I’m definitely in a southern state of mind this week. In Chicago, finding some of those familiar flavors, such as pimento cheese, fried chicken livers or shrimp & grits, isn’t as easy as, say, a great som tum. I’m a fan of the Carriage House, where Mark Steuer recreates the familiar flavors from his native South Carolina on Division Street – but Joel Nickson has been carrying the torch for his beloved southern fare for many years, despite the fact he still deals with winter. Rooted in memories of eating Low Country food from the Carolinas, Nickson – who has to be one of the most mellow chefs I’ve ever met – gets downright animated when asked about his favorite ingredients from his childhood.
At his restaurant, Wishbone, I’ve always been a fan of the Hoppin’ John (black eyed peas) and Hoppin’ Jack (black beans) dishes, filled to overflowing with scallions and rice; I’ve even plowed through a heaping bowl of shrimp & grits without even realizing the smoky bacon embedded within the soft pools of grits. But it’s brunch that Nickson and his staff excel at, ramping up to feed hungry throngs nearly every morning (even though Harpo Studios across the street has lost most of its staff). One of my favorites in the a.m. has always been the crawfish cakes. They also offer bean cakes and salmon cakes, but it’s the crawdads I adore, and paired with a grainy, corny muffin and some collards, as well as crunchy/creamy coleslaw, it’s a southern reconstruction feast that even a Yankee can appreciate.