Seersucker in Brooklyn:
Almost A Great Southern Restaurant
Picture for a moment a typical Brooklyn restaurant. The design is sparse and wood-heavy. If any color graces the walls, it is in either a barely-present muted tone or it is bright, loud, and obvious. A bar usually dominates the space, and the shelves behind the bartenders are filled with the most unusual spirits obtainable. Decor is almost chicly nonexistent; tables are bare and the walls are adorned with pickles, sauces, and jellies canned by the kitchen staff. Maybe there’s an antique or two nestled in the corner space.
The food is described as “ingredient-driven,” “seasonal,” or “farm-to-table,” and the limited menu changes every time you open the restaurant’s well-designed website. Perhaps they source produce from the nearby farmers’ market, or maybe one of the chef’s friends grows the food on his/her rooftop. Meat and eggs are exclusively free-range and organic. Meals are almost always above-average, since hyper-fresh food is pretty hard to screw up. You’ll feel good about yourself just stepping in the door.
Hip restaurateurs must think it’s gotta be pretty easy to take this Brooklyn restaurant template and insert a pan-Southern theme. Just add a little country ham and collards to your farmers’ market finds, and you’ve got yourself a fine little taste of Dixie, right?
Recently, I spent a leisurely Sunday morning at Seersucker in Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn. The restaurant bills itself as a “neighborhood spot inspired by the food and hospitality of the South.” Most of its produce is indeed sourced from a farmers’ market directly across the street (the menu even indicates provenance). Its chef/owner, Robert Newton, has a top-notch pedigree: he was raised in Mountain Home, Arkansas, and later worked at some of Manhattan’s most demanding kitchens. The restaurant space itself is dominated on one side by a large bar; on the other, a wall of pickles. While to me the name screams Easter-egg hunts and pastel trousers, its appearance as an element of stark design on the door and menus indicates that Seersucker takes itself more seriously than that.
The brunch menu covers just about everything needed to baby a hangover: a few different takes on the Bloody Mary, over-easy eggs, fried chicken, and a version of huevos rancheros. “Southern inspiration” is evident in the copious use of country ham, bacon, collards, and biscuits throughout the menu, but the only straight-up Southern foods I found listed were (pimento) cheese grits, fried chicken, and a couple of po-boys (catfish and oyster). My friends and I ignored the omission of redeye gravy, ordered a round of sweet tea, and commenced to stuff ourselves.
Thinking I’d get to eat an upscale interpretation of grits, eggs, and bacon, I ordered a fried-egg dish with hominy, collards, bacon, and country ham.
Instead of the expected breakfast plate, I dug into a strange skillet dish overflowing with potlikker and wanting for salt despite the double-dose of bacon and country ham. Now, I certainly have no qualms about being served anything containing pork and greens in a cast-iron skillet, but this dish suffered in both concept and execution. The skillet was used solely as a serving vessel; had the kitchen fried the hominy in the skillet before adding the remaining components, the dish would have had much greater depth. Or perhaps a base of grits instead of hominy could have been used to contain the juice and develop a cornbread-like crust to be discovered as the meal was eaten. Alas, the cast iron was just for show.
Also disappointing were the pimento-cheese grits. When reading the dish on the menu, I was struck by the genius of the idea: Pimento cheese adds not only sharp cheddar flavor and a touch of spice but also velvety creaminess from the inclusion of mayonnaise and/or cream cheese. It could have been a great dish. Unfortunately, the kitchen was heavy-handed with the cheese and the corn flavor was completely lost. Further, once the grits were topped with both a poached egg and fried onions and served with bacon, they became an obstacle only conquerable by the largest and strongest of stomachs.
Next up: the “Southern Breakfast” plate of eggs, biscuits, gravy, and collards. My friend, a fellow Southerner and indisputable biscuit expert, ordered the plate (hold the sausage gravy) mostly as an excuse to try the biscuits. The protein and vegetables were just a bonus. As hoped, the biscuits were the highlight of the plate, and I for one was glad that their flaky layers weren’t flattened by thick sausage gravy. Let’s get a close-up on those baked beauties:
Seersucker’s biscuits land squarely in the tall-and-flaky camp. Laminated, rolled, and cut into squares, they are almost as tall as they are wide. The biscuits are rich, but not oozing with butter, and have a distinct tang from both buttermilk and baking soda. They are the kind of biscuits suitable for eating at any time of day, tasting equally wonderful spread with butter and strawberry jam as they do layered with country ham and mustard.
The eggs, sourced from across the street, were vibrant in color, but not particularly exciting. Collards were served in a cute little cast iron thingamajig, laced with country ham and vinegar and braised just until tender. While the greens were certainly well prepared and enjoyable to eat, they fell into the same trap as my skillet egg dish and the overly cheesy grits. We couldn’t help but think of all of these dishes like neon signs flashing loud and bright: SOUTHERN FOOD! RIGHT HERE. Without them, the chef at Seersucker seems to suggest, you could be eating at any farm-to-table restaurant.
So do these neon signs even make a place like Seersucker a Southern restaurant? The use of Southern ingredients and equipment are certainly good signs.
But even if I had walked into Seersucker and just eaten fried chicken and biscuits, not even glancing at the rest of the menu, I never would have forgotten that I was eating in Brooklyn. No one called me honey. No one used the word “y’all.” No one asked me how my morning was going. There exists a vibe in restaurants in the South, from a dirty Waffle House to an upscale place like Husk or Bacchanalia, that can be found nowhere else in the country. These restaurants offer coziness. Their goal is not to be trendy or attract long brunch lines. Instead there seems always to be a desire to make the dining experience like your family’s Sunday supper at home should be. There is richness not just in the food, but also in the relationship between the kitchen, the dining-room staff, and the many visitors wandering through each night. In these restaurants, you eat until your belly can hold no more, laugh with friends, drink too much iced tea, and get in long conversations with the waitress (not “server”—ugh) about the best way to make banana pudding.
Perhaps Seersucker can become a great restaurant. It is crammed with promise. Maybe all they need to do is loosen up a bit and shed a few layers of Brooklyn-ness. After all, they do make a mean, mean biscuit—and you can’t fake that.