If polarizing schlock jock Guy Fieri is the Donald Trump of cookery, then Art Smith might very well be gastronomy's Jimmy Carter – a galvanizing force, a lover of humanity, and a Southern gentleman through and through. Of course Carter hardly encompassed the sort of dandy flair Smith so proudly flaunts, but populism – even in the restaurant world – nurtures big personalities, and these two certainly make their presence felt at Disney Springs.
The flame-shirted one has lent some menu bombast to the Planet Hollywood retread, while Smith – not one given to idiotic catchphrases – introduces upscale, yet down-home, cuisine to the diverse masses via his restaurant, Homecomin'. The "g" in "Homecoming" was recently dropped from the original moniker as a result of a legal wrangle with a Brooklyn café/gift shop of the same name but, as Smith blithely declares, "'Homecomin' is how I pronounce it anyway!" And, really, Southern Expressionism is what this "Florida Kitchen" is all about.
You can mosey on up to the bar if you're hankerin' for a little hooch (moonshine cocktails are a specialty here), but when you're ready for some grub, you'd best give some mind (and mouth) to Smith's buttermilk-brined fried chicken. It's reached near-legendary status, plating a couple of cracklin' good pieces alongside mashed potatoes and sugar doughnuts served with a spiced cane sugar-and-maple syrup ($25), offering a true glimpse into a fat man's fairy tale. Also dreamy: peppery pan-seared shrimp with tomato gravy and Tasso ham served over creamy grits ($26) procured from Bradley's Country Store in Tallahassee. Oh, and if you're susceptible to long stretches of reverie, best stay clear of the pimento cheese. The spreadable "caviar of the South" comes on the Jasper Board ($15), which includes superbly salty buttermilk crackers, smoked sausage, candied pecans, pickles and, least stimulating of all, some shaved ham that had us craving Ibérico. But back to that cheese – servers will gladly oblige if you want to take a sample or two home with you, so honey, just ask.
Chunky chicken and dumpling soup ($9) with bright peas and carrots, while comforting, had to be doggie-bagged to make room for an order of fried catfish ($22), which was the best I've had this side of the Mason-Dixon. The scraunch of beautifully battered catfish being pierced is a sound I'll never tire of. We did get a little tired while eating the pineapple-banana hummingbird cake ($12), only because it took us five days to finish it. It's a big bird of an ending that won't give you wings, that's for damn sure.
But it's Smith, the only Disney College Program graduate to run a business on Disney property, who's flying high. Of his seven restaurants, Homecomin' is the one he holds dearest, and he uses his presence at Disney Springs – ground zero for celeb chefs looking to cash in – for a different purpose. "My heart is about feeding people and giving back. The Universe has given me a gift where I get to meet the influential people of our time through food and bring them all together for the greater good. Oprah made me realize my gift, and I want everyone to benefit from it," he says, adding, "I live very simply in a very poor town, and all this will go into a trust that will keep [charities] Common Threads and Reunion Florida Garden & Kitchen School going after I'm gone."
That humble way of thinking from one of the most recognizable chefs around is what sets Homecomin' apart, and lends a poignancy to your meal you won't find at other preening high-profile restos inside Disney's showcase of embarrassing riches.
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