Close to the Source
Chef Joel Miller elevates American cuisine with seasonal cooking and local food.
photography by Justin Fox Burks
As an infrequent visitor to Oxford, I tend to hug the city’s historic town square in my explorations. But lured by the promise of a colorful fall, I opted in late October for Ravine, Chef Joel Miller’s seasonal restaurant located on the outskirts of town.
Flanked by slash pines and woods that keep the kudzu out, Ravine feels a little like a Wes Anderson film set: gravel driveway, hillside gazebo, log cabin resort, and a trio of raised vegetable beds guarded by sturdy okra. There’s even a resident dog, a lab mix named Juniper.
When I stop to admire the setting from Ravine’s porch, I want to sit a spell. Miller’s finesse in the kitchen, however, pulls me inside where the spirit of summer camp gives way to the comforts of fine dining.
The first thing I notice is a commanding flagstone fireplace that extends to the restaurant’s second floor, separating the bar from the dining area and creating a cozy ambience for Ravine’s tables, dressed with a few pink zinnias in miniature milk bottles. Large plate-glass windows frame the trees outside.
From the start, I am impressed with the restaurant’s earnest service. When I point out a speaker directly above my husband’s head, our server graciously slips us to a better table where instead of music we hear a nearby couple quietly speaking French. “Tres bon,” I say to Tony as we click glasses, a Red Brick Hoplanta for him and a Gin-Gin cocktail for me, a martini on the rocks made with lemon, Hendrick’s gin, Bienheim’s ginger ale, and a curly swirl of zest.
We taste Ravine’s seasonal and Southern influences with the first bite of dinner. Our amuse bouche is sliced okra, deep-fried with Sriracha butter for a lively kick and served in Chinese soup spoons. When our appetizers arrive, we want to trade instead of share. I covet my husband’s flash-fried Gulf oysters; he wants my aromatic ramekin of Brussels sprouts tossed with crumbled bacon. (Never did I think I would write those words.) We try to hold back on house-made fennel bread, sliced in crusty squares, but the soft butter is too inviting. We dive in for a first slice followed quickly by another.
For salads, we order combinations with unique personalities: Bibb lettuce with apples, Gorgonzola, spiced cashews, and blue cheese vinaigrette for Tony; arugula with hazelnuts and prosciutto for me. While the Bibb ingredients work together fine, the arugula salad is outstanding. There’s a touch of hazelnut oil in the lemon citronette, a type of vinaigrette made with citrus juices. But the salad’s hazelnuts are the prize, whisking me back to childhood Christmases when the adorable filberts appeared magically in my mother’s wooden bowl of mixed nuts.
In fact, I am so satisfied with my first two courses that I consider skipping my entrée and heading directly for the dessert I see float by: an impressive tower of peanut butter mousse bookended by dark chocolate cake. Perhaps I should have. My Redfish special served over spinach risotto is disappointing because the Caribbean notes of the sauce overwhelm the fish’s mild flavor.
Happily, Tony’s filet of beef, sourced from Stan’s Meat Market in Batesville, Mississippi, is pitch perfect. Prepared to order Pittsburgh medium-rare plus, the filet is chargrilled on the outside, pink and tender inside. The filet is also stylishly plated to showcase grilled asparagus, blue cheese mashed potatoes, and sauce chasseur, a brown sauce demi-glace popular in French cooking. A sprig of fresh rosemary rests on top.
Classical French technique informs Ravine’s menu, but Miller balances tradition with whimsy, reflecting his early training at Karen Carrier’s Automatic Slim’s and the Beauty Shop, his culinary school externship in Puerto Rico, and his move to California where seasonal, farm-to-table cooking is commonplace.
Miller and his wife, Cori, opened Ravine five years ago, building an impressive list of local purveyors who figure prominently on the menu today. Seasonal specials play to those strengths with tempting combinations such as goat cheese polenta with green beans, grilled eggplant, butter-braised heirloom carrots and a flowering stem of Thai basil.
Admittedly, Ravine is a bit of a haul from Memphis, but don’t let the drive be a drawback. The restaurant serves Sunday brunch, where you should try brioche, fried chicken, and poached eggs, or beef tenderloin mini-burgers with red onion jam, a customer favorite. Even better, stick around for Sunday supper and spend the night. Originally built as a bed-and-breakfast, Ravine still includes a one-room log cabin with accommodations for four and rocking chairs on the front porch.