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Morgan Freeman goes home again; a mad-scientist sommelier mixes it up in Manhattan; Disney does California cuisine.

Mississippi Homecoming

Morgan Freeman came home about 12 years back, home to the Mississippi Delta. Freeman, who has three Oscar nominations, for The Shawshank Redemption and other films, was born and raised there. He spent Saturday mornings tending to chores on the family spread near Charleston and Saturday afternoons watching cowboy flicks from the balcony of Greenwood's segregated movie theater. But after high school, Freeman joined the Great Migration out of the Jim Crow South.

More than three decades passed before he returned. When he did, he built a house right on the spot where his family's shack once stood. This past November, he staked another claim. Along with local attorney Bill Luckett, he opened a restaurant—Madidi—in downtown Clarksdale. A town of 22,000, Clarksdale attracts a fair share of blues pilgrims, but it's a far cry from Los Angeles or New York City, where celebrity-backed restaurants are rampant. "My motive was somewhat selfish," Freeman says. "I wanted to have a place close by, kind of in the neighborhood." Or, as Luckett says, "We wanted a place that the Delta could claim as its own."

Set in an early-twentieth-century redbrick building, Madidi has the stolid good looks of a small-town bank. Downstairs are exposed masonry walls and a mahogany bar, accented by a gallery's worth of art. Upstairs is a warren of private dining rooms painted in russet and gold.

Luckett borrowed the name Madidi from a Bolivian nature park noted for its ecological diversity. "I thought it fit," he says, "because we plan to serve dishes from a variety of traditions." The chef, David Krog, is a 26-year-old neotraditionalist who has worked at one of the region's best French restaurants, La Tourelle, in Memphis. He serves up a fine rack of lamb with port jus de veau, and when he's feeling a bit more daring, pan-seared scallops with pineapple butter. Krog also champions native ingredients; local catfish, sweet potatoes and pecans play supporting roles in a number of his productions.

Between 1910 and 1970, 6 million African-Americans left the Deep South. Over the past decade, more than 1 million have relocated there, lured by the promise of improved race relations and a booming economy. For Morgan Freeman, the draw was more prosaic—but by no means less profound. "This is the place where I let my breath out and relax," he says. "This is where I feel at home." Think of Madidi as his front porch (164 Delta Ave.; 662-627-7770).

—John T. Edge

The Drinks Doctor

What was it about the Cranberry Kirschwasser at Quince, a usually tranquil year-old restaurant in a Manhattan town house, that drove two women in Chanel to arm wrestle over the check one night?

Blame it on sommelier Robert Hillyer, who made the drink. When Quince opened, Hillyer recognized that the delicate aromas and flavors of chef-owner Morgen Jacobson's French-American cuisine would be "washed away" by spirits like grappa and Cognac. So he began experimenting with softer finishes to a meal, such as white brandy poured through Earl Grey tea and blended with honey, blood-orange zest and Armagnac. Or his Love Potion 33, which glints with 24-karat gold flakes and has led to a few marriage proposals, perhaps because he infuses marc (French grappa) with passionflower and hawthorn berries, an ancient Roman love charm.

A growing number of restaurants now make their own liqueurs and infusions, but for sheer inventiveness Hillyer's half-dozen elixirs stand alone. And, in a mystery even more beguiling than that of the arm-wrestling society matrons, his unlikely combinations taste perfectly right.

To accompany a peach and blueberry galette with ginger ice cream, Hillyer developed Kentucky Peach Bourbon. He soaks Georgia peaches in four different bourbons for two weeks, adding a little sugar to help extract the juice. Then he blends in peach-scented black tea, along with a dash of brandy and peach schnapps, tasting and adjusting along the way. "The bourbon complements the ginger in the ice cream, and the peach connects to the peach, so you get an interesting mixture of flavors," he says.

Hillyer talks about ingredients like a chef, but there's a touch of the mad scientist about him, too. (In fact, he studied physics and mathematics.) When it comes to the Cranberry Kirschwasser, though, even he is at a loss to explain how it led to a contest of strength at the table, beyond noting that "it has a definite invigorating effect at times" (33 W. 54th St.; 212-582-8993).

—Julie Besonen

California Themin'

A billion-dollar pair of annexes to the original Disneyland in Anaheim arrives this month, and advance word suggests that together they may constitute the world's first culinary theme park. By this time you have surely heard about Disney's California Adventure, a faux-California-within-the-real-thing that presents landmarks of the state in lifelike simulacra—the Golden Gate Bridge, Yosemite Valley, the coast, Disney's animation studio, and so on. And you have probably heard about Downtown Disney, a faux-L.A.-within-the-real-thing that the Imagineers hope will be adopted as an evening destination by both locals and tourists. (It's outside the park gates and thus free of entry charge.) But have you heard about the California food?

Yes, a number of restaurateurs and chefs—including Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bakery, Wolfgang Puck and Joachim Splichal—have opened Disney versions of their establishments. Then, expanding on Disney's recent forays into serious dining, there is Napa Rose in the Grand Californian Hotel, which is what a lesser place would call "the fine-dining option." Napa Rose has put former Auberge du Soleil executive chef Andrew Sutton in charge of the stove, and he in turn has put a great deal of thought into his wine-country cuisine. It's sophisticated stuff, in the sense that many recent dining trends have been noted and replicated on his seasonal menus. Thus we have pedigreed ingredients (V.G. Buck olive oil), obscure vegetable one-upmanship (heirloom beets) and artisanal cheese snobbery (Humboldt Fog).

But this is just the beginning. Inside the California Adventure, alongside the Superstar Limo ride and the California Screamin' roller coaster, the Golden State's epicurean heritage has been repackaged as entertainment. Robert Mondavi has contributed a miniature winery, complete with real grapevines and a wine-tasting room. Caterpillar, maker of tractors and such, has planted the Bountiful Valley Farm, a miniature agricultural region with an orange grove and fields of other crops, and an irrigation-pipe maze to amuse the kids. Next door is Bountiful Valley Farmers Market (what does it sell? Snow White's poisoned apples?), while in the Mission Tortilla Factory visitors can learn the history of the tortilla and its place in the Californian diet.

It's too soon to know if Disney's culinary adventure will work. But on the bigger question—is this a good thing?—an opinion can already be formed. Disney got rich by targeting the sentimental heart of the public and selling it the cute version of whatever is currently grabbing its attention. If the rolling of corn tortillas is what entertains us now, the prognosisfor America is good (714-781-4565; www.disneyland.com).

—Kate Sekules

Published February 2001
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