Song of the South

The high notes at this Capitol Hill diner: biscuits in gravy and coffeecake.

OK, so she no longer makes the mayonnaise from scratch, but damn near everything else on the menu at Sammie Sue's Diner is batter-dipped, baked, or blended on the premises. Owner and namesake Samantha "Sammie Sue" Parrott is such a stickler for quality that she buys her stone-ground grits from an old mill in Tennessee. "The shipping costs as much as the grits," she explains. Parrott's approach to what she calls New Southern cooking is rooted in Charleston, S.C., where her mother ran a restaurant for some 28 years. Sammie Sue had stints as a sous chef, pastry chef, and baker (at Macrina) before she and her sister Babs took over a rather nondescript space on the northeast corner of 12th and Pike on Capitol Hill. Breakfast and lunch took hold first, and the restaurant began serving dinner four nights a week after a remodel in April. The dining area is spacious, with a large counter near the kitchen and several booths and tables in the plain, airy back room. Sammie Sue's Diner 1200 E Pike, 322-5177

closed Wed-Thu; call for breakfast, lunch, and dinner times

cash; MC, V For those expecting an exhaustive "diner" menu, the name is something of a misnomer. But while menu choices may be relatively limited, Sammy Sue's command of Southern breakfast basics is first rate. The cornerstone of this universe is a textbook biscuit—crisp on the outside, dense but delicately textured within. Parrott says she'll serve 200 or more on a typical weekend, most as biscuits and gravy ($5.75). I had all but given up on the dish after one too many starchy and bland misfires. Sammie Sue's heavy-on-the-cream gravy sprinkled with mild sausage restored my faith. I like mine with just a bit more black pepper, but this buttery smooth artery clogger was otherwise exemplary. The choice of omelettes is limited on the weekends, but the Miss Babs ($6.50) is a good pick, filled with large chunks of chicken-apple sausage, mushrooms, spinach, and Swiss. Big pieces are also the byword for Sammie Sue's corned beef hash ($6.95), which isn't chopped and mixed with peppers, onions, and potatoes as one might expect, but instead offers huge chunks of tender corned beef and two poached eggs on hash browns. Eggs Southern ($6.50) is a slight variation on Eggs Benedict, with an option of collard greens or ham. While the former made for a somewhat flat result, it is one of several meatless options Sammie Sue maintains on all her menus. Whatever your main course, make sure to start the weekend with a piece of coffeecake. Parrott's marvelous boysenberry coffeecake (the fruit varies) is spongy, eggy, and not too sweet. The cake's almond flavor suits the berries neatly, with the orange-tinted crumb topping adding the final wonderful touch. Delicious. Sammie Sue's distinct Southern accent comes through even more strongly on the dinner menu. Available as a substitution for hash browns in the morning, grits are used like polenta or rice at dinner as the bed for entrées like salmon with red pepper and chive sauce ($13.95) and appetizers like barbecued shrimp ($6.50). More odd than good, the latter sports bacon and shrimp covered in barbecue sauce and melted cheese plopped into a large boat of grits. Sammie Sue says the dish is a regional favorite in Carolina, but if you weren't weaned on the unusual combination, its appeal will likely be as lost on you as it was on me. Parrott herself says dinner at Sammie Sue's is a work-in-progress, and the crowd was surprisingly small for a Friday night. That said, by the time we had arrived, the pan-fried snapper, one of two dinner specials (offered nightly for $8.95), was gone. The salmon and New York steak had also sold out, and sweet-potato cakes had given way to a single starch option of red rice for all entrées. Undaunted, we ordered the evening's other dinner special, spaghetti Florentine with salmon, and two staples: cider-marinated roast chicken ($9.95) and pecan-crusted turkey breast ($10.95). The special didn't work at all. The large plate was brimming with spaghetti strands, spinach, and good size chunks of salmon, all in a dull white sauce. The fish was tasty and fresh; my friend picked out the salmon and left a lot of noodles behind. The roasted chicken fared better, although what should have been a deep flavor considering the marinade (cider, cider vinegar, and shallots) did not run much below the skin. The best of the three entrées was easily the pecan-crusted turkey, which Sammie Sue slices and pounds flat from a whole breast. The generous portion offered two large pieces liberally coated in nuts. Pan-frying (and a quick trip to the oven) brought out a lovely roasted pecan flavor in the dish and a crisp crust. While the turkey itself was a bit tough, my only real quibble was with the accompanying peach chutney. I quickly tired of the oversweet fruit sauce on top, made from peaches, onions, cider vinegar, brown sugar, shallots, and red peppers. Parrott plans to add more Southern favorites (among them chicken-fried steak and pork chops) to the evening menu, as well as to remove a few. With her good instincts and even better intentions, dinner should soon be the equal of breakfast at Sammie Sue's.

 
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