On a drive from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi Delta, the dining landscape gradually transitions from cheese and bratwurst to crawfish and oysters, just as the beverage selection morphs from Leinenkugel lager to Abita amber. About halfway through the journey, you're likely to find yourself with a plate of sweet barbecue spaghetti and a pint of Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan ale. At that spot, somewhere near the Tennessee-Mississippi border, is where chef Jason McConnell takes the wheel to offer a whirlwind tour of the down-home flavors that litter the road between Memphis and New Orleans.
Named for the highway that connects the Bluff City to the bayou, 55 South is the third in McConnell's trilogy of restaurants along Franklin's Main Street. The latest nameplate fills the front rooms of the historic building that formerly housed Sol Mexican restaurant. (An abbreviated Sol still occupies the back rooms.) McConnell & Co. gave the rustic building a bluesy makeover, swapping a South-of-the-Border scheme for a Cajun oyster house ambiance, with corrugated metal wainscoting, concert posters on exposed brick walls and a whimsical oversized central light fixture made from a repurposed Gulf gas station sign. In the front bar, a chalkboard resembling the arrivals-and-departures sign in a train station lists a litany of whiskeys and bourbons. In the dining room, one chalkboard advertises an impressive happy hour deal with 25-cent raw oysters from 3 to 4 p.m., while another offers a Golden Arches-style tally of oysters served — more than 25,000 since the restaurant's January launch.
In our experience, oysters were indeed the way to go, and our next trip to 55 South will be between 3 and 4 p.m. on a lazy afternoon when we can linger with a Bourbon Street Paramour or other creative whiskey-based cocktail. 55 South offers the briny bivalves raw on the half-shell, in spicy vodka shooters, roasted in the classic styles of Bienville and Rockefeller, and with toppings including roasted garlic, hot sauce and honey mustard. Fans of McConnell's sultry dinner restaurant Red Pony across the street will also recognize the chef's Asian barbecue oysters.
A char-grilled half-dozen were plump and sweet, laced with garlic, lemon butter and Parmesan, and plated with a brick-sized slice of grilled bread to sop up the glistening pool of leftover oyster liquor. This elegantly simple delicacy left us daubing the plate with our fingers and wishing for more.
The oyster po'boy cradled a generous serving of succulent fried oysters, whose delicate golden-brown coating did not overwhelm the sandwich with breading. McConnell brings in bread from Gambino's bakery in New Orleans, but on our visits, the golden crust did not achieve the idyllic flaky crispness of the perfect po'boy. Next time, we'll go straight for the basket of fried oysters with remoulade and skip the fluffy bun altogether. A crustier bread also would benefit the roast beef "debris" sandwich, a finger-licking pile-on of shaved meat soaked with pan drippings.
Sandy-coated fried green tomatoes with boiled shrimp and a cool remoulade juxtaposed hot fruit and cool sauce. And the flavorful contrasts of gritty corn meal and smooth shellfish made the appetizer one of the favorite items on the table.
McConnell's secret is pickling the unripe tomatoes to keep them crisp in the cooking process.
Buffalo frog legs slathered in a tangy red sauce were a playful spin on the spicy bar snack and ... well, they tasted just like chicken, if slightly tougher.
The only disappointments among our appetizers were fried boudin balls, whose crisp exterior gave way to a gummy and bland blend of sausage and rice.
55 South pays admirable homage to N'awlins staples such as gumbo, red beans and rice, jambalaya and etouffée, which are available as entrées, samplers and side dishes. McConnell's shrimp and blue cheese grits is a toned-down version of the French Quarter classic barbecue shrimp, finished with butter to mute the intensity of the Worcestershire-and-citrus pan sauce.
Gumbo made from a thick brown roux bobbed with a generous medley of crawfish and shrimp, laced with tiny strings of crabmeat. The summertime tide of produce has not rolled in yet, which may explain the absence of okra in the filé-thickened recipe. While gumbo delivered a stealthy wave of heat, crawfish etouffée was disappointingly blasé. The silky tomato-based stew textured with rough-cut hunks of celery, red bell pepper and onion lacked any heat whatsoever. Our server explained that the kitchen seasons everything to about a 2 on a spiciness scale of 1 to 4. But while there was plenty of hot sauce on the table to spike the temperature, the larger shortcoming was a complete absence of mudbugs in the entrée. (Over two visits, several side servings of etouffée did contain crawfish, but the unlucky dinner portion was little more than a mild vegetable-and-rice stew, as if someone forgot to add the signature ingredient.)
On the way to New Orleans, McConnell makes a detour to Nashville with a hot chicken sandwich served with dill pickle slices. Unlike the Prince-ly presentation with the bone in the bird and the spices infused in the oil, 55 South's version was made with a tender boneless breast caked with a thick red paste of spices, which oozed out from between the slices of white bread, stained everything it touched and evoked an image of Lady Macbeth eating a chicken parmesan sandwich.
Not surprisingly, Elvis gets his due on the Southbound pilgrimage, with an over-the-top dessert layered with brownies, bananas and peanut butter mousse. But the real attraction on the sweets roster is the bananas Foster bread pudding made with croissants. Ladled with thick warm caramel and served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it's a delicious destination after a long, flavorful road trip.
55 South serves lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday and brunch 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday.
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