There is something endearingly old-fashioned about a restaurant such as the Pecan. It's not just the slightly desolate charm of College Park's Main Street where the restaurant is located; the straightforward storefronts and old train depot; or the low-whistling trains that pass through directly across the street.
But the restaurant itself – from the competent, chummy and gracious staff to the menu of gussied-up Southern standards to the high ceilings and exposed bricks of the dining room – makes for an experience that seems like it belongs in another era, one that is full of grace.
The Pecan has been open a little more than a year in the location that used to house Oscar's. I never ate at Oscar's, but I know College Park misses the restaurant, and I've even heard people from neighborhoods far away lament the passing of the place. The Pecan aims to give Southern food a fine-dining makeover, represented fittingly in the decor of the dining room: white tablecloths and brocade curtains flanked by a long brick wall painted to look like a vintage Coca-Cola advertisement.
Service is formal and friendly. Corn muffins with pecans as well as peach biscuits are served with sweetened butter, in a kind of Southern gesture that says, "We aren't going to wait for dessert to sugar your palate."
But the Pecan suffers from a kind of culinary training that emphasizes pretense over produce. Waiters will push the crab cake, a $14 appetizer that turns out to be pleasingly dense with crabmeat but otherwise unremarkable. Presentation is important here – a bowl of leek-and-asparagus soup is garnished intricately, but the soup itself, while certainly not lacking in expensive cream and butter, tasted strange, like ... canned asparagus? If not canned then certainly overcooked. A curried carrot-ginger soup with a crabmeat garnish fared better, but the curry and ginger were barely perceptible.
The pecan crust on both the pork chop and the chicken breast tasted more like traditional breading and less like pecans. The pork chop was thick and generous, but the chicken breast, boneless and cut into three small strips, reminded me of a chicken cutlet from a TV dinner.
Part of the problem with this particular brand of fancified Southern food is that in many ways, the most vibrant aspects of the cuisine have been leached out of the dishes. All the sides that make Southern food remarkable have been replaced with staid, generic accompaniments here. The greens, okra and black-eyed peas on these plates have all been supplanted by a few boring green beans; the starch is usually garlic mashed potatoes. Green beans and mashed potatoes are certainly Southern staples, but these borrow their personality from the textbooks of hospitality management courses at culinary school rather than the homes of Georgia grandmothers. The things Southern cuisine should be taking from fine dining in a restaurant such as this – technique, high-quality ingredients – are put aside in favor of the less important gifts that haute cuisine has to offer, namely presentation and price. But no matter how pretty, when you take the soul out of soul food, you're left with just ... food.
The Pecan's best dishes are ones in which this reconditioning of the food is avoided or simply not possible. While it does offer an alternative to shrimp and grits (a bland mush of angel-hair pasta under the shrimp in place of the grits), it also offers the original, and it's rich, goopy and irresistible, the cheese-laden grits so much more satisfying than the mashed potatoes on other plates.
There are moments when service suffers from the same problem – taking the posture of fine dining but missing some key aspects of actual service. To be fair, the service here is great. I'm just annoyed at having to box my own food. Maybe it's a small glitch, but it's one that shocked me every time. To have a box dumped on your table in order to pack up your own leftovers is a crime on white linen, especially when that entree cost you close to $30.
Desserts are fairly true to their roots, but could also use an update in terms of technique and ingredients. A red velvet cake in this setting is an opportunity to revive the decadent layer cakes of our grandmothers' era, but instead is unremarkable and such a brilliant shade of red I doubted there was any chocolate in there at all. Peach cobbler is decent but too sweet and made from canned peaches.
But if the Pecan teaches us anything, it's that grace makes up for a lot of wrong turns on the plate. Genuinely warm, gracious service (save for those boxes) and gracious surroundings make me want to pull for this team despite its spotty record. College Park deserves a restaurant to match its appealing small-town charm, and the Pecan is doing its best to be that restaurant. With a little more attention to ingredients – some more substance to go with the style – it could just reach its goal.