Since its opening, The Southern has carved out a place as one of the city’s best spots for traditional Southern cooking (hence the name). As a born-and-bred Southerner myself, it has been one of my favorite places when I crave some good ol’ comfort food like my mother used to cook.
With a recent change in chef, I was a little concerned that the new menu might not live up to the old. No fear! If you’re a return visitor you will find some of your favorites along with some intriguing new takes on the traditional. If you’re a first-time visitor to The Southern then you will be delighted and most likely become a regular.
Eric Michael, new executive chef at The Southern, began his tenure at The Southern working with their mac and cheese truck. Eric then took his talents to the kitchen working as a line cook and sous chef before being promoted to executive chef. His passion for using local and seasonal ingredients inspire his creativity in the kitchen. By using the freshest meats and produce, his style of cooking shows that southern food can be light and enjoyable while incorporating worldly influences.
I was recently invited to meet the Chef Eric Michael and try several of the newer items he has added to the menu. From the cocktails to the dessert, there was not a false note and everything I tried was not only excellent but also inventive and intriguing.
First, let’s talk about the tasty cocktails. I tried three on my visit:
- Maple Bacon Manhattan (house-infused bacon bourbon, maple syrup, sweet vermouth, North Country smoked bacon) – How can you go wrong with those ingredients? I generally don’t love sweet cocktails, but this one was excellent. The drink comes with a slice of bacon in it, so feel free to stir the cocktail with the bacon and savor the wonderful layers of flavor.
- Haywood (Oola barrel-aged gin, lemon juice, Seghesio Arneis, muddle cucumber, black pepper, Old Fashioned bitters) – I am generally not a gin drinker, but this was a great cocktail. It was light, refreshing, well-balanced, and layered with intriguing flavors. Perfect for patio sipping on a warm day.
- White Manhattan (Dickel white whisky, Luxardo Maraschino, Art of Sage, fennel bitters, orange flower water) – This was my favorite and I actually stopped back by The Southern a couple of days later just to have one more. The combination of sage, fennel, and cherry with a hint of orange gave this cocktail one of the most interesting and pleasurable flavor profiles I have had in a while. I love a cocktail that is a little boozy and more savory and this one was delightful.
But I know you want to hear about the food, right? On my visit I was lucky enough to sample the following:
- Macaroni & Cheese (elbow noodles, aged cheddar Mornay, biscuit breadcrumbs) – Chef Eric got his start at The Southern on their Mac & Cheese truck, so he has some special skill in this area. When it comes to the table, it looks like standard Mac & Cheese. What elevates this one is the combination of super sharp Mornay sauce and the brilliant addition of the biscuit breadcrumbs. They take leftover biscuits, refrigerate them, then pulse them in a food processor and toast them. When added to the Mac & Cheese they add a little savory flavor but most importantly a really satisfying crunch. Be warned, you won’t want to stop eating this!
- Fried Green Tomatoes (white cornmeal battered tomatoes, piquillo aioli, spiced watermelon, sheep’s milk feta, basil) – A staple on any menu from the South, this can be a dull appetizer when not handled well. In Chef Eric’s new take on this standard item, however, there’s nothing dull. The combination of flavors with the lightly-battered tomatoes gives this an edge. The baby basil is grown on the rooftop of the restaurant and picked when very young so it retains a sweetness without the bitterness that larger basil leaves can have. Add that to the creamy, saltiness of the feta and a little kick of sweetness and heat from the watermelon and aioli and you have one excellent flavor combination.
- Grilled Peach Salad (baby kale, arugula, fennel, radish, pickled onion, sheep’s milk feta, spiced pecan, bourbon-honey balsamic) – I was surprised to say to myself, after sampling all of the amazing dishes, that this was my favorite of the night. If you happen to get there while watermelon radishes are in season you will find that this is not only one of the tastiest light salads you will ever eat, but also one of the most gorgeous. Grilling the slightly underripe peaches concentrates the flavor but never overwhelms. Like so many of Chef Eric’s offerings, this one has layers without ever feeling heavy or dense.
- Risotto (wild mushroom, sweet corn, poblano, black garlic, confit cherry tomato, poached egg, pecorino Romano) – For anyone vegetarian and/or interested in lighter non-Southern cuisine this is a perfect option. Black garlic is sweet and wonderful with the sweet corn and mushrooms. The poached egg is a perfect addition and the Romano adds just a little hint of salt and umami to round out the complex flavor layers.
- Daily Catch (pan-seared fresh fish, peach-collard succotash, Crystal beurre blanc, shoulder bacon, crispy potato) – This is another option for lighter, non-Southern fare. The catch of the day is lightly seared and served atop a wonderfully fresh and crunchy succotash. The mild heat of the sauce is just enough to work without overpowering anything. One of my favorite parts of this dish, however, was the texture. The crispy potatoes give a great crunch to balance out the texture of the fish. I love food that not only tastes good, but also looks good and has great texture. This was all of the above.
- Fried Chicken (served with buttermilk biscuit and sausage gravy) – Last but not least! What Southern restaurant is complete without fried chicken on the menu? Believe me, you will not be disappointed. The chicken is brined in a combination of chicken broth and buttermilk so when it’s fried it retains a wonderful moistness and a superb texture. Yum!
The Southern Chicago is located in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood at 1840 W North Ave. The restaurant is open Monday through Friday from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. For more information about The Southern, please call (312) 477-7674 or visit www.TheSouthernChicago.com or the restaurant’s Facebook or Twitter pages.