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John Currence 

City Grocery in Oxford, Miss.

John Currence looks like a man preparing for battle. He greets us in City Grocery's upstairs bar with a pink bandana wrapped around his head and a burning cigarette inhaled down to its nub in his left hand. His smile comes easily and he laughs with a muscular chuckle, but frenetic machinery is obviously working full-force behind his eyes.

You can't blame him. It's Friday night on graduation weekend at the University of Mississippi, and his completely booked restaurant opens in less than half an hour. Would he like to join us for one quick round of the bar's numbingly potent Manhattans?

"No, thanks," he says with a teasing smirk. "I already have a liver going on 70."

Besides, this is far from new territory for Currence. City Grocery has fed Oxford's local and transient academic population for 13 years. Currence excuses himself to slip down a back stairway and join his troupes in the kitchen, and we wander outside to explore Courthouse Square, the town's picturesque epicenter.

The square, a thriving, small-town vision of balconied buildings, looks almost mythical to urbanite outsiders. This is no dilapidated main street in need of rescue or renewal. We weave in and out of high-end clothing stores and Square Books, a proudly independent bookstore, while we eye the crowd collecting in front of the restaurant.

Show time. At 6 p.m., City Grocery opens and a cataclysm of Ole Miss graduates and their families flood through the door. Hostesses shuffle folks over bleached wooden floors to settle them into handsomely scruffy chairs and banquettes with worn, cozy fabric. Originally a 19th-century livery stable, the restaurant now feels like a well-used dance hall - the kind of place you don't mind joining a boisterous crowd for a couple hours of jocular eating.

Currence may be a New Orleans native, but his affection for serving Southern-influenced fare developed well into his career. "To me, Southern was my grandmother's farm food, something you threw down on the table at the end of a long day of work," says Currence.

"It wasn't until about eight years ago - when I was riffing on everything French, Italian and Creole - that I went to the farmer's market and saw some collards and okra. I thought maybe I'd use them for a side dish, but in the kitchen that day I got an insane craving for okra and tomato stew. I realized I'd been ignoring a whole canon of food. Strange that I had to move north from New Orleans to learn about my place in the South."

We taste the harvest of his revelation in an entree of seared scallops placed on a bed of okra and tomatoes. The vegetables are stewed to softness but still retain their earthy individuality. There's a tussle of fried collards on the side, and a generous wedge of black pepper corn bread stands upright in the center of the plate. We nibble the corn bread, but truly begin to appreciate its presence as the wedge starts to crumble and meld with the stew's juices. A skirmish of spoons ensues.

The menu offers a few world-view items like Caribbean lobster fritters and Asian duck salad with bok choy and fried soba noodles, but it's the dishes with a distinctly Southern perspective that most entice our attention: peanut soup, with African-influenced origins, drizzled with bourbon and topped with fried chicken livers that dissolve on the tongue in an unctuous billow; venison served over creamy hoppin' John, a regional riff on risotto. Atlantic salmon gets a riotous down-home makeover: The fish is spiked with pickled shrimp butter, surrounded by ham-flecked turnip greens and set on slender, light Johnny cakes.

We order so much food that we're still eating dessert - billowy angel food cake with strawberries and a glorious plum cobbler topped with a cinnamony biscuit - as the rest of the dining room turns over for the 8 p.m. seating. A whole new rush of men in starched button-down shirts and women in matching pastel ensembles plunk their hungry selves down.

I peek through the briar of kitchen equipment and spy Currence in his kitchen. The rest of his crew looks frazzled, but Currence keeps his head down, calm and focused. He's clearly conquered this war of nerves.

City Grocery, 152 Courthouse Square, Oxford, Miss. 662-232-8080. Lunch: Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Mon.-Wed., 6-10 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 6-10:30 p.m. Entree range: $20-$28. Major credit cards. Street parking.

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