Westchester Restaurants Go South (In The Culinary Sense)
County chefs are rebelling against haute cuisine with down-home dishes.
A barbecue sampler from Plates in Larchmont
A revival is happening in our hallowed professional kitchens, evoking hallelujahs from ardent followers of smoky barbecue brisket, savory shrimp ’n’ grits, and mouthwatering buttermilk biscuits. High-end chefs in the county are focusing on simple recipes that celebrate the cultural traditions of the South, from the creamy grits of Lowcountry South Carolina to the jazzed-up po’boys of New Orleans.
Plates, a New American fine-dining eatery in Larchmont, shifts to a more relaxed gear on Sundays for its barbecue roadhouse brunch. Guests roll up for the crispy fried chicken, Texas-style beef brisket, Kansas City ribs, and the vinegary North Carolina version of pulled pork. Executive Chef Matthew Karp combines his experience at Bouley and Restaurant Daniel in Manhattan with his family roots in West Virginia, Virginia, and Florida to create his cuisine. Though it wasn’t until he attended a Memphis barbecue competition that he decided to buy a Backwoods Smoker made in Shreveport, Louisiana. He’s gone whole hog in his efforts, crafting condiments and side dishes like homemade hot sauce, biscuits, cornbread, and coleslaw.
“I enjoy Southern food in all its guises,” Karp says. “I’ve always been on the lookout for a roadhouse diversion.”
The farm-focused Restaurant North in Armonk gave diners a taste of the South this winter when co-owner and chef Eric Gabrynowicz got sweet on sorghum. The three-time James Beard Best Chef of the Northeast nominee sprinkled his winter greens salad with a flurry of the old-fashioned popped grain, along with some citrus, pomegranate, and pistachios.
Trained at the Culinary Institute of America, Executive Chef Greg Gilbert has tinkered with these cultural nuances since he became a co-owner of Memphis Mae’s BBQ Bistro in Croton-on-Hudson. The eatery introduced Northern Westchester to Southern comfort cuisine when it opened in 2006.
“It’s definitely a growing market. It’s simple food,” Gilbert says. “But not everyone has a smoker at home to smoke their brisket for 16 hours.”
Gilbert smokes his brisket with hickory and pecan, rather than mesquite, which he says is overpowering. He makes a meat rub using Old Bay seasoning, cayenne, brown sugar, chili powder, and paprika. In late spring, Gilbert played with his New Orleans po’boy offerings, filling French baguettes with smoked pepper remoulade and fried chicken, shrimp, oysters, or catfish.
The belly-filling nature of this food doesn’t mean it lacks depth or creativity. Gilbert continues to experiment with creations such as his smoked—and then braised—wild boar served with hushpuppies and peach-cherry compote.
Rye House’s shrimp ’n’ grits is a superlative example of the classic Southern dish.
Michael Jannetta, an owning partner of Rye House in Port Chester, recalled his college days washing dishes while Chef Bill Neal helmed the kitchen at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. When New York Times restaurant critic Craig Claiborne visited Crook’s Corner and raved about Neal’s shrimp ’n’ grits in 1985, the dish rocketed from its humble roots as a breakfast staple in the marshlands to a craved dinner item at fine-dining establishments nationwide.
Now Rye House has it. They use organic, stone-ground Georgia grits, house-made shrimp stock, Spanish paprika, Parmesan, cheddar, andouille sausage, garlic, and jumbo shrimp.
“People like a good, creamy texture. It’s sort of an American version of polenta,” Jannetta says. “And it’s smoky.”
Smoking is where it’s at, says Jeffrey Kohn, chef and owner of Q Restaurant & Bar with his wife, Jennifer Kohn. They ventured into Southern and Midwestern barbecue with Q in 2005, seven years after opening artisan bread bakery The Kneaded Bread in Port Chester.
A few favorites are the mouthwatering smoky brisket, pulled pork and coleslaw sandwiches, Texas no-bean chili, and heaping sides of collard greens and creamy potato salad. Kohn prefers the soul-filled Kansas City barbecue to those he’s tried in Texas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. He’s especially into the burnt ends or “the point,” of brisket, that marbled hunk that he separates from the leaner muscle after smoking. He rubs it with spices, and then smokes it a few hours more. “Anytime you can get the burnt ends, you should,” he says. At Q, devour it on a tin tray with some sweet iced tea in take-home mason jars.
Then there are those biscuits with maple butter. It’s just real butter mixed with real maple syrup. The flaky biscuits are brushed with butter and then covered with a clean, warm towel dipped in butter.
“You can go through all this molecular gastronomy, but people are tired of it,” Kohn says. “Who doesn’t want a plate full of ribs and mac ’n’ cheese? That’s just good eating.”