There are grits, and then there are grits. Two new Southern restaurants have recently opened in Brooklyn, and they both serve the requisite corn mush. The differences between the two are instructive. At Seersucker in Carroll Gardens, the grits are found beneath a pile of shrimp, bland and so gummy they stick to the bottom of the plate. At Peaches HotHouse in Bed-Stuy, the grits are served under shrimp or braised short ribs, the porridge luscious and molten with at least half its weight in butter.
As the name implies, Seersucker is aiming for marginally healthier, WASP-ish Southern food. (“Cleaned-up Southern classics” is their motto.) But ingredients like pork belly, pimento cheese, and fried catfish populate much of the menu, so the restaurant ends up straddling a somewhat awkward middle ground. You feel that chef/partner Robert Newton—who hails from Arkansas and previously cooked at Tabla and Aquavit—is reigning himself in, serving what he thinks this part of Brooklyn wants rather than what’s most delicious. And the plates are relatively expensive for their small portions—as in a $17 wheatberry-stuffed Vidalia onion. (Yes, a wheatberry-stuffed onion.)
Though a friendly, comfortable place, the eatery lacks the generosity of flavor that characterizes good Southern fare. The best (and most affordable) choices can be found in the snacks and sides categories. A finger of crisp, piping-hot fried catfish comes with spicy mayo and cooling cabbage-radish slaw. Deviled eggs with runny, mustardy centers are just fine, although I found myself thinking wistfully of Fort Defiance’s smoked-paprika-spiced versions. A crock of stewed collards with bits of pork tastes satisfyingly earthy, and gets even better once spiked with the green-chile vinegar that comes alongside. Tender-crumbed biscuits have that wonderful, salty-buttermilk tang, but are not terribly light or flaky.
The most memorably delicious dish turns out to be the chicken and dumplings—a concentrated, velouté-based stew of braised chicken with carrots and celery cooked down to a comforting, homestyle potage. A tab of crunchy chicken skin sits on top, and each spoonful yields pale wheat-flour dumplings, fortifying in their starchy slip and chew. Seersucker could use a few more plates like that.
A couple miles to the east, Peaches HotHouse specializes in Nashville-style hot chicken while also serving pan-Southern dishes like Carolina rice bowls and fried green tomatoes. It’s owned by Craig Samuel and Ben Grossman, native Brooklynites who also run Fort Greene’s barbecue restaurant Smoke Joint and Bed-Stuy’s Peaches, a sister restaurant to the HotHouse.
Some people I’ve talked to feel that—as a slightly upscale place that lists its sustainable sources on the back of the menu—HotHouse risks being a force for gentrification. After all, you can get good Southern food in the same neighborhood for less. But I don’t think that’s quite fair. This restaurant offers its own particular, slightly elevated style—trout with orange-brown butter, spare ribs with black-eyed peas, watermelon salad with pickled onion, ginger, and arugula. If the people who live nearby want that, then they’ll support it, just as they’ve kept the original Peaches going for two years. And the mains run from $10 to $15 for very generous portions, not exactly rip-off territory.
The restaurant is a thoroughly enjoyable place to eat away an evening—Stevie Wonder sings on the sound system; the Mets play on the TV; the server is genial. And you’ll want to get that Nashville-style hot chicken. This is fried chicken with an extremely crunchy coating suffused with a ton of cayenne and other spices, served with slices of white bread. The story goes that a Tennessee woman who was angry with her husband poured a bunch of pepper onto his chicken before she fried it. But he loved the result, and that’s how hot chicken and Nashville’s Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack was born.
Here, the bird is covered in a wonderfully crisp crust—as gnarled and wrinkly as an old marathoner’s knee, so resilient you could almost knock on it, and fried at such high temperature it’s almost greaseless. The “crunch” is audible as your teeth go through the coating and skin, then juice runs down your wrist. Alas, it’s not all that spicy. Actually, it tastes quite a lot like barbecued potato chips, which is jarring, if pleasant. After I wrote about the chicken on the Voice‘s food blog, Fork in the Road, the management wrote in to say that if you want the real deal, you must specify “extra-spicy.” I suggest you do.
That talent for frying extends to the green tomatoes, which gush tartly beneath their breading, enriched with a slick of bacon mayonnaise. And the owners’ penchant for barbecue also shows up here, most successfully in a dish of sweet-smoky lacquered spare ribs that strike just the right balance between tender and resilient, fatty and lean.
But the cooking is sometimes uneven. Our meatloaf came with mashed potatoes that were lukewarm and rapidly hardening. (That’s almost as bad as sticky grits!) I’m on the fence about the meatloaf itself—it’s very soft and rich, almost like pâté or the inside of a meatball. The memory of it has stuck in my mind, and I’m still not sure if that smooth, squashy texture was a good thing or not. The Carolina rice bowl with crab and corn tasted surprisingly bland and needed to be doctored with glugs of the homemade hot sauce. Plus, nearly everything is garnished with microgreens, a bit of an unnecessary fuss.
Very little at HotHouse is finicky, though. Drop 15 bucks or so for a game on the TV, a drumstick in your hand, and fried green tomatoes passed around the table—a warm weather idyll.