It must have felt like a bad omen when Wisteria (471 N. Highland Ave., 404-525-3363) opened almost 10 years ago on Sept. 11, 2001. But, if anything, the restaurant quickly became a neighborhood refuge. Chef/owner Jason Hill's Southern cooking has attracted a following of regulars who return week after week.
However, he told me, "If I take certain dishes off the menu, some people get mad. Some will stop coming. If I put them back on the menu or run them as a special, they return."
That didn't surprise me. When I researched the last two times I reported on the restaurant — in 2003 and 2007 — I found that Wayne and I had ordered the same entrées each visit. That would be the molasses-rubbed pork tenderloin and iron-skillet-fried chicken. I told Wayne we needed to avoid them.
"They've been on the menu since day one and will be there forever," Hill said. He'd recognized me and came out of the kitchen to chat after we finished our entrées. We were the last customers on a recent Sunday.
Wisteria remains one of the most comfortable dining rooms in town. It's all about brick, wood, warm light, a cozy bar, and a staff that remains among the most hospitable around, many of whom have worked there for years. Our server Randy and sous chef Walker Brown have been there since opening day.
How's the food? Good. But I have to say that the same thing that makes it so popular may also drag the menu down a bit. Ten years ago, Southern cuisine was starting its steamroll back to popularity, so Hill's food had more novelty. Does pleasing tradition-bound customers take a toll on novelty over time?
Wayne started the meal, after devouring two baskets of bread, with the least expensive appetizer — pimento cheese deviled eggs with pickled okra and spiced pecans ($6). I love deviled eggs and I don't get tired of them. I also love pimento cheese. But I'm sick of it. It's become something like the concrete of the culinary world. It holds everything together and it's everywhere. That's not to say Hill's eggs aren't delicious. But I hate myself for liking them. I'm on a campaign to put the orange stuff away.
My own starter, a special, was perfect for me — a warm tart of mission figs topped with buttermilk blue cheese. It was set atop a small cluster of vinaigrette-tossed greens. Of course, my love of figs guaranteed I'd like it, but the play of flavors and textures worked especially well, from creamy to slightly crunchy, from earthy to sweet and pungent.
Entrées were a mixed success. Wayne's special of seared cod with pink-eyed peas, yellow squash and yellow tomatoes was just about perfect. Hill later told us that cod used to be on the regular menu but that the availability of the best has become irregular, so he runs it only as a special. "It's one of those dishes that brings regulars in," he said. I can see why.
But my own dish, a plate of 10 vegetables, completely confused me. As I told Wayne, the vegetables could as well be served at Thanksgiving as July Fourth. Here's the lineup: apple-onion relish, grits, okra and tomatoes, mashed potatoes, corn pudding, sweet potato souffle, corn succotash, asparagus, wild mushrooms and green beans. The heavy reliance on starches seems odd to me this time of year and, frankly, I'd rather have my summertime veggies lightly cooked and minimally seasoned.
I did tell Hill that the vegetable plate disappointed me. I don't doubt that most of the green ingredients were fresh and I can see how presenting 10 different vegetables would be problematic. But I'd rather have fewer overall and more from the markets.
Dessert made amends for the veggies. The restaurant offers small plates for $4 each or $10 for three. I let Wayne order: bourbon-spiked bread pudding, peach-blackberry cobbler and a fudge tart topped with chocolate-orange ice cream. I sure didn't need more starches, but I liked the bread pudding best. The cobbler was a bit watery. Burnout has left me wanting to see warm chocolate desserts go on the shelf with pimento cheese. But if you like them, you'll like this one, too.
Hill insisted we try the two granitas that sous chef Brown had prepared that day. They were by far my favorite desserts, especially the one flavored with blueberries and lavender. The other, watermelon, hit the right summery note.
Wisteria remains a charming restaurant in every respect. A bit more novelty would please me, but I'm not so sure about the regulars.