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Summer 2007 | Nouvelle Southern Cuisine

Summer 2007 | Nouvelle Southern Cuisine

Grits soufflé? Honey bourbon ice cream? A fresh crop of Southern eateries go lavishly high-end (and yes, healthy), y'all!

The first rule about Southern cuisine is that there's no such thing as Southern cuisine. Sure, fluffy buttermilk biscuits and lip-smacking fried green tomatoes may make your mouth water when you hear the phrase "Southern cooking." But the term is actually an umbrella that includes Cajun, creole, soul, lowland, barbecue, Tex-Mex, and Floribbean styles of cookery, with subregional nuances. So, what then is new Southern cuisine?

It all started with Nathalie Dupree's 1986 cookbook New Southern Cooking, which featured traditional Southern recipes with healthier modern twists and locally sourced ingredients. At the time Dupree lived in Atlanta, the epicenter of the new Southern cuisine movement. Until then Southern food had been eschewed by serious chefs and gourmets. But after 10 reprints of the book and hundreds of appearances by Dupree on PBS and the Food Network, no one is laughing anymore. Now dishes like shrimp and grits appear on exclusive menus, and Southern cuisine has lost its redneck, deep-fried, cholesterol-soaked reputation and is talked about with hushed gastronomic respect.

New Southern fare is best exemplified in Atlanta, with the highest concentration of restaurants and where gay chefs are spearheading the trend. Just six miles northwest of Atlanta in Decatur is the elegant lesbian-owned eatery Watershed. In 1998, when the restaurant was new, the Indigo Girls' Emily Saliers recruited Scott Peacock to be the chef at the former gas station turned contemporary dining room. He raised the bar for new Southern cuisine with fried oysters with red pepper ketchup, butter bean hummus with crudit?s, and popular Tuesday night fried chicken dinners.

The most recent addition to the Atlanta scene (and decidedly more upscale) is prix-fixe Quinones, helmed by Clifford Harrison and Anne Quatrano (co-owners of Bacchanalia as well as Star Provisions, just upstairs). The lush 42-seat parlor, filled with antique mirrors, plush couches, and Venetian glass chandeliers, is the duo's elegant love letter to regional Southern ingredients, featuring organic heirloom vegetables raised on Anne's five-generation-owned farm, not to mention dishes like sorghum-glazed veal sweetbread casserole and Kobe beef short ribs.

Long favored by the city's gay residents for its kitschy midcentury decor, Agnes & Muriel's is a staple that's been schlepping out Southern twists like Coca-Cola barbecued ribs and fried green tomato BLTs since its 1997 opening in the main gay area of Midtown.

Not to be outdone, North Carolina has really upped the Southern cooking bar as well. As any local knows, the Carolinas aren't just divided by North and South; they're deeply divided by their respective barbecue philosophies. But the barbecue domination has given way to a thriving wine and slow-food culture that is best witnessed at Durham, N.C.'s bustling Magnolia Grill, ranked number 11 on Gourmet magazine's 2006 list of best American restaurants. The zany thrown-together folk d?cor doesn't prepare you for the restaurant's fussy and elaborate dishes, like twice-baked grits souffl? with shavings of confit foie gras.

And last but not least, in a region historically rich with setbacks, New Orleans's exclusive Old World establishment Restaurant August (pictured above) is the ultimate survivor--not just because the romantic four-star favorite was reconstructed post-Katrina or because it amped up its traditional French menu with Berkshire pork-cracklin' salads and sublime fillets of St. Pierre with lobster and sunchoke. No, it's because chef John Besh dared to debut a $150 degustation tasting menu when other local restaurants were dropping their prices to attract new business--a true testament to the New South's irrepressible spirit, its culture's perpetual rebirth, and its food's unwavering integrity, tradition, and worth.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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Adam H. Graham