THIS RESTAURANT HAS CLOSED
Come for the chicken but stay for dessert
Southern-style menu delivers in General
By Candy Sagon
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 11, 2009
If you're familiar with the General Store in Silver Spring, that's probably what you're saying as you come through the blue wooden door. In fact, co-owner Robin Smith seems a bit weary of the question when, on our first visit, we ask it.
Unfortunately, she doesn't have chicken.
The chicken is delivered daily in small batches. Chef Gillian Clark fries it to order for the lucky ones who get there early. A patently undeserving group had just ordered the last pieces before we arrived for dinner one weekday. "No more until the meat delivery tomorrow," Smith told us as we stood at the small front counter where you order your food.
We were disappointed, but not for long. The chicken may get most of the publicity, but there are other, equally rewarding things on this Southern-inspired menu.
Such as pie.
I know that in most restaurant reviews, dessert gets relegated to a few sentences at the very end, and often for good reason. Not this time. If there's ever a pie crown to be awarded, the restaurant's baker, Beth Christianson, would totally own it. In fact, she had me with the first bite of her lemon chess. I closed my eyes. I moaned. My husband began worrying about a "When Harry Met Sally ..." climax scene.
Chess pie is an old-timey Southern favorite made from just four ingredients -- sugar, butter, eggs and a little cornmeal -- plus flavoring, such as lemon juice or melted chocolate. For some reason, the dessert is hard to find and even harder to find made well. Christianson, formerly of Cashion's Eat Place, makes not one but three kinds of chess pie (chocolate and buttermilk plus the lemon). They're all terrific -- textbook-perfect flaky crust, light custardy filling -- but the lemon chess is the most ethereal.
And if that weren't enough, depending on the day and Christianson's whim, there can be a fluffy coconut cream pie, an insanely rich chocolate pecan pie and a seasonal fruit pie.
There are also cupcakes on the menu, but I'm not a fan. Why would you want a cupcake when you can have pie? Plus, the day we tried two of the cupcakes, they were suffering from a fatal case of over-refrigeration.
Clark and Smith opened the General Store in January. The 19th-century building formerly was a general store and post office, and it took the women three years of hassles -- including a lawsuit and a last-minute roadblock over parking spaces -- to finally get it open for sit-down dining. (The downstairs space, the Tavern, opened in July for drinks and light fare Thursday through Sunday nights.)
The building has been painted blue and white on the outside. Inside, the walls are butter-yellow with blue trim around the windows. Shelves and windowsills are lined with old-fashioned tchotchkes such as pitchers, toasters and ceramic chickens. There's a stuffed raccoon in a back corner and a stuffed black bear up front. Also, a very loud player piano that, fortunately, plays only when some fool plunks in a quarter.
If they're out of chicken -- and even if they're not -- there's enough to make you happy you came. Remember, frying is an exalted art here, so the fried shrimp baguette, the fried fish tacos, the fried onion rings, the fried green tomatoes all show Clark's gifted hand with really hot oil. The sole fried thing I didn't like was the shrimp egg rolls (egg rolls on a Southern menu?), which were heavy with a mushy filling.
The California-style fish tacos are more Clark-Mex than Cal-Mex, and that's a good thing. The lightly breaded and fried tilapia strips come nestled in corn tortillas with melted cheddar and a generous portion of lemony guacamole (instead of the traditional shredded cabbage), with sliced radishes for crunch.
Among the non-fried items we enjoyed: the tarragon chicken salad sandwich. Clark roasts chicken breast meat, cuts it into chunks and tosses it with just the right amount of mayo and fresh tarragon, then piles it generously on ciabatta bread.
And if you've never had a proper Frito pie (a hangin' offense in Texas, where it originated), this is the place to rectify that sin. "It's surprising how many people don't know what it is," says Clark. If you're one of them, it's a small bag of Fritos, split open, with chili poured over the corn chips and grated cheese on top. Which is exactly how Clark serves it. Her mild chili has beans (Texans, take note), but it's flavorful and meaty, and combined with the softened corn chips, it's a true Southwestern classic.
As for the fried chicken, it took us three visits to finally score some. The second time, we came on a Sunday, not realizing that Sundays are "family-style dinner" days. There's only one set meal (an entree and two sides), and it changes every week. On our Sunday, it was pork chops (a little tough) with hoecakes, homemade rolls and blackberry sauce. Other weeks have featured barbecued chicken and salmon.
Frustrated, I rounded up two friends and we arrived at 11:25 a.m. on a Friday, determined to be first in line when the restaurant opened for lunch. When Smith turned the sign in the window from "closed" to "open," we were through the door like a shot.
When we finally got our plate of chicken, this is what I wrote in my notes: "Everything everyone sez."
Clark soaks her chicken in buttermilk before frying it, and the meat, including the normally dry breast meat, is moist. The nicely seasoned coating is crisp, not oily. The chicken came with a square of caky, sweet corn bread and a little glass jar of collard greens (smoky, with a subtle tang of vinegar).
Although they've been open nine months, Clark and Smith are still trying to get their rhythm as far as the flow of business. Some days they're swamped; other days are quiet. It's made it hard to know how much help to hire, Clark says.
She has her loyal regulars, as she did at her old place, Colorado Kitchen; new customers might have to learn to be patient about service. Often, it's just Smith running out food to the tables and then running back to the front counter to take orders. To weather a wait, I recommend sampling the excellent iced tea (served in Mason jars) and enjoying the chance for a quiet conversation. Just don't put a coin in that piano.