When I told friends and family of my impending visit to Lady & Sons, the Savannah restaurant owned and operated by former Food Network celebrity chef Paula Deen and her scions Bobby and Jamie, I expected a barrage of well-intentioned criticism. The most “innocent” criticism would have to do with “a cacophony of cackling” and a “chorus of “ya’all” coming from the kitchen. At least one dissenter, I believed, would accuse me of naivete in thinking the celebrity chefs might actually be present, much less actually preparing my meal. The most cutting criticism–the one I feared most–would be an accusation that a visit would actually be abetting racism.
Thankfully everyone to whom I mentioned my visit realized that the nature of any restaurant visit I make is with the express purpose of seeking enjoyment in the dining experience. As such, you won’t read any mean-spirited personal attacks on this blog besmirching the character of Ms. Deen, who until recent years was as beloved a culinary glitterati as you’d find on the fruited plain. It would be so easy to pile on, but my stance in doing so has always been right out of John 8:7: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Social commentary aside, there is much to be admired about Paula Deen, a true American rags to riches story who surmounted panic attacks and chronic agoraphobia to found a culinary empire that has made her wealthy and famous. Her catharsis came from her cooking, first with a home-based catering business called The Bag Lady then in January, 1996, with the launch of her own restaurant, The Lady and Sons, in downtown Savannah. In 1999, USA Today awarded The Lady and Sons its “International Meal of the Year” award. Her first cookbook soon followed and its success, in turn, led to her first appearance on the QVC shopping channel. In 2002, she landed her very first Food Network show.
The Lady and Sons and its attached gift store occupy nearly an entire city block in a large, weathered, three-story plus basement, 200-year old brick building on Congress Street with 15,000 square feet of dining, full service bar and office space. Diners queue up shortly before the restaurant opens. As with many “pilgrimage” restaurants, conversation among those in line centers around what part of the country we’re all from. There were few, if any, locals in line. When your name is called, you’re handed a plastic card indicating whether you’re eating on the first or third floor of the restaurant (the second floor and basement are used for banquets).
The third floor dining room is meticulous and laid out for optimized efficiency. The ceiling is arrayed in exposed ductwork and ceiling fans, perhaps the restaurant’s sole attempt at modernity. Walls are festooned in framed artwork with a country theme. Whether by design or not, the cynosure of the dining room is the buffet from which fragrant steam emanates and Southern delicacies are displayed. By my estimate, at least seventy-five percent of the diners made their way, often several times, to the steely trays holding fried chicken, mashed potatoes, collard greens and much more. When you’re done with the savory portion of the buffet, you order a dessert from the menu.
Should you eschew the all-you-can-eat gurgitator’s fest, there are plenty of attractive options on the lunch and dinner menus. In fact, none of the buffet items are duplicated on the menu. As you’re perusing the menu, a server will deposit a Cheddar biscuit and a hoecake on a plate. There are several condiments on your table, including syrup should you wish to treat your hoecake like a pancake. If your tastes lean more toward the piquant, douse the hoecake in Paula Deen’s Tabasco-like hot sauce which is quite good. The Cheddar biscuit needs nothing added thanks to butyraceous qualities that even prevent it from crumbling.
Credit author Fannie Flagg with popularizing fried tomatoes with her 1987 best selling comedy-drama Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Fried green tomatoes were pretty much unheard of throughout much of the fruited plain save for the Deep South where they’re practically a religion. The Lady and Sons have perfected this starter over the years, serving a plate with five lightly coated green tomatoes topped with a roasted red pepper sauce. The red pepper sauce has a sweet-piquant kick that complements the acidity of the tomatoes perfectly. A ramekin with a homemade sweet Vidalia onion relish is a flavor contrast to the tomatoes.
During a visit to Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho earlier in the month, we were treated to a wonderful seafood bisque which transported me back to my youth in Massachusetts. That bisque was so good, it prompted me to seek out its equal during my trip to South Carolina. The blue crab bisque at The Lady and Sons is close. As with all great bisques, it’s served with wisps of fragrant steam escaping upward, a preview of its flavor. Heavy cream and sherry give the bisque its creaminess while an insane amount of blue crab meat gives it an incomparable flavor.
One of the more popular entrees, according to my server, is a fresh seafood platter offering your choice of shrimp, scallops or oysters, batter-fried or sauteed and served with coleslaw and your choice of sweet potato chips or jelly roll fries garnished with fried-collard greens. The platter also includes ketchup, cocktail sauce and tartar sauce though you can also apply any of the condiments on your table (hint: that Paula Deen hot sauce is pretty good if you like cayenne.)
Only two things would have made the seafood platter better–doubling the amount of seafood on the plate and making it a true seafood platter by offering it with at least two, preferably three, seafood choices. The seafood portion size certainly isn’t penurious, but it’s so wonderfully prepared, you’ll want even more. One of the secrets to great oysters is breading them lightly and frying them to a light, golden sheen. When you bite into them, you should be able to discern a slight crunch followed by the incomparable, sensuously gooey texture. The best description of how they should taste I’ve read is, “they taste as if God prepared them.” These qualities all define the fried oysters at Lady and Sons.
Despite eight years of living in the Deep South (Mississippi), jelly roll fries were brand new to me. They actually resemble fried green tomatoes in that they’re roundish in shape and have a fried golden hue. They don’t taste like conventional French fries or even fried potatoes, but go very well with the cocktail sauce. The coleslaw is made with fresh ingredients and very little salad cream. Best of all, it’s more assertively flavored (thanks to bell pepper, onion, carrot, and parsley) than so many insipid coleslaws.
As in so many Southern restaurants, you won’t find a compendium-like list of desserts at The Lady and Sons. In fact, there were only four choices, two–pecan pie and key lime pie–of which seem to be de rigueur at all Southern restaurants. The key lime pie is very good! It starts with a great foundation in which a Graham cracker crust is paired with slivered almonds, the latter a very pleasant surprise. The pie filling is redolent with key lime juice, lime zest and sweetened condensed milk. It’s not quite lip-pursing sour, but offers a discernible tanginess you’ll enjoy very much.
The American media seems bent on building up cultural icons only to tear them down at some later point. Only the most resilient and contrite survive having their transgressions made public. Americans are a forgiving people–perhaps because we have so much to forgive in ourselves–quick to embrace our fallen heroes. I’m pulling for Paula Deen to rebound and resume her place among the pantheon of great American chefs.
The Lady & Son’s
102 West Congress Street
LATEST VISIT: 14 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Fried Oysters, Key Lime Pie, Fried Green Tomatoes, Crab Stew, Cheddar Biscuit, Hoecake