When you close your eyes and picture a tasting menu, what do you see?
A stately, heavily-curtained dining room? Or perhaps one with soaring, lofted ceilings? A choreographed parade of delicate dishes that look like works of art, brought to you individually by waistcoated waiters and each containing at least one hard-to-recognize ingredient? But—and this may be even more crucial—how do you feel as this multi-course dance plays out? Overwhelmed? Out of your element? Thrilled? Confused? Stuffed? All of the above?
If you take those assumptions and flip them—except for the stuffed part, naturally—you may have found yourself on the receiving end of Blue Smoke ‘s Southern Table dinner, Danny Meyer’s tasting menu of home-style Southern cuisine. The down-home spot has two New York City locations (one in the Flatiron and one in Battery Park), and the kitchen is headed up by Executive Chef Jean-Paul Bourgeois, a veteran of Meyer’s warm-and-welcoming hospitality style who made his way up the ranks at Maialino and Gramercy Terrace before landing at Blue Smoke.
Chef Jean-Paul Bourgeois brings Louisiana to New York City. Photo by Mackenzie Anne Smith
It’s almost surprising it took him so long to find his way back to Southern cooking; Chef Bourgeois seems predestined for it. As a Louisiana native who grew up cooking with his parents in the swamps of Thibodeau (his father was a fan favorite at regional parish cook-offs), he spent his childhood braising rabbit meat for sauce piquant and washing rice and cutting sausage for jambalaya. I guess it’s like they say—Like they say—sometimes you have to leave home in order to find it.
“Food found it’s way to me by birthright. I think naturally, organically, you are a foodie when you’re born in Louisiana,” he says. “When you’re surrounded by great cooks and great food throughout your childhood, youth, and young adult life, you just love food. You know, you eat breakfast and you’re like ‘alright, that was cool, what are we having for lunch and who are we eating with?’ It’s very communal in that way, it’s very magnetic. But it’s just the cultural norm.”
You could hardly pick a better man to feed you the South in New York than Chef Bourgeois, who wears a pelican (the Louisiana State bird) and a cross on a chain around his neck and eats crawfish on his night off. A few weeks after we met, I found him on the patio of East Village Louisiana-inspired spot Duck’s Eatery, peeling mud bugs with a friend.
“I always like to see how other people are [putting their spin on] the crawfish boil,” he said. Bourgeois is one of those people who you could imagine constantly offering people an invitation to crash on his couch or raid his pantry—which is sort of what partaking in his $55 “eating menu” feels like.
The wood-lined walls at Blue Smoke. Photo by Mackenzie Anne Smith
“A lot of different things started coming up [at Blue Smoke] about tasting menus and value and what’s too long to sit at a table,” he tells me outside the restaurant’s Battery Park location, surrounded by the towering office buildings of some of New York’s most prestigious white-collar firms, from Goldman Sachs to AMEX. “I [thought] we just hadn’t tapped into that feeling of home—you know, those Sunday dinners at grandma’s house—and that’s really what we want to recreate. We didn’t want to be like ‘here’s your two bites of fois and toast and caviar.'”
I was advised (cautioned?) to bring a group with me to try the Southern Table experience, because what fun is eating a heaping, homestyle meal in the Flatiron by yourself? When my photographer and I sidled up at the bar early, looking for a pre-photoshoot snack to meet over, we were discouraged from eating anything in advance of our meal.
“It’s for the best,” the manager assured me. “There’s going to be a lot of food.”
This was starting to feel like the stereotypical tasting menus I often fear: more like a dangerous mountain to be scaled than a dinner to be enjoyed. I think I may be a rare breed of food editor in this respect, but tasting menus don’t excite me; actually, they terrify me. Few things make me more nauseous than being expected to eat until I can’t breathe, lest I offend someone, or worse, appear weak . But I am often hungry, and I was at the bar of Blue Smoke, so we threw caution to the wind and snacked on pimento cheese and pickles. While we waited for our posse to show up, Chef Bourgeois talked some more smack about his lineup of dishes.
Starting slow and steady with blackberry-topped oysters. Photo by Mackenzie Anne Smith
“It’s gonna squash a tasting menu for $65, for $100. It just will. It’s that much more delicious, that much more hospitable,” he says. “It’s definitely meant to bring people around a table. You’re gonna laugh, you’re gonna love, you’re gonna drink, you’re gonna party, and you don’t need to wear a coat and tie to eat it.”
When the other four people in our party showed up, I felt slightly relieved. At least I had back-up. We started off with oysters topped with a blackberry mignonette, a refreshing amuse-bouche without the superfluous heavy hand that sometimes accompanies experimental textures or ingredients.
A stump full of snacks. Photo by Mackenzie Anne Smith
Next, we were bombarded with an excessive spread of snacks—arranged on a foot-wide wood stump that looked like it’d just been sawed—everything from crawfish fritters to pimento cheese and salmon roe, cornbread madeleines to a gorgeous fan of pickled vegetables and dip “soil” made from the burnt ends of the barbecue. The whole menu is peppered with straight-from-the-south ingredients: North Carolinian Sunburst trout roe served alongside the pimento cheese, White Lily Flour used to make the tender biscuits, cane syrups from Louisiana, and salt from West Virginia. The crawfish is from Louisiana and New Mexico; the ham is Benton’s from Tennessee.
There were Alabama white sauce wings, green bean casserole that would be at home at any Thanksgiving, country ham and fresh bread. There were slushy dark-and-stormys on special, and Blue Smoke label ale brewed in collaboration with Brooklyn Brewery, Sazeracs and house-smoked Boulevardiers. We were doing well, I thought as I reached for another slice of Benton’s ham. And then the bone-in bison steak showed up.
Benton’s ham, Alabama white wings, and green bean casserole—all worth grabbing for. Photo by Mackenzie Anne Smith
It was 70-something ounces, Chef Bourgeois said with a hint of not-so-veiled devilishness. It was surrounded by charred broccoli rabe smothered in more Alabama white sauce, and accompanied by all the fixings—from mac and cheese and tangy, German-style potato salad to honey-basted carrots and roasted mushrooms and collard greens. To gild the lily, the whole spread was accompanied by a giant mound of fluffy, still-warm biscuits.
Bone-in bison, biscuits, and all the sides. Photo by Mackenzie Anne Smith
Arms and hands were everywhere, passing, reaching over each other, stuffing our faces. This wasn’t a tasting menu; this kind of felt like dinner at my house, jostling my brothers for seconds—only instead of family, it was my coworkers and USHG staff. I think I saw tears welling up in my Texan photographer and New Orleanian marketing manager’s eyes as dessert emerged—rice pudding creme brulee, and a pile of beignets obliterated by powdered sugar, with a chicory coffee dipping sauce.
We did, in fact, leave stuffed, if not a little physically uncomfortable, and weighed down with gift bags full of jerky and boiled peanuts and glass bottles of Southern soda like Blenheim’s Ginger Ale.
A very New Orleans finish: powdered sugar-dusted beignets. Photo by Mackenzie Anne Smith
In today’s food landscape, every so often, we get to experience the triumph of cuisines and chefs that have long been diminished, pigeonholed, or ignored finally having their comeuppance. Southern food might be one of the greatest revival stories we have right now. It’s a tale of a true original, America’s heartbeat of a cuisine (if there even is such thing) finally getting the respect and due diligence it deserves after being put in a box by so many, for so long. Chef Bourgeois has managed to combine cuisines from all across the South, evoking the feeling of an entire region, while also giving each ingredient and dish it’s place in the proverbial sun. I don’t think, in a dining city as harsh and cutting and, well, un-Southern as New York, that there are many more delicious ways to eat way too many courses—or a finer welcoming home.
Craving more news about epic Southern tasting menus? Or, you know, an actual Southern tasting menu? We are too, which is why we’re joining forces with Curator Sean Brock to bring the South to Taste Talks Brooklyn this September. Tickets on sale now —get yours while they’re hot.