Friday, October 8, 2010

Southern Hospitality (cont'd)

Elizabeth on 37th

I didn’t know at the time, but if there was ever a perfect time to discover “Elizabeth on 37th”, it was then, now long ago, while on a week long vacation with my seven month old daughter Karen, in tow. Tybee Island, Georgia, served as the base of the trip, with daily trips made into nearby Savannah. I quickly become captivated by Savannah’s undeniable beauty and charm. The historic center of the city had been largely preserved through a number of years of renovations. The lively River Street port area, park-like center square, moss draped trees and graceful mansions were much as they had always been.

Discovering “Elizabeth on 37th” was purely by accident. A chance drive down East 37th Street took me past a lovely early 20th century mansion that had been converted into a restaurant named “Elizabeth on 37th. The restaurant was named for one of its founding owners, self-taught chef Elizabeth Terry, who was in partnership with her husband, Michael Terry.  Intrigued by the impressive mansion and curious about the restaurant, plans were quickly made to have dinner there. It honestly never occurred to me that being a “fine dining establishment” it would be unusual for anyone to have dinner there with a baby along. I don’t remember Karen ever being loud or boisterous at anytime during her “babyhood”, and the thought never crossed my mind not to go because of her. She would come along just as she always did.

Elizabeth on 37th” did not disappoint. Stepping through the immense front doors of the mansion made me feel as though I was stepping into the grand foyer of someone’s home. The elegant mansion exuded a quiet, gracious presence that could be felt immediately. We were ushered into one of the original main floor front receiving rooms which now comprised the restaurant. Karen was graciously accepted as readily as any other guest.

I hadn’t given any consideration to the idea that the food would be any different than any other typical higher end restaurant of that time. It hadn’t occurred to me that I would be having “southern cuisine”, of which I knew very little. Quite frankly, just the sound of some southern fare had been of very little interest to me. After all, anything called “grits” couldn’t taste good, could it? And what about “black-eyed peas”? What were they? It sounded more like a type of bean to me. Hm.

Considering my then unfamiliarity with much of what is known as “southern cuisine”, I unwittingly ordered a “Stuffed Sweet Vidalia Onion”, a seasonal dish that was not only intrinsically “southern” but a perennial favourite of regular guests to Elizabeth on 37th. Under a U.S. Federal law, the growing region for Vidalia Onions is restricted to within thirteen counties in Georgia. Vidalia onions are in season during April, May and June and I was lucky enough to be there during May of 1988. I couldn’t have known that for many years, Chef Terry’s “Stuffed Sweet Vidalia Onion” was on the dinner menu only during Vidalia onion season. The onion was filled with a mixture of sausage and cheddar, seasoned with sage as well as other herbs and seasonings, baked, and served with a lemon butter sauce. The end result was heavenly. The flavours melded beautifully. It had the sweetness of the onion, a gently spicy kick from the sausage, undertones of savoury from the herbs and creaminess from the cheddar and lemon butter sauce. It was unique and unforgettable.

Not only had the food been spectacular, the service had been outstanding. I just had to go back one more time before returning north. Reservations were made and kept for the following evening. This time we were ushered into the former receiving room to the left of the grand foyer. Once again, Karen came along and sat happily and quietly in her stroller through the course of the evening.

There are few restaurants that I recall the service as being truly as outstanding as it was at Elizabeth on 37th. I’m probably not the only one who is irked by waiters who amble over to your table and announce themselves in the same loud manner, such as; “How’re you doing tonight, folks? My name is Bobby and I’ll be your server tonight.” Never once have I had to call the server by their name (i.e.; “Bobby, could you please bring me another…”) and if they come to the table to take my order, I’ll assume that, yes, they are indeed my server for the evening. During the second evening at Elizabeth on 37th, the waiter was dressed impeccably in a white shirt and black bow tie, black dress pants and polished shoes. His shoulder length hair was smoothed back in a ponytail and his demeanour was one of quiet confidence. Throughout the meal, he was attentive and responsive. Rarely have I experienced such excellence in service.

That evening I ordered “Savannah Jambalaya”, Chef Terry’s own version of the infamous low country dish. There are endless variations of this one-pot rice based dish, which is said to have originated in Louisiana. This version included hot Italian style sausage, dark chicken meat, southern style country ham, perfectly cooked shrimp and just the right level of heat. Chef Terry had perfected the classic southern dish, once again expertly balancing the sweetness of the ham and shrimp with the heat from the sausage.

I waited in the large, empty foyer with Karen in her stroller while the bill was being looked after. From around the corner, a waiter appeared and stood several feet back and watched Karen. Then another waiter appeared, standing beside the first, just watching Karen. Another appeared, then another, simply standing there and looking at Karen, all the while not saying anything. More staff followed; cooks in whites and tall white chef’s hats as well as waiters, until there was a large semi circle of staff in front of Karen’s stroller. No one spoke. Karen sat there quietly as usual. The strangest part about this situation is no one said a single word. I cleared my throat and began talking to them.

“This is Karen. She’s seven months old.”

Nothing. No questions, no response, no one even acknowledging that I said anything. In fact, none of them took their eyes off of the baby girl who sat quietly in front of them. Unruffled, I chatted on a bit more to them, relating small details about the little baby that was holding them in seemingly silent fascination. What fascinated me was their complete silence. The time came to leave and one by one the staff slipped away around corners as silently as they had come. It was then that I realized that this staff probably never had a baby guest in the restaurant. For such a well behaved baby to make an appearance two nights in a row was more than likely unheard of. In a strange kind of way it was flattering that they all wanted to just quietly watch her for a few minutes.

Karen in Savannah

Since the time that I experienced those two memorable evenings at Elizabeth on 37th, I learned that through her career, self-taught chef, Elizabeth Terry, received a number of prestigious awards for her fresh, innovative approach to southern cuisine including a James Beard award in 1995 for “Best American Chef: Southeast”. With her daughter, Alexis, she has written a cook book entitled; “Savannah Seasons – Food and Stories from Elizabeth on 37th”, which was first published in 1996 and is still available. The front of the house is now run by owners Greg and Gary Butch, former long-time employees of the restaurant, and the Executive Chef is Kelly Yambor. If you are planning to be in the Savannah area and like to experience fantastic southern cuisine and true southern hospitality, Elizabeth on 37th is located at 105 E. 37th Street. For details about the restaurant, their web site can be found at

Karen - still lovely now

1 comment: