This article was also published in the Financial Times.
My one and only trip to the southern states of America left very strong and very happy memories.
These range from breakfasts in Savannah to sunny lunches in genteel Charleston. They encompass particularly long 'cocktail hours' in New Orleans, under the tutelage of the late RW Apple Jnr, of the New York Times, and my introduction to proper corn bread and muffuletta, the thick, spicy sandwich of various boiled meats and cheese, a dish introduced to the city by Italian immigrants in the early 20th century, and of the dexterity of so many chefs with grits.
My professional antennae sprang to attention therefore when I heard that a chef was cooking Southern food in central London, although I had trouble setting either the restaurant's name, The Lockhart, or its setting, Seymour Place just north of Marble Arch, in a southern context.
My first meal at a table close to one of the restaurant's two large windows began disappointingly. The lunch menu offered only four main courses and two of these, the fried chicken and the muffuletta, we were immediately told, had already sold out. But the apology was conveyed with such heartfelt concern that it almost made amends, as did the immediate offer of a dish of venison saddle with apples and red eye gravy from the dinner menu. The Lockhart may be a long way physically from the Deep South but the sense of warmth on offer was certainly close.
On my return, I found its muffuletta undeniably authentic, too. This really is a hefty dish, served both generously and genuinely with the slices of meat and cheese in the middle of a sesame seed bun and a bowl of excellent salt and vinegar crisps on the side.
We returned a third time for dinner when we were led through to the back of the ground floor and one of the three homespun tables facing the open kitchen. Over a glass of 2012 Pedroncelli Chenin Blanc from California's Dry Creek Valley, I watched the chefs in action and noticed one most unusual fact and one now almost standard feature in new restaurants.
The former is that The Lockhart's kitchen does not have the space for a washing-up section: all the 'dirties', as they are referred to, have to be taken downstairs. The standard feature were the beards sported by all the chefs as well as most of the waiting staff.
The most magnificent belongs to Brad McDonald, who took over as head chef of The Lockhart in January. As we ate, and shared a bottle of 2011 Fox Run Cabernet Franc from New York's Finger Lakes, McDonald scooted around the kitchen, shouting out orders, ladling the grits, finishing the dishes and calling for his waiting staff. He looked very much like a human version of the cartoon character 'the road runner'.
This view, and what we ate, piqued my interest even further. 'Dirty rice', rice mixed with chicken offal, and crab was given extra piquancy by three smoked West Mersea oysters; a dish of tender white Tokyo turnips came with wafers of country ham; roast quail sat under a Madeira glaze and on top of diced cabbage; and the bubbling side order of corn bread in a heavy iron loaf tin looked and tasted most appealing with its glaze of honey butter. With wine and a shared dessert of a lemon icebox pie, lemon ice cream topped with soft meringue and crumbled Graham crackers, my bill came to £120 for two.
I returned a fourth time, just after lunch, waited until McDonald had completed the hanging of several clipboards by the pass, and then sat down with him and a long list of questions. What ensued was the story of his journey from his hometown of Yazoo City, Mississippi, population 11,500, initially to New York and then to London. Finally, via an introduction over Twitter and a cup of coffee, came McDonald's move to The Lockhart's stoves and an explanation of why, every Sunday, 120 doughnuts filled with chocolate and vanilla cream or salted caramel are sold at £2 each outside the McDonalds' flat in east London.
McDonald grew up eating doughnuts for breakfast, hunting rabbit, wild duck and turkeys with his father, determined to be a chef. To please his parents he went to college, where, he sighed with relief, he met his wife Molly who embodies Southern charm. He cooked under Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse in New York, in whose kitchens he learnt technique but not to question anything, and then under René Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen, where, as he put it succinctly, 'I learnt to question everything.'
Stints at three different restaurants in Brooklyn led to an invitation to come to London last summer to consult on the opening of a new Mexican restaurant, a move that led to an unexpected bout of homesickness. McDonald tweeted that he was planning a dinner of his favourite Southern dishes; this was read by a former manager of The Lockhart, opened in June 2013 by two American couples as a south-west American restaurant (Lockhart is a small town in Texas) that had just parted company with its chef. In January they hired the McDonalds.
And initiated a ritual which every Sunday lunchtime sees the McDonalds selling doughnuts alongside their two small children. A family affair, in true Southern fashion.
The photo is taken from the Lockhart website.
The Lockhart 22-24 Seymour Place, London W1 H 7NL; tel +44 (0)20 3011 5400