Dining on The Square
Back on The Square in Oxford, MS, following an afternoon at Rowan Oak, we had reservations for dinner at City Grocery. There, and at several other restaurants in town, owner and executive chef John Currence, winner of a James Beard Foundation award in 2009 for Best Chef: South, continues to impress.
I will have to admit that I entered City Grocery wondering how I was going to fully enjoy what the restaurant had to offer so soon after finishing a massive lunch at Ajax Diner. After being seated I found the answer was right there on the menu.
The first column of City Grocery’s menu offers a wide selection of small plate options. After a good bit of deliberation we ordered:
Black Pepper Fettuccini with cashew /mint pesto, English peas and lemon zest
Spicy Green Beans in an Israeli cous cous salad
Mixed Baby Squash and Zucchini Salad with roasted bell pepper and fried shallots in a creole mustard vinaigrette.
An Off-Menu Special with a long spoken list of fabulous ingredients and descriptive detail that involved toast, arugula, figs, duck and a quail egg.
A Gorgeous Dinner
Every dish was beautiful! Our selections balanced well to provide a wonderful light meal for two. My least favorite was the Mixed Baby Squash and Zucchini Salad. It was pretty and piled high with crisped shallots. It was chilled, nice on a hot summer evening, but perhaps the serving temperature masked the unique flavors involved. Or perhaps it simply suffered by comparison.
The Spicy Green Beans were robust enough to hold their ground as a chilled salad course. These too were topped with crispy shallots and piled on top of a delightful bed of Israeli couscous salad, flecked with colorful bits of tomato and herbs. The couscous was perfectly cooked and dressed so that each bit was a separate al dente delight. The cool flavors balanced the spicy beans to great advantage. Not a morsel was left untouched.
The Black Pepper Fettuccini was interesting. Again, the cool flavor of mint was balanced against a spicier note, this time black pepper. Lemon zest brightened the presentation and flavor and the perfectly cooked peas were neither too squishy nor too resistant. Each element held it’s own to add texture and complexity to the whole. The tiny skillet was a nice touch, adding a bit more visual interest to this decidedly green side dish.
Still, my absolute favorite of the four small plates we ordered was the evening’s off-menu special. It was a delightful combination of ingredients that have come to make me smile in just the last few years. Arugula is perhaps my favorite green. Figs are a recent discovery for me and remain a point of particular interest. I still cherish my introduction to quail eggs a few summer’s ago at the Camas Farmer’s Market and it has been since I moved to Memphis that I first tasted duck that intrigued me enough to want more.
All of these exceptional ingredients were brought together in an inspired salad with an artfully casual presentation. The attention to detail was poetic. The toast was lightly browned, crisped enough on the outside to add substance against the dressed greens but still chewy enough on the inside to allow for discreet cutting. The arugula was lightly dressed and wilted while the generous bits of duck were tender and well dispersed. The figs added a flash of rich color and sweet flavor to the salad and the delightful little quail egg was cooked to a perfect over-medium (no small feat for such a tiny egg) allowing the flavor and texture to integrate into the salad as a whole. Even the dressing (of which I can’t remember the details) added a nicely colorful garnish to the plate.
And a Little Dessert
This selection of small plates from the menu was so well-suited to our appetite that it allowed just enough room to order a single dessert to share. We chose Grilled Peaches with blueberry and ricotta filling, honey sauce and blueberry sorbet for a light finale to our meal.
I enjoyed the concept and the presentation. This light dessert was served on a sturdy earthenware plate accompanied by a huge steak knife! While I could hardly imagine the intent it made me laugh.
I opted to eat the sorbet with a spoon. It was pretty and it’s flavor was bright. It balanced the sweet honey sauce and creamy ricotta with a mild tartness. If only the peach had been riper and better able to yield to the quick char of the grill this dessert might have been exceptional. Instead it was a side note rather than a highlight of the meal. Then again, as I said before, maybe it simply suffered by comparison.
All in all, City Grocery delivered on a fabulous meal in an elegant but comfortable atmosphere. The service was helpful, accommodating and attentive without being intrusive. Overall it was a great dining experience and I feel sure we will be back there again.