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Café Millwood and some thoughts on the state of popular Southern cooking:

Posted by The LunchMen Monday, September 20, 2010



For Southerners, the meat ‘n three occupies a place in the culinary tradition similar to the French bistro, Italian trattoria -- or less idyllically -- the Yankee diner. They are the places to eat in neighborhoods and small towns where the cooking is informal but an honest representation of what people in the area traditionally eat. The meat ‘n threes menu and concept is uniform wherever you go: pick one of a handful of meats off a list and three vegetables from another column with a slightly higher number of selections. Sometimes congealed salad or banana pudding is a vegetable, sometimes not. Iced tea and a bread basket round out the experience. For many (including legions of old people, who often comprise the meat ‘n three’s main constituency), it’s a nostalgia-invoking experience: a place to go that is intended to look the same as meat ‘n threes have always looked and serves the food that its diners grew up eating at home, or some such pabulum.

The problem is that at many meat ‘n threes, the execution is lacking and the quality always is slipping: the vegetables are canned, over-cooked or carelessly seasoned. The meat doesn’t taste fresh, or -- if you’re lucky -- just doesn’t taste. The fryer is on auto-pilot, and customers who eat there will never get to taste the righteousness and integrity of a chicken leg fried in a cast-iron skillet. Farm equipment and vintage soda signs tacked onto the walls of a restaurant can’t replace farm-fresh butter beans, or iced tea brewed that day.

The irony of this current dilemma is that the Southern kitchen is the most evocative, complex, and celebrated cooking tradition of any part of the Union. Every shrimp and grits dish on a Manhattan menu or a bacon-stained tablecloth in a hip Brooklyn bistro owes its heritage to meat ‘n threes and the Southern cooks who have prepared simple but tasty meals reflecting the bounty of the region. Why then do so many modern day meat ‘n threes feature second-rate food?

But there is hope to be found against this otherwise bleak backdrop; right on Millwood Avenue, a Reawakening is taking place. Millwood Café, a restaurant with a simple name, unassuming interior, and day service only, is cooking traditional Southern food that does not compromise on quality or bow to the Southern-fried-kitsch that some other meat ‘n three’s gorge themselves.

What exactly is the meat ‘n three Reawakening at Millwood Café? It starts on a dry-erase board where four or five meats usually will be listed: fried flounder, smoked sausage, meatloaf, fried chicken are all in a heavy rotation (note: there’s a small orange grill menu on each table, which features hamburgers and handcut fries. It is testament to the Millwood experience that I have never had to check down to the burger and fries option, despite my general eagerness to find a proper French fry at any time of the day).

However, the stand-out menu item remains the chicken fried steak. The batter, as noted by Tank at dinner last week, is sturdier than most, owing most likely to the use of cornmeal, and it carries enough seasoning in the dredge to wake the chopped steak up from its torpor. It comes out of the fry crisp, not greasy, and remarkably light. The sawmill gravy on top is creamy, but avoids the plaster-of-paris-masquerading-as-topping phenomenon that plagues some other restaurant’s chicken fried steak dishes.

Perhaps the most pleasing part of the Millwood Café experience is that the portions are appropriately sized for lunch. There is no good reason that a meat ‘n three should feel compelled to treat you like a French goose during fois gras season: business people have to go back to work in the afternoon; the older clientele generally are not the demographic that eats to excess; and where many similar restaurants would feel compelled to buffalo you with quantity, Millwood lays off the food throttle. They give you a filling portion without parking a plate of food in your stomach.

Millwood Café succeeds because of its attention to detail, and its diligence in presenting an appealing plate of well-cooked food. Fried okra has arrived on the table in a cup and saucer, topped with a dusting of Parmesan cheese. The field peas are Anson Mills Sea Island red field peas, and are not overcooked or simply a means to a ham-hock-tasting end. Rather they taste simply like field peas. The macaroni-and-cheese is respectable; again, like the country-fried-steak, surprisingly light but with enough sharpness and bight to take notice. The food is not intended to soar or overwhelm, it succeeds because the food arrives quickly, and appears that someone in the kitchen took time to care about how it was presented to you. The service staff is friendly, many of the waitresses claim kin to the chef, Joe Britt (a Moe’s Grapevine alumnus), or the owners, the McCarthy’s. They are not professionals, or short-timers, they are something better: that is to say, they care about the product. You should too.

- Rev. Fat Back

Rev. Fat Back is an author, diplomat, and law student who really digs on slow-cooked swine and other Southern cooking. When he isn’t studying the Rule Against Perpetuities, Rev. Fat Back extols the virtues of slow food and proselytizes about Southern barbecue. At risk of violating our oath of anonymity, check out his contribution to the gospel, Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue, at http://uncpress.unc.edu/HolySmoke/index.html

4 comments

  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. I am one of the chef's kin - his mom - and one of the self-admitted non professional waitresses when I'm not being a paralegal. Tell The Publican the next time he needs to nurse a hangover, to come in for brunch and try the "Everything but the Kitchen Sink." Sure to cure him. Thank you for the lovely words -very inspiring. Nan McCarthy

     
  3. Mama Nan,

    I can't get past the country fried steak and country ham on the menu - despite 3 Millwood breakfasts in 7 days. I'm hooked. Should I try the "Everything but the Kitchen Sink" with grits or hashbrowns?

    - The Publican

     
  4. Anonymous Says:
  5. I like it with grits, but I'm a southern gal and grits are a staple of life.

     
  6. Definitely trying this place soon - love a good meat 'n three. Well done, Fat Back!

     

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Rabbit, Tank, and The Publican are three dudes just trying to get through the work week here in Columbia. Rabbit is a Columbia native, Tank is from Charleston, and The Publican hails from Greenville. Rabbit's favorite lunch spot is the No Name Deli on Elmwood, where you may find him putting down a grilled chicken salad and a side of vinegar pasta. The Publican usually wants to find food to cure his all-too-common hangovers. Tank claims no favorite lunch spot - he lives for the thrill of the hunt.

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