Nothing smells like summer to me quite like freshly baked biscuits, sausage and gravy. There's an argument to be made that such carb-loaded, creamy, fatty indulgences should be more embarrassing than nostalgic, but I am a child of the South. Nana's crack-of-dawn biscuit baking got me out of bed faster than my granddad's hollering ever could.
It's understandable, then, why my southern Virginian heart beat a bit faster with the November opening of Light Bistro chef and owner Matthew Mathlage's new spot, Peachtree Southern Kitchen & Cocktails in Hudson. Peachtree is not soul food. It's not Louisiana-style Creole. In Mathlage's own words, it's "low country Carolina cooking."
The differences among these culinary styles are subtle, and plenty of people will say it's only semantics and racial politics anyway. When food sustainability pioneer chef Dan Barber visited the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland in June to promote his new book, The Third Plate he declared that low country Southern cooking is the only truly American cuisine. Most chefs worth their chops will agree. Chicken-fried steak, country gravy, buttermilk-fried chicken and braised collard greens recall anyone with ties south of the Mason-Dixon Line back home as much as pierogies and chicken paprikash provide fourth-generation Polish immigrants a lifeline to their Eastern European heritage.
Mathlage also has roots in the south. His mother's side of the family is from West Virginia, so Mathlage grew up with her Appalachian food culture. "My mom could fry a hamburger and make gravy out of it, and I would eat it all day," he recalls. "I should be 500 pounds."Peachtree manages to convey sentimentality while keeping a traditionally lowbrow cuisine elevated and approachable. With a few minor stumbles, it works because it's about more than just the food. For instance, the architectural gem that Peachtree occupies was Hudson's Old Whedon Grille. "That's where I had my first title position," Mathlage says. "I was 23 back then, and it was my first sous chef position."
Long before that, in the late 1800s, the building was Hudson's J.W. Whedon general store. The massive spiral staircase and bar aren't original, but they don't feel anachronistic in the space, especially when grounded by tin tiles and a low-slung, open-beamed cellar space that's great for a more intimate experience than the bright and airy dining room or patio.
"I like the really old building," says Mathlage. "It's kind of what I'm drawn to, for character in the restaurant."
The menu, which is evenly balanced between appetizers, entrees, soups, salads and sandwiches is straightforward Southern classic with a spin, as the chef describes it. Trendy pimento cheese and longtime staple country ham both dot the menu.
The pickled vegetables ($8) are served in a squat mason jar. Sifting through super fresh, lightly pickled beet slices, carrots and slivers of onion to uncover my favorite, coral-colored radishes feels like unwrapping a treasure from a country store. They are firm-skinned and snap when you bite into them, releasing their silky, almost-creamy inner flesh. The kitchen's light hand with the vinegar won me over on the radishes.
Deviled eggs with pimento and bacon ($5) made my skepticism of the resurging 1950s cocktail party favorite disappear. And sweet and spicy smoked wings ($7), the chef's personal favorite, offered up impossibly crisp skin with an addictive dry rub coating.
Although Mathlage calls himself a "sauce person" and lover of gravy, there are times when it feels as if the restaurant may be trying too hard, perhaps in an effort to prove Peachtree's Southern-ness. Though none of the restaurant's dishes feel too salty, fatty or heavy, five different gravies make an appearance between the two dozen Supper and Side dishes: brown onion, tomato, country ham, white and corn.
I wish I could say it always worked, but then again, gravy is a very personal matter to me. The country-fried sirloin ($24) was expertly breaded and fried — not at all greasy, and the crisp coating withstood my leisurely pace of eating through to the last bite, which is a feat. But the accompanying mashed potatoes were dry, a problem not alleviated by a too-thick and slightly broken white gravy. A meatless baked grits, baby kale and oyster mushroom entree ($19) was beautiful, and the sauteed vegetables were bright with an acidic tartness to balance rich Parmesan grits. It was missing something that I couldn't quite put my finger on, which I eventually attributed to the need for a gravy, ironically.
It's not easy to feed Southern food to a Southerner in the Midwest. While cooking last Thanksgiving, I demonstrated a few fancy tricks I'd picked up in my half-decade in professional kitchens. As any proper Virginia grandmother would, Nana made exclamations of pride and apologized for her rustic presentation. My ego deflated as her delicious biscuits rose: This style of cooking isn't about fussy perfection and perfect manners — it's about creating a feeling of home.
I got a taste of it at Peachtree's patio as I lingered over dinner far longer than I normally would. As the ice melted in my sweet tea, my friend and I chatted about food, putting down roots in Ohio and the future. A couple strolled past with a toddler and dog in tow. From the table next to us, a diner called out to them, and they stopped to exchange news about a mutual friend. When they finally broke away, the woman called over her shoulder, "Enjoy your supper!"
When You Go
Peachtree Southern Kitchen & Cocktails
200 N. Main St., Hudson, 234-380-1789, peachtreesouthern-kitchen.com
Lunch Mon-Sat 11:30 a.m.-4 p.m.; Dinner Sun-Thu 4-10 p.m., Fri-Sat 4-11 p.m.; Brunch Sun 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.
Don't ignore the sides. Those who have never experienced country-style green beans ($4) are missing out on one of bacon's greatest gifts to vegetables. Tough pole beans are braised in rich stock and salty bacon. A close second to Nana's.
GOOD TO KNOW
Happy hour runs every weekday from 4-7 p.m., offering $5 bar menu items, draft beers, house wines and featured cocktails such as Mississippi Bourbon Punch. Monday is burger night and Wednesday is fried chicken night.
12:00 AM EST
July 22, 2014