By Doc Lawrence –
MOBILE, ALABAMA—Long ago, the Spanish and French settled this important port city where the nation’s oldest Mardi Gras is celebrated annually. Rivers converge here in the bay providing a rich estuary for fish, shrimp and oysters and city officials attest that no visitor is disappointed by the local cuisine. My return visit confirmed that Mobile merits the distinction as a major culinary destination.
Ebullient and supremely confident, Mobile’s esteemed gourmet chef, George Panayiotou, won’t tell you he is leagues better and more talented than most of the overflow of chefs and cooks too often called celebrities. Panayiotou not only oversees the food operation at other top-tier Mobile-area restaurants, but he’s a cooking magician in the kitchen. He prepares exquisite dishes and with his magic touch, there is transformation. Along with a group of writers, it was time for lunch with George at Felix’s Fish Camp, a heralded restaurant on Mobile Bay.
Plump raw oysters were served as starters. A Cru Chablis pairs perfectly with raw bivalves. Felix’s features a West Indies Salad, a popular item inspired by a recipe from nearby Dauphin Island. It’s distinguished by marinated lump crabmeat. “Crab is plentiful here,” the chef said, “and the flavors honor Mobile’s food traditions and Caribbean influences.”
Turtle soup, a Gulf Coast favorite, is served and strong aromatics like cloves and bay leaves are subdued by a generous amount of Sherry. George’s version is equal to my other favorite at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. Note that the turtle meat is commercially produced at a farm much like trout and catfish.
Almost a stand-alone meal, George Panayiotou’s spectacular soft shell crabs are sautéed and served on fried green tomatoes with a choice of his original Almondine; Meuniere or Hollandaise sauce. This dish is divine with a glass or two of Sancerre.
Entrees at Felix’s are bountiful and presented with South Alabama flair. George prepared a broiled grouper topped with shrimp and crabmeat served with another signature sauce. While I ordinarily avoid rich dishes, this was pleasantly light with the flavor and texture of the fish intact, providing added enjoyment. White Bordeaux, one of the most unsung noble wines fit this regal dish like a model’s hand in an elegant glove.
George makes a whipped cream topped lemon icebox pie that took me back to my childhood when my mother, an Alabama girl and skilled self-taught cook, served her own version nestled in a graham cracker crust, covered with meringue This Deep South classic soars when accompanied by Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey on ice or served Irish coffee style. I began having this with dessert several years ago at the suggestion of Lynne Tolley, a cookbook author and a Jack Daniel descendant.
An important destination after Mobile was Monroeville, the storied small town where two of America’s most acclaimed writers, Harper Lee and Truman Capote grew up as next-door neighbors. After a traditional Alabama lunch of fried catfish with coarse ground cheese grits and banana pudding dessert, I entered the beautiful courthouse and historic courtroom that was the model for the movie, To Kill A Mockingbird. Sitting on a courtroom pew, I noticed that the judge’s bench had an old Bible positioned next to a gavel. Above was the balcony where Harper Lee’s characters Scout and Jem watched with their black friends the trial of Tom Robinson defended by one of the silver screen’s all-time heroes, Atticus Finch, portrayed magnificently by Gregory Peck.
I neared the completion of a long-postponed pilgrimage. There was, however, one more stop to make. Hank Williams’ grave is high on a hill overlooking Montgomery. Joined by the accomplished journalist Michelle Winner and guided by the city’s renaissance man, Sam Bonfe, we took photos and then headed down to Montgomery’s impressive farmers market to devour just picked Alabama white peaches. Although the day was still beginning, we longed for flutes of chilled Champagne
At the end of the journey, I recalled George Panayiotou’s friendly proclamation. A perfect description of Alabama’s yearlong celebration of the state’s amazing food culture.“If you leave hungry, it’s not our fault.”