To Yankees and other newcomers, sure, its very name is politically incorrect: The Confederate House, good Lord. It smacks of the embattled Stars and Bars, of rebel yells and Klan hoods and benighted backwoods folk who've not heard the War was lost; everything ugly and frightening, in other words, about the caricatured South.
Let's just check our stereotypes at the door, shall we? I can't help where I grew up any more than a carpetbagger can; for me, The Confederate House speaks of something quite different. I remember country clubs that really were out in the countryside, warm brick and white-columned facades with commanding views of rolling, wooded hills, surrounded by smooth spreading lawns. I think of foods I love that for many years fell from fashion: pools of cream gravy speckled with black pepper; crisp, smoky crumbles of bacon; steaming yellow grits rich with cheese; oysters rolled in cornmeal and fried.
Such genteel enclaves could be painfully stuffy, of course, but were just as often gracious. They offered a legendary level of service that I can only describe as "Southern," a coddling, indulgent caretaking that, like the lenience of doting grandparents, will stop you only from harming yourself.
At first, I'll admit, I resisted the suggestion of dining at The Confederate House. I wondered how newsworthy, really, the changes at this 50-plus-year-old institution could be, even with new bona fide, restaurant-pedigreed owners -- Frank Mandola, Joe Butera and Tommy Leman -- and a promising new executive chef, Scott Atlas. I also resented the notion of a dress code, no matter how gently posed. "We do not require jackets," explained a staffer over the phone. "But we do think gentlemen will feel more comfortable wearing them here." I haven't been told that in ten years.
So, grumbling, I stuffed myself into dress-up clothes and set out to see for myself. I snarled at the valet parking attendant. "Well, of course you may park your own car, anywhere you like," he said, with a disarming smile. "Let me move these cones for you." We had perversely showed up 30 minutes earlier than our dinner reservation and, on a last-minute whim, changed our seating preference from nonsmoking to smoking. This was simply not a problem for The Confederate House. "Of course we can accommodate you," the hostess told us, mildly surprised that we'd even worry about such a thing. "Would you care for a cocktail while we set up your table?"
We eased into the deeply cushioned comfort of the wood-paneled bar and watched a small army of staffers swarm our table-to-be. Across from us a handsome woman of a certain age sipped bourbon and water, flanked by two courtly jacketed-and-tied gentlemen. She wore holly-berry red, the men wore thick tweeds; all three looked relaxed and elegant in the soft, golden glow of the brass lamps, lighting surely designed especially to flatter the over-40 crowd. "That's who I want to be when I grow up," sighed my husband, watching them enviously.
So, how does one revamp a menu that has already weathered half a century? Very, very carefully, I'd think. We started with one of the new appetizers, the Hudson Valley foie gras ($18.95), and reveled in our luck: This one's a real showstopper. Lightly seared lobes of goose liver -- infinitely rich, silky-smooth -- are generously heaped atop a thick slab of so-called corn bread, so moist and fluffy it would more rightly be called a soufflé, and fenced about with slender stalks of grilled asparagus. In the coup de grâce, the whole assemblage is drenched in a decadent, creamy sauce of morel mushrooms and white truffles. I could have stopped right there and died happy.
Even a familiar standby such as crab cakes ($9.95) now soars above the "same old" syndrome: The dreaded rémoulade is replaced by a boldly spiced beurre blanc resonant with smoky ancho chili peppers. The generous patties of moist blue crabmeat are tenderly dredged in flour and gently sautéed; our only complaint was an excess of cartilaginous bits, but that, I suppose, is the curse of blue crab. Another innovation -- and maybe it sounds minor, but for a 50-year-old menu even a change this small can be radical -- is the spinach salad ($7.95). It casts those cornmeal-jacketed fried oysters I was already dreaming of in a starring role atop a mass of tender green spinach, the leaves lightly wilted by the warm dressing and studded with bacon bits and tangy marinated red onions.
Perhaps more seductive than opulent food is the luxury of excellent service. Our waiter won me over when he described that evening's special, a blackened fillet of Chilean sea bass, then without embarrassment clearly enunciated its price, $23.95. Further, we found, at The Confederate House it's safe to order the entire meal at once, without worrying that tabletop gridlock will ensue, that soups and salads will crowd disastrously upon half-eaten appetizers. "You can trust me," said our waiter, soothingly; and I realized I believed him. The flow of plates was flawless. Nor were we pestered with that annoyingly rote server's question -- "Is everything all right?" -- made meaningless by repetition. If you have to ask, darling... The best waiters know what's needed and when.
Two of my dining companions chased off after the charms of new entrées. The thick sea bass fillet was beautifully cooked, moist and flaky on its bed of mashed potatoes, crowned with a stuffed jumbo shrimp; a handsome double chicken breast was presented en roulade ($16.95), pounded thin and wrapped around a rich stuffing of andouille sausage, meltingly soft goat cheese and spinach leaves, and fashionably glazed with an ancho chili butter sauce. Another friend went retro with the lamb chops ($28.95), a trio of large, tender chops grilled rare, overshadowed only by the mass of absolutely gorgeous cheese grits, studded with colorful bits of tasso ham and green scallions. "How can these be grits? They're wonderful," marveled my friend, Californian by birth and so forgiven such ignorance.
By this time I was wallowing deep in nostalgia, so I asked for the Confederate fried steak, the House's signature interpretation of chicken-fried steak, made extravagantly with prime rib eye ($16.95). Our waiter considered me carefully, one eyebrow ever so slightly raised. "Why, what's wrong?" I asked. "It's so big, you know, we call that our 'truck-stop plate,' " he said, worried that I might hurt myself.
I insisted, and wound up with the second-largest chicken-fried steak I've ever seen, delicately breaded and satisfyingly dowsed with cream gravy. It's served with mashed potatoes, of course, with the occasional lump for authenticity, bacon-bit-sprinkled green beans cooked halfway between yuppie al dente and absolute Southern limpness, and a short ear of roasted sweet corn impaled on a bamboo skewer. When I admitted defeat, sending back the uneaten half to be boxed, the waiter favored me with a parental "I told you so" grin and a wink, but allowed me to order dessert anyway.
The dessert menu, more than any other facet of The Confederate House (except maybe that portrait of General Lee) seems cast in another century's amber. Without looking, you can recite it from ancestral Southern memory: strawberry shortcake, crème brûlée, bread pudding and, of course, a pecan ball. We ignored the tried-and-true in favor of the two more modern-sounding dishes, both of which are cooked to order and require 15 minutes' patience. I quite liked the modest little chocolate torte ($5.75), served warm with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce; I wasn't so sure about the apple cobbler ($5.75). It wasn't a cobbler at all, to my way of thinking, but a tall, thin-skinned soufflé; it didn't taste of apple but was speckled with chopped pecans. The waiter carefully punctured the fluffy top for me -- so I wouldn't burn myself on the steam? No, to pour in a stream of thick crème anglaise from a silver pitcher. I suspect this was actually the pecan pie soufflé (also $5.75), but by then I was too lazy and well fed to ask.
On the way out I considered that discreet brass plaque at the front door, the notice of the right to refuse service. Is it racist? Today's delicate sensibilities might read it that way; it might also be read as a warning against bad hair, loud mouths or the inability to hold one's liquor. It's true that The Confederate House revamped is still an anachronism. It's quiet and clubby and thickly insulated from the outside world. It's also weirdly democratic, if you think about it: For a not inconsiderable price, anybody who wishes to can purchase absolute contentment. God knows, I've paid more and gotten less elsewhere around town. I'd forgotten how good "old-fashioned" can be.
The Confederate House, 2925 Weslayan, (713)622-1936.
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