GOLD STANDARD: Kevin Sbraga's Carolina Gold studded with Sea Island red peas and braised oxtail at The Fat Ham.
A vintage postcard sits above the toilet in the restroom at Kevin Sbraga’s new Southern restaurant on the fringe of University City, the Fat Ham. ASHEVILLE, it says in time-crackled block letters. There’s a note scrawled on the other side, detailing the sender’s affection for the fresh mountain air — and dismay at a traveling companion’s dental troubles — in proper English prose that reeks of Rockefellers and crumpets. The note concludes in typical postcard fashion, “Wish you were here.”
I sure did. Asheville, Nashville. Charleston or Memphis. Greensboro, Greenville and everywhere in betweens-ville. The cities of the South have this possessive magic — the people, the food. Visit and be dared not to fall in love. Sbraga is trying to conjure that Southern magic here, on a concrete isthmus bridging Center and University cities that’s about as hospitable as the Gaza Strip. It’s a tough order, and not just because of the location.
Southern food is fiercely proprietary, and Sbraga’s ties to the cuisine seem tenuous when he says, “I cooked down South for four years,” and most of that time was in Naples, Fla. (The other time was in Atlanta, legit.) His grandmother is from Birmingham, he visits the region frequently — but he’s still a Yankee, and to Southerners, a Yankee cooking hot chicken and potlikker would be met with the same suspicion as a Southerner cooking cheesesteaks.
Sitting at the bar, sipping from the masterful brown-liquor library amassed by GM Ben Fileccia, I wondered whether the decision to open the Fat Ham was motivated more by emotion or business. The name, with its pandering to tired, bacon-everything clichés, seems to suggest the latter. And if that’s the case, that’s OK. But I would say, embrace the trend-chasing instead of masking it behind suspect connections.
“It’s flattering that non-Southerners want to cook Southern food,” says Southern Living deputy editor Jennifer Cole, who hosted Sbraga & Co. at her Birmingham home for “Bourbon on the Porch” (an industry tradition in the South) during their tour of the region. “But that food has to be really good.”
And mostly, it is. When dishes started arriving, clean execution and confident flavors quickly trumped geographic culinary authority. The sweetest lobster tail got country-fried (and countrified) in a buttermilk batter that cooked up crunchy and thick. The panko casing on wheels of juicy green tomato was different — light, crisp and laced with Locatelli Romano. Boiled peanuts replaced tahini in a smart hummus that was delicious (albeit fridge-direct frosty) and paired with superior house-baked rye-and-wheat bread.
The mustard greens starter is the antidote to kale salad ennui: eye-catching emerald leaves cut into frilly ribbons that were full of spice and texture; a fistful of peanuts, sesame seeds and chopped scallions; a warm mustard vinaigrette whose temperature brings a cozy, comforting quality to the dish without wilting the greens. Its presence on the menu is so unassuming you might miss it. Do not.
Sbraga pays proper respect to grain godfather Anson Mills, which he visited in Columbia, S.C., during his Southern field trip. The mill supplies its distinguished Carolina Gold rice, the heirloom parent of modern long-grain, and the silky grits that Sbraga cooks up with smoked-pork and shrimp stocks, butter and cream. The former meets straps of succulent braised oxtail, soffrito and tender Sea Island red peas (also Anson Mills); the latter, sweet shrimp seared on the plancha and a fun, salty “ham condiment” of diced ham, scallions, peanuts and garlic.
In the mac’n’cheese, the hollows of the durum-wheat pasta shells — made at Sbraga and delivered to Ham — were like cups collecting from a well of fluid cheddar, smoked Gouda and béchamel with house-made barbecue chips and panko scattered over top for texture.
Hot chicken, the Nashville specialty, brought a leg and thigh buttermilk-marinated, dredged in seasoned flour, deep-fried and tossed with salt, lard and cayenne pepper. The portion was puny, and the house-baked white bread it’s perched upon was as tough as a flank steak sliced the wrong way, but the bird shone with juiciness beneath the thick, crusty nut-brown exterior. Now if only he can find a way to make the fiery jacket stay on the chicken.
Desserts are by Marqessa Gesualdi, a pastry star in the making if her lemon bar — a dream of luminous jelled lemon curd, buttery shortbread, poppy-seed-speckled crème fraîche and torched meringue — was any indication. It was the thing the bartender passed across the crowded counter before my check, which was as startlingly reasonable as the service was excellent. The most expensive thing on the menu is only $16.
If it hadn’t been so cold, I might have ordered another few fingers of limited-edition Dad’s Hat port-barrel-finished rye and repaired to a rocking chair on the cozy front “porch” that welcomes you off the street — a nod to Jennifer Cole’s house. Only here the view is of whizzing traffic and sunken rail yards instead of stately oaks. If the bourbon tastes extra smoky, blame Amtrak.
The Fat Ham | 3131 Walnut St., 215-735-1914, sbragadining.com/fatham. Mon.-Thu., 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5 p.m.-11 p.m.; $5-$16.
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