While traveling to promote his critically acclaimed new book, I Am From Here, chef/author Vishwesh Bhatt visited some of his favorite places to dine east of the Mississippi. Here are a few highlights that are sure to make you hungry enough to take a trip to try these delicious destinations.
America, the melting pot
Chef Bhatt’s story – beautifully told, memoir-style in the cookbook released in August – is familiar, but also surprising and definitely stirring. Born and raised in the Gujarat state of India, Vish was drawn to food from an early age, spending time going to the market with his father dele and watching his grandmothers and mother create magnificent meals for the large family.
Fast forward many years later, the family had immigrated to the US and Vish was attending the University of Mississippi in Oxford, a 90 minute drive from Memphis. His parents were living there at the time and he picked up a shift working at a cafe that specialized in plant-based thali lunches. “I did not know then that my love of cooking would quickly eclipse my interest in graduate school,” he writes.
Eventually, he went to work in the kitchen of one of his favorite restaurants, City Grocery, and soon began seeing similarities between Indian and Southern cuisine and ingredients. It’s that kind of melting pot cooking that’s so artfully showcased in the book in dishes such as grilled okra, peanut masala-stuffed baby eggplant, steamed corn cakes and corn and collard green fritters, recipes crafted with the home cook in mind.
Starting back where it all began
The promotional tour kicked off at the world famous Square Books in Oxford, followed by a celebratory dinner down the block at City Grocery: “Nic (Swogger) did a brilliant job of cooking from the book. He’s a big fan of flavors of Thailand, so he incorporated some of that in the flounder with a rice flour crust, soy and yuzu sauce finishing the dish. He served corn and squash, like succotash and peas with ginger.” BTW, Vish’s boss / mentor / BFF, John Currence, wrote the introduction to his book and if reading the sweet tribute does not make you choke up, check your pulse.
In Atlanta, Chai Pani hosted the book signing and special dinner, but Vish also managed to squeeze in a visit to Miller Union: “I just love how warm and friendly it is. Very few restaurants bang that nail on the head like they do every time at Miller Union. Vegetables are always front and center and that’s really special. The field peas and fried okra was just brilliant, the way the kitchen used the okra as the crunchy element.”
While in Orange Beach, Ala., chef Bill Briand and the team at Fisher’s rolled out a seafood feast that included oysters and crab claws and a grouper preparation that inspired Vish to wish he’d come up with that dish: “It was served with a corn puree that was almost like a mousse and charred tomatoes, all the elements of summer.” If you’ve never tried grouper, Vish said it’s one of the best white fish he’s ever eaten, “light and flaky with a sweet flavor.”
Gorgeous bites and crafted cocktails were served during a book signing event in Ocean Springs, Miss., at Vestige, a tasting menu-driven restaurant run by chef Alex Perry and his wife, Kumi Omori. The kitchen’s take on red shrimp from the Gulf is spectacular, for instance. “It’s all about the shrimp. They marinate it in citrus and soy and lightly poach it. It’s not quite a ceviche, but it has that barely cooked quality.”
Matt Fern’s (ish) Delicatessen in Raleigh, NC, is “so fantastic, so creative. It’s a small space in front of an old pharmacy, with just four or five tables. I had a simple BLT that was made with house-cured bacon and I loved the pickled collards. Because Matt’s a wine guy, they serve so many hard-to-find selections. I had something from the Jura (a tiny region between Burgundy and Switzerland) with my sandwich. It was really special.”
Vish was thrilled to dine at Botiwalla in Charlotte, where the kitchen focuses on Indian street food. “They have the best Vada Pav, mashed potato patties dredged in chickpea flour and served as sliders. They also serve sticky ribs I loved, with a tamarind and jaggery glaze.”
Chicago’s popular Mi Tocaya’s lineup of Oaxacan-inspired small plates was “so on point. There were so many wonderful dishes like the chicken mole with fresh citrus slaw, but the crispy duck with a sweet salsa was absolutely brilliant.”
Dauphin’s in Washington DC, is a grand place, with 350 seats that focuses on fresh takes on foods from New Orleans using ingredients from the mid-Atlantic. Chef Kristen Essig’s menu touches on some of the Crescent City’s greatest hits. “Don’t miss the pig ear salad with mirliton, and the Gumbo Z’Herbes, served with potato salad. The fresh and grilled oysters are served with fresh, shredded horseradish, which is a nice touch.”
While in New York City for a special book signing event at MOFAD, Vish returned to one of his regular haunts: “Nobody talks Tavern on Jane. It’s hidden gem, an Old School neighborhood place that hasn’t been too New York-ifed. The specialize in classic cocktails, always giving you a nice, honest pour and have a great burger and a nice steak.”
Now that the tour’s close to wrapping, Vish is back in the kitchen at Snackbar, where he’s inspired by the meals he enjoyed on the road. Guests can expect to see signs of that tasty tour on the ever-changing menu.