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Posts from the ‘southern/soul food’ Category

Peels: Down-South Americana with A Teaspoon of New York Glitz

Freeman’s, the beloved alleyway scenester spot just off Rivington, has a sexy little sister and her name is Peels. Situated on a hot strip of the Bowery, at the corner of Bond Street, Peels blends New York design sensibility with pure Southern American cooking dressed up a smidgeon to suit the Manhattan palette.

Though Peels has lost quite a bit of the je ne sais quoi that made Freeman’s so unusual and beloved by Manhattan’s trendiest, it still manages to charm in its simplicity. Where Freeman’s is stuffed to the gills with knick-knacks, photographs, and artfully-distressed kitsch, the bi-level space at Peels is stripped-down and spare. The first level looks like it operates sort of like a cafe – with a coffee bar, windowed counters populated with truly magnificent baked goods during the day, and small bistro tables awkwardly crowded together. In the back is a large and imposing communal table, wonderful for large groups, not so-wonderful for intimate dates. The second level looks more like a main dining room with white wooden booths, a long communal table down the center, and a small bar for people to mingle at. The whole look is squeaky clean and white-washed with white paneled walls, white wooden tables and chairs, and large bright white industrial light fixtures. In fact, it looks much like a simple Southern bakery all-spruced up for Manhattan’s scenesters.

The down-home American food served at Peels is generally good. It’s not mind-blowing, revolutionary, or particularly artful, but it tends to taste good in the way that well-executed comfort food always tastes good. Peels serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, unusual for a full-service non-hotel restaurant on the Bowery. Breakfast is traditional: buttermilk pancakes, eggs benedict, shrimp & grits, eggs on a biscuit with gravy, and so forth. The pastry basket is out of this world – stuffed with truly marvelous muffins and sticky buns and the like. Other than that, all is what you would expect a hearty breakfast to be – filling, flavorful, but not reinventing the wheel. Lunch or weekend brunch at Peels is a much more extensive dining experience. The kitchen offers everything from its signature Build-a-Biscuit program where you get to top a flaky buttermilk biscuit with choice goodies like avocado, red-eye gravy, and fried chicken to salami sandwiches, greasy beer-battered fried fish tacos, andouille corn dogs, and skillet eggs. In fact, you could argue that lunch and brunch, where the kitchen keeps things simple, fresh, and classic, are where Peels really shines.

Dinner at Peels can be a frustrating experience. On the few occasions I’ve been over the past 6 months, service is consistently bad. While the waiters can be friendly, not always a guarantee, it’s inevitably difficult to find one when you need one, to succeed in hailing one down when you find one, and to actually get what you need once you hail one. You get the sense that there just aren’t enough servers to adequately attend to the bi-level space; there’s an irritating disorganization. On my most recent visit, someone, whether the kitchen or the server, forgot our rather substantial order – and my friend and I had to wait close to an hour for our entree without almost no apology. That’s whack.

That being said, the food was pleasant. To start, the golden tomato gazpacho is a refreshing antidote to muggy New York summers; whereas, the creamy spicy salty spreadable pimento cheese dip, served with crusty bread, is pure sin. It’s heavy and truly luxurious. The fried chicken entree is delicious – the chicken is juicy, the breading is crispy, and the ranch dressing is the ideal coolant. The cheeseburger is similarly well-done – cooked appropriately, flavorful, and drenched in cheese. The shrimp & grits is … nice; the grits are just begging for some more texture and salt, but the shrimp is complemented beautifully by a fried egg and bacon (how do you say no to that?). None of the dishes are the best in New York by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re good, hearty, and satisfying.

Peels is good, and perhaps most importantly for the restaurant, it’s cool. It’s popular with those New Yorkers who ‘know where to go;’ it’s got a hoppin’ bar scene, great people-watching on the patio, and some wonderful cocktails to complement the down-home cuisine. It had enough buzz at open to generate a crowd of regulars and fans, and now it sustains itself on a pretty hip clientele. And to be sure, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Perfect For: coffee and pastries, large groups, singles ready to mingle, bourbon cocktails and biscuits, decadent Sunday brunch

Peels on Urbanspoon

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Tipsy Parson: Just a Lil’ Southern Lovin’

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.
Perfect For: the Southern comfort food bandwagon, Sunday brunch, over-indulging (purposefully, of course), ‘civilized’ soul food, afterwork cocktails and snacks, ex-Murray Hill yuppies

Tipsy Parson on Urbanspoon

Lowcountry: Sweet Southern Soul Food Glitzed Up

As a New Englander to the core, my reactions to Southern food range from fear to trepidation to exotic excitement to mild disgust. In my mind, it’s never been anything but fried food, barbecue, massive portions, and sickly sweet desserts. West Village newcomer Lowcountry changed all that for me, widening my horizons to Southern soul food done with sophistication (and no, for all you soul food fanatics, it hasn’t lost an oomph in the process).

Replacing Bar Blanc Bistro on West. 10th and Greenwich Avenue, Lowcountry’s shtick is warm, casual, and, well, Southern. The dimly lit space personifies the traditional Southern man all dressed up for the big city; there’s just enough glitz, just enough grunge, just enough soul. Stacks of tattered vinyl records line one wall with vintage mirrors nearby and the same long exposed brick wall from the restaurant’s predecessor. At the front is a hoppin’ bar, complete with bar height tables for groups, flat-screen TVs, and an extensive bourbon collection, backlit with soft golden light. The tables are made from recycled wood (ours seemed to be a repurposed window) and the walls are lined with deep burgundy leather banquettes. Young and stylish, the crowd comes after work and stays through the night, sipping house bourbon cocktails and noshing on trotter tots, fried green tomatoes, and deviled eggs.

The thing to do though is to reserve yourself a table and sit down to properly enjoy the truly wonderful food coming out of the kitchen. The menu is separated in snacks, salads, smalls, mains and desserts. The snacks are small and quick, perfect with a cold beer or a house ginger julep; the mac n’ cheese looked particularly decadent with a toasted golden brown top. For smalls, the obvious winner is the Fried Chicken Biscuit, served stacked and crispy atop a generous helping of creamy, rich and savory ham gravy. The cheddar biscuit is slightly dry, but packed with satisfying cheesy flavor and a delicious mess when sopped in the gravy; the chicken is not as melt in your mouth as you’d want, but the crust is spicy, peppery and playful; a generous helping of sweet and savory onion jam pulls the whole thing together. The pork belly is a marriage between down and dirty Southern flavors and Manhattan culinary sophistication. So tender that no knife is needed to cut it, the braising is done just perfectly. A bright and crunchy radish salad and a runny fried egg add interesting texture to an otherwise delightful dish.

For mains, try the BBQ baby back ribs, served with a savory Red Bliss potato salad and crunchy pickles. The ribs are showered in thick and spicy barbecue sauce so good that you want to drink it off the plate (yes, seriously). In the mood for something sweet? Try one of the delectable homestyle all-American desserts, ranging from bourbon-soaked bread pudding to brownie sundaes and apple cobbler. The pecan pie is my favorite, served as a personal-pie size with a dollop of salty caramel ice cream – nutty and delicious!

Lowcountry is quite the find – fun and fratty with an authentic Southern rock backbone yet still sophisticated enough food-wise to appeal to New York’s discerning downtown diners. There’s just enough grunge (the PBR + a shot of bourbon for $6 “recession special”) to transport you off of picturesque W.10th to where NASCAR is the preferred sport, yet it’s not so grimy that you couldn’t take co-workers, dates, and native New Yorkers here for a grand ole time.

Perfect For: UVA and Duke alums, after-work drinks with your younger colleagues, late-night bar snacks, bustin’ a gut

Lowcountry on Urbanspoon

Amy Ruth’s: Soul Food You Can Count On

While looking for an appropriate lunch place for a meet-and-greet between the newly-formed licensed literacy non-profit City Readers and the Alain L. Locke PS 208, I was lucky enough to stumble upon Amy Ruth’s, a soul food must-visit on 116th Street and Malcolm X. Perfect for a chatty group of 7, this spacious and tidy neighborhood favorite attracts not only locals but also Harlem first-timers, tourists, and soul food aficionados.
A discreet beige storefront on 116th belies the expansive space allotted for feasting. The small front-room features a diner-style kitchen window, flat-screen TVs, and a few small tables; through a corridor and up the stairs waits a banquet-type room with plenty of room for groups of 5-20. Forget about the decor here; there is none, aside from basic wooden tables and chairs and a few speakers tossed around (all of which are blasting Top 40 Hip Hop and R&B).
The food is Southern soul-food and good enough to (almost) justify the surely impending heart-attacks; the menu features every permutation of fried food and waffles you can think of. We’re talking about The Rev. Al Sharpton (fried or smothered chicken and waffles), The Lloyd Williams (waffles with rib-eye steak), The Honorable Keith Wright (fried pork chops), The President Barack Obama (good ole fried, smothered, baked or BBQ chicken), and The Reggie Harris (Southern honey-dipped fried chicken). While the famous African-American themed dishes might seem a bit much, they are damn good, especially when paired with any of the ten or so sides (mac & cheese, fries, mashed potatoes, collard greens, okra, cauliflower, string beans, and so on and so forth).
With the burgers big and juicy, the fried chicken tender and crispy, the waffles fluffy and sweet, how can you possibly go wrong? If you’ve got a serious yen for something fried, skip the East Village’s often anemic varieties and head uptown to Harlem; Amy Ruth’s delivers on its promise to provide delicious food, comfort, and a great experience. Our server was so friendly that she put up with the constant waffling (snickers, please) and demands of our large party with nothing but a wide toothy smile and some charming sass. Keep it simple and comfy with some soul food, and keep it at Amy Ruth’s.
Perfect for: satisfying fried food cravings, a hearty lunch uptown, rowdy group events, testing the soul food waters of Harlem.

Amy Ruth's on Urbanspoon