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Gettin' Gritty

Dana goes up north to try a classic Southern cocktail...and to have another go at a popular side dish.
Tuesday May 27, 2008.     By Dana Kavan
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

Drink of the week: The Original Sazerac at Big Jones

The damage: $10.

Thousands of bars in Chicago, why this one? Let it be known that my knowledge of Southern cooking is quite limited, particularly when it comes to the allure of the almighty pile of grits. When I stopped at a Waffle House in Chattanooga, Tennessee in the middle of a two-day road trip, my traveling companion insisted I order cheesy grits to pair with my scrambled eggs—the first and, until recently, the last time I ate grits. To me, the corn porridge tasted like mushy cornmeal doused in water. It had no flavor. But I'm not one to denounce a food based on one foul meal.

When Big Jones opened in Andersonville nearly two months ago, the common praise sung by foodies and critics across the city was that the restaurant knew how to knock out a killer mass o' grits. I met a few friends there last week to finally put my lackluster experience behind me.

How it went down: This time around, I wouldn't be washing down my grits with coffee: Big Jones offers 14 classic cocktails, organized by which type of booze dominates the drinks. Though I'm not usually a brandy drinker, I opted for The Original Sazerac, made with Armagnac brandy, absinthe, Peychaud's Bitters and cane syrup. Big Jones calls it The Original, but that's a bit of a misnomer. Believed to be one of the oldest known cocktails, the Sazerac is traditionally made with rye whisky, not brandy, according to the New Orleans-based Sazerac Company, which has produced Peychaud's Bitters since 1793 and credits its founder, Antoine Peychaud, with dreaming up the libation.

Big Jones does offer a version made with rye, but I found the brandy added a nice touch of fruity sweetness. The black licorice flavor from the absinthe didn’t overpower, and a peppery kick lingered after each sip. Back in the pre-Civil War days, a crushed sugar cube mellowed the drink out, but the cane syrup in Big Jones' take did the trick, making it highly drinkable.

Would I want to become a regular? The decor elements at Big Jones are a far cry from the crusty booths at a Waffle House; a muted lime green and beige color palette is accented by long hanging chandeliers, wall sconces and bamboo shades covering faux windows. But I wasn't there for the decor. When the plate of sorghum-glazed chicken—the only item on the menu that comes with grits—arrived, I pushed the bird aside and went straight for the creamy stuff. And, once again, despite the chill decor and high-end prices, I was back at the Waffle House. Maybe the chef forgot to throw the cheese in that day or maybe I just plain don't dig grits, but they were utterly boring. But the chicken, with an almost-sweet seared exterior and a moistness unrivaled by any poultry I've come across, would be worth going back for—as long as I could substitute my side.


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