Heading south for dinner

Americus spins Southern cuisine

Americus defines its cuisine as "regional American with a Southern twist," which is something I'm not sure I get. How could something be regional with a regional twist? And does a double regional cancel itself out and leave us with nothing to eat but a press release? Geography's a bitch, but so is American cuisine. In reality, delivered pizza, fried chicken, hot dogs, and Cool Whip are the only real red-blooded American foods out there. And maybe Crackerjacks. Plus Cap'n Crunch. But when was the last time you saw a chicken-fried hot dog pizza (which, of course, would be American fusion) on a menu?

American cuisine is so fraught with confusion because it's from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. It's impossible to characterize the stuff with a single phrase, or a whole State of the Union Address-sized treatise, for that matter. A nation built by global drifters, castaways, and religious nuts with guns, America has a pantry so flush with international variety that it would set your average university humanities department convulsing with rapture over its potent multicultural diversity--if the stuff weren't so doggoned American.

The Northeast reflects English origins. Creole cuisine, an urban Louisiana creation, has French, Spanish, and African influences. Cajun is country grub developed by expelled French inhabitants from Nova Scotia who settled in the swamps of Southern Louisiana and created a cuisine from things such as game, shrimp, and crawfish by simmering them for long periods with a few herbs and plenty of hot sauce.

Southwest cuisine is perhaps the oldest American regional style. Its roots reach back so far that the words chili, guacamole, and tomato are Aztec in origin.

But perhaps the most significant of all regional cuisine in its impact on American culinary development is the food that originated in the South, where African slaves introduced techniques such as smoking meats, frying legumes and grains into fritters, boiling greens, and creating hot, spicy sauces. Americus chef Michael McMillan seizes the potency of this style for his menu.

"It has a lot of bacon, a lot of grease connotation to it," McMillan says. "We can take some of the older styles of Southern cuisine and reinterpret them to be more in tune with a current type of diet."

McMillan does this by creating vegetable bases, as opposed to veal stock or chicken stock, for many of his sauces, though he has as many animal-based sauces on his menu as those derived from vegetables. He insists his menu is more a framing of traditional Southern flavors with modern sensibilities than an example of American regional fusion. "I'm trying to use as much of the local ingredients and local influence as I can without necessarily going Southwestern," he asserts.

A former chef at the Mansion on Turtle Creek, McMillan ran into Americus owners Larry and Beth DiGioia at a crawfish boil at a neighbor's house. Larry, a former telecommunications entrepreneur, had always wanted to open a restaurant, and at one point considered entering culinary school.

Americus--actually Larry's middle name and the name of his father--is tucked in a strip mall one door over from Lavendou. Beth says the interior is intended to resemble a comfortable dining room in someone's home, with meticulous care taken with use of materials and techniques to minimize noise.

Very clean and crisp, the interior features cherry wood appointments, hunter green accents, a wine room cordoned with a metal grate, crystal chandeliers, and rich draperies dividing the dining areas. But this casual elegance seems to dress up its mall slot digs rather than transcend them. It creates an unexciting distance, like you're about to sit down and have dinner not in someone's dining room, but in a model home with warnings to steer people from the plastic fruit.

And while the food strives to be as polished as the decor, it shows a few pronounced scuffs. For instance, pan-seared quail mesclun salad doused in a Dijon vinaigrette had tough, dry, and bland meat. But a nest of potato and carrot holding a hard-boiled quail egg was delicately crunchy and sweet.

A salad composed of a robustly pungent, voluminous mound of dandelion greens, arugula, and hericot verts was better. The fresh, crisp greens were slathered in restrained walnut vinaigrette while thick, generous shavings of Parmesan added a rich, almost fruity dimension.

One of the more interesting visual conglomerations on Americus' menu, the house-made smoked salmon Napoleon with caramelized leeks, featured splotches of beet juice and curry oil plus a cross-hatching of wasabi and aioli sauces across the plate. But the hickory-smoked salmon was warm, limp, and unpleasantly dry around the edges.

But another salmon dish trumped the Napoleon in both looks and flavor. Resembling a pair of stacked hockey pucks, the grilled salmon with basil and blue-crab pilau was composed of a thick disk of grilled salmon atop a circular foundation of blue-crab pilau--a Southern version of this Turkish dish made from Texas basmati rice and blue crab claw meat and formed with thin, long strips of grilled zucchini. The bottom layer was suffused with rich, nutty rice flavor delicately woven with sea-flesh sweetness. But the salmon, though moist, was a little shy on rich flavor. Threads of red pepper sauce painted across the plate seemed more show than tell.

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