Charles Siskin: Dining Out In Oxford, Ms.

Thursday, April 20, 2017 - by Charles Siskin

When I realized that while on our way to Memphis recently we would pass close to Oxford, Mississippi. I told my bride that I always wanted to come to this literary landmark of Faulkner and more recently John Grisham. While Grisham knows how to sell books, Faulkner? Well Faulkner knew how to write literary masterpieces.

As I found out later while visiting Faulkner’s home, he sometimes literally wrote on his walls. Maybe I should have left my children’s scribbling on their walls, however I doubt posterity would have been so kind; nor the next owner as well.

As our departure time neared an ironic happening occurred. The coveted James Beard finalists were announced and it turned out that not one but two finalists were named in –drum roll please- Oxford.  Are you serious, I thought, two? What was I missing about a small, 20,000 population, college town that could breed not just one but two. One, Vishwesh Bhatt, was a chef and the other, St. Leo, a restaurant, and together it was a remarkable accomplishment for this small Mississippi town.

I should note here that I have been to Oxford, England. I can assure you that while there are a number of respectable pubs, I am not aware of any Michelin stared restaurant in what is truly one of the most beautiful and stately college campuses in the world.  This is in no way a slur on the University of Mississippi, and Oxford itself, which reminded us somewhat of Stanford’s campus in Palo Alto. Beautiful tree lined streets, gracious homes and classic buildings that dot the campus as well as an abundance of folks named Manning.

We arrived on a Wednesday evening at our hotel, The Oxford Graduate, which is totally cool. If you have never been to this hotel it is a must if for no other reason but to see students hanging out in the lobby which is set up like a study hall with Wi-Fi and long counter tops to accommodate your laptops. There are comfy chairs and off to one side The Canteen for snacks which doubles as a breakfast bar in the morning. The only thing missing at the Graduate is Mrs. Robinson.

Our introduction to fine dining began that evening at the Snackbar. Seriously, the Snackbar?  With a chef of Indian origin?  Apparently the name is synonymous in Oxford with imaginative food all the way up to Memphis and currently on to New York.

One interesting note, judging by the number of students, some in groups others on dates, most sitting at a long community table that stretches pretty much the length of the upper landing, it is the right place at the right time.

We started with platters of raw oysters on the half shell. While the oysters were briny, tasting of the sea, not the muddy Mississippi thank you, it was the Mignonette sauce punched up with a tobasco pulp that blew me away. I’d no idea there was such an animal but as it was explained to me once the tobasco mixture has drained there is this pulp that you can order from McIIhenny on line that will make sriracha seem like yesterday’s ketchup.   

Next we sampled a trio of spreads including the ubiquitous pimento cheese, which was my favorite, plus a Fava Bean Hummus and a Ricotta with caramelized spring onion. After the mignonette I thought the Hummus could have used a bit more kick. Truly I’ve had too much store-bought hummus over the years and I think it is up there with that tired block of cream cheese covered with pepper jelly that still turns up at parties.

Because Chef Bhatt, a very charming gentleman whose origin is Indian, there were a lot of crossover ingredients on his descriptive menu. His presentation of various dishes is the excitement. He expresses himself in his main offerings including Korean, Mexican, Ethiopian, Haitian and Middle Eastern.  All were fascinating options, however on the Chef’s advice I choose the house special, Fried Catfish Bibimbap a Korean rice dish with meat and veggies, however in this case he substituted chunks of catfish for the meat. There was nothing bland about this dish and if you go and order it be sure to have a frosty beer as your drink of choice. The catfish came with Mississippi Blues Brown rice grits, quite a moniker for such a tasty presentation, and charred cabbage both of which were a perfect counterpoint to the spicy fish.

The next morning we headed over to the Bottle Tree Bakery, where exquisite pastries dazzled the eye, to meet up with John Edge. John is the Director of the Southern Foodways Alliance which is part of the Center for the study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.  This includes art, literature and of course food. John believes, and rightly so, that food and eating intertwine with politics and social history.

As a lifelong southerner with a maternal family that dates back to the late 1800s on a farm in Alabama, I can attest to that. My memories of gathering on my grandmother’s sun porch at a table long enough to accommodate aunts and uncles and grandchildren after Sunday School. The table was filled with hearty country food and non-stop banter. In retrospect it was as integral to my education as my school studies. I applaud John for capturing all this and stand in awe as regards the University itself for having such a facility.

Our final stop on this gluttonous tour of Oxford was at Saint Leo, which is up for a James Beard award as well for New Best Restaurant South.  We went early in order to have some quality time with the GM, Taariq David. Taariq was quite helpful in explaining many of the dishes we were presented but by far the one outstanding and memorable appetizer we had was the Farinata which is a chick pea flour crepe whose origin is Provence and Liguria.

For my wife who is gluten intolerant it was like hitting “pay dirt”.  The soft crepe confection, which literally melts in your mouth, is dusted with rosemary and sea salt before baking. They come hot to the table and require restraint to not grab one before they cool down. There are just 3 ingredients in the farinata, the flour, warm water and olive oil. Simple to make? Maybe not if you don’t get your proportions correct including the temperature of the warm water.

The specialty at St. Leo is the wood fired pizza. But which pizza to order was the problem.  There was the house made burrata and soppressata, the pork belly, kale and ricotta and on the less exotic side a simple Margherita with fresh basil and excellent olive oil to top the homemade tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella.

It’s difficult to write a food column when you want desperately to go back and sample all the pizzas or next time try the Cacciucco which is owner Emily Blount’s take on one of my favorite west coast dishes, Cioppino. At St. Leo it is named Cacciucco and the chef has spiced up the red sauce and added fresh Gulf fish along with shrimp and clams.

Looking back several weeks ago and reflecting on my time in Oxford, it is understandable why so many ex-grads return in their retirement years to Oxford. It is also the diversity of the people who have come either to study and remained. Then there is the undeniable lure of the food which is a serious draw itself. For  those sophisticated native Mississippians who are well traveled and well-heeled this little town is the perfect place to put down roots or come back to your roots.

It’s a small town with a town square and also home to Square Books one of the last vestiges’ of independent book sellers whose shelves spill over with a strong selection of literary fiction, stories about the American south and southern authors. It begs to sit for a spell and read from books not your electronic devices.

Put Oxford on your “ foodie to do list” and better yet, put it at the top of that list.

Bon appetit

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