Monday, October 30, 2006


I receive a lot of e-mail about the fine-dining restaurants I visit. I eat out often. It’s my occupation and my hobby. So far this year I have dined at eight of the top restaurants in New York and others in Atlanta, New Orleans, Chicago, San Francisco, and the Napa Valley. I love foie gras, crisp white linens, and overly solicitous service. But what I love even more are “joints.”

I love a joint. You know the place. At first glance, it might not look like a restaurant one wouldn’t even want to step into, much less dine in. Typically, the atmosphere has accidentally evolved over the years. Nothing is contrived. The food is above average and mostly consistent. The wait staff is blasé, but efficient enough to take care of your needs. They know you by name by the second visit and know what you will order by the fourth. The place is clean in all of the places the count and is usually run by a family, or co-workers who have worked together so long that they consider themselves family. A joint is usually located in what a realtor would consider a B or C location, but it wouldn’t have the charm if it were located anywhere else.

A joint is a nice respite from the sterile, themed, corporate environment of so many just-average restaurants that are no different than the one down the road at the previous interstate exchange.

All hail the joints of the world.

A joint is full of character and is usually operated by characters. At our restaurants we strive hard to offer top-notch service and superior food. We spend hours training our wait staff and kitchen staff. Not so the joint. The typical joint appears to have handed a server a pencil and pad on their first day on the job and told them to “get out there and take an order.” Yet it works.

Most joints specialize in one particular food item. It is that food that has put them on the map. It might be one individual dish or it could be a broad category of food such as steak or barbeque. It might even specialize in a particular meal period such as breakfast or late-night dining.

There are joints with good food, bad food, and excellent food. They key is to find the ones with excellent food and put them into your dining rotation.

The one universal characteristic of a joint is that it is casual. A joint wears its casualness as a badge of honor. I love casual. It is Casual Friday every day at my office.

The other day at a speaking engagement, I was asked which restaurants— other than my own— I frequent most often. The audience seemed surprised by the answer I gave. They were all joints. They are places where the food is above average to excellent in its category, the service is friendly and efficient, and the atmosphere is casual and proud of it.

In Hattiesburg, when I want barbeque I go to Leatha’s on U.S. 98. They have beach towels for curtains, but the meat is tender, the smoke ring goes to the bone, and Bonnie takes good care of me.

If I want catfish, I go to Rayner’s on U.S. 49 North. It’s nothing more than a cinder block building but they’ve been frying catfish for over 40 years and it shows. The cole slaw is good, and the service is friendly.

When I eat steak I go to Donanelle’s on U.S. 49 South at the North Gate of Camp Shelby. When speaking of Donanelle’s, my friend said, “It ain’t much to look at, but the steaks taste great.” Donanelle’s is the quintessential joint. They serve steak, ribs, yellowfin tuna, and that’s about it. If you want a salad, your dressing choices are: Ranch, ranch, or ranch. No apologies. The rib-eye steaks are highly seasoned and marinated just like I like them. They are cooked over live charcoal, and my son can watch while they cook.

I love steak and eat it often. I visit the chain-operated steak restaurants occasionally, but I usually have to wait 30-45 minutes before I am even seated. I can leave my house, drive the nine miles to Donanelle’s, eat dinner and be home before I would have finished my salad at any of the near-the-interstate-exchange restaurants. If the food is good, I am always willing to give up atmosphere and a few of the finer points of service.

Do you have a favorite joint? If so, e-mail the name, address, and any pertinent information. I am compiling a list of The South’s Greatest Joints and would love to add your favorite to the collection.

Robert’s Marinated Steaks

6 Ribeye steaks (12-14 oz.), USDA Choice or Certified Black Angus
1 /4 cup Steak seasoning (recipe below)
3 Tbl Lemon pepper seasoning
1 cup Dale’s Steak Marinade
1 cup Stubb’s Beef Marinade (or other meat marinade: Allegro, etc.)
2 Tbl Garlic, minced
1 Tbl Liquid Smoke
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat grill to a medium-high heat. Rub steaks liberally with dry seasonings and pat them making sure the seasoning adheres to the steak. Set aside.

Mix the remaining ingredients together in a bowl. Place the seasoned steaks in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag (no more than 2 steaks per bag) and pour enough marinade into the bag to cover the steaks halfway when they are laying flat. Squeeze all excess air out the bag and seal. Allow the steaks to marinate in the refrigerator, lying flat, for no longer then two hours. Remove steaks from refrigerator 30 minutes before grilling.

Place steaks on the grill and immediately pour a little of the excess marinade on top of the steaks and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper. After the steaks are turned (and you should only turn grilled items once) add a little more of the marinade. Yield: 6 steaks

Steak Seasoning

1 /2 cup Lawry’s Seasoned Salt
1 /3 cup Black pepper
1 /4 cup Lemon Pepper
2 Tbl Garlic Salt
2 Tbl Granulated Garlic
1 Tbl Onion Powder

Combine all and mix well. Store in an airtight container.

Monday, October 23, 2006

West Indies Salad

One of the most popular crabmeat recipes in the Gulf Coast region is West Indies Salad.

West Indies Salad, a cold hors d’ oeuvre usually spooned onto crackers, is a simple combination of lump crabmeat, onion, vinegar, oil, salt, and pepper. The dish was invented by the late restaurateur, Bill Bayley of Mobile, who has also been credited with the invention of fried crab claws. Bayley owned and operated Bayley’s Restaurant in Mobile which opened in the late 1940s.

Bayley, a former merchant marine— and a figure straight out of central casting if Hollywood was looking for stereotypical Southern café owner of that era— short, rotund, and never without a cigar, invented the dish while serving as a ship steward. As the legend goes, while Bayley’s ship was docked in a faraway port, he purchased a sack of lobsters and returned to the ship where he boiled them and added ingredients that were available: Oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper. A few years later, when he opened his Mobile restaurant, he remembered that dish, and since fresh lobster wasn’t available in Lower Alabama, he substituted crabmeat. The port where he originally purchased the lobsters was in the West Indies, hence the name, West Indies Salad.

That is the story according to some accounts. Another version states that Bayley always liked the oil and vinegar based onion-cucumber salad that is served in a lot of Southern seafood houses. He simply substituted crabmeat for cucumber and a legend was born.

I like the first version, and I’ll choose to believe that one. Some things just taste better when there’s an interesting story attached.

Whatever the origin, the salad put Bayley’s restaurant on the map and for years the cigar-chomping restaurateur was asked to serve his specialty from Mobile to Montgomery to Washington D.C. The restaurant closed for a period, but Bayley’s son, Bill Bayley Jr., reopened the historic establishment and has been doing great business ever since.

Last week I ate at Bayley’s restaurant. It’s a simple, but clean, porcelain-coated concrete block building on the Dauphin Island Parkway in a part of town called Bayley’s Corner. The original restaurant was located next door.

The West Indies Salad at Bayley’s is served by the pint (12.95) or by the quart (17.95) and arrives to the table in a large bowl to be shared, family style. My group of eight ordered a quart and had trouble eating all of it. It looked like a lot more than a quart and I have no idea how they are making any profit by serving that much crabmeat for that price.

There has been one change to the original recipe in that the dish was originally made with lump crabmeat. Today, Bayley uses claw meat— the darker, less attractive, less expensive alternative— instead of the all white crabmeat. Nevertheless, it tasted just like my mother’s West Indies Salad. She prepared hers from the “Jubilee” cookbook published by the Mobile Junior League.

Typically crabmeat, a delicate ingredient, is paired with similar delicate components. Not so with West Indies Salad. The crabmeat almost becomes a vessel to carry the onions and vinegar.

I was asked to speak on behalf of West Indies Salad at a recent Southern Foodways Symposium. I offered to bring a few gallons for all of the attendees to sample. Linda Nance, Purple Parrot Café Sous Chef, and I played around with Bayley’s original recipe trying to update and possibly upgrade the dish. His recipe calls for Wesson oil. We used all types of exotic and expensive olive oils and flavored oils. The results were good, but not necessarily an improvement on the original. Whereas the Bayley recipe called for cider vinegar, we also tried substituting boutique vinegars, to no avail. Ultimately we learned that if we wanted to serve West Indies Salad, we would need to follow the original recipe.

Bill Bayley’s West Indies Salad

1 lb. Fresh Lump Crabmeat
1 Medium Onion, chopped fine
4 oz. Wesson Oil
3 oz. Cider Vinegar
4 oz. Ice Water
Salt and Pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients and gently toss. Refrigerate for several hours.

Crabmeat Martini

1/4 cup Red onion, small dice
1 lb Jumbo lump crabmeat (gently picked of all shell)
2/3 cup Lemon-flavored salad oil
2 Tbl Olive oil (not extra virgin)
1 1/2 tsp Absolut Citron Vodka (optional)
1/2 cup White balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup Ice cold water
1 teaspoon Salt
1 teaspoon Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon Hot Sauce
2 teaspoons Cilantro, chopped fine
2 teaspoons Parsley

In a large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients and gently toss with a rubber spatula. Be careful not to break up any of the lumps of crabmeat. Cover and store in refrigerator 12 hours (toss every hour or so) to let flavors marry. Gently turn over just before serving, as the lemon vinaigrette will separate.

Divide crabmeat mixture between 4 lettuce-lined martini glasses. Drizzle excess vinaigrette over the crabmeat to wet the lettuce. Garnish with a rosemary skewered olive for a light and cool first course or double the recipe and serve on a lettuce-lined plate for a luncheon salad.

Serve the leftovers in a decorative bowl on the coffee table to be spooned atop your favorite cracker.

Yield: 6 servings, appetizer
4 servings, salad

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Long Forgotten Nest

Recent book business took me and my family to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

While riding down Beach Boulevard and lamenting the loss of so many beautiful and historic homes and classic Coast restaurants I developed a craving for seafood.

In the past, when eating seafood on the coast, I stick with one of the old-line seafood restaurants of the broiled-flounder variety. I have fond memories of spending summers on the Gulf Coast in the days where fried shrimp served by a waitress was a treat. I ate my first raw oyster at Baricev’s. My first fried oyster, too.

They’re all gone. All of them. What the casinos didn’t purchase, Katrina washed away.

My best option was McElroy’s in Ocean Springs. I had eaten often at the McElroys when it was located at the Biloxi Small Craft Harbor— and even though they’re in a new building— they might be the last of the old-line seafood restaurants still standing.

On our way in, I was having a discussion with my five-year old son about fish sticks. I don’t remember how we got on the subject, but he had never seen or eaten a fish stick. I hadn’t seen or eaten a fish stick since the Nixon administration, but they were a staple in my home as a kid.

Fish sticks were fresh on my mind, and with a slight melancholy over the loss of the historic Coast restaurants of my youth, I ordered fried red snapper. When the waitress asked which side order I would like, I asked, “What are my options?”

The standard reply of, “Baked potato and French fries” was delivered, and then she threw in another option, “…or English peas.”

English peas? At an old-line Coast seafood restaurant? I never remember eating English peas at a seafood restaurant as a kid. I ate them at home all of the time. Did the recent spinach crisis have something to do with this particular option being offered as a side item?

I love English peas. I never eat them, anymore, mainly because my wife hates them and refuses to buy them. Therefore, my kids haven’t grown up eating them. English peas, you say? Why yes, and throw in a baked potato, too.

When the food arrived, I added butter, sour cream, salt, and pepper to my baked potato and mashed it inside the skin. The potatoes were sitting next to my small bowl of English peas. I took a bite of potato, then a bite of peas, another bite of potato, and another bite of peas. Before long, I scooted my pea bowl as close as I could get to the baked potato on the plate and took a bite of potato and a bite of peas at the same time. Ah, the taste of my youth.

Eventually, I broke down and added my English peas to my mashed-up baked potato. My children looked at me like I had grown a third eye.

The one thing that was well-known in my family when I was young was that Robert liked his English peas in a nest of mashed potatoes. That combination represented one of the few vegetables that I would eat. I remember my grandmother telling me that my dad liked them that way. I didn’t know my father, and I suspect that is the reason that I always ate English peas in a nest of mashed potatoes. Sunday night at the St. John’s circa 1968: Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, Ed Sullivan, Bonanza, fish sticks, and English peas in a nest of mashed potatoes.

At formal luncheons or dinners, others would eat rice and asparagus, but you could guarantee, I would be eating English peas and mashed potatoes. Simple, pure, youthful.

Currently, in my restaurants we are serving crispy eggplant ratatouille, black-eyed pea and banana-pepper relish, roasted-garlic flan, and tri-colored orzo pasta with mirliton and cilantro. This summer I ate dozens of expensive, complicated, and exotic vegetable pairings at restaurants from New York to San Francisco. All of the aforementioned vegetables might pale in comparison to my first English pea-mashed potato nest in the last 25 years.

Sitting in McElroy’s Seafood Restaurant, I felt like I was back in elementary school— Fried fish, mashed potatoes, and English peas, except with a view of the Back Bay in Ocean Springs. My wife just doesn’t know what she’s missing.

Mashed Potatoes

3 lbs Idaho potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters
2 Tbl. Salt
1 gallon Water

1 /2 cup Butter, cold
8 ounces Cream cheese, softened
1 cup Half and half, hot
1 1 /2 tsp. Salt
1 tsp Black pepper

In a large saucepot add potatoes and salted water. Cook at a low simmer to avoid potatoes breaking apart. When the potatoes are tender, carefully drain. Return potatoes to dry pot and place over heat for one to two minutes to remove all moisture.

Place potatoes a mixing bowl. Using a hand-held potato masher, mash the potatoes. Add cold butter as you begin to mash. Next, add cream cheese and mix until melted. Stir in the half and half, salt and pepper. Potatoes may be covered tightly and held in warm place for one hour before serving. Yield: 10 servings

Monday, October 09, 2006

Winsor Court After the Flood

New Orleans’ Windsor Court Hotel opened in the early1980s around the time the World’s Fair came to town.

From day one, Windsor Court has been consistently listed among the top hotels in the world. It has garnered more awards and more acclaim than any other hotel in New Orleans, and probably more than any hotel in the South. In 2001, Conde Nast Traveler listed Windsor Court as the “Number Two Hotel in the U.S.” Every reputable travel publication has— at one time or another— listed the Windsor Court among the nation’s best hotels.

My wife and I have traveled often— 90 miles to the southeast of our home— for a getaway weekend. The service at the hotel has always been impeccable.

One of the aspects of the Windsor Court’s service that always impressed me was the name-recall ability of the staff. Once a guest checked in— anytime a member of the staff passed you in the hallway, opened the front door for you, or gave you directions at the concierge desk— the staff was able to call you by name. It was amazing. I never figured how they did it.

The rooms were plush, the bathrooms were adorned with marble, the towels were soft and thick, and the bedding was plush and comfortable. Over the years, I have run into Elton John, Eric Clapton, and several other high-profile celebrities and politicians in the lobby.

The restaurant at the Windsor Court— The Grill Room— was, at one time, listed as the top restaurant in New Orleans. In the early 1990s, when Kevin Graham was manning the stoves, the dining room was hard to beat. At that time, the food Graham was preparing was on a much higher level than most of the other restaurants in New Orleans.

I have just returned from a weekend at Windsor Court, my first since the New Orleans levee system failed after Katrina blew through Mississippi.
told that there were still several FEMA employees staying on the government’s tab.

The Windsor Court isn’t the hotel it used to be, but it’s not too far off. The problem is the lack of available labor. A recent Washington Post article stated, “The population of 187,525 is about 41 percent of the 454,000 people estimated to be living in Orleans Parish before the storm hit Aug. 29, 2005.”

The population of New Orleans was 191,000 in 1870. It’s going to be a long time before the city reaches the pre-storm level of service personnel. Immediately after the levees broke, Burger King restaurants were offering potential employees a $6,000.00 signing bonus and still not able to fully staff their restaurants.

On this recent visit to Windsor Court, there were noticeable problems that never would have been visible two years ago— mold on the ceiling of the room and above the shower, dirty silverware, and cheap, thin towels. Nevertheless, the service was close to what guests have come to expect.

The bellman who brought our luggage to the room was the same man who served our brunch the next day. I don’t know this for a fact, but I got the impression that the hotel is severely understaffed and running on a skeleton crew. Nevertheless, the workers who are there and in the trenches are working with the same commitment to exceptional service that has always marked the Windsor Court.

The hotel was fully booked that weekend, but the dining room was virtually empty for brunch. The food was not the food of the 1990s, but everyone in New Orleans deserves a pass these days.

In the larger scheme of things, the quality of food and service at a luxury hotel doesn’t matter much when people have lost their homes and all of their belongings. Nowadays, the Windsor Court Hotel is no different than all of the other businesses in the Crescent City— just taking it day to day, trying to patch holes in employee scheduling, hanging by a string until the convention trade returns, and hoping that one day soon life will return to some semblance of the days before August 29, 2005.

Sweet Potato Nachos

This recipe has the perfect blend of flavors, colors and textures. Make sure that the chips are fried crispy. Floppy chips can’t hold the topping.

1 large sweet potato, sliced into very thin potato chip-like circles
Peanut oil for frying

1 cup Boursin cheese (recipe listed below)
1 /2 cup pecan pieces, toasted
1 /2 cup roasted red peppers, cut into 1 ½-long strips
1 TBL fresh chives, chopped

Preheat oil to 325 degrees.

Fry the sweet potato chips six to seven at a time. Move chips often and cook to a light brown color.

Drain onto paper towels.

Preheat oven to 325.

Once drained, place the chips on a baking sheet. Top each slice with 2 teaspoons boursin cheese and 3 strips of roasted pepper. Bake three minutes.

Sprinkle with toasted pecans and chives and serve immediately.

Boursin Cheese

This is the recipe we serve in the Crescent City Grill. In addition to being a good spread for crackers, it can also be used to stuff mushroom caps, and as a filling for miniature puff pastry turnovers.

8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1 Tbl salted butter, softened
1 /2 tsp Creole Seasoning
1 /4 tsp Minced garlic
1 /8 tsp thyme, oregano rosemary, chives, basil, dill, sage
1 tsp fresh parsley, chopped fine
2 Tbl half and half
1 tsp sherry vinegar
1 /4 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 /3 cup sour cream

Place all ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer. Using the paddle attachment, beat on high speed until all ingredients are well incorporated, scraping sides of the bowl occasionally to ensure all ingredients are combined.

Yield: 2 cups

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Destin Lament

DESTIN, Fla— Two fellow Mississippians, Jimmy Buffett and Mac McAnally, wrote a song about being down in this part of the country during the off-season: The Coast Is Clear.

Twenty years ago when I first heard the song, I couldn’t relate to it. I thought, that’s just two old guys who don’t like to be around the action any more. I was living here in Destin at the time, and could imagine how boring it must be when the crowds are gone. I was young and foolish.

Today I assume my official role as one of the old guys who doesn’t like to be around the action anymore. This is a beautiful time to be in this part of the country. No crowds on the beaches, cooler weather, no traffic, lower rates, no long waits in restaurants, did I mention cooler weather?

I am here to celebrate my 45th birthday (I told you I was one of the old guys), and to get a little rest before the release of my next book and subsequent promotional tour.

Every time I am in this part of the country, the romantic in me sadly reminds me of what this area was like 35 years ago, and I lament the loss of the quaint fishing village with miles of unspoiled beaches. I long for the days of no high-rise condominiums or sprawling strip malls serving up the same tired retailers one sees in the suburbs of Everytown U.S.A. Although being here in October seems a little closer to “The good old days” (you see, I’m sounding like an old man already).

The redfish are biting and the seafood is plentiful. I almost ate my weight in steamed crab last night. One of the benefits of so-called “progress” is the proliferation of good restaurants. The restaurant Fish Out of Water at Watercolor is performing on a higher level than most. I still love Bud and Alley’s at Seaside, and Harbor Docks— where I worked during one of my extended stays here— is as solid as ever.

The new fine dining places are great, and those who know me know I love to eat that type food. Though I also like the old-line restaurants, the ones that remind me of what this place was like 35 years ago. The places my parents, and my parents friends took me in the days when getting to eat a plate of fried shrimp was a rare treat. The one place I keep returning to when I visit this area is Bayou Bill’s on U.S. 98.

During the summer, the crowds at Bayou Bill’s are enormous. They are lined up in the parking lot before the restaurant opens, and once the doors are unlocked; the restaurant fills up immediately, and stays on a wait all night long.

Two nights ago, at 7:30 p.m., we walked right in, and I subsequently began to eat my weight in steamed crab.

Last night we were dining in one of the trendy restaurants-of-the-moment and the Destin lament struck me again: It’s a shame we can’t have the restaurant growth and leave everything else the same.

From now on, I think I’ll take Mr. Buffett and Mr. McAnally’s advice:

The tourist traps are empty, vacancy abounds
It’s almost like it used to be before the circus came to town
That’s when it always happens, same time every year
I come down to talk to me, when the coast is clear

Yellowfin Tuna Tartar with Avocado Relish

The ingredients must be fresh. Do not substitute. You won’t be sorry. A true crowd pleaser with a lot of “Wow” appeal.

1 /4 cup minced green onion
1 tsp fresh minced ginger
2 Tbl chopped cilantro
2 Tbl toasted sesame seeds
1 Tbl sesame oil
1 tsp fish sauce
1 /2 tsp hot sauce
2 Tbl soy sauce
1 tsp honey
1 tsp sherry
1 tsp rice vinegar
2 Tbl cottonseed oil
1 /2 pound fresh Yellowfin tuna, small dice

Combine all ingredients except for Yellowfin tuna and blend well. Diced tuna should be added to sesame seed mixture just before serving.

Avocado Relish

1 Tbl fresh lime juice
1 tsp cottonseed oil (or canola oil)
1 tsp sesame seed oil
1 /4 tsp garlic, minced
1 TBSP red onion, finely diced
1 tsp fresh chopped parley
2 tsp red bell pepper, small diced
1 medium sized ripe avocado
1 /4 tsp Salt
1 /8 tsp Cayenne pepper

Combine first seven ingredients and blend well. Quickly fold the avocado. If making in advance, place the seed in the relish and press plastic wrap directly on to the relish, sealing it off from any air exposure. Refrigerate.

5 sheets fresh egg roll wrappers to make wonton crackers

Using a cookie cutter, cut 2 1 /2-inch circles into the center of egg roll wrappers. Fry according to the package directions.
To serve, place 1 1 /2 tsp of the tartar mixture and 1 tsp avocado relish on the wonton crackers.

Yield: 25-30