SMART MOUTH

Mmmmmm . . . Catfish

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Sunday, June 13, 2004

Indianola, Miss., gave the world B.B. King, but the Crown may be the real royalty of this small Mississippi Delta town. With its combination of catfish cuisine and unlimited desserts, the restaurant has locals and visitors alike swearing fealty to the Crown's cooking.

Located 1 1/2 hours south of the blues hotbed of Clarksdale, the Indianola mainstay has been serving up catfish for more than 20 years. What began in 1972 as an antiques shop came to include a small restaurant serving one entree per day; catfish joined the menu by the early '80s. In 1998, owners Tony and Evelyn Roughton moved their establishment -- open only for lunch -- to the town's main drag, where it sits across the street from a mural depicting King and next to Dragon Lair Taekwon-Do.

Entry to the restaurant comes through a gift shop, whose array of items include smoked catfish pâté ($9.25), catfish recipe books ($15.95) and catfish puppets ($17.95). The good people at the Crown invite guests to nosh while waiting for their tables (there's a large bowl of the aforementioned pâté and crackers) and, in a show of counterintuitive hospitality, are kind enough to keep you waiting longer than you'd expect.

The gift shop seeps into the dining room, as colorful paintings hang on the exposed brick walls with prices attached. The mismatched chairs, informal waitresses and looming dessert table seem to put the Crown in the down-home category. But the clientele apparently hasn't gotten the memo, as it's the kind of place where nice old ladies meet for a dressy lunch.

The menu doesn't offer many hard decisions. Let's be honest -- you're there to eat catfish. Although other items are on the menu (including gumbo, a chicken salad plate and roast beef sandwiches), it really comes down to choosing between "The Favorite Catfish" (aka Catfish Allison) and "The Other Catfish," which changes weekly. The Gump-like variations of "The Other" include catfish pies, rolls and casseroles -- but never fried catfish, the menu asserts.

Catfish Allison ($9.25) consists of a poached catfish fillet swimming in an au gratin dish of butter, parmesan cheese and green onion sauce. The tender fish is finished under a broiler, which sears the parmesan into a crispy topping. Despite its prominence on the menu, the dish had humble beginnings.

"My friend Claudia Ainsworth and I were competing in a catfish competition and she named her dish after her daughter. Neither of us won, but I started using the recipe," says Evelyn Roughton. "I tweaked it slightly, removing the lemon, and we still argue about that."

The "Other Catfish" when I visited was catfish Florentine ($9.25). When anything Florentine is the healthier option, it's best to write off the meal as a treat. The dish was certainly that. In an elaborate process, the catfish is simmered, then poached and baked with spinach and a rich Swiss cheese sauce.

Both catfish dishes come with a salad and full access to the dessert table. The difficult part is making it to sweets time with any semblance of an appetite. The waitresses circling with warm, homemade beer bread certainly don't make it any easier.

Toward the back of the dining room, a wooden table holds a rainbow of serve-yourself pies. The southern praline and the Mississippi Delta fudge varieties were the tastiest, but the plantation pie was the most unusual, with its blend of coconut, chocolate chips and buttery richness. To promote civility and save people like me from themselves, however, diners get only a tiny plate.

With unlimited access, that just means a few trips may be in order. Okay, will be in order.

-- Jonathan Bloom

The Crown (110 Front Ave., Indianola, Miss., 662-887-4522) is open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The gift shop is open until 5 p.m. From Clarksdale, take Highway 49 south to Highway 82 west. Take a left on Catchings Avenue, which turns into Front Avenue at the post office. The restaurant is on the right. Order pâté and pie mixes online at www.tasteofgourmet.com.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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