Boy, who would’ve thought that Chow, Baby’s new expertise on fried green tomatoes would come in handy so soon. Another concurrence: While munching on those yummies at the Whistle Stop Café in Juliette, Ga., a couple of weekends ago, Chow, Baby was also musing on restaurant fakeness.
The Whistle Stop Café didn’t actually exist before the 1991 movie; the building, a junk-tique store, was used as a set, and only after Fried Green Tomatoes started getting Oscar buzz did the building’s owner turn it into a restaurant. Now the whole block (the only block in Juliette, pretty much) is a tourist trap, specializing in postcards, t-shirts, train-flattened pennies, and the like. Chow, Baby got a refrigerator magnet ($2.50).
So the Whistle Stop Café is fake, in the sense that it’s not what it pretends to be. But on the other hand, it is a real café in small-town Georgia, with home-schooled cooks preparing great homestyle food. The fried green tomatoes were lovely, thin-sliced and lightly battered, and with a neat-o radish sauce tartly reminiscent of a remoulade. Not like the ones at Vidalia’s, which has just opened in the former Sam & Harry’s space in the Renaissance Worthington Hotel (the former Kalamatas space upstairs now appears to be chair storage). Vidalia’s calls itself a “modern Southern restaurant.” Chow, Baby calls it fake fake fake.
Vidalia’s fried green tomatoes ($6) are coated with traditional cornmeal but were sliced untraditionally thick, the size of hockey pucks, each tough bite a reminder that these things are called “green” because they’re not ripe. Modern? Sure; they looked chic, prettily stacked with slices of mozzarella and roasted peppers. But having had the fake-real thing, Chow, Baby isn’t impressed with Vidalia’s version. And Southern culture really hit the skids with Vidalia’s whimsical-drinks menu (“Bayou Backwater,” “Scarlet O’Hara”). Pointing out others’ typos is daring the word-processor gods, but Chow, Baby can’t let the “Kentucky Kernel” ($9) pass. Be witty if it were a corn-juice martini, but it’s not. Chow, Baby thinks the name is an homage, either to Kentucky Kernel-brand seasoned flour (great for fried chicken) or to ignorance.
Further ignorance-evidence arrived with Vidalia’s “smothered pork chop” ($21), a breaded-and-fried chop with a scant drizzle of gravy. No. No. Real smothered pork chops are the things you get for about $6.50 with two sides at Drew’s Place or Mom’s or Poly Grill – thick chops submerged in heavily peppered drippings-gravy, so fall-apart that not only do you not need a knife, you don’t even need a fork. A spoon’s the thing for salvaging every last morsel. At Vidalia’s the pork chop comes with a steak knife, and it’s necessary. Oh, this is a perfectly fine breaded chop, but it isn’t particularly Southern. The pecan-crusted chicken ($19), Vidalia’s “signature” dish, yielded the same reaction: fine, but not Southern-glorious. The clincher for Chow, Baby was the side of “Southern-braised greens.” They were excellent: earthy, rich, a little tangy. Collards? Mustard? Turnip? Any of the traditional Southern leafies?
Nope. Romaine and spinach. Like anybody’s mee-maw ever made romaine greens.
With its decent if overpriced food, classy décor, swanky bar, and fawning service, Vidalia’s target audience is obvious and sadly large: It’s the Southern restaurant for folks who go to P.F. Chang’s rather than Phat-Dat, to Cantina Laredo rather than El Asadero. Hope y’all have a great time. You’ll love the bread pudding.
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