NEW YORK – A night after a disappointing dinner at a carefully curated, high-concept restaurant, I walked into another carefully curated, high-concept restaurant. Other than their positions on the island of Manhattan – one in the West Village, one on the Upper West Side – Fatty ’Cue and Jacob’s Pickles seemed similar at first glance. Each took comfort-food staples and attempted to elevate them. Each was decorated to evoke a specific feeling. Fatty ’Cue had all its wood; sturdy décor for sturdy meat dishes. Jacob’s Pickles had its bottles lined up by the hundreds behind the bar — as if an interior designer from Manhattan had spent a week or a month in the Mississippi Delta and couldn’t shake the memory.
After a few minutes, it became obvious the places had nothing in common.
Where Fatty ’Cue offered a snobby, overpriced take on smoked meats, Jacob’s Pickles sold a meal of biscuits and grits that – while constructed from top-quality ingredients – didn’t put on airs. From the courteous, attentive service to the artisan pickles that give the place its name, Jacob’s Pickles was utterly devoid of pretension despite an underlying sophistication. In that way, Jacob’s Pickles was like a proper Southern belle. She doesn’t have to tell you she’s classy. You know it by the smile on her face and the swish of her sundress.
Of course, I had to start with pickles. My waiter recommended the Hot Sours, and he didn’t steer me wrong. They kicked in with an urgent heat that seemed to cool as the bite progressed. They cleansed the palate for the carbohydrate storm to come.
I ordered the Mushroom Gravy Smothered Chicken Biscuit Sandwich, which is a sandwich in the same way a Woody Allen at the Carnegie Deli is a sandwich. The bread seems comically small compared to the mound of delights inside the open face. My dish had perfectly fried chicken resting under a healthy dollop of a savory brown gravy. While overwhelmed by its stuffing, the biscuit had enough heft to soak in the gravy without turning to mush. Beside the biscuit creation sat a small stainless steel bowl of cheese grits that would have passed muster in Alabama, Georgia or the Carolinas.
Jacob’s Pickles could have charged more than $20 for this dish. Given the neighborhood and the hipness of the place, people would have happily paid it. Instead, it cost $14. The same dish might go for $8 in the states that inspired it, but in New York, this qualifies as a bargain. Jacob’s Pickles also could have offered some sort of snooty interpretation and a tiny portion and still fetched the same price, but the proprietors understood that because they serve comfort food, it makes sense to make their customers comfortable.
What a novel concept.