"When I was a kid in North Carolina, we only had fried chicken on special occasions, and up until recently, I only drank Champagne two or three times a year," says Sarah Simmons, chef/owner of newly opened Birds and Bubbles on the Lower East Side. "But our motto here is: Every day is a celebration, and you can have fried chicken and Champagne anytime you want."
It's a fitting maxim for Simmons, a home cook turned proprietor of culinary salon City Grit, as she gets into the swing of first-time restaurant ownership. "I've always said that if I was going to open my own place, it had to be an expression of my take on Southern food," she says. "Ironically, the first thing I say when someone asks what Southern food is that it's more than just fried chicken."
FOFC (Friends of Fried Chicken) portraits line the walls
Clearly, the chicken isn't an afterthought: Seasoned with Simmons's secret spice blend, it's dry-brined for up to 48 hours, then dipped in buttermilk and pan-fried one piece at a time. To get the recipe right, she spent a full month doing nothing but frying birds in her ground-floor apartment. For weeks, her entire building was perfumed with the sweet smell of fried poultry.
The Splitty-Split—half a fried chicken in a bucket with a split of Champagne (from a list helpfully organized by flavor profile) for $55—is hard to not order, but don't overlook the rest of the punnily organized menu. The lineup—"What Came First" for appetizers; "Chicken Scratch" for vegetarian entrees—showcases Simmons's take on Southern food, which usually involves some element of surprise: An unexpected flavor here, a creative presentation there.
Shrimp and grits
Take the shrimp and grits ($24), for example: Simmons's version is a sort of bayou mashup, combining traditional New Orleans-style barbecued shrimp (which are not barbecued, but sautéed and smothered in a rich Worcestershire-and-butter sauce) with heritage Anson Mills grits spiked with tasso and mushrooms. "Shrimp and grits was the first time I remember tasting layers of flavor before I even understood what that meant, so I had to put it on the menu," says Simmons. The bitter greens salad ($13) is her spin on the classic French lentil-and-frisee combo, with a layer of deviled-egg sauce (yes, that would be the yolk-and-mayonnaise filling from deviled eggs, thinned out into a dressing) coating the bottom of the plate in a sort of Southern-fried gribiche.
Some things, however, haven't changed from Simmons's childhood memories. The Vidalia onion souffle side ($9) comes from the same recipe her mother has used for decades on Thanksgiving and Christmas. "It's a little weird to make it every day after always considering it a holiday dish," says Simmons. "But every time we pull it out of the oven I smile."
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