From one end of the United States to the other, Southern cooking is hot. And while Chicago doesn't abound with Southern dining options, restaurants like Big Jones, Table Fifty-Two and The Southern — to say nothing of our growing crop of Southern-informed barbecue spots — ensure that the options we do have are formidable.
Carriage House, which opened in Wicker Park two months ago, most assuredly can run with this pack.
It was created by the same team behind The Bedford, including executive chef Mark Steuer, and as good as Steuer is with contemporary-American dishes, his work at Carriage House seems to come with an extra dollop of passion.
"I love Southern food," says Steuer, who grew up in Charleston, S.C. "I grew up eating that way. But it's often heavy and laden with cream, and you don't feel good after it. So I kept it traditional but used techniques to lighten it up."
Think Southern indulgence, minus the self-loathing. Steuer's shrimp and grits, for instance, has a modern, vertical presentation, the head-on Georgia lake prawns forming a center pile around the creamy grits, and instead of a roux-thickened sauce, there's a "hunter's gravy" of reduced stocks (pork, veal, shrimp) inlaid with herbs, mushrooms and house-made tasso. It's no diet plate, but, Steuer says, "you don't feel like you just ate a plate of flour."
The foundation of the menu consists of four family-style main courses, or "suppers" — sturdy, large-format plates that will handle at least two diners each. To their chosen supper, diners append any number (though two is about right) of small-plate starters, which are listed under "traditional" and "reimagined" headings.
In the former group are such treats as she-crab soup (no lack of indulgence in that one), and fried chicken thigh with bread-and-butter pickles and a persuasive sweet-potato hot sauce (now officially on my Christmas wish list), along with the aforementioned shrimp and grits.
In the latter are crispy balls of Carolina rice over smoked pork-neck gravy (I call it "redneck arancini") and oysters roasted in their shells with house-made guanciale and smoked-tomato jam, topped at the finish with buttermilk aioli and crisped leeks.
Grilled quail stuffed with assertive black-pepper dumplings is a hit, and buttermilk-soaked, smoked and fried sweetbreads, married to thyme-tarragon mushrooms and tart apple match-sticks, is a special worth seeking.
Among the suppers, the Low Country boil couldn't be more traditional, a deep bowl of goodies including shrimp, clams, rabbit sausage, corn and red potatoes in a light-on-the-tongue but flavor-packed broth; resting on top are griddled slabs of house-made pullman loaf, so buttery they reminded me of French toast — which is exactly what they will become, once weekend brunch launches next month.
The ribeye, on the other hand, is definitely a reimagined dish, the beef marinated in buttermilk and lightly smoked before heading to the grill for a final char.
It's a tasty piece of meat, but it's upstaged by its accompaniment, a sort-of Southern panzanella of cornbread croutons, Georgia blue cheese, marinated tomatoes and grilled chicory. (The tomatoes aren't long for the menu, but the rest of the dish should live on.)
The pork shoulder is somewhere in between, smoked and braised for hours and crisped at the last minute; it's plated over grits with pickled peppers.
The addition of smoked plums gives the dish an unexpected nuance.
There are a handful of sides, several of which accompany one dish or another. The must-try side is the sweet and moist cornbread, served in an iron skillet with a topping of Vidalia onion marmalade and whipped butter infused with smoked foie gras. It's insanely good.
When dessert time rolls around, one would be forgiven for just ordering another round of cornbread, but there are other treats to consider, particularly considering that Mindy Segal, for whom Steuer worked at Hot Chocolate, helped conceive them. The sugar-dusted beignets are round, like oversized doughnut holes, but otherwise taste like they were hand-delivered from Cafe du Monde in New Orleans; a side ramekin of hot fudge topped by coffee foam is an ideal partner. There's also an imaginative pear tart with sorghum cream and a gingersnap crust, but the star is the pecan sundae, which stacks brown-sugar shortbread and crisp meringue with butter-pecan ice cream, drizzled with a caramel-bourbon sauce with a strong bourbon presence.
If there is a drawback to Carriage House at all it's that the large dining room, all hard surfaces and extra-high ceilings, can be dreadfully noisy, a circumstance that is unlikely to change as this place becomes even more popular. On the plus side, winterizing efforts are nearly completed for the restaurant's two entrances, a definite plus for those at near-the-door tables.
Despite the cacophony, service maintains good focus, pouncing on errant napkins and ready-to-clear plates and always handy with recommendations. My larger group ordered a shrimp dish, and our server quickly offered to augment the shrimp quotient to facilitate sharing. We were charged the difference, of course, but I appreciated the nimble thinking.
The beverage program is ambitious, offering traditional and reimagined cocktails (the Lionel Hutz, named for a character in "The Simpsons," is an agreeable bourbon-lemonade-sweet tea concoction that makes me yearn for summers on the porch), a slightly pricey but thoughtful wine list (the by-the-glass offerings, also available by the bottle, offer good value) and a beer list strong on local pours and seasonal drafts.
I can always be talked into a return trip to Charleston — my next bad meal there will be my first — but with Carriage House around, booking that next visit has lost a good deal of its urgency.
Watch Phil Vettel's reviews weekends on WGN-Ch. 9's "News at Nine" and on CLTV.
1700 W. Division St.; 773-384-9700; carriagehousechicago.com
Tribune rating: Three stars
Open: Dinner Tuesday-Sunday, brunch Saturday-Sunday (beginning Dec. 1)
Prices: Small plates $6-$15, suppers $26-$34
Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory
Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.