“Pleasantly surprised” is generally an oft overused term. It’s one, in all honesty, that I rarely ever use. I’m someone who’s very adept at figuring out a lot about a person, or a place within a few minutes of contact. I’m very big on first impressions and for the most part, my initial observations pan out into what I expect them to. So, while on vacation with my wife’s family in Seaside, Florida, I was told that we were going to visit a “wonderful little café nearby.” The foodie in me was was excited about this thought, but I was a bit hesitant. Seaside Florida, and the Santa Rosa Beach area, are a mix of little coastal resort towns. Built in their own style, spacing, and architecture. So, while I like the resort town feel, I’m usually quite hesitant of the food in resort areas because, in my experience, it tends to be a bit cookie-cutter. I’ve seen far too many “Catch of the day” places with frilly descriptions, and even frillier prices.
So, when I walked up the entrance way, and saw “Great Southern Café” hanging above the porch seating area, I went from being slightly reserved, to very reserved.
The sign might as well have said: “FRILLY LABELED SOUTHERN FOOD, EXTREME PRICES” Because, that’s what I was thinking. I could just imagine every dish, labeled with some notion designed to relate to nostalgic antiquity, mixed with words someone googled while they were writing out the menu. “Aunt Edna’s Green Beans $9, Uncle Lou’s Potatoes Dauphinoise $11 (since every good southerner knows what a dauphinoise is, right?) So, resigned to my fate, I followed our group in, expecting to take one look at the menu, snicker, and order a burger (Grandpa Jimbob’s Country Backyard Burger!)
Oh man… I was SO. VERY. WRONG. The food was unbelievable.
After being seated in the open air porch-like dining area, our waitress followed the de rigueur protocols of seating, menu, drink orders, etc. In which, as per usual, I don’t look at the menu until everyone at the table has ordered drinks, and the waitress/waiter returns to the back to start preparing them. I’ve always felt it’s necessary to pay attention to the waitstaff, and to be as polite as possible. They have tough jobs, and it would honestly bother me if I was working the table, and all the guests wanted to do was bury there nose in the menu and not even bat an eye in my direction.
So, with our waitress walking back to the prep area, I take a look at the menu. I reach up to brush something off of my nose, and realize that it’s the floor.
Due, in part, to the giant plate of crow that I’m now having to eat. The menu is incredible. It’s exactly what my mind thinks of when I describe nouvueau southern food. Grits á Ya Ya, Oysters Arcadia, Pecan Crusted Fish (of the day!) Bourbon Mashed Sweet Potatoes, Fried Green Tomatoes with Remoulade, Strawberry Cobia Salad, Blueberry BBQ Spareribs, Soul Rolls… wait, what? SOUL ROLLS? What the heck is a Soul Roll?!?
From the Great Southern Café menu:
S o u l R o l l s
Chicken and collard greens in a crisp wrapper with peach chutney,
horseradish cream, and creole mustard
Uhh… Yes, please! I”ll have two orders of those, one for now, and one for later!
All kidding aside, the soul rolls were one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten. The flavors were superbly balanced (yes, chutney, mustard, and horseradish cream DO work together) and artfully prepared. The dish was, in a word, beautiful. In fact, every dish coming out of the kitchen was beautiful. (They have a habit of topping some of their dishes with angel-hair-thin, crispy fried sweet potato curls. Light, crispy, and colorful! Why did I never think of that!?!)
Chef and co-owner Jim Shirley is a restaurant veteran, and obviously someone who’s in love with food. Not only does the restaurant use fresh ingredients, they also focus on local suppliers and cross promote them to help build interest in their products. Here’s an excerpt from a recipe on the Café’s website (Yes, you read that right, they give away recipes too!)
Sweet Home Farm Fondue
Chef’s Narrative: Just across the state line, in Elberta, Ala., lies a countryside culinary jewel called Sweet Home Farm, where a family of cheese makers produces some of the best-tasting organic cheese in the country. This Grade A dairy, with the help of a herd of Guernsey cows, produces and sells 16 varieties of all-natural raw-milk cheese. These wonderful cheeses are worth the trip and are great for this spicy fondue.
Seriously folks. You can’t get any better than this. Great ingredients, wonderful food, community involvement, and recipe distribution. Very few places in the world do all of these things as well as they do at the Great Southern Café. This place is definitely worth the drive, the time and the money. If you have an opportunity to go, don’t skip out. You’ll be pleasantly surprised too.
83 Central SqSanta Rosa Beach, FL 32459
Here’s a few shots from the website to tempt you: