Southern Comfort

Written by Linnea Covington on . Posted in Eat & Drink, Posts.


 

When presented with a complimentary bucket full of freshly made popcorn coated with brown sugar and bacon pieces, it’s hard not to get starry eyed. Follow that up with a stiff drink like the Grand Street Manhattan ($11), a mixture of sweet orange- and vanilla-infused bourbon with whiskey barrel bitters, and you have the start of something wonderful. Resist the urge to stuff too many fistfuls of that popcorn in your mouth and save room for former Chelsea Grill chef Omar Drammeh’s heavy menu, laden with mostly fried or cheese-coated Southern comfort food.

 

At the top of the list: chicken and waffles ($14). Unlike most places specializing in this dish, Drammeh has sectioned the waffles into quarters and gently placed a buttermilk batter-fried breast atop each piece. Coating the tender chicken with one of the two sauces, classic maple or the not-as-sticky peach amaretto syrup, marries the meat and pastry in a sweet and savory combo of pure bliss. The same taste pairing also comes out in the deep fried hushpuppies ($7), though the fluffy cornmeal balls get their saccharine from a spicy hot pepper jam on the side.

From the appetizer menu, try the caramelized bacon and pecan brittle ($5), a direct take on the Louisiana snack found throughout New Orleans’ bars. While we dug the crispy, candy-like brittle, we were disappointed by the mushy, goopy mac ‘n’ cheese ($9). It had a nice flavor, but the texture could have been improved by al dente noodles and a longer firing time. The pasta’s failure was quickly redeemed by the crisp casing and smoky flavor of a handmade frankfurter ($10), served with a pile of salty strings of delicately fried onion.

The care in which the food is wrought isn’t surprising given Drammeh’s unique introduction into the culinary world. At 19 years old, the young Drammeh stowed away on a boat heading from his home in Gambia toward Europe. Along the way, the ship’s captain caught the young man and put him to work in the galley. Drammeh stayed aboard the boat, cooking for three years and eventually becoming its chef before moving on to study cooking in Europe. He last worked at the famous Harlem soul palace Amy Ruth’s, which helped prepare him for his role at South Houston.

The dedication to both taste and detail here comes not only from Drammeh, but also from owner Michael Carpiniello. From the get-go, it’s obvious that after shutting down his previous joint, the Italian restaurant Lasso, Carpiniello took pleasure in developing a restaurant where solid food is the focus. While munching on the succulent thyme-scented pork chop ($17), one of the more “healthy” things on the menu despite the savory pork gravy slathered on, I noticed for the first time that I was happily dining in a sports bar— the food distracted me from the glaring basketball game to my right.

True to form, South Houston has the right components to be a haven for sports: It offers dozens of beers like the sunny Kelso Pilsner ($6) and the crisp Atwater Michigan Lager ($6); there are televisions in every corner; and the seating is made up of high tables. But, while sipping the salty, cool, cucumber-and-olive martini ($10), I couldn’t help but ruminate on the class of the space. Even the décor encompasses distinct facets, from the rotating artistdecorated blackboard in the back (a jazz scene on one visit), to the cut-metal map of old Soho circa 1968. For a space that was revently Italian chic in a trendy area, South Houston has managed to reinvent the sports bar space and comfort food cuisine to make them fashionable.

>> South Houston 331 W. Broadway (at Grand St.), 212-431-0131.

Southern Comfort

Written by None - Do not Delete on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


Cheese popcorn, devils food cakes, cookies, and Dr. Pepper—that was the South. I’d go
to Conners, a one-room store with a wooden porch on the island of Ocracoke, NC, and when my mother
and I had a peaceful moment, she’d get this mischievous look in her eye and we’d sneak the treats,
quickly and happily. I still buy a Dr. Pepper when I want to feel a bit of the South.

Nothing really tasted good in Rhode Island, my other home, except maybe Reese’s
Peanut Butter Cups and clam cakes. Strivers dream of that rocky beige nirvana as some ultimate,
if bland, symbol of class, but New England doesn’t really taste good if you’re from there. When I
was eight, we spent a year in Paris, and a stick of warm chocolate in a baguette was an oasis of sweet
calm in a school system that was big on punishment and prizes. I remember safely chomping on my artful
snack as another student was shaken violently by the ears while his face turned a bright red. I was
in the clear, and it was delicious.

When I was 15, my mother and I moved to San Francisco, then Berkeley. My
sister was in Idaho near her jailed fiancé, and so missed the entire first year of pork buns
and falafel from Shattuck Avenue kiosks. My mother is a gourmet cook, but that didn’t mean much to
me until a few years ago. As a teenage miscreant, my rare trips home meant plenty of Doritos and soda;
spare changing enabled me to heat up a can of Denison’s chili on somebody’s stove; and I was always
able to slap a peanut butter sandwich together during a party.

I’ve always been introduced to food, whether canned chili from a girl
in a group home or bagels with lox by my Uncle Dave in New Jersey. Pleased to meet you, is my invariable
response. Although I’m a populist, I’m no reverse snob, and I always knew that Calvin Trillin was
on to something in his extensive food quests. He’d go to Buffalo to study the disputed origin of the
buffalo chicken wing and its attendant celery sticks, fly to Kentucky to find the best barbeque,
and launch an intensive study on whether General Tseng, of the Chinese chicken special, actually
existed.

Perhaps Trillin was being ironic, but that escaped me. It seemed like
a perfectly legitimate way to spend a life: obsessing on a specialty food item. When I moved to New
York in 1985, I lived in an 8×10 room but set my sights on the horizon. I needed to find a buffalo chicken
wing. Egg creams, another snack I’d only read about, had disappointed me, even though Shelley Winters
pined for them so in her first memoir, but I felt the buffalo wing might be different.

I was at CBGB’s, slightly tanked and getting jostled around at a Dickies
concert, when I spotted a stocky guy in a plaid shirt. I couldn’t really focus on his face, but I knew
he knew. I slipped him my number, and when he called I casually asked him where to get the best buffalo
wings. Unbelievably, I even had sex with him, moving things right along until I knew where the spot
was. You may think me a miserable cur, but remember, somebody who finds wealth an aphrodisiac has
sex with the dandruff-laden Bill Gates; for me, a compelling food search also has a sexual frisson.

I forget the fellow’s name, but not where he took me—Aiello’s
Pizza Emporium, on 32nd Street and 2nd Avenue. He’d spent time upstate, so he knew from buffalo wings,
and these were the best I’d had before or since. The sauce was tangy; it ran together with the blue
cheese dip while a guy stood in the dingy basement just hacking away at a mound of poultry (apparently
you were supposed to ignore him as you made your way to the minuscule bathroom). Fellow diners had
the glazed look of the gambling addict or sports fan.

Embarrassingly, my unwitting buffalo-wing conduit drove me to Queens
to meet his parents. A little unusual after two dates, but perhaps that was the way things were done
in Queens at that time. He later accused me of “playing games.” Sure, and the early settlers “played
games” as they panned for gold, wanting only a better and more expansive life. Aiello’s closed down,
but the memory of all they were, oh no, they can’t take that away from me.

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