Georgia Fare: Church Supper
Revival brings an old-fashioned Southern family dinner to the table.
Tasty Bites: Fried chicken, mac n’ cheese and cornbread
In the front yard, little kids run around yelling, arms waving, under a mom’s watchful eye. It’s the kind of old Craftsman house you picture when you think “Decatur bungalow,” even if this one is just off downtown. Behind the backyard, cranes work overtime to finish yet another sprawling multiuse development, this one enveloping the old Dairy Queen that long stood on the edge of the railroad tracks like a lonely sentinel.
You walk across the wide planks of the big porch and through the front door. Inside, mementos and photos from the family of chef/owner Kevin Gillespie perch on bookcase shelves and mantels. Walk up to the bar and order a Toasted Old Fashioned. Yes, it is a little like going to Grandma’s house – if she made a kick-butt version of the classic bourbon cocktail with burnt sugar syrup and torched orange peel. Or a vintage Chatham Artillery punch. Or a Harvey Wallbanger with fresh-squeezed orange juice.
Welcome to Revival, my favorite Gillespie venture since Woodfire Grill. Even with every detail of this structure supporting his goal of an old-fashioned Southern family supper, Gillespie (and executive chef Andreas Müller of Gunshow) is less about hyper-authentic recipes (like, say, the original Scott Peacock/Edna Lewis menu at Watershed, or even Sean Brock’s Husk, now in Charleston and Nashville), and more about placing a unique signature on dishes with touchstone down-home flavors.
Take, for example, the toasted deviled ham tea sandwiches. For my generation, deviled ham immediately conjures Scout camp, picnics, long car trips and the little can with a fiery demon brandishing a pitchfork. Did anyone ever really make it from scratch and enjoy it in dainty grilled tea sandwiches? Not in my house. But why not? Because they’re very, very good – even elegant, with their radish and lettuce garnish.
In my mother’s time, the canned version was a godsend, a forerunner to the glorious days of TV dinners to come.
The cornbread is another milepost – the kind made so often, and always in a cast-iron skillet, that its crackly crust and dewy center were givens. Revival’s version is perhaps the best I’ve had anywhere. Heirloom tomatoes with cucumber and red onion in a simple white vinaigrette are the kind of garden-fresh staples that remained on our table from the first ripening to early fall, but Revival adds peeled, marinated cherry tomatoes and baby basil leaves. And while Gillespie’s “Granny’s pole beans” are gently al dente and gleaming with pork fat, they’re a lot like the half-runners we’d can every fall to have year-round, cooked nearly to the texture of soft-serve ice cream, with a bit of streak o’ lean.
Entrees like the bacon-wrapped, grass-fed beef and pork meatloaf, and more importantly, the fried chicken, also ring true, with Gillespie flourishes – those two seemed the most popular items to order “family-style,” where $42 per person brings the same entree to the entire table, with chef-chosen relishes and sides, plus dessert and coffee. The meatloaf is fine-ground and dense, a thick slice of savory goodness; the fried chicken was better on the second visit – the crust that time less a heavily battered, honeycomb-textured, almost Asian version and more a clean, simple Southern style. (It may have been a matter of who was handling the frying that day.)
The wood-grilled quail with honey and garlic nearly requires its own fainting couch, its mild, delectable gaminess enhanced, not encumbered, by the touch of sweetness. Overall, the vegetables were sometimes even better than my farming family’s groaning tables at reunions: collards and turnip greens, smoked over hickory; limas, flecked with dill; the standout red beans in the red beans and rice, studded with sausage.
Some dishes flat don’t work: I’m not even sure what the catfish in low country tomato gravy is trying to be, but while it’s not bad, it’s not memorable. The stone-ground grits with caramelized onion swim in heavy cream, but the little dollop of greens and pot liquor on top nearly save them. The mac-and-cheese is tasty, sure, but a butterfat bomb bound with cheese and topped with crushed chips.
With the exception of the just-OK chocolate cake, desserts are as good as you could hope for, especially the classic lemon icebox pie and outrageous, maraschino-garnished pineapple upside down cake with Dr. Pepper ice cream.
What I found most interesting about dining on the quieter porch, which is first-come, first-served, was how diners often checked with each other on the way out: “I saw you had the chicken. How was it?” “Did you like the creamed shrimp?” Their expressions were both enthralled and concerned. It was a little like we’d all gone back to church after a long time away.
If you like updated Southern cooking, try:
A Tuesday night “meat-and-three” pop-up from the Last Resort Grill
Singularly stylish coastal cuisine
Fortify Kitchen & Bar