Our 3-day weekend in Mississippi meant plenty of time for one of my favorite pasttimes while on vacation – eating. Anytime “food” and “Deep South” are mentioned in the same sentence, your mind may immediately wander to all things fried. And while there are plenty of places to get your grease fix in Natchez, there’s actually a lot more to enjoy in this part of the world than just fried stuff. We sampled three restaurants in downtown Natchez, all at the recommendation of the manager at our hotel – The Camp, the Carriage House Restaurant, and the Cotton Alley Cafe. Come to think of it, that’s a lot of “C”s, however unintentional…
NOTE: this is the final installment of my trip report series about our long weekend in Natchez in April, 2015. Other installments in this series:
- A Taste of the Old South – The Antebellum Homes of Natchez, Mississippi
- Hotel Review – The Linden Bed & Breakfast, Natchez, Mississippi
- A Driving Tour of The History of Natchez, From Native Americans to the Civil War
- Restaurant Reviews – The Cuisine of Southwest Mississippi (this post)
- 21 Silver Street, Natchez, MS
- Hours: 11 A.M.-9 P.M. Monday-Wednesday; 5-9 P.M. Thursday; 11 A.M.-10 P.M. Friday; 8 A.M.-10 P.M. Saturday; 8 A.M.-9 P.M. Sunday
- Price: $10-20 per person, without alcohol
- Date of visit: Friday, April 24, 2015
At its heart, The Camp is a sports bar, though it tries hard to appeal to a wide audience. There are TVs all around tuned to various sporting events, and 18 beers are available on tap, many from Southern craft breweries. However, the menu is more sophisticated and substantial than what you find at sports bars (i.e. more than just burgers and onion rings), and the restaurant is large, allowing for a few quieter areas if you just want to enjoy a meal with the family. We were there on Friday night around 7:45, and I expected it to be more crowded. There was actually plenty of space available, though. We were assigned a table near a TV, which just happened to have the Mavs-Rockets basketball playoff game on, much to my delight, though I’m sure much to the chagrin of my wife.
Neither one of us were terribly hungry, so we passed on the appetizers and went straight to the main course – pimento grilled cheese for me, and Southern-style fish tacos for Prita (sorry for the photo, the chips got in the way).
I’ll show you that grilled pimento cheese one more time. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention I added bacon…because, why the heck not? Bacon rules.
Holy cow. Pimento cheese is a quintessential Southern dish, but one that you either love or hate. I like it, and the pimento cheese itself was very good, made with real cheddar cheese and a good helping of cream cheese. But gee whiz – grill it on Texas toast, and add bacon, and you’ve got one ridiculously heavy sandwich. I fought my way to get through and ate the whole thing, but I just knew it was a meal I’d end up regretting in a few hours. Which is too bad, because the sandwich itself was very nicely done, crisp on the outside, and it didn’t get soggy even with the heavy, greasy filling. The fries were also very good, with a nice snap when hot, but tender on the inside, and not too greasy. I just couldn’t get through very many.
The lesson here – order the sandwich to share, or skip a meal beforehand. My wife didn’t like her tortilla chips (she said they were stale; I can confirm that they indeed were), but she did like her fish tacos. We both found the addition of the Asian slaw a bit strange, though. While not necessarily out of place on a fish taco, it seemed out of place and confused on a dish described as “Southern-style”.
And at the end of the day, “confused” describes the place in general. It’s not quite a sports bar, or quite a family restaurant, and though the menu generally tries to do a play on traditional Southern cuisine (fried pickles, pimento cheese, pulled pork), it also has some strangely out-of-place Asian-inspired items (the “Buddha Belly” burger, for instance). At least the food’s pretty good.
Rating: 3 1/2 stars. Good, but trying to do too many things for too many people holds things back.
Carriage House Restaurant & Lounge
- 401 High Street, Natchez, MS
- Hours: Wednesday through Sunday 11 A.M.-2 P.M.
- Price: $20-25 per person, without alcohol
Located in the Stanton Hall antebellum home, the Carriage House is, as the name suggests, a restaurant located in a repurposed carriage house (basically a garage for horse-drawn carriages) on the grounds of the home. The specialty here is Southern home cooking, specifically the fried chicken. I’d been told by more than one person that the best fried chicken in the entire country could be found at the Carriage House, a claim I just had to verify for myself. Besides fried chicken, the menu is actually quite varied, with a selection of soups, sandwiches, salads, and classic Southern main dishes. You can also sip on a mint julep while you wait for your food. It is a fairly large dining room, and the restaurant is frequently rented out for Southern weddings, hence the fancy decorations in the lobby.
We passed on appetizers again thanks to the free mini-biscuits (a Natchez specialty apparently) served with the meal. My wife ordered fried catfish, and naturally, I went with the world-famous fried chicken.
I loved the little mini-biscuits, which were soft and flaky, with a creamy buttermilk flavor. They’re especially good when spread with a little butter. But, people don’t come here for the biscuits; they come for the chicken. And I must say – I think I agree that this is the best fried chicken anywhere, certainly the best I’ve ever had. And I don’t say that lightly, with the incredible Bubba’s in Dallas as a comparison point. The chef manages to hit all the notes perfectly – crispy skin combined with well-seasoned, melt-in-your-mouth meat inside. I don’t know what else to say, except, you’ve got to come try this chicken.
The rest of my plate wasn’t nearly as exciting. The mashed potatoes were nice and rich, with an obvious extra helping of butter, but were lacking salt, and the brown gravy had a sligthly off taste to it. It wasn’t bad, but while I can’t put my finger on exactly what it was, there was too much of some kind of seasoning. And while the bacon chunks gave the green beans a good, meaty flavor, it’s clear they had been under a heat lamp too long, as they had gone limp and soggy. My wife did enjoy her catfish, mentioning that the breading in particular was crunchy yet light, though she said the fries weren’t great.
Rating: 4 stars just for the fried chicken. It’s that good. But if you’re not a fried chicken person, you’ll probably be a little disappointed.
And last but not least…
Cotton Alley Café
- 208 Main Street, Natchez, MS
- Hours: Daily except Sunday 11 A.M.-2:30 P.M. and 5:30-9 P.M.
- Price: $35-50 per person, without alcohol
We ended up at the Cotton Alley Café by accident. My wife wanted seafood, and our intention was to go to Roux 61, a Cajun restaurant on the south end of town, but when we arrived, we were greeted by a line with an hour and a half wait. No thanks. I remembered a couple of other guests at breakfast had mentioned Cotton Alley, so we decided to give that a try instead.
The inside of the restaurant is…interesting, with an odd mix of classical and modern art. Witness a replica of the Mona Lisa across the wall from a psychedilic painting of a really tall guy standing over a road. I didn’t mind that, though the unusually large crowd made the restaurant loud, and therefore difficult to carry on a conversation.
Food-wise, the menu is your typical quasi-upscale dinner place, with steaks and seafood being the primary attraction. But since this is the South, there is also a healthy selection of fried goodies. This time, we did decide to get an appetizer for a change, and ordered the “Boom Boom Shrimp”, six jumbo shrimp served with hot dipping sauce.
The shrimp were fresh and delicious, with a delightfully crunchy coating. I found the “hot” sauce more sweet than spicy, but it still complemented the shrimp well, almost like a sweet & sour sauce. For the main course, I ordered the grilled ribeye, and Prita went with the fried oysters.
The steak was pretty good. You’re obviously not going to get III Forks quality in a small shop like this, but the steak was cooked as I had requested, and was reasonably tender. My only complaint – I asked for a bottle of steak sauce, and was sheepishly told by the waiter that they had run out. Really? I have to call “fertilizer” on that one, if you know what I mean. The veggies were OK overall, highlighted by a tender baked potato. The rest of the vegetables were grilled and drenched in some kind of sauce, and were over-seasoned. I did try a couple of the fried oysters, which were excellent. I enjoy a good fried oyster or fried oyster sandwich, but grittiness is a common problem; these had been cleaned well, and so you didn’t get that annoying sandy feeling in your mouth afterwards.
For dessert, we got some kind of peanut butter pie (I forgot to write down the exact name, unfortunately).
Based on the description, I was expecting an overgrown Reese’s, which it kind of was, but wasn’t entirely successful. The problem here was peanut butter in too high a ratio to the other ingredients, making for a salty and somewhat sticky dessert (think of what happens when your dog tries to eat peanut butter and you’ll get the idea of what I mean). They do have several types of pie on the menu, so I’d suggest going with something else.
Rating: I’ll go with 3 1/2 stars again. It was really a tale of two restaurants, with the steak and the dessert a real “meh”, but the shrimp and oysters warranting 4 stars. I’d advise sticking to the seafood if you come here.