Justin Fox Burks
To my way of thinking, a warm and satisfying bowl of gumbo is quintessential Southern food, which is why I had planned to skip the dish at Felicia Suzanne’s for something unique. But on the way to our table for a late Friday lunch, we ran into a friend who upturned my strategy. “You’ve got to try the gumbo,” he said. So we did.
Served in a wide-brimmed bowl and garnished with chopped scallions, the gumbo was more soup than stew thanks to a delicate rue flavored with peppers, celery, fresh thyme, and veal stock. When it arrived, a fragrant funnel of steam wrapped our table into a cozy foursome, so we passed the dish around to share.
After one spoonful my opinion was certain: “This is the best gumbo I’ve ever eaten.”
Two days later, I asked about the dish when I spoke with chef Felicia Willett, who opened her downtown restaurant 10 years ago on the site of the original Peabody Hotel. She explained the gumbo’s careful timing: Start on Tuesday for Friday lunch and let the flavors settle for at least two days. Then she moved on to the gumbo’s ingredients: produce, sausage, and chicken, all from nearby farms.
“It begins with our pantry,” Willett said. “We take recipes that are basic to Southern kitchens and make them with fresh, local products. The credit should go to the farmers, not to us.”
From the start, Willett’s menu showcased local purveyors, drawing from the fresh-food focus of her grandparents’ farm to her long association with New Orleans chef Emeril Lagasse. Well before the word “local” trumped the foodie lexicon, Willett shipped in oysters from the Gulf Coast and shopped the farmers markets. She still does, every Saturday morning.
“At least 80 percent of our products are locally sourced,” Willett said, whisking me into the restaurant’s kitchen to admire okra, corn, and peppers tucked away in freezer bags and a colorful parade of fig preserves, strawberry jam, chow-chow, brandied peaches, tomato juice, and pickled jalapeños for drinks and cornbread.
Willett is exuberant about her summer canning, and I can’t help but see how the chef’s authenticity extends to her food. Consider, for example, the bite-size buttermilk biscuits that began our lunch and the fried chocolate pies in quarter-moon crescents that ended it. Both biscuit and dessert are happy reminders why a pat of soft butter and a splash of whipped cream complement the best of Southern cooking.
Influences from New Orleans, Charleston, Jonesboro, and Memphis touched our lunch at every turn. Crab cake balls fried the color of hush puppies were plated with two sauces: spicy five-pepper and traditional tartar. A braised short rib grilled-cheese sandwich wasn’t a sandwich at all, but an open-face four-square with a crusty cap of white cheddar and a bowl of Flo’s potato salad (Willett’s nickname from Lagasse). A pimento cheese BLT on toasted brioche came with fried-green tomatoes, mountains of baby greens, and sweet-potato chips that meandered through the plate in a curvy, crunchy foot path.
At our server’s suggestion, we added a bottle of Piocho, a well-balanced, fruit foward merlot from Happy Canyon Vineyards in Santa Barbara. The server was attentive throughout our meal, letting us set the pace as lunch stretched well into its second hour.
It’s easy to linger at Felicia Suzanne’s, arguably the most charming restaurant in the city, with visible touches of its historic past. The tile floors are pock-marked, because they were laid for Lowenstein Brothers Department Store in 1926. The decorative ceiling molding is also original, framing a window view of a towering crepe myrtle in the restaurant’s adjoining courtyard.
We found the same professional service for a leisurely dinner. In fact, our server, Alex, was so informed about the menu that we wondered if he spends his off-time at the kitchen stove. We plowed ahead with three starters in half-portions: house-smoked King Salmon deviled eggs, heirloom tomato salad with pecan pesto, and crispy oysters cooked the New Orleans way.
Except for a brief reprieve after Hurricane Katrina, the fried Gulf oysters with barbecue sauce have stayed on Willett’s menu. She developed the recipe with her mother, adding Delta Grind yellow grits for their nutty flavor and finishing the dish with slender stems of fresh chives.
For our entrees, we ordered a filet of beef tenderloin cooked Pittsburgh style with an inside-out potato cake (bacon mashed potatoes with a deep-fried crust) and the scallop special: three scallops encrusted with chorizo sausage, pan-seared, and served with pumpkin risotto. The aromatic dish was a promise of seasonal flavors to come.
“I can’t wait for the heavy fragrance of the holidays,” Willett told us. “Shrimp bisque, bourbon cream sauce, and chocolate for dessert. I can smell the kitchen already.”