This summer in Gravy, the journal of the Southern Foodways Alliance, John Kessler, a former restaurant critic for the Atlanta Journal- Constitution, published a bemused and amusing essay about the Chicago restaurant community's current obsession with southern cliches and its penchant for clumsy cultural misappropriation.
Kessler, now a Chicago resident, wandered the city in his first winter looking for a taste of home, scratching his head at ostensibly southern dishes such as pimento-cheese cavatappi, Nashville hot wings, and North Carolina pulled pork po'boys.
In the end Kessler focused on Dixie, the then yet-to-open spot from Lillie's Q boss Charlie McKenna, in the snug Bucktown A-frame that once housed Takashi. McKenna and company have transformed the space into something like a Charleston piazza, with a white porch complete with rocking chairs, the interior walls festooned with southern-fried prop photos and gold-shellacked oyster shells. Kessler pressed McKenna and his designer on the propriety of the name and the restaurant's "antebellum" theme as perhaps only a transplanted southerner could, suggesting their connections to a shameful period in American history to the seemingly oblivious restaurateurs.
"I'm going to be taking a lot of the food and ingredients the slaves brought over and celebrating it in a better light," replied McKenna, himself a southerner.
Before McKenna opened his barbecue joint he was also a veteran of fine-dining restaurants such as Avenues and Tru, and at Dixie he seems to be celebrating the slaves' food through that lens, taking elements, or in some cases just the ingredients, of classic southern dishes and placing them in new, sometimes dissonant contexts—on small, shared plates.
One evening a special was offered that I was told was still in the developmental stages. Described as a "soba noodle ramen," it featured soft, chewy buckwheat noodles in a bath of country ham consomme, with charred onions and ribbons of Broadbent ham surrounding a cold, soft-cooked egg showered in togarashi powder. Never mind the conflation of two incompatible Japanese noodle dishes (was Takashi Yagihashi chained in the basement, making the soba?), the sodium level in the broth was just what you'd expect to be imparted by a piece of meat that lives the first part of its second life buried in salt.
Executing McKenna's peculiar vision of "evolutionary" southern food is chef de cuisine Tony Quartaro, late of Formento's, where he was evolving red-sauce Italian with things like sweet potato cannoli, lardo-wrapped tuna with garlic foam, and deconstructed chicken Vesuvio. So it sort of makes sense that McKenna would tap him to execute something like Wagyu steak tartare, lent fermented funk from house-made Carolina red pea miso and an extraordinarily crunchy texture from fried oysters battered in crushed saltines—an excellent dish but for the tomato water poured atop it at the table, which dilutes its deep flavors and only serves to break the dish up into clumps of wet, raw meat. A deviled crab salad, served on the half shell overturned into a pool of collard stem juice, suffers a similar if less saturated fate, absorbing the liquid with the help of more crumbled crackers. This place likes the dramatic pour-over.
The soba noodles aren't an anomaly. There seems to be a penchant for Asian-southern inbreeding at Dixie. Tender slabs of charred Korean short ribs and sweet johnnycakes sandwich remoulade and a piquant collard kimchi, garnished with sweet pickled onion and benne seeds (what dewy-eyed southerners call sesame). It's a busy dish that could stand to lose at least one ingredient (the remoulade). Roasted eggplant topped with uni and "benne" crackers in crab-infused cream comes off like a sweet, sesame-spiked stir-fry. Quartaro's even dabbling in the cuisine of the Middle East, pairing roasted and pickled carrots with a gob of boiled-peanut hummus showered with chicory-coffee crumble—one of the more delicious experiments that calls only for some sort of delivery vehicle other than fork or spoon. And what would southern fusion be without the classic Country Captain, a dish with Indian roots: chicken in tomato sauce with but a whisper of curry, a base of Carolina Gold rice, with almonds and okra. It's probably the most orthodox thing on the menu.
But a presentation like that underscores the fact that for all the gumption—and genuine tastiness—of many of these highly composed dishes, the majority aren't easily shareable. A Thai snapper crudo (when is crudo ever shareable?) features three rosettes of fresh fish overpowered by watermelon granite and lemon-poppyseed dressing. Large head-on prawns form a pyramid over rice grits considerably brightened by cilantro and green chile salsa. A thin sheet of corn custard lies at the bottom of a deep bowl whose deposits of andouille, crawfish, and crispy potato are meant to summon memories of ordinary crayfish boils.
If you aren't picking this up already, Dixie at present is a mixed bag. Dishes of powerful deliciousness share menu space with true head-scratchers, such as a plate of hard-fried sweetbreads done "Nashville hot style" wallowing in a thick, mucilaginous sauce meant to evoke the white bread hot chicken is normally served on. Here it approaches something like Elmer's glue.
But then your spirits can be lifted by a simple tomato pie with goat cheese, tomato jam, and the season's last heirloom jewels. Or by the biscuits, made from laminated puff pastry, which are surprisingly crusty and tender, calling only for some real butter in lieu of the liquefied pepper jelly. Perhaps the most stunning dish on the menu is one that bodes well for the future of Dixie: a plate of a half-dozen tender cornmeal dumplings immersed in a wonderfully acidic creamed lima bean sauce festooned with sauteed chanterelle mushrooms, all drizzled tableside (yet again) with mushroom jus.
If McKenna's evolutionary vision isn't appealing, there's a short menu of more conventional snacks in the small bar in the rear of the restaurant. 1952 ½ Liquorette offers pimento cheese, cheese straws, hush puppies, and a po'boy among a list of antique bourbons and cocktails such as a medicinal julep spiked with both fernet and amaro, a pleasantly astringent gin and tonic, and a whiskey sour with absinthe.
With the aggressively seasonal approach the kitchen is taking, the offerings will change with some frequency. So here's hoping the significant missteps on Dixie's menu of typical Chicago-style southern deviance will be relegated to the parts of the antebellum period many folks seem to forget. v