Mouthwatering Tasting Notes From A Delicious Book Tour

Traveling to promote his critically acclaimed new book, I am from here, chef/author Vishwesh Bhatt visited some of his favorite places to eat east of the Mississippi. Here are a few highlights that are sure to make you hungry enough to take a trip to sample these delicious destinations.

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America, the melting pot

Chef Bhatt’s story – beautifully told in memoir style in the cookbook, which was released in August – is familiar, but also surprising and definitely engaging. Born and raised in the Indian state of Gujarat, Vish was drawn to food from an early age. He spent time going to the market with his father and watching his grandmothers and mother prepare great meals for the large family.

Many years later the family had immigrated to the United States and Vish attended the University of Mississippi at Oxford, a 90-minute drive from Memphis. His parents lived there at the time and he took a shift at a cafe specializing in plant-based thali lunches. “Little did I know at the time that my love of cooking would quickly overshadow my interest in grad school,” he writes.

Eventually he ended up working in the kitchen at one of his favorite restaurants, City Grocery, and soon discovered similarities between Indian and Southern cuisines and ingredients. It’s this kind of melting-pot cuisine that’s so artfully presented in the book in dishes like grilled okra, peanut masala-stuffed eggplant minis, steamed corn cakes, and corn-kale fritters, recipes designed for the home cook.

Start where it all began

The promotional tour kicked off at the world famous Square Books in Oxford, followed by a celebratory dinner at City Grocery: “Nic (Swogger) did a brilliant job of cooking from the book. He’s a big fan of Thai flavors, so he incorporated some of that into the flounder, with a rice flour crust, soy and yuzu sauce finishing the dish. He served corn and squash, like a succotash and peas with ginger.” By the way, Vish’s boss/mentor/BFF, John Currence, wrote the introduction to his book, and if you’re not choking on reading the sweet tribute, check your pulse .

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In Atlanta, Chai Pani hosted the book signing and special dinner, but Vish also managed to schedule a visit to Miller Union: “I just love how warm and friendly it is. Very few restaurants hit that nail on the head like they do at Miller Union every time. Vegetables are always in the foreground and this is really something special. The field peas and the fried okra were just brilliant how the kitchen used the okra as a crunchy element.”

In Orange Beach, Alabama, chef Bill Briand and the team at Fisher’s prepared a seafood feast that included oysters and crab claws and a grouper concoction that inspired Vish to wish he had invented this dish: “It was served with a corn puree that was almost like a mousse, and charred tomatoes, all elements of summer.” If you’ve never tried grouper, Vish said this is one of the best whitefish he’s ever eaten, “light and flaky with a sweet taste”.

Delightful appetizers and homemade cocktails were served during a book signing in Ocean Springs, Mississippi at Vestige, a tasting menu restaurant run by Executive Chef Alex Perry and his wife Kumi Omori. For example, the cuisine with red prawns from the Gulf is spectacular. “It’s all about the shrimp. They marinate it in citrus and soy and lightly poach it. It’s not quite a ceviche but has that undercooked quality.”

Matt Fern’s (ish) Delicatessen in Raleigh, NC is “so awesome, so creative. It’s a small room in front of an old pharmacy, with only four or five tables. I had a plain BLT made with house smoked bacon and loved the pickled collards. Because Matt is a wine guy they serve so many hard to find selections. I had something from the Jura (a tiny region between Burgundy and Switzerland) with my sandwich. It was really something special.”

Vish was thrilled to dine at Botiwalla in Charlotte, where the cuisine focuses on Indian street food. “They have the best vada pav, mashed potatoes dredged in chickpea flour and served as a slider. They also serve sticky ribs, which I loved, with a tamarind and jaggery glaze.”

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Chicago’s popular Mi Tocaya line of Oaxacan-inspired small plates was “so apt. There were so many wonderful dishes like the chicken mole with fresh citrus salad but the crispy duck with sweet salsa was absolutely brilliant.”

Dauphin’s in Washington DC is a great 350-seat spot that focuses on fresh New Orleans food using ingredients from the mid-Atlantic. Chef Kristen Essig’s menu touches on some of the Crescent City’s biggest hits. “Don’t miss the pork ear salad with mirliton and the gumbo z’herbes served with potato salad. The fresh and grilled oysters are served with freshly grated horseradish which is a nice touch.”

While in New York City for a special book signing at MOFAD, Vish returned to one of his regular hangouts: “Nobody talks Tavern on Jane. It’s a hidden gem, an old-school neighborhood that’s not too New York influenced. They specialize in classic cocktails, always give you a nice honest pour and have a great burger and steak.”

Now that the tour is nearing completion, Vish is back in the snack bar kitchen, drawing inspiration from the meals he enjoyed along the way. Guests can expect to see signs of this tasty tour on the ever-changing menu.

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