Over the past decade or so, while the butter-slicked perniciousness of Paula Deen was undermining mainstream perceptions of southern food, there was a quieter, nonparodic revolution ramping up to take it back to its preindustrial agrarian past. That was when the sheer variety of local crops allowed a diverse family of differing regional cuisines to develop—as opposed to the monocultural set of foods the rest of the country has long held the south to possess. The standard-bearer for this resurrection is the Charleston, South Carolina, chef Sean Brock, whose two restaurants serve as ground zero for this movement. Here in Chicago it’s chef Paul Fehribach, whose scholarship at Big Jones has led to many different menus faithful to a number of discrete southern traditions that might as well be brand-new for most eaters.
I suppose it’s inevitable that other Chicago chefs would get into this game with increasing specialization, and with Carriage House, from Bedford (and ex-Hot Chocolate) chef Mark Steuer, Chicago has its first restaurant dedicated to the food of South Carolina’s coastal low country. Generally that’s a cuisine typified by abundant seafood and grains that result in folksily named dishes such as she-crab soup, once (but no longer) made with the crustacean’s roe, and frogmore stew, in which no frogs have been harmed.
This neo “old south” movement is also responsible for the resurgence of a bounty of heirloom foods such as Carolina gold rice and purple cape beans, which both appear on Steuer’s menu. But the chef is not orthodox, and Carriage House is less reverential and exacting than Big Jones. On Steuer’s menu a dozen shareable dishes are divided into “traditional” and “reimagined” columns, distinctions that in some cases are meaningless. I’m not sure how often chefs in Old Dixie prepared sous vide chicken thighs—pressing them in a cylindrical galantine before deep-frying and honey glazing their skin—but it’s an interesting preparation, served with a vinegary sweet potato hot sauce and candy-sweet bread-and-butter pickles. The dish would be terrific if it had some balance, but as is it belongs on the dessert menu more than anywhere else.
On the other hand, a trio of “Carolina rice balls”—deep-fried arancini made with the aforementioned heritage rice—is incorporated with pimiento cheese, dressed with pickled cabbage, and sauced with sweet-potato puree and smoked pork neck gravy. The result is a thrilling collection of textures and flavors—sweet, sour, and savory; soft and crunchy—that hits all the pleasure centers, a formula that snack-food manufacturers are forever trying to put in a bag.
Steuer strikes these perfect balances across his menu, particularly in a pair of dishes each served in a rectangular cast-iron pan—one a crispy slice of panfried ham hock terrine set in a succotash of field peas and corn, tarted up with a mustard vinaigrette, and enriched by an oozing soft-boiled egg. The same egg serves the same purpose with cheesy grits and oyster mushrooms buoyed by truffled vinaigrette. These are both extravagant little dishes that could easily get bogged down in their own richness but for equally judicious application of acidic flavors. Those grits, incidentally, show up all over the menu, as a side, with shrimp, and anchoring one of the four larger entrées on the menu, a towering chunk of quivering braised pork shoulder topped with pickled banana peppers and smoked plums. In fact, corn takes many forms here, including a small skillet of light, spongy corn bread topped with sweet onion jam and foie gras compound butter.
Sweet, sour, savory, and fatty—Steuer pulls this off so well in some dishes that it’s disorienting when he doesn’t. His she-crab soup is outstanding, rich and creamy yet not too heavy, but it lacks the promised acid in the sherry gastrique noted on the menu (traditionally, this soup is served with a sidecar of sherry for those who care to customize). A small stack of thick fried green tomatoes topped with creamed red peas and pickled shrimp is overwhelmed by its thick batter. And Steuer’s reimagined low-country oyster roast arrives as four plated Gulf Coast bivalves overdressed with fried leeks, guanciale, buttermilk, and enough sweet tomato jam to smother whatever oceanic qualities the creature might have offered.
In fact, I had trouble with most of the seafood I tried at Carriage House. On one occasion a grouper fillet set amid some otherwise winning purple cape beans with collards and apple-fennel slaw was tough and overcooked, and so were the shrimp and clams in the iconic low-country boil (what Yankees call a clambake). Both of these could have been great, and I’m chalking up these particular disappointments to a kitchen crew overwhelmed by the crowds steadily packing in around communal tables and high-tops smack up against the open kitchen and long bar.
There, a crack tag team of former Sable bartender Sterling Field and ex-Acadia barkeep Michael Simon have duplicated the format of the food menu, tackling classic and innovative cocktails, respectively. Simon in particular remains one of the more interesting bartenders in town, though his highly complicated approach to drink-making may seem toned down. That’s deceptive. His drinks seem sweet, but they’re tempered, particularly his Chartreuse Elixir—incorporating both the green and yellow variants with celery mint and ginger. The Lionel Hutz, named for the Simpsons barrister and recovering alcoholic, is a bourbon and sweet-tea refresher Simon mixes with a lemonade infused with a long list of ingredients (peaches, cayenne pepper, cherry bark, allspice, bay leaf, orange curacao) first bathed in a sous vide machine.
Although there’s only a small selection of desserts—on which Steuer’s former boss Mindy Segal consulted—they’re hardly afterthoughts. Along with beignets and a pecan praline sundae, there’s a mildly sweet pear cobbler, the fruit lightly poached in tea with a thick gingerbread crust meant to be broken and drenched in warm sorghum cream. It’s a great bowl and a nice reprieve from some of the sweeter elements on the savory menu.
I complained that the Bedford was sort of boring when I reviewed it, but I don’t find that to be the case at all here. Carriage House is, at the moment, loud and boisterous in the best way, soundtracked by a range of southern-tinged classic-rock deep cuts (Dylan, Skynyrd, the Byrds, etc), and despite the menu’s misfires shows a lot of potential.
Steuer, in terms of street cred, actually comes from Charleston, and ostensibly grew up eating and cooking this food. He isn’t just latching onto the flavor of the day, nor is he stuck in a joyless marriage to the past. It should be fun to watch him take things forward.