Southern comfort food is pretty hot right now in New York. Just consider the success of Lowcountry, Pies-n-Thighs, Buttermilk Channel, The Commodore, and many others. Fried chicken, biscuits, grits and so forth have been elevated from tasty comfort food dishes to, at times, over-the-top case studies in how delicious butter, cream, and cheese are in gourmet treats. Tipsy Parson, the not-so-new sister restaurant to the Lower East Side’s Little Giant, is perhaps Chelsea’s most famous spot for Southern ‘soulfood’ (whether you really consider their fare soulful is, well, up to you…).
Tipsy Parson occupies a narrow storefront on 9th avenue in the 20s, in what is really turning out to be a great neighborhood for eating (Donatella is not so far, neither is Tia Pol nor Klee Brasserie and La Bergamote). The restaurant is cozy and charming, smaller than it seems, warm and welcoming in the winter. The front room is dominated by the long marble bar, behind which are neatly arranged martini and wine glasses, bottles of Southern bourbon, and cubbies filled with chintzy Southern doo-dads, torn books, artfully unruly plants in terracotta pots, and the sort of small ornaments you’d find on the windowsill of your grandmother’s kitchen. In the window, a few mismatched chairs are clustered around an ornate coffee table; a painted bookshelf stuffed with hardbound classics provides the homey backdrop. In the back room, a long chestnut-colored Chesterfield banquette, punctuated by simple wooden tables for two and four, runs along one wall. Above, three large framed squares of cherry red floral fabric add a modern twist on wallpaper. A rustic communal table, set for large parties or perhaps just those happy to share their space, sits in the center of the room, adding a congenial ‘Southern hospitality’ touch to the whole place.
Where the warm, albeit slightly kitschy, decor sufficiently creates the illusion of stepping into a Southern eatery, the food similarly transports diners out of Manhattan and south of the Mason-Dixon line. The kitchen doesn’t prepare dishes with the same deftness and light touch as that at Little Giant, yet perhaps that is the point. Plates are laden down with mountainous portions, slathered in butter, cream, and salt; half the options are fried, the other half encased in fat, cooked in fat, or served with fat. The options, from decadent snacks (fried oysters, fried pickles, deviled eggs, hush puppies) to appetizers, entrees, and desserts, are hallmarks of classic Southern soul food. The Fry-Up, a platter of varied fried vegetables served with a tangy lemon aioli, is completely over-the-top and yet also completely delicious, an American take on tempura. Shrimp & Grits, served as a starter, are punked-up with fried green tomatoes and a wonderful roasted tomato vinaigrette; the broiled spicy shrimp are at-risk for being over-cooked, but the done-right stone-ground grits almost make up for occasional failures with the shrimp.
For the entrees, the half-roast chicken is tender, succulent, juicy, and simple. Inside, the breast meat is flavorful and mercifully moist; outside, the skin is crispy, a guilty delight. The sweet potato mashed served underneath the formidable chicken is addictive, both sweet and savory, laced with subtle Bourbon flavor, completely perfect. The duck confit is luxurious, covered in a thick and flavorful layer of duck fat and crispy skin. That it takes some digging to get to the disappointingly small nuggets of pleasantly gamey duck meat is likely frustrating to most. Of course, no Southern meal is complete without a biscuit, and Tipsy Parson offers a damn good biscuit. The variety? Buttermilk-chive. The topping? Honey butter. The result? A flaky, buttery, crumbly, utterly moist biscuit deservedly lathered with butter that somehow strikes the perfect balance between savory and sweet. In all honesty (and yes, this may be a result of my own carbohydrate predilections), the biscuit may have made the meal.
Tipsy Parson took a lot of flack when it first opened, mostly for it’s surprisingly over-the-top food. Long time lovers of Little Giant probably expected a more elegant take on Southern food, more subtlety. This seems unfair, for it’s perfectly clear to me that Tipsy Parson is an intentional divergence from the cutesy (and very delicious) Lower East Side neighborhood favorite. It is outrageous and absolutely dangerous, if you’re worried about your girth. But, you know what, every now and then a little indulgence is A-OK.
the Southern comfort food bandwagon, Sunday brunch, over-indulging (purposefully, of course), ‘civilized’ soul food, afterwork cocktails and snacks, ex-Murray Hill yuppies