Contempo Southern Pleasures at Tipsy Parson in Chelsea
If there's one Southern virtue that Tipsy Parson nails, it's hospitality. The place is packed just about every night by 7:30, and if you don't have a reservation, you wait in the long front room, bookended by the bar and a row of tables set aside for walk-ins. The wait might be 20 minutes, easily passed with a glass of an aromatic Hungarian white that reminded me of Viognier, or it might be an hour, in which case you'll have to move on to the Concord grape mint julep/slushie, which has nothing much to do with a julep except for the fact that it's spiked with bourbon. Either way, you can be sure that whoever took your name will remember it, and eventually find you and take you to a table, all the while smiling so genuinely you'll half-believe you're not in Manhattan anymore.
Tipsy Parson attracts a diverse, chattery crowd, and since the seating is so tight that a table must be moved out for anyone to sit down, you feel you're all in it together. One night, a woman roamed the bar in teensy jean cutoffs, black tights, and an animal-print top. In the dining room, a big table loudly sang "Happy Birthday" to the guest of honor. Another table held two older couples in big, black woolen jackets and sensible haircuts. Next to us sat two knit-capped hipsters so young I wanted to reach over and rub the guy's peach fuzz.
On another evening, a pair of extremely elegant gay men peered dubiously at our order of turkey tails, and inquired, in a neighborly way, how we were going to eat them. It turns out that turkey tails (also known as turkey asses) are dense, cartilaginous things the size of my fist, best eaten by hand—crisp-skinned on the outside, but almost impenetrable on the inside, like Sisyphean chicken wings. But we weren't about to do that, especially since ours were covered in a slick pepper jelly and the beautiful, be-suited gay men were well within splattering range.
Tipsy Parson's menu is straightforwardly organized into bar snacks, appetizers, salads, and main dishes. The bar snacks section, where you'll find the turkey tails, provides lots of intriguing stuff. Those poultry asses would be better at a picnic—for all its Southern charm, Tipsy Parson is still an upscale restaurant in Chelsea, and you want to keep up appearances—but the pickled shrimp are just perfect, tasting faintly of cloves, mace, mustard seed, and black pepper, and served with ground peanuts. Marvelously crisp cornbread hush puppies are sided with Old Bay mayo, and the fried pickles are nearly as good, slices of puckeringly tart dills encased in batter.
I'm fairly certain that Tipsy Parson is the only restaurant in Manhattan that serves ambrosia, the Southern fruit salad that, in its classic form, contains pineapples, orange segments, shredded coconut, and sugar. James Beard's 1949 formula for it contains just orange segments, sugar, and coconut. In current practice, the fruit is mixed with whipped topping and marshmallows. I give Tipsy Parson lots of credit for attempting an update, but frankly, arugula and marshmallows should never share a plate. In the new rendition, pineapples, coconut, slices of pink grapefruit, peanuts, and small blobs of marshmallow are tossed with bitter greens. We took bite after bite, somehow moved to eat it because it was . . . what? Bizarre? Mind-bendingly discordant? Maybe you will like it.
Other appetizers are more crowd-pleasing and less controversial. The wonderful chicken-fried chicken livers are sealed in a craggy crust; crunch through into hot, creamy, molten treat so rich it's almost as if the organs had generated their own pâté. A warm kale salad with cornbread croutons and dried cranberries feels like a good, earthy antidote to all the animal fat, and the broiled Rappahannock River Oysters with feathery edges have an oceanic richness that's heightened by a judicious sprinkle of bacon and celery leaves.
Actually, for all the conspicuous consumption of deep-fried treats, pork, and salad with marshmallows, it's the lighter fish dishes that best show the kitchen's skill. Plus you can feel virtuous about it, since Tipsy Parson serves reasonably sustainable fish. Mississippi-farmed catfish, for instance, is sweet and buttery underneath its peppery exterior, and served with mustard-coated boiled potatoes and sautéed celery. A fillet of crisp-skinned Spanish mackerel sits atop a lemony ragout of bitter greens with cranberries, cannelloni, and lima beans—practically spa food, but extremely satisfying.
Oddly, the meat preparations are not as solid. The braised pork shank, which you might imagine as a contender for the place's signature dish, is both overpriced ($22) and disappointing. The Flintstones-style cut has been braised to a meltingly tender state, but the promised grits are nowhere to be found, leaving the pork to partner with stewed apples and prunes, an overwhelmingly sweet situation. A side dish caught the too-sugary malady—roasted brussels sprouts with pecans take the "like candy" cliché too literally. The duck with Concord grapes succeeds better, but our seared duck breast arrived cold, while the pile of bitter sautéed greens was hot. The bunch of purple grapes on the plate, warm and wrinkled as if they had spent five minutes too long in the bath, seemed weirdly disconnected from the rest of the dish.
Tipsy Parson takes its name from a 19th-century Southern cake that's soaked in sherry or another alcohol, then topped with custard and almonds. The dessert is descended from similar old English trifles (one of which is called tipsy hedgehog, even better than that memorable British dessert moniker, spotted dick). Tipsy parson gets its name from what might happen if you, or your parson, ate too much of it. Tipsy Parson does indeed serve a tipsy parson—a booze-soaked whimsy that's as likeable as the restaurant.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at villagevoice.com/forkintheroad
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