“Crackling cracklins!” gushes the server as he delivers a noisy plate of maple-glazed pork belly on cornbread pudding. The pop-pop-pop comes from a garnish of pork rinds, added just as the dish leaves the kitchen. While the restaurant scene has picked up some nice Southern accents of late (Boss Shepherd’s, Southern Efficiency), none of them is finer than this formal dining room, where big sprays of flowers suggest a garden, even though you’re underground, and the mere thought of the baked-to-order bread basket threatens to fill you up as you’re perusing the menu.
While the list is larded with pork (the rib chop rocks), Vidalia encourages you to eat your vegetables. The “blue plate” may be the most thoughtful meat-free composition in town, four daily-changing dishes presented on a single expanse of china. Scores from a recent collection included black-eyed pea risotto streaked with Swiss chard and warm leek soup with a sail of fried basil. The secret to the city’s best shrimp and grits? Hot sauce, butter, tasso ham and fresh, head-on shrimp all contribute to the cause. Go easy on the warm cornbread and biscuits. Good as they are, you’ll want to save space for a classic pie (I’m nuts for pecan) or cake (sing to me, caramel).
Sometimes busy, the cooking always shows finesse. What’s most delicious about this restaurant, cared for by owner Jeff Buben and chef de cuisine Hamilton Johnson, is its consistency — for over two decades.