Highs and lows: Southern Culture goes upscale

Been down to "low country" lately? If you've ever had the pleasure of dining at any of Charleston, South Carolina's best restaurants– the Peninsula Grill, McCrady's, Magnolias– then you'll know what I mean by "Low-Country Cooking."

"Low country" is what the people who live there call the tidal plain of South Carolina. As you might expect, dishes rich in seafood, rice, and lots of spice– she-crab soup, shrimp 'n grits, hoppin' John– characterize low-country cooking in both its simple and more gourmet interpretations.

Elegant, historic– some would say slightly provincial– Charleston is the cultural and culinary capital of this coastal region. A stroll through the jasmine-scented, lantern-lit streets of the city's center on a Friday evening is enough to convince you that there actually are (as some would claim) more restaurants per capita there than any other in the country– high or low.

Of course, a similar impression might greet the visitor to our own little (yet somehow not provincial) city today. Not so 13 years ago. When Southern Culture opened in 1991 on a (then) sleepy West Main Street, Charlottesville had much less in common– at least in terms of restaurants– with its low-country neighbor. With fewer eateries per block, there was less pressure on restaurateurs to refine their image or culinary palate.

"When we first opened, the Blue Ridge Brewery (now Starr Hill) was the big thing in this area, and so combining three "southern" styles– Tex-Mex, Cajun-Creole, Caribbean– was definitely the way to go," explains Southern Culture's owner, David Elkins. "But considering today's more lively and sophisticated dining scene, we felt it was time for our first major revision."

The first and most radical phase of Southern Culture's "upscale down home" makeover debuted earlier this month in the form of a streamlined new menu. Although many of the most popular dishes and sides made the cut (jambalaya, blackened catfish, meatloaf, sweet potato fries), Elkins and co-executive chefs Troy Woodson and Kevin Pugh decided to tone-down the Tex-Mex and Cajun offerings and focus more on flavors from the low-country, Carolinas, and the Chesapeake Bay.

Thus new entrees like "shrimp 'n grits," "Maryland style lump crab cakes with pineapple-yellow corn relish, ginger sticky rice and wilted arugula," and a "griddle-top black bean cake and corn fritter with fried green tomatoes and caramelized Vidalia onion marmalade."

Playing to our proven love of tapas, Southern Culture's menu also tempts tasters with enhanced appetizer options– fried okra, fried calamari (actually revived from the restaurant's early days) and corn fritters.

In addition to the fact that flavor-complimenting sides now accompany each entrée (note: you can still substitute your old faves, or order a "side sampler"), Southern Culture regulars will probably notice another minor change: Prices were rounded up a nostalgic nickel (i.e. from $4.95 to $5) in order to make life easier for the servers.

"A new menu is where you live and die," Elkins puts it bluntly. "It can also infuse a restaurant with new energy and enthusiasm."

Expect more Southern Culture changes over the next few months– new booths in the non-smoking dining room, an enhanced brunch menu, and a new wine list.

And if you want to get even more of a feel for low-country cuisine without leaving hilly Albemarle County, drive down to Scottsville and give Magnolia a taste.

Yes, faithful readers, you're right. I have indeed mentioned Magnolia in one form or another every week this month. Either I have grits on the brain, or it's at the center of some restaurant news vortex. In any case, I can't leave it out this week because– much like the updated Southern Culture– Magnolia specializes in this apparently hot new cuisine known as contemporary Southern.

Shrimp 'n grits taste-off, anyone?