The Redhead has been playing hard to get for some time now. Though she lives right near by me, every time I stopped by for dinner, she was booked, with waits of an hour or more. Ever since Bruni gave her a star – an honor that many similarly casual spots don’t earn – the Redhead’s dance card has been full.
The only answer is to persevere, because this is one small, inexpensive, urban-rustic place that merits the hype. Unlike so many other places that are carefully set-designed to look like a diamond in a rough but are really just rough, the Redhead has real polish in the food and service.
One reason the waits are so long – try going at 6:30, 10:30 or else not arriving hungry – is that there’s no rush here. Even when the bar was packed with a starving mob, service was courteous and patient on a recent night just before New Year’s.
It’s hard to pinpoint the cuisine: On one hand it’s Southern, but the kitchen also puts out fresh and flavorful seasonal dishes like this roasted eggplant flatbread with bell pepper relish and swiss chard ($9).
Going back down past the Mason Dixon line are these “Bacon Peanut Brittles” ($5), because, as the menu explains, “everything’s better with bacon.” The brittle arrives as loose, candy-coated peanuts that hit the perfect salty-sweet balance, with a few stray strips of crunchy bacon buried within. The flavor of bacon is pervasive, however. Does chef-owner Meg Grace actually fry the bacon in the hot liquid sugar before coating the peanuts? Over the top, but entirely possible.
The Redhead is known for her buttermilk fried chicken ($17), a contender for some of the best fried chicken in the city. Though this is a true deep fry crust with real crunch to it – and a hint of spicy cayenne? – the chicken still tastes light and moist, elevated by crispiness rather than weighed down by oil.
The chicken only disappoints in one way, which is that it doesn’t showcase the level of technique that Grace is capable of, unlike the sublime “Low Country Shrimp” ($18) with Anson Mills antebellum grits and andouille sausage, pictured at top. The description may not sound like haute cuisine, but take one bite and you’ll be greeted by a riot of flavors: the intense smoky spiciness of andouille, the slight char of the sweet shrimp, and the perfectly executed, slightly lumpy texture of real Southern grits. The Redhead’s mark of Southern authenticity is that they get the grits right. So many northern chefs can’t leave well enough alone and put all manner of cheese and cream in there as if it were polenta. The focus should be on the corn, the texture a lumpy-silky cross between hardscrabble and luxurious. And I’m not sure where they get their andouille, but it’s the sort of meat that’ll stink up your pot real good, in the best kind of way.
Marie Fromage and I have already been back to re-sample this insane hot chocolate “car bomb” ($7) laced with Guinness and Jameson and topped with Bailey’s marshmallows. It’s the perfect late-afternoon winter treat.
Much care is put into the little details, like delicious butter laced with sea salt, honey, and lemon zest that comes with the sweetish bread, and a cookie as a party favor on your way out. Still, there are reminders that this is just a neighborhood place, and not a slick global chef endeavor: One night Marie Fromage and I stopped by again, only to find a chalkboard sign out front: “No Food Tonight.” At least they had that hot chocolate car bomb, and on TV, chef Grace being interviewed by channel 13. The crowd at the bar cheered then fell silent to listen. “Just good food,” Grace said on screen, against the exposed brick wall of the restaurant, her red hair tied back in a ponytail. “No cartwheels.”
There may not be the acrobatics you associate with those slick places, but the Redhead will still have you hooked.
349 East 13th Street, between First and Second Avenues
New York, NY