Friday, June 15, 2012

Big Jones

(clockwise, from bottom left: wood-fired oysters, tete de cochon, cornbread, pickled vegetables)

The following is a paraphrased transcript of a recent conversation I had with the missus:

Mrs. Hackknife: We've been eating out too much.
Me: How do you figure?
Mrs. Hackknife: We're supposed to be saving money for a new house, yet I think we've been eating at expensive restaurants more frequently this year. Do the math. How much do you think we've spent eating out over the last 3 months?
Me: Well, let's see.....there's been Next, iNG, Vera, Mercat, Vie, the Portage, Yusho, Goosefoot, El Ideas, oh, and that whole Grand Cayman food fest thing, which pretty much dwarfed the rest. Hmmmm....I see your point.
Mrs. Hackknife: Starting now, we need to dial it back some. No more $200+ meals for a while.
Me: What about Father's Day? Do we need to go to Arby's?
Mrs. Hackknife: No, just try to find a place that's not so....extravagant for a change.

So, my quest for a cheaper Father's Day dinner began. The beautiful thing about living in Chicago is that we can eat well at all price points; thus, it wasn't exactly a chore for me to locate an in-demand restaurant that wouldn't empty the wallet. My choice: Big Jones (5347 N. Clark), the city's best (and only, I think) eatery devoted to Southern heritage cooking. What is that, you may ask? Southern heritage is a new trend advanced primarily by Chef Sean Brock that showcases historic dishes from the southern United States, sometimes using once-prominent, but now-nearly forgotten grains (such as Charleston gold rice) and vegetables. This movement is big not only on the farm-to-table, use-the-entire-animal ethos that's in practice almost everywhere now, but also includes the focus on foraging made famous by Chef Rene Redzepi at Noma in Copenhagen. Chef Brock and his two restaurants (Husk and McCready's in Charleston, SC) were the focus of an amazing article in the New Yorker last year; if his recent level of national attention is any indication, he's become the chef most likely to de-throne Grant Achatz as this country's culinary pacesetter for the near future.

Having read enough about Southern heritage cooking to want a piece of the action and with no money for a trip to South Carolina in the budget (well, other than that one already planned for July, and don't think I didn't try to schedule a detour through Charleston), I figured Big Jones (helmed by Chef Paul Fehribach) would be the next best way to experience it. So, Mrs. Hackknife and I headed up to Andersonville one warm Friday night for our foray into Dixieland dining. The annual Midsommerfest (celebrating all things Sweden, whose emigrants once resided here in large numbers) was in full swing just up the street from the restaurant and I was surprised to see how upscale the neighborhood had become, chock full of antique stores, trendy bars, and specialty stores catering to yuppies/alternative-lifestyle practitioners. We settled into our table at a half-empty Big Jones as I studied the decor, which seemed to be a Disney-esque representation of a New Orleans parlor room. After a thorough menu review, Mrs. Hackknife and I decided to order a selection of spectacular-sounding appetizers in lieu of larger entrees.

My wife cradled a martini and I sipped on my first-ever Sazerac (from a circa 1850s recipe - rye, absinthe, burnt orange, cane syrup, and bitters, definitely stiffer than the sweet bourbon cocktail I enjoyed at Vie not long ago) as the plates arrived. First up were some complimentary cornbread muffins, baked with cornmeal and hominy, clearly more flavorful than your average Jiff cornbread from a box. This was followed by a slew of terrific house-pickled vegetables, including ramps, red onions, asparagus, chow chow (a southern version of piccalilli, a relish of various chopped pickled veggies mixed with spices), okra, and, of course, plain pickles, although there was nothing plain about this dish, all spice and crunch and acid. Sadly less successful was the Cajun-style tete de cochon (hog's head pate), which was surprisingly bland despite its having brandy and peppercorns in the meat blend - even the homemade rye bread and bourbon/brown sugar mustard couldn't rescue it. The situation greatly improved with the emergence of a knockout seafood plate: a half-dozen Virginia oysters, grilled over pecan wood and topped with a decadent Creole mignonette, bread crumbs, and garlic butter. The smoky, rich oysters paired perfectly with a glass of Tyranena Rocky's Revenge bourbon brown ale. Slightly less laudable, but plenty good Deviled Crab a la McGee's Branch (circa 1940, from an old Savannah, GA cookbook) came next, containing lump blue crab meat, cream, house-made Worcestershire sauce, white wine, and mustard (like spinach artichoke dip on steroids) accompanied by hickory toasted bread.

We managed to swallow down one more savory platter (Cajun boudin balls, a mix of spicy pork liver and rice sausage breaded and deep-fried) before moving on to the tremendous desserts, when Mrs. Hackknife had her best-ever strawberry shortcake and I overindulged on warm dark chocolate and black walnut tart, served with salted caramel, puffed rice, and smoked buttermilk ice cream (they really like using smoke here). Other than the misstep on the pate, the vast majority of the meal really excelled and I'm looking forward to our next visit (which may include the progeny at brunchtime). If Southerners eat this way all the time, I'm starting to rethink the outcome of that whole Civil War thing....

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