Like the culinary hot pocket of Sanford didn't have enough to boast about, now it's lured CIA graduate and former Café de France executive chef Nat Russell to historic First Street. Granted, the Memphis-born chef lives in Sanford, so the thought of opening his down-home eatery – the Tennessee Truffle – on the town's eclectic Strip of Jewels was practically a no-brainer, but still. So after giving the old Jalapeno's Mexican Grille space a proper Memphis shakedown (we're talking corrugated tin, brick walls adorned with blues kings, church pews and uncomfortable stadium seats), Russell set to devising a breakfast/lunch menu of Southern staples crafted using his CIA-trained techniques.
The result? Dishes that delight and charm like a Southern dandy. Take the biscuits and gravy; for $7, this looker is an absolute steal, not to mention one of the finer preparations of the dish you'll come across. The flaked brick of butter biscuit, its lower half submerged in a thick saucy slather of Pasture Prime sausage gravy spiked with fennel, is like a morning reverie. It's dusted with a healthy (and unadvertised) flecking of espelette, a pepper popular in Basque cuisine, which Russell sources from the same place I do: online. It adds a considerable amount of kick to the morning meal, and we enjoyed it with Perezgang Farms eggs done over-easy.
The creamed corn ($4) was to have been peppered with espelette, but its absence certainly didn't sour our opinion of the side. The creamy bowl of Bellwood, Florida's finest kernels is graced with the eponymous "Tennessee truffle" – a pickled ramp that gives the dish an added Dixieland dimension. Since we're on the subject of sides, the maque-choux ($5), a stewy mélange of okra, bell pepper, cherry tomato, onion and corn served in a cute lidded saucepot (yes, Russell places an emphasis on plating and aesthetics), was my absolute favorite, particularly with the addition of roasted peanuts and candied jalapeños.
I much preferred it to bland macaroni and tomato cooked with bacon fat ($4) as the accompaniment to the BLT ($9). The sandwich comprised pan-seared Duroc bacon stuffed inside a biscuit with heirloom tomatoes, Bibb lettuce and house-made garlic mayo. It made for a filling noontime nosh, as did the chicken salad sandwich ($9) fashioned from Bell and Evans chicken confit, but the firm texture of the biscuits did a shredding number on our palates. That's not to take away from the comforting nature of the handhelds – on the contrary. It's Southern fare, smile- and sleep-inducing as ever, and perhaps a bit soigné, but it's just the way we like it.
And if that doesn't weigh down your eyelids, the chocolate gravy biscuit ($5) sure as hell will. "Redneck éclair" – words my mind had heretofore never conjured – is how I described the flavors of this over-the-top ending to my two Southern comrades, neither of whom seemed too amused. Chocolate "gravy" oozed from the innards of a hard biscuit as Madagascar vanilla bean ice cream pooled around its edges. It's not a capper we we're particularly gaga about, but we appreciated the commitment to concept. Homemade "buttered popcorn" ice cream ($2 per scoop) reminded us of kettle corn and seemed a far more appropriate ending given how much food we'd consumed.
Then again, to not feel a certain heaviness on exiting the restaurant would be doing your stomach, and the restaurant, a disservice. If you're prancing back to the car like a Tennessee Walker, then you probably need to shuffle back to the Truffle.
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