Back in New York and we are revisiting favourite restaurants before we move back to England in the fall. Last night it was Birds and Bubbles, opened at the end of last year by a childhood friend of my South Carolinan cousins. Sarah Simmons was named one of New York's 50 top chefs by Food & Wine magazine 2014 and founded culinary salon City Grit. She cooked 'Southern inspired' cuisine and on my first visit gave our table such a superb dish of lightly spicy, bouncy shrimp and creamy, corny grits I have been dreaming of it ever since.
Last night we also managed to snap up the wine cellar's last bottle of Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Cuis 1er Cru 2006 Blanc de Blanc, which was a treat in itself.
Our dinner was not faultless. In particular I was disappointed that the chicken didn't perfectly satisfy my craving for a greaseless, brittle-crisp batter and tender, meaty succulence. Nevertheless each dish filled me with Southern warmth and took me back to days of summer camp, shucking corn on the porch and fishing with my cousins. Despite being tweaked (it's hard to find a New York chef that sticks completely to tradition, given the consumer demand here for new experiences and 'something different'), this is food that is still hard to find, done well, outside of the Southern states. If we have time I'd like to go back again for the crawfish étouffée, chicken and rice, heirloom grits and excellent buttermilk biscuits.
This is what we ate this time:
Southern fattoush came as a smear of sweet roasted beetroot purée and a salad of lettuce, herbs, and radish slices, sprinkled with feta and dressed with buttermilk. Rather oddly there was only one, rather lonely looking za'atar brioche crouton in evidence.
Roasted multi-coloured and multi-textured baby carrots, set over thin slices of buttery avocado and a creamy benne (sesame) seed mayonnaise, scattered with radish slices, dill and aged gouda shavings. There was no sign of caraway shortbread mentioned on the menu.
Sara's legendary shrimp and grits. Barbecue spiced shrimp and cheddar grits, with mushrooms and Louisiana tasso ham. While her grits are undoubtedly some of the best I have tried - luxurious and full of flavour yet still yielding and light, on this occassion I felt they suffered for a slightly heavy hand with the cheddar cheese. The shrimp however were excellent, delicately seasoned with enough barbecue spice to give them a meaty lift, paired with crunchy, chewy nuggets of bacon and fried mushrooms, offset with spring onion. I thought I tasted brown butter and balsamic vinegar in the sauce, which married fried ingredients beautifully with shellfish and corn.
Half a buttermilk fried chicken. The chicken lacked the perfect, not oily, lacy thin yet crunchy crust I marvelled at when we went to Martha Lou's in Charleston, but the meat was juicy and flavourful - clearly from a well sourced animal. The batter was highly seasoned - piquant with pepper and spice.
For our sides we chose fava (broad) bean gratin with charred leeks, shiro miso, soy braised cremini mushrooms and buttermilk biscuit gremolata and a Vidallia onion soufflé that wasn't quite a soufflé and not quite a pudding. Of the two the fava beans were tastier...
But both were beaten by a bright and crunchy slaw consisting of kohlrabi, carrots, white cabbage and some punchy jalapeño, dressed with benne (sesame seeds) and (hoorah a slaw that hasn't been blanketed in mayo!) lime vinaigrette.
To make up for the healthy slaw we also thoroughly enjoyed another side of crisp-skinned potatos tossed in shallot aioli, capers and herbs.