There was a roomful of food at the Eat Drink Meridian event. And as a judge, I was expected to eat some of everything. Well, twist my arm right off. I’ll have to admit, it was kind of fun to go up to a table and hear all the choices, then respond, “I’ll have a little of everything.” I wish I could do that more often in real life at restaurants other than Pap’s.
Last week I told the tale of only one side of the room, though I could have easily made a meal there. Alas, it was a square room with food lining each wall – some moderation was required. I did my best.
A legend in Meridian – Mississippi’s oldest restaurant, in fact – is Weidmann’s. Since they opened in 1870 I guess they have had time to develop a new dish or ninety-nine: that’s about the number of different options I counted on the menu they were passing out. For that reason I appreciate the fact that they just brought one thing, their gumbo. I confess that I was a bit skeptical at first. There was no indication that Weidmann’s was known as a Cajun restaurant, and though that is not necessarily a requirement for good gumbo, it usually helps. In this case, however, my expectations were exceeded. It was thick, dark, and chunky with shrimp and sausage, with enough kick to let you know it had some, but not enough to ruin your tongue for later. If I hadn’t had nine more tables to get to, I would have gone back for seconds.
Cane’s was there to represent the chicken tender community, but to this event all they brought was their house made drink specialties, iced tea and lemonade. Not one to discriminate, I got a big cup of a fifty-fifty mix and used it as an Arnold Palmer-esque palate cleanser between all the remaining dishes.
Down the row was Ward’s Seasonings and Rubs, who brought pulled pork sandwiches and an array of dips made from their dry mixes. In this case I didn’t try every dip on the table (they were legion) but I got a couple of favorites. And by favorites I mean Harriet’s Favorite and Mama’s Favorite. Those were the names. And apparently the nice lady doing the serving was neither Harriet nor Mama, and she would like to know why there wasn’t a dip named after her – after all, she was there doing the work! To be quite honest, I think Mama and Harriet might be sisters, given the similarities in dip flavor, but I would be very happy to find either one in a big bowl at the next party I attend.
The big winner of the night was at the next table. Best of the Best of Eat Drink Meridian went to Oak: A Southern Experience. Oak is located in Forest, Miss., because where else would you find an oak? As best I can tell from their literature and social media, they don’t just have a restaurant; they also do catering, wedding planning, interior design, and gifts. Sounds like a one-stop Oak. The appetizer that night was marinated cheese – three layers of thinly sliced cheese, marinated in something delicious (I forgot to ask), topped with a little sliver of red pepper, and served with crackers. I know it just sounds like cheese and crackers, but it may be the only time in my life I wanted to go back for more cheese and crackers. The soup (this table was a four-course meal of sorts) was a smooth crawfish bisque which had great flavor on its own – the bits of crawfish were just a bonus. The main course (also a winner, along with best presentation) was a honey-glazed Caribbean jerk chicken. The jerk seasonings gave it spice and the honey gave it a sweet balance. Alongside the chicken was perhaps my favorite side dish of the night, grits and greens. It could not have been simpler: grits cooked with bits of greens (turnip, I think, but doggone it I forgot to ask that, too). The secret ingredient that made them so creamy? Buttermilk. I would never have guessed that, but you can bet I’ll be trying it when greens start showing up for sale on the side of the road again.
Anchoring the last corner before I turned to find the final row of tables was Kelli’s Specialty Cakes. I’d seen a preview of the cupcakes she was bringing on the Eat Drink Meridian Facebook page the day before. Expectations were high. There were several good-looking creations, but the one I had my eye on was called Gourmet Caramel Apple. I was almost afraid to bite into it. Did you ever see a cupcake (especially in these last few years as their popularity has soared) piled high with buttercream icing and adorned with nuts or candy, only to bite into it and wonder why you just paid so much for a pretty design? This one had a caramel cake base, caramel buttercream icing, drizzles of dark chocolate, white chocolate, and caramel, chopped pecans, and a little slice of green apple for garnish: loaded with potential. Expectations were surpassed! The instant it hit my tongue I was smitten. No way was I going to leave a crumb of it on the table, no matter how full it might make me. And Kelli won the award for best dessert, which was well-deserved.
By this time I was reaching capacity. Apparently no matter how small the bites are, if you eat a lot of them, you still fill up. (Mental note.) But there was one wall of tables yet to visit. Hot wings, sassy sauces, barbecue and banana pudding were still waiting on me – time to loosen the old belt and answer the call. Stay tuned.