Fatbird Southern Kitchen & Bar

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Manhattan’s Meatpacking District is a well-known hub of fine dining activity. The area is home to all manner of cuisine, including modern Chinese, modern Italian, modern Japanese, modern Spanish tapas, even modern takes on traditional American dishes. And they’re all good. But what if you want something a little less modern? What if you’re looking for some down-home country cooking?

Fatbird Southern Kitchen and Bar is the place to go!

Fatbird is the creation of Chef Cat Cora, the first female Iron Chef on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America. She’s an internationally known restauranteur, author, television personality, and philanthropist. With more than 18 restaurants to her name, she’s also the first woman inducted into the American Academy of Chefs Culinary Hall of Fame. Born in Jackson, Mississippi, you’d expect her to know Southern cuisine, and this venue proves that she does, indeed!

When asked if I’d be interested in reviewing Chef Cora’s new restaurant, I jumped at the chance. I had heard of her, of course, but had never tried her food, so my husband and I headed down to the corner of 14th Street and 9th Avenue, where Fatbird is located.

When we arrived, we were greeted by a friendly, adorable hostess, who took us to our table. Looking around, the place had a studied, but effective rustic look - heavy, weathered-looking wooden beams across the ceiling, bare Edison bulbs hanging over the bar, industrial-style vintage barstools, aluminum lamps on extending scissor arms above the booths, and a mural of a blues guitarist resembling a young John Lee Hooker, on what looked like raw knotty pine boards.

The list of Specialty Drinks was extensive, and as it was a warm night, it seemed a good idea to start with two of their watermelon based cocktails; Vincent chose the Honky Tonk Hippie Juice - watermelon vodka, triple sec, coconut rum, strawberry pink lemonade and fresh muddled strawberries. The citrus bite from the lemonade was nice, but I still found it a bit too sweet for my palate. I went with Cat’s Drunken Watermelon Cooler - watermelon vodka, puréed watermelon, and watermelon syrup, with a touch of lemonade. Smoother than the first one, it was like a summer picnic in a glass.

From appetizers to dessert, we shared everything else ordered that night. We began with two of the Fatbird Famous “FAT” Biscuits. I’m not sure I can do them justice with words alone! Huge, flaky, pillowy, a bit crumbly, with a mildly salty undertone, they were utterly delicious. Practically a meal in themselves, they’re served with various butters, honeys, and jams - we tried the Honey Butter, with a subtle sweetness which played against the biscuit’s saltiness, Apple Bourbon Jam, reminiscent of great applesauce, although I didn’t really taste the bourbon, the Pecan Brown Sugar Butter, which was sweet, nutty and almost cookie-like (Yum!) and a Strawberry Jam that had me imagining Chef Cora herself, in the kitchen, watching over a steaming kettle! Next came the Mac & Cheese, made with mild white cheddar and baked into waffles. A unique preparation, the waffles were tasty and crispy, with tiny macaroni visible throughout, and set off beautifully by the sweet maple syrup that accompanied. The Crab Hushpuppies were hearty little balls of cornbread with an almost liquid center of sweet crab and jalapeño ham, which gave them a pleasantly spicy finish. Our favorite was the Crispy Pork Belly - addictive, meaty little chunks of belly, in a buttermilk herb dressing. Salty, a bit sweet, with the buttermilk’s tartness, just the right amount of fattiness, and a hint of acidity from a bed of kale slaw, the dish was beautifully balanced and irresistible!

For our main courses, we chose the signature Famous Fatbird Fried Chicken. Possibly the best fried chicken I’ve tried, this bird was tender and juicy, with a crispy, flavorful buttermilk batter. Pre-brined for 12 hours, then soaked in buttermilk for another 12 hours, it was prepared first in a pressure cooker, to lock in the juices, then finished in the deep frier, to ensure crispiness. Did I mention it was juicy? Yeah, one bite and the juices were running down my chin. A bit messy, but SO good! We also sampled the Spicy Shrimp & Grits - perfectly cooked shrimp, sautéed in a fiery red sauce, sitting atop a bowl of creamy cheddar grits, studded with meaty, smoky chunks of applewood bacon and bourbon-glazed mushrooms. Now, I’m not sure why I ordered this, as neither Vincent nor I like grits, but it’s a southern staple and I was curious to see how Chef Cora handled the dish. Well, she made grits converts out of both of us! We were already pretty stuffed, yet we couldn’t stop grabbing spoonfuls of this fabulous dish.

The sides were equally good. The Malted Kale Slaw was biting and vinegary, with the best texture I’ve ever found in a kale dish (I’m not fond of kale, either, and I liked it very much!) The Collard Greens, with garlic, smoked chipotle and cider pepper vinaigrette were a little tart, and wonderfully spicy, and the Cinnamon Spiked Pit Beans - a combination of kidney beans, pinto beans, and chick peas, were earthy, a bit smoky, and had just the barest hint of cinnamon.

To finish off the meal, we chose two desserts: the Mississippi Caramel Bread Pudding - gorgeous, dense bread pudding, with caramel and toasted pecans, swirled with a yummy bourbon créme anglaise, and topped with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream, which may have been a special addition, as it was Vincent’s birthday, and I think they needed something to anchor the huge sparkler that adorned the dessert. Seriously! It was like a giant road flare, and the look on Vincent’s face was priceless! As for me, well, I love cheesecake, I love blueberries, and I love Fatbird’s biscuits. My dessert combined all three! The Blueberry Cheesecake Dessert Biscuit: a mini cheesecake - a bit dry, but still tasty and not overly sweet, topped with blueberry compote, sandwiched between two halves of one of those amazing biscuits. Mmmm!

We left Fatbird feeling happy and satisfied. This was real people food. Not a lot of overly clever ingredients, just good, home-style flavors that most folks remember from their childhoods. There was good, classic blues and jazz playing on the sound system, the staff was really friendly, and were treating all the diners like family, and then, of course there was that food! Next time around, I’ll have to stop by the custom Biscuit Bar and get a few biscuits to take home. And I want to try the Fried Green Tomatoes, and the Nashville Hot Chicken, and the Grilled Blue Point Oysters, and...well, you get the idea!

Michael Barbieri

Food & Entertainment Writer