Sassy Southern Cooking with a French Kiss

croque monsieur

More Savannah Surprises

Round four of my Savannah restaurant/scouting research trip for Food Lovers’ Guide to Charleston and Savannah proved to be the most delicious to date. I love how Savannah keeps surprising me with her breadth and depth of deliciousness all across town on each and every side of her myriad squares and gardens. I think it’s safe to say I’m falling in love with The Hostess City. She’s definitely growing on me and in  more ways than one! Look for an updated list of new Savannah favorites under ” Holly’s 4 & 5 star favorites that won’t break the bank” on the blog page. The list is by no means complete, but we’re getting there. I’ll be adding more later this week.

In the meantime, let’s take a peek at some of what I savored in Savannah last week and where I think you can and will do the same when you’re in town!

Papillote

218 W. Broughton Street, Savannah, GA 31401

(912) 232-1881, www.papillote-savannah.com

French goodness is completely in the bag at this darling little nook of a French bistro/gourmet-to-go jewel. Named after a method of cooking/steaming food (usually fish, vegetables and wine) in a bag or pouch, Papillote is owned and operated by French native Herve Didailler and American Ann Marie Apgar. Every edge of this cheerful bright spot on one of the quirkiest, best shopping stretches of Broughton glimmers with spotless attention to every detail, from the lavender macarons ($1.85 each) to the goat cheese and tomato pie ($8.99 per slice). But, it’s the Croque Monsieur ($8.50, pictured left ) that may very well break your heart. Savannah-based cookbook author and food writer, Damon Lee Fowler,  was kind (or should that be cruel?) enough to tell me all about it. Basically a souped up ham and cheese with the French kiss of a bechamel, a “croque” is one of those things that’s so simple to make, it’s difficult to knock it out of the park. But, Didailler does just that, coating the thick, fresh bread with a toasted crunch and spreading it with a thick layer of milky bechamel, topping it with cheese that’s broiled to bubbly, brown, nuttiness that plays ever so sweetly with the saltiness of top grade ham and swiss cheese in the center. There is always a long list of tasty specials posted if you can get past the lure of the large photo of Papillote’s Croque Monsieur posted on the pretty brick walls.

The spread of Southern food love at Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room...See fried chicken front and center!

Long Lines at Mrs. Wilkes’ are Worth the Wait

Maybe it was all of those trips to Walt Disney World when I lived near it during the junior high and high school years, but I have a serious aversion to waiting in very long lines. That is, unless it proves to be well worth the wait. Pirates of the Caribbean always did the trick at Disney, and I’ll tell you what, Mrs. Wilke’s makes it happen in Savannah.

Being very familiar with the kind of herd, tourist mentality that seems to surround a couple of line-waiting destinations in Charleston that I don’t particularly favor or recommend, I was reticent about Mrs. Wilkes.   This reticence was further strengthened earlier in the day of my visit. I had stopped by about 9:30 a.m. to get the lay of the land and figure out how to best negotiate the notorious line. At this time, a lady was walking her cocker spaniel and was kind enough to share her input. “Well, Savannahian’s don’t really go there, dear,” she said.  Not really a good sign, but the air already smelled sweet with cooking goodness and really, I had to go, since Mrs. Wilkes’ is a Savannah institution. Another kind lady told me the key to avoiding the line was to either go early (about 10:45 a.m.) or later (about 1:45). Mrs. Wilkes’ serves from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m., but they will honor any stragglers left in line after 2 p.m.

Here’s the way it works at Mrs. Wilkes’. The restaurant is situated below a huge house that used to be a boarding house where a Mrs. Sema Wilkes served hungry laborers and blue color workers and the like that rented rooms there starting back in 1943. Twice a day, they would descend into the dining room and be seated at large community tables to be served heaping bowls of Southern comfort food classics, cooked home style. The tradition continues today and is amazingly well-orchestrated. There is indeed a line, but it moves quickly, as the host ushers in new diners as complete tables of ten become available. Then, and quickly, an array of twenty dishes (the mix changes daily) arranged in large bowls and heaping platters are served, along with sweet tea (or water if you like) and a smile. It’s finished with your choice of two desserts. You are sweetly asked to remove your plates, vacate your seat at your convenience, and pay a mere $16 at the door as you exit.

I arrived at about 1 p.m. and ended up waiting about an hour before I found my seat. The air was infused with the most alluring fragrance of freshly fried chicken that had my stomach rumbling by meal time.  That fried chicken was one of the first things to arrive at the table, steaming hot and made to order. It was delectable, deep, down to the bone delicious – some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. I had to chuckle when I noticed a tee shirt near the register that says “If the colonel made chicken this good, he’d be a general”. They should have added “five star” somewhere in there.

My table neighbors and I became fast friends and soon were chatting as if we were family. Much to my happy surprise, Mrs. Wilkes’ exudes a sincere,  completely natural and enjoyable familial friendliness, that alone, makes visiting here worth the wait. Throw in stewed rutabaga, cabbage, okra, baked beans, buttery, fluffy mashed potatoes, house gravy, dressing, pickled cuke salad, biscuits, banana pudding and cobbler and you’ve got one heck of a deal – maybe the best in Savannah. Either way, it’s one worth re-visiting time and time again.

For now, it’s back to salads and carrot sticks, as I get in working shape for the next visit. But, I’ll forever dream of Mrs. Wilkes’ fried chicken.

Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room

107 West Jones Street, Savannah, GA 31401

(912) 232-5997, www.mrswilkes.com

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