Heading south for dinner

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.

Another of Americus' flavor-shy creations was the pan-seared mahi-mahi with ginger-lemon crust and sauteed spring vegetables in a fennel jus. It wasn't flawed, just uninspiring. Surprisingly, the jus was not as assertive as the name might imply, though it was plenty salty, holding a mix of tender baby carrots, wax beans, French string beans, and boiled potatoes. The mahi-mahi had a slightly inconsistent texture with firm, dense flesh giving way to pockets of mushiness and a richness that seemed to surrender all too easily to the surges of lemon and ginger.

Grilled Angus beef tenderloin with new potato souffle and grilled asparagus had all the aesthetic lasciviousness that incites shameless slobbering among red-meat lovers. Cooked to a perfect medium-rare hue, the steak was silken, yet dry and short on full flavor. The new potato souffle, a composition made from hollowed-out potatoes stuffed with a mixture of sauteed mushrooms, shallots, and egg whites that rises out of the potato as it's baked, was girded with potatoes that were dramatically undercooked--crunchy and slightly bitter. The asparagus, though, was crisp and tasty.

Resembling the hue of a cru Beaujolais, pecan-crusted rack of lamb with rosemary zinfandel sauce was far too rare--stringy in its fleshy red limpness. But despite the off-putting texture, the flavor was sweetly rich and nutty. An accompanying blue cheese grit cake rendered from white corn grits and blue cheese, cooked in milk and pan-seared with the lamb, was tangy but a bit too cakey in texture, which seemed to hinder the coalescence of flavors. Slightly wilted kale was crisp with a clean, smoky sweetness from the sauce derived from lamb stock with red wine reduction.

Virtually flawless, the grilled pork chop in a maple-sage glaze was flush with silky succulence sheathed in a delicately crisp grilled exterior. But a side of heirloom bean ragout created from a smoky tomato-veal stock was studded with severely undercooked beans that almost crunched. In addition, an herbed potato croquette--mashed potatoes and egg coated in breadcrumbs, sculpted into the shape of a pear, and deep-fried--was pasty and suffused with off flavors that seemed derived from refrigerator odors.

Americus' desserts were another mixed bag. The creme brulee is imaginative, yet wimpy. Founded on a cold, creamy custard with an engaging mint essence, the burnt sugar crust was barely there, too thin to elicit even the slightest crunch. Better was the renaissance, a cake disk settled in a white chocolate sauce speckled with pinwheels of raspberry coulis. The cake is baked just shy of the point where it sets throughout, so the inside flows with a silky chocolate cake batter that is elegant and full-bodied. Topped with a scoop of ice cream and a harp-like chocolate-dipped cookie planted in the center, this creation is an able blend of chewy and creamy textures with a tightly focused richness.

As might be expected from a restaurant with regional American cuisine, Americus' modest wine list is heavily weighted with California Chardonnays, Cabernets, and Merlots. But there is a smattering of interesting wines such as a Vouray, an Alsatian Gewurztraminer, an Oregon Pinot Gris, an Australian Shiraz, a Chateauneuf du Pape, and a pair of Bordeaux. Plus, there's a reserve list with such things as Ferrari Carano Siena ($74) and a '79 Chateau Lafite ($625). List headings also include varietal descriptions where appropriate and menu pairing suggestions.

Americus is a pleasant venue with service that is as astute as it is attentive, though the sparsely populated dining room during my visits tended to reveal the cloying aspect of its execution.

The regional culinary philosophy girding the menu is interesting, but it needs a little tightening and perhaps a dash of pizzazz, because none of the elements effectively transcends the clean, handsome decor, which is a bit too sanitized in a retail sort of way to seduce the senses.

Still, Americus is politely red-blooded enough to elicit genuine interest, even for those who flunked geography.

Americus on Preston. 19009 Preston Road, Suite 117, (972) 381-0028. Open for dinner Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday 5:30 p.m.-10:00 p.m.; Friday & Saturday 5:30 p.m.-11:00 p.m. Open for Sunday brunch 10:00 a.m.-2 p.m. $$$-$$$$

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