For a city of nearly 20,000, Clarksdale, Mississippi is severely under-represented when it comes to restaurants, particularly fine dining. During Juke Joint Festival, the problem becomes more significant, as the main restaurants are either on special festival menus with limited choices, or outrageously crowded, with wait times that can exceed an hour and cause you to miss a performer you were hoping to see. But on the way to Mardi Gras in February, I had become aware of a place in Rena Lara, about 10 minutes from Clarksdale, that has ribeye steaks and live music on weekends. The Great River Road Country Store, from Highway 1, looks like a gas station, but looks can be deceiving. Of course you can purchase gasoline there, and inside, it has all the usual items you would expect in a country store. But once inside, you notice a vast array of tables, and a large performance stage. The fact is, on weekends, the Great River Road store turns into a combination steakhouse and live music club. I arrived too early for the live music, and the rain was pouring down outside, but I ordered a rib-eye steak, and I was thoroughly pleased. Ribeyes are not my favorite cut of meat, yet this steak was tender, with no tough fat or gristle, and excellent flavor. There was nothing particularly fancy of gourmet about it. Just a delicious steak, with Texas toast and a baked potato. As for the atmosphere, it was interesting as well, with some children who were related to the owner dressed in hunting gear and running joyfully around the premises. The woman who was serving me explained that the owners’ son owned Catfish Blues in Hernando, and was opening a new steakhouse in Senatobia called Delta Kitchen, which I had already heard about. Although the Great River Road sells food everyday, steaks are only cooked on weekends. It’s worth a drive down into the Delta for great food, great fun and occasional great music.
Great River Road Country Store
3915 Highway 1
Rena Lara, MS 38720
Lundi Gras, the Monday before Mardi Gras Day, is basically a holiday in New Orleans, and thus ordinary things like getting breakfast can become a little complicated. My friend Darren Towns, his wife Jarday, and their children and I had planned to grab a breakfast at a new spot called Cloud 9 Bistro uptown at Magazine and 9th, a place that was supposed to specialize in liege waffles. Unfortunately, because of Lundi Gras, the restaurant had both cooks and servers not show up for work, and the owner stated it would be 45 minutes before he could even take our order. As a result, we walked around the corner to the Red Dog Diner, but they stated that the wait for a table would be at least two hours. Desperate, not to mention starving, I suggested that we try further uptown at Riccobono’s Panola Street Cafe, and although we did have to wait, it was a reasonable length of time, and we got seated. The breakfasts there are always great, and this day was no exception. However, the delays in finding a place and in getting seated meant that when we were through with breakfast, Darren only had about an hour before he was supposed to play at his afternoon gig.
I had traveled to many gigs with Darren and other members of the TBC Brass Band, and almost all of them had been fun, but this one on this particular day was not much fun at all. For one thing, it wasn’t a TBC gig, but rather a pickup band that had been hired for this particular event, and for another, the event had been put together by a certain celebrity performance artist who is often in New Orleans. Her desire to protect her privacy and not disclose her whereabouts meant that I was not to use my phone to film or photograph the goings-on, and that in fact I was to keep my distance from the whole thing. The organizers had given several different addresses to the musicians, perhaps another step in trying to keep paparazzi and other unwelcome guests at bay, and we had gone first to a location in the French Quarter before ending up on a rather desolate street in the 9th Ward neighborhood known as Holy Cross.
The organizers had hired both some Mardi Gras Indians, and musicians, for some sort of outdoor event. They wanted everyone other than the Indians to wear white, and one of the women explained to Darren that they were going to “build an altar” for their ritual, and that they would then walk to the river with the Indians and musicians to “make their offerings.” None of us were quite sure what exactly was going on there, whether voodoo, or New Age, or neo-paganism, but it was all quite strange, to say the least. The weather was bitterly cold as well, and eventually I retreated to the car, where I turned on the heat and sat there for the hour and a half or so that the procession and ceremony continued.
When it was finally all over, Darren and I decided to go and get dinner. Perhaps because of the cold, it never even occurred to me to suggest that we go to the parades. Instead we headed to the new Saltgrass Steakhouse in Metairie, where we enjoyed a steak dinner, and then we stopped by the Cafe du Monde on Veterans Boulevard for after-dinner beignets and coffee. Thoroughly exhausted, we decided not to go out for live music, but to head to the house and get rested up for the big day on the morrow.
Originally, I was to have headed out to New Orleans on Saturday, which would have enabled me to go to Houma for a parade with my homeboys in the To Be Continued Brass Band, but I was still under the weather on Saturday, and so I decided not to head out until the next day which was Sunday. And although I felt better Sunday morning, I was still not exactly well yet. But I decided to leave out early in the morning, and to head across the Delta, down Highway 61 and Highway 1, in the hopes of finding some pictures worth taking, and although it was a grey and dismal day, I did have some success in that regard. Taking Highway 1 from Lula brought me through some communities that really were headquarters for some of the large plantations, which almost always nowadays are called “farms.” The first one I came to was a community called Stovall, where there was an abandoned store. The Stovalls were a prominent family in Coahoma County, and Muddy Waters had once lived on their land. As I photographed the old brick store, I wondered how many times Muddy Waters had been inside it. The old Stovall home was to the right, near the river, but I didn’t recognize it as such because it had been renamed Seven Chimney Farms. The house actually does have seven chimneys, and seems to be in the process of being restored. Further down was a community called Sherard, which, if the store is to be believed, dates from 1874. The place consisted of the abandoned store, several elegant houses in a grove of trees, a church, and some smaller houses along the highway. At Rena Lara, I stopped for a soft drink at the Great River Road Store, which I was surprised to see serves also as a bar, pool hall and on weekends, upscale restaurant with steaks. I made a mental note to come back some Friday or Saturday to try the steaks. Perthshire was the next community I came to, and like some of the others, it appeared to be the headquarters for a farm, which I learned had been the Knowlton Plantation. What was once a company store was clearly evident on the little street that paralleled the highway. I could make out a rather elaborate house at the end of the east-west street off the highway, but it seemed to be at the end of a long private drive, so I photographed only a glimpse of it from the public street. Gunnison was the first town of any size that I came to along Highway 1, and I was eager to photograph there, as I had once seen some interesting-looking jukes there, and had failed to photograph them because of the groups of young men standing around outside them that I feared would object. Unfortunately, there was not nearly as much to be seen in Gunnison nowadays. One of the jukes from my visit years ago had turned into a motorcycle club, and there was no trace of the other. A club I didn’t recall from the past was operating on a side street, with a fair number of cars in front of it, but it had no signage whatsoever, and was operating more or less I suppose under the table. A well-preserved and still open vintage service station on Highway 1 was perhaps the best find in the little town. Beulah was even more desolate than Gunnison had been, although I found a few old downtown structures to photograph. Benoit had the Last Call Bar and Grill, with the words “Mississippi” and “Blues” on its side for good measure, and just to the south was the Monsanto-owned company town of Scott, Mississippi, with its beautiful setting between Lake Bolivar and Deer Creek. Scott had been the headquarters town for the Delta Pine and Land Company, which was once the largest cotton plantation in the world. D P & L was later acquired by Royal Dutch Shell for a period of time, before it was sold to Monsanto in St. Louis. Scott is laid out around a peaceful square across from the large building that houses the post office and which must have once been the company store. There is now an upscale restaurant called Five O’Clock On Deer Creek which is located on the main road, adjacent to the creek. Down from there, I passed through decrepit communities called Lamont and Winterville and into the city of Greenville, where I decided to stop for a lunch. Greenville has a Frostop location, and there I had quite a delicious bacon cheeseburger. From there I made my way to Highway 61 at Arcola, and took pictures there, in Estill, where there was an old collapsing wooden church which looked historic, in Hollandale, at Panther Burn, and in the old ghost town of Nitta Yuma, which is being carefully preserved by the descendants of the family that founded it. Past there, I basically ran out of light, and headed on into Jackson, and down to McComb, where I stopped for dinner at a Santa Fe Steak House, before continuing my journey down to New Orleans.
Holly Springs and Marshall County, Mississippi are a frequent destination for blues tourism. Two of Mississippi’s greatest blues families, the Burnsides and the Kimbroughs are from the county, and Foxfire Ranch, the Blues in the Alley concert series, and the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic attract blues fans, particularly during the summer months. But up until recently, tourists wanting an upscale dinner had to make their way to Oxford or to the Memphis area. That changed in July with the opening of Marshall Steakhouse on Highway 178 between Red Banks and Holly Springs.
Marshall Steakhouse is as much a destination as a restaurant, featuring a truly-massive park-like setting that includes an outside stage and plenty of seating. On the night of my visit, a bluegrass group was playing on the stage to a small crowd.
The restaurant, which had only been open a week, was incredibly crowded, with probably around fifty or more people waiting for seating. But, to my surprise, I suppose because I was only one person, I was seated immediately. It needs to be noted however that there are no small, intimate tables for two, and that parties of one or two are usually seated at the opposite end of a long table from other guests. Although Marshall Steakhouse is not cheap, they have some very reasonably-priced entrees, including two cuts of sirloin. I ordered the small sirloin, and was quite impressed with its flavor. Sirloin steaks can be tough, but this one was extremely tender, and easy to cut. The yeast bread was hot and delicious, and the baked potato was very good as well. I was also impressed by the fact that the price of my steak included all the accompaniments as well, something that is definitely not the case at a lot of steakhouses these days. I have to mention too that Marshall Steakhouse has a challenge- a 72-ounce steak with salad and baked potato that is free if a person can finish ALL of it within an hour. If not finished within an hour, it costs $89! I have not heard whether anyone has taken the challenge, and whether anyone has actually won it. As for the service, it was friendly, but fairly erratic, with lots of people being offered other people’s orders, but that is not necessarily surprising one week in. Corrections were made promptly, and everybody made happy. One thing to note, though- the Marshall Steakhouse is not a place to be caught up in your cellphone. Made entirely out of metal, the building is a true deadzone inside, and most phones get no signal. There is currently no public wi-fi. But there is plenty of decor, and large-screen televisions hanging from the walls. Besides, who stays buried in their phone at dinner anyway?
Despite its relatively small size, Tupelo often feels like Mississippi’s “other city”, with its large airport, zoo, arena, downtown and vast array of retail, restaurants and hotels.So it really isn’t surprising that Tupelo has seen a burst of new restaurant activity of late. That being said, nothing quite prepared me for the shear brilliance of Forklift, a New American restaurant that specializes in gourmet twists on Southern comfort foods. A check of the menu shows inspired creations like the “Bay of Pigs” (Cuban sandwich made with pulled pork) or “Clucks and Waffles”, a gourmet take on the African-American tradition of chicken and waffles.
On our recent visit, we were immediately impressed with the decor and ambiance of the restaurant. Forklift features a big city atmosphere that would not be out of place in New Orleans, Memphis or Jackson. It also features an outdoor patio, complete with fire-pit, that nonetheless is roofed and feels more like a part of the main dining room rather than outdoors. We chose a comfortable seat there, and when things began to get chilly after sunset, the fire-pit was started and we were quite content.
I opted for the Steak & Frites, a dish that I have enjoyed at other restaurants, but Forklift’s take on it is quite different. Sirloin is a cut of meat that can often be tough, but this steak was cooked using a sous vide method, and was as tender as a filet mignon. It was arranged on the plate in slices and looked to my friend somewhat like beef brisket. It was as delicious as any steak I have ever tried. The “frites” it came with were hand-cut fries, and were equally good.
My friend opted for the “Pork Deluxe” which is a “burger” made from ground pork rather than ground beef. It came with bacon, cheese and a tomato onion jam, but proved to be too much for her to finish at one sitting, and she took a to-go box for the rest of it.
We left feeling that Forklift is the kind of restaurant that people would expect to find in the biggest cities, and that Tupelo is fortunate to have such a place. We hope that it will be here for many years to come.
The Mississippi River is a kind of river known as a “meander stream”, a type of river that constantly shortens its route from its source to the sea. The coils and loops it leaves behind are known as “oxbow lakes”, and these wide and deep lakes become great places for recreation. Horseshoe Lake, some 26 miles south of West Memphis, Arkansas is such an oxbow lake, and a popular weekend resort for Memphians, whose homes and cottages line the lakeshore. However, the lake area is short on restaurants, with the exception of Highwater Landing, an unexpected casual fine dining restaurant in the back of the local convenience store and gas station, Bonds Grocery. Entering the restaurant on a Friday night can be tricky, as the grocery store closes at 6 PM, and the side entrance to the back is not always easy to spot from the road. Despite the name, Highwater Landing is not on the lake, and does not have a waterfront view. Rather, the name is a reference to the infamous Flood of 1937, which inundated the nearby town of Hughes, Arkansas, and pictures of the flood in Hughes are on the walls behind the bar. The menu consists primarily of seafood, although there are also burgers, and ribeye steaks. Ribeye is not my favorite cut of steak, but this one was excellent and worth its price. Entrees come with two sides, and I chose a loaded baked potato and tater tots, both of which were excellent. Service is friendly and efficient, and the cozy, casual atmosphere makes the experience something like having dinner at someone’s home, all the more so as most of the customers and staff know each other. A small stage area near the entrance suggests that the Highwater Landing occasionally has live music, or perhaps a DJ. It’s definitely worth the drive out to Horseshoe Lake for a weekend escape from city life, but keep in mind that the Highwater Landing is open only on Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 5:30 PM to 8:30 PM.
15235 Highway 147 S
Horseshoe Lake, AR 72348
Since the abrupt and unexpected closure of Morgan Freeman’s Madidi Restaurant a few years ago, fine dining in Clarksdale has been something like a roll of the dice. Rust came, then left, then resurfaced out at Hopson Plantation at the Shack Up Inn, Pinkbar came and went in less than a year, Yazoo Pass coffee bar added some upscale food menu items at night, but still, Clarksdale lacked a good upscale dining option, which was a problem, given the growing upscale tourist market. This year, during Juke Joint Fest, I discovered the solution, not a new restaurant, but a really old one, Kathryn’s, founded in 1937. Why had we been missing it? Because Kathryn’s is not quite in Clarksdale, even if it is in Coahoma County. Officially, its address says it is in Dundee, but it’s really closer to Lula, and where it really is located is along the shores of Moon Lake, a beautiful oxbow lake that once was part of the Mississippi River. Kathryn’s is located in a small house, and has no pretensions, but the fare inside is fine dining indeed. Steaks and seafood are the main attraction here, and the atmosphere is strangely split between chic uptown and resort, with great blues and jazz playing overhead (The owner, John Mohead, is a blues musician). There is also a wine list, and even during the festival, the place was not unduly crowded. Finding Kathryn’s however might present something of a problem. From Clarksdale, the easiest choice is to take Highway 61 north almost to the Helena junction, turning left at the Moon Lake sign just before. That road dead ends at the lake, and taking a right will lead you along the lakeshore to Kathryn’s. It’s worth the drive and the effort to find it.
Kathryn’s Fine Dining
5770 Moon Lake Road
Dundee, MS 38626
Open Thurs-Sat 6-10 PM
Chisholm Lake in Lauderdale County, Tennessee is not the kind of place you find by accident. In fact, were it not for a small sign along Highway 51 just north of Ripley, I might never have heard of it at all. But on a trip back from Dyersburg one evening, I noticed a sign for the Chisholm Lake Store Restaurant, boasting of steaks and seafood, so I had been telling myself for several years that one day I would try it, and the other evening, I finally made a deliberate trip to Ripley to do so. Once in Ripley, finding the way to get to the restaurant is not difficult, as the road is called Chisholm Lake Road, but the lake is fairly far away from the town, and it takes awhile to get there. Once you enter the state’s wildlife management area, the road narrows, and soon you see Chisholm Lake, a beautiful oxbow lake surrounded by woods that once was a channel of the Mississippi River. Here and there are isolated fishing cottages and cabins, and then at the end of the road, a small collection of cottages and one obviously commercial building surrounded by cars, the Chisholm Lake Store. Despite the name, the store is actually a restaurant and bar, with a fun, convivial spirit and sports on the flat screen TV’s. There are no menus on tables, as you actually walk up to the bar and order before getting seated. The choices are fairly limited, but steak and crab are what people come for, and the ribeye steak dinner with baked potato and a salad bar is a great deal, although keep in mind that they have no cuts of steak other than ribeyes, and they take only cash, no credit or debit cards. Because you’re literally off the beaten path in the middle of nowhere, there’s also limited phone access and no internet to speak of, but it’s worth it for the good food, fun, and views of the setting sun over the lake. The Chisholm Lake Store is open only on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. It’s probably a good idea to call ahead to confirm that they are open.
Chisholm Lake Store
23 Chisholm Lake Camp Rd
Ripley, TN 38063
Tupelo, Mississippi has always had a big-city ambiance that belies its relatively small size. It has a large regional mall, its own TV station, a zoo, a large convention center and arena and a fairly big downtown, complete with tall buildings. Now, Tupelo also has a big-city steakhouse called Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen on Main Street downtown, opened by the same people who run the Neon Pig in North Tupelo. KOK is not just a great steakhouse with great food and an attractive ambiance, but it is also a burgeoning part of the locavore movement, a trend toward restaurants locally sourcing almost everything. A wood-burning pit downstairs fills the restaurant with an inviting aroma, and this is where steaks are grilled and shucks of corn are roasted. My expertly-cooked filet mignon was accompanied by fingerling potatoes, which were delicious, and I had substituted a husk of roasted corn (also amazing) for the vegetables. The large upstairs dining room is bright and cheerful, with local art works on the walls and plenty of windows, but there is also seating around a downstairs bar near the pit. Although I’m not a beer drinker, there is a decent selection of craft beers, many of them regional, for those who like that sort of thing. Altogether, I had a great meal and good fun at Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen, and will certainly be back.