BY ALEX SUNDSTROM
There is something especially appealing about an artist honing his craft in relative obscurity. John Silberman, chef at Magnolia’s Southern Cuisine, originally worked under Paul Prudhomme in his famous New Orleans restaurants. Now Prudhomme is an international celebrity who has traded his dignity for Flash animations of him zooming around on a scooter at www.paulprudhomme.com, while Silberman toils in his never-full southern restaurant in an unglamorous Portuguese neighborhood east of Inman Square.
Fortunately for Cambridge residents, Silberman’s noble path is also an extremely delicious one. Traditional Cajun and Southern dishes at Magnolia’s are pitch-perfect. Bread accompanying the meal is replaced with muffins — in a nod to Silberman’s mentor, who serves molasses muffins at his New Orleans restaurant. The Cajun popcorn shrimp ($6.95) have a strong umami found only in very fresh shrimp — their savory aftertaste lingers after the bite has left your mouth. Eating them is a wonderful experience; the batter is so crisp and thin that it enhances the texture of the shrimp rather than providing a contrast to it, and the shrimp flavor slowly overwhelms that of the batter as you chew it.
The fried green tomatoes ($4.95) have a similar breading, but are piquant and acidic like few tomatoes are these days. The jambalaya ($14.95) is a great vehicle for the fresh oysters, shrimp and crawfish, mostly because it achieves exactly the right level of spiciness, just enough to draw out the flavors and make eating it a bit intense without overpowering the dish at all. Key lime pie ($4.95) is an excellent version, very tart and custardy with visible green flecks of lime and fresh whipped cream.
The departures from tradition generally have the same authentic feel as the other dishes. Spinach sautéed with ginger is perfectly suffused by the ginger’s flavor, and pairs perfectly with the fried oysters ($7.99), whose batter is as impossibly crispy and thin as that for the popcorn shrimp. The oysters themselves are very fresh, slightly briny and juicy. Hoppin’ John ($3.95), a traditional black-eyed pea and rice dish, is altered with tomatoes and parmagiano-reggiano cheese. The sharply-flavored cheese works well with the mild dish, but clashes with the richer flavor of the stone-ground cheese grits in the Hoppin’ Shavonne ($3.95), which is identical to the Hoppin’ John save the substitution of grits for rice. The grits themselves have a soupy, unfortunate EasyMac quality to them, but are still good.
Orange chipotle sauce served on slow-roasted duck ($17.95) perfectly balances the smoky flavor of the chipotles with the tart acidity of extremely flavorful oranges. The liberally-vinegared collard greens complement this acidity, and the raisins and pecans in the accompanying rice perfectly vary the texture from the rest of the dish. The duck itself is carried by its sauce and accompaniments — it’s moist, but a little bland. The catfish is excellent, moist and flaky beneath a thick crust that contains both pecans and Andouille sausage, blending well with its smooth and savory sweet potato puree.
The fact that one of the fish dishes contains sausage should perhaps give vegetarians pause — Southern and Cajun cuisines in general are built around meat and fish, and Magnolia’s only offers a portobello mushroom appetizer with goat cheese ($6.95) and a “vegetarian plate” ($11.95) by way of a sop to Cambridge tastes. This is an odd throwback, another reminder that Silberman’s restaurant could be thriving anywhere in the South.
Magnolia’s takes the approach of the best nouvelle Southern cuisine — making small, thoughtful variations to lovingly-prepared traditional recipes. Given the mediocrity of most places that proclaim themselves Southern here, Magnolia’s is a refreshing cure for the hungry and homesick alike.