I hadn’t figured on humming Percy Faith’s title theme to A Summer Place with fellow Queen City Nerve scribe Perry Tannenbaum. Yet there we were at Supperland, singing for our supper — or caterwauling post-supper — as I strained to hit the high notes.
The lyrical theme song was, according to the National Critics Institutes’ Mark Blankenship, the number one hit the day I was born, and formed the basis of an illuminating pop horoscope that urged me to find the recurring dichotomies that popped up in my life.
A couple of those contradictions popped up at Supperland, one of Bon Appetit’s 2022 Top 10 Best New Restaurants in the country. The eatery opened under the ownership of locally renowned restaurateurs Jeff Tonidandel and Jamie Brown in March 2021.
While Queen City Nerve’s usual food critic visited a few months after its opening, I found myself in the restaurant as part of the National Critics Institute, a workshop program held by the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center that aims to strengthen the skills of professional arts journalists while developing a strong sense of community among writers in the field.
And that’s how I found myself in this Plaza Midwood restaurant with an impressive group of my local colleagues on a Friday night.
The friendly staff was quick to point out that the upscale eatery held court in a reconstituted church, yet we were sequestered in a private dining room downstairs away from the shipped-in-from-Colorado church pews in the main room.
With a window overlooking the bustling pastry kitchen, our wine rack-ringed dining room resembled less a place of worship than a cool kitchen science museum.
Another dichotomy seemed deliberate; Supperland bills itself as providing a fine-dining gloss to a Southern potluck supper, with dishes landing squarely between rib-sticking comfort food and nouveau Southern cuisine.
I chose a spirit free-gin and tonic before the meal and was pleasantly surprised. I was expecting an overdose of quinine, but the light concoction was refreshing and slightly tangy.
Our side of the table held the vegetarian diners so most of us passed on the steak, duck and seafood entrees. Starters kicked off with delectable baked Brie bites. Encased in airy puff pastry, the buttery bites tasted even better than they looked. Porridge bread was dense and chewy with a thick crust, plus it gave me the opportunity to offer my fellow diners “a slice of porridge.”
For mains, a hearty veggie pot pie topped with crispy puff pastry was hard to beat, but it was edged out by the house special, oven-roasted Romanesco. The edible flower bud, cousin to both broccoli and cauliflower, was encrusted with spices then doused in chili oil and the establishment’s highly touted ember butter.
Truth be told, the ember butter left me perplexed. Was it supposed to have a smoky flavor? Instead it barely registered on the palette.
Not so for the chili oil. The tender Romanesco sliced as soft as butter, and each bite brought a burst of heat, which slowly and subtly increased. It was the most sensual and remarkable portion of the meal, engaging touch, taste, smell and a hot chili endorphin rush.
Colorful sides proliferated across the table. Of these, the miso mac and cheese was the most bland and disappointing. It lacked both the heft of old-school comfort food, or the challenge of unexpected flavors. The miso barely registered and had an uncharacteristic sweetness.
Much better was the mushroom risotto, which boasted both the comfort-food heft and peppery bite that the mac and cheese lacked. We ordered wood-oven Brussels sprouts in a vegetarian, bacon-fat-free variety.
Here a dichotomy once again arose, this one between presentation and delivery; although the dish looked broiled and blackened to perfection, and the sprouts were suitably crunchy, the dish seemed severely over-salted. Even the delightful tang of lemon couldn’t erase the saltiness.
Throughout the meal, the staff was attentive without being intrusive. The result was an enjoyable evening of shared culinary discoveries, supplemented with free-flowing conversation that ranged from Spanish-language cinema, cheap American-made horror movies, just what the hell was in ambrosia salad and, yes, even the sweeping cinematic sounds of Percy Faith’s A Summer Place.
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