Get your mouth to 55 South
55 South takes taste buds on a culinary road trip
Juke joints, shrimp shacks, oyster bars on the bayou, blues in the night. . . .
On a road trip south, deep south, I-55 is the most direct run from Memphis to New Orleans, and jaunts off this Delta Highway turn up culinary traditions mighty as the Mississippi.
For Chef Jason McConnell, these are roads well traveled and much loved.
Growing up in West Tennessee, the Culinary Institute of America graduate had taken family trips throughout the region (as part of their Walking Horse business) and sampled his first tastes of Deep South fare. Later-in-life stints studying at Ole Miss and working in New Orleans further informed his palate with the complexities of comeback sauce and the depth of dark roux.
Accessing food memories from those places and times, McConnell has assembled a soulful roster that follows the route at his latest restaurant, 55 South.
It wasn’t his original intention to house this, his third restaurant (Red Pony and Sol being the other two), in downtown Franklin, but the right real estate in Nashville didn’t emerge. The philosophy of “Use Whatcha Got” prevailed, so McConnell split his modern Mexican eatery, Sol (a sprawling 6,000 square feet) into two very different, comfortable dining spots that share a common kitchen.
Facing Main Street at Fourth, 55 South lures you in with its casual, c’mon-in bar, all backroads-backwater feel. Over the lively hum, you might hear Buddy Guy belting out the blues. Lazy Magnolia Lager and Abita Jockamo Ale are on tap. Chalkboards on exposed brick spell out the lineup of whiskeys, served straight up, on the rocks or in custom concoctions.
Repurposed barn wood and metal wainscot the walls. Burlap-wrapped tables have little whiskey crates to caddy the condiments — both Tabasco and Louisiana Hot Sauces are fairly represented — along with baskets of packaged saltines and butter pats.
Oysters are a must
Yet partnered with this rustic sensibility is some very sophisticated food, starting with oysters, roasted or raw. For purists, get them fresh-shucked, plump and pristine on the half shell, a briny-cold revelation (25 cents apiece from 3 to 4 p.m.). If you have time to sit a spell, potent oyster shooters are a bracing way to go: each bivalve doused in chilled vodka, “firewater” and Bloody Mary spice (4 for $9.55).
Roasted varieties bring their own kinds of pleasure. McConnell’s version of Oysters Rockefeller laces greens with the gentle bitter anise bite of Herbsaint. Oysters mounded with the mix sit up proudly on their pedestal shells, surrounded by crystals of rock salt. The simple perfection of the chargrilled version — oysters awash in a warm, butter-laden bath of lemon, garlic, oyster liquor and cayenne — will simply make you swoon. With subtle smoke from the charring, the oysters burst with musky sweetness, acid tang from citrus and heat. You’ll want an extra plank of Texas Toast to sop up all the juices ($7.95 per half-dozen).
Don’t stop there
The oysters are so deeply satisfying that you could stop there. But this sun-filled trip South is just starting, and you don’t want to miss the blue crab claws, served hot in the skillet with diced bits of onion and red bell pepper browned in butter. Give ’em a healthy squeeze of lemon, a dash of hot sauce and a wait. You want to let the claw meat absorb all those flavors before you drag each delectable bite across your teeth ($10.55).
Then there’s the fried pork chop sandwich, stained in hot sauce and served on an airy-crisp baguette with jalapenos, avocado and mayo ($9.55). So good it made us weep. That goes for the sides, too. Shredded slaw has a nice sting of red onion, and lightly salted house-made chips are dark and delicious. Who needs fries?
Decisions can be hard. To make it easier, try the Three-Way. It’s a trio of sampler-sized servings of chicken-sausage gumbo in dark-as-Hershey’s roux, red beans and rice and a light jambalaya — rice whipped up with chicken, andouille, tomato and the Cajun “trinity” of celery, onion and bell pepper ($11.95).
But don’t stray from the prize: NOLA BBQ Shrimp. A classic but sultry dish, its simple elements yield complicated results. Gulf shrimp pop in McConnell’s smooth, intense emulsion of Worcestershire, garlic, lemon, butter and spice. The savory-sweet concoction is poured over a bowl of blue cheese grits (mildly pungent) in a beautiful balance of texture and piquancy ($15.95).