usual ketchupy sauce.

For dessert, I bought a slice of red velvet cake, which produced quite a commotion. Everyone began discussing the cake's virtues. It was a much better version than Harlem Bar's. But, if you're wondering, the best red velvet cake in town is at Daddy D'z these days. It's made by a woman who runs a laundromat on Memorial Drive. I intend to write about her soon.

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