Shuffle on Smith Street
Rob Newton does Southern classics at Wilma Jean
Rob Newton's fried chicken starts out with a salty brine, then takes a dip in buttermilk on its way to the deep-fryer.
That's the way the Arkansas native learned to make it from his family back home and, despite his refined touch as a chef, he's not about to go messing with what works.
Newton recently reshuffled his trio of well-loved restaurants on Smith Street: Nightingale 9, his successful venture into Vietnamese cuisine, has moved into the handsome space that housed Seersucker, his Southern-inflected restaurant, which opened in 2010. Now Newton's bringing Seersucker's greatest hits to the old Nightingale space, hanging up a few chalkboard menus and christening it Wilma Jean, after his grandmother.
"Closing Seersucker wasn't a funeral," Newton explains. "I wanted to go deeper with Vietnamese food at Nightingale, but the kitchen was small and we needed more space so the restaurant could spread its wings, so to speak."
(Speaking of wings: Try Nightingale's grilled chicken wings with a sticky-sweet tamarind sauce.)
"All our guests were telling me they wanted more fried chicken," Newton says of the dish that had been a once-a-week special at Seersucker but will now be available all the time at Wilma Jean.
The restaurant swap also means Newton will be able to play with things he found road-tripping around the American South and Vietnam. At Nightingale he's making bánh canh, a silky soup bolstered with pigs feet and hocks and brimming with thick, udon-like clear noodles.
"It's like Vietnamese trucker food," Newton exclaims.
At Wilma Jean, he's making wonderfully junky fried bologna sandwiches. That would seem tailor-made for some kind of cheffy tweaking. Are the cold cuts made in-house?
"Oh gosh, no," Newton says with a laugh, leaning back from the white-washed table and picking up a pimiento-cheese-slathered tortilla chip.
"We get it from the deli—Boar's Head. This is one of those things that I feel you can't gussy up and make it all fancy. We're just keeping it casual and having fun."
It's a mantra well represented by fried chicken on a stick: A crackly, chicken-y find from an Oxford, Mississippi gas station. "It's genius," he gushes. "It's a grab-and-go kind of thing."
Newton never meant to open a fried chicken restaurant when starting out with Seersucker years ago. He'd planned to showcase lesser known regional specialties. But, New Yorkers and their fried chicken, he sighs—"that appetite can't be stopped."
"But I'm glad it's turned out that way," Newton says with a smile. "Initially, I just wanted a successful restaurant and now I have three."