17 West 26th Street, New York NY 10010 (b/n Broadway and 6th; map); 646-490-8240; maysvillenyc.com
Service: Gracious, polished
Setting: Warmly lit, comfortable-modern Flatiron space dominated by a striking whiskey bar
Must-Haves: Crispy grits, poached egg, sweetbreads
Cost: Around $35-40/head, before drinks
Grade: Highly recommended: editor's pick for its sophisticated take on Southern cuisine, cocktails, and whiskey list
Southern fare is nothing new to New York—over the last five-odd years, we've seen any number of barbecue joints, cheffy fried chicken spots, biscuit brunches. Several restaurants have taken more of a fine dining path, picking up no particular thread of regionality or foodstuff, but referencing approaches and ingredients from across the South, presenting a chef's own cuisine without ties to orthodoxy. And of these, I find Maysville—opened back in November on West 26th—far and away the best.
We found our way there through a promising early encounter. We eat a dozen sandwiches a week at the Serious Eats office, so it takes something pretty remarkable for us to sit up and take notice. We did, when a takeout bag from Maysville showed up in the office—pulled pork with raw kale and buttermilk dressing, one of the best fish sandwiches we've had recently, house-smoked turkey and excellent potato chips. Sandwich skill can reflect that of a kitchen in general; it was immediately apparent that Maysville could fry, could execute classics and add thoughtful touches, could compose smart dishes with a point of view. We appreciate chefs who pay this much attention to a menu that many spots treat as a throwaway. So lunch was enough to pique our interest in Maysville, and we've been back several times since. Each meal has been better than the last.
Maysville is the work of chef Kyle Knall, formerly of Gramercy Tavern, and owner Sean Josephs, also of Char No. 4 in Brooklyn. But there's a lot to distinguish it from the latter. This isn't a Brooklyn restaurant; there's a coat check, and people walking in the door who wear the kind of coats that you actually check. Older couples dressed for dinner. Crisp-shirted after-work types downing bourbon at the bar. Reservations are cheerfully honored. It's a relaxed vibe, but with the trappings of professionalism that I find myself missing at many new restaurants these days.
I first envisioned Maysville as the sort of spot I might enjoy eating at the bar—until the first time I saw the bar, which on every visit was packed with drinkers three deep. It's easy to see why. There's the whiskey selection, heavily American, beautifully displayed and extensive enough to require a book rather than a list. Everything's offered by a "taste" (1 ounce) or a "glass" (2 ounces), which gives you a chance to try something you might otherwise deem too expensive; though whiskey tends to lubricate the already slippery slope to justification ("Sure, of course I'll have another!"). Aficionados may end up nose-deep in the book, but opting for the drinks isn't a bad choice either. On the more substantial side, consider the silky, satisfying barrel-aged Boulevardier ($15). On the lighter side, the Noreaster ($10; ginger beer, lime, maple) has a real bourbon backbone, a highball that really feels like a cocktail with a sharp ginger bite; the Hound Dog ($11) accomplishes something similar: grapefruit, mint, and lime backing up the central spirit—it doesn't feel like a brunch drink.
It's worth a visit to Maysville as a bar alone, but as a restaurant is where it gets remarkable. Chef Kyle Knall spent five years at Gramercy Tavern but hails from Alabama, where he worked for highly regarded Birmingham chef Frank Stitt. "He and Mike Anthony have been my biggest mentors," says Knall. "I love Southern ingredients but equally love the simple, straightforward cooking style of Gramercy. I think I'm doing both here."
Thoughtful simplicity is the hallmark of Knall's most successful dishes, including the I'll-go-back-for-those Crispy Grits ($9), which he "really created to show off country ham." Cubes of grits are supple, almost puddinglike within, given a golden crust dotted with bourbon aioli, draped with tendrils of country ham from Broadbent Hams in Kentucky. A double order of these would be the best brunch I could imagine. As is, they're a bar snack up there with any I know. Knall has a way with grits, but those he prefers come from up North at Wild Hive Farm in New York. "I love grits, I grew up eating them, but we did lots of research at Gramercy, tasting these side by side with ones from the South, and these were clearly the best." They take on a more refined form in the Poached Egg dish ($16)—a gentle mound dotted with duck confit, sautéed collards, and roasted hen of the woods mushroom. Atop, a broth made from whole smoked duck bodies that hits a precise balance of rich and smoky, enough to accent the dish rather than engulf it. And the egg, cooked sous vide until just wobbly, swirling into the dish with the poke of a fork.
It'd be easy to make a meal just of starters: the crisped-up, fork-tender Veal Sweetbreads ($17) with charred fennel and thinly sliced fingerling potatoes, spread atop a caper aioli further accented with fried capers. Or the Brussels Sprouts ($12), a dish we'd almost begun to doubt could still be original. It's served in a heaping pile that almost spills over the plate, a sense of abundance much appreciated. Here the cores are roasted with brown butter, garlic, and thyme; the outer leaves flash-fried; all tossed in a dressing bright with lemon and buttermilk—and where you think those little crunchy bits are crouton, they're bits of confited pig ear. The tiny quail egg gets lost in the mix, but that's a tiny quibble.
Some restaurants that make their own pasta are not particularly adept at, well, making their own pasta. But Knall's fettuccine ($15) is lovely, retaining just a bit of a bite, a tangle atop a broth of shrimp and ham hocks, butter-poached shrimp and mussels in there, too. It integrates the meat and seafood beautifully, a single richly flavored sauce of sorts further perfumed by grated horseradish.
The seafood dishes are some of the strongest, and share this affinity for pork. Flounder ($31) is roasted with salsify and sunchokes, with calamari that's grilled, and a ham that Knall smokes himself, all in a milk-accented broth of salsify and leek that draws the dish together. Even dishes that might sound more conventional, like the fried chicken of sorts, show such sophistication. The Crispy Chicken Leg & Roulade ($26) works two ways: the leg, cooked sous vide and roasted with brown butter and aromatics until crisp; the breast, pounded and rolled with herbs and a garlic confit, then fried. It's hard to tell which half of the plate is more appealing, which might be the first time I've said that of white meat and dark.
With restaurants termed "Southern" in New York, I feel like the expectation is often of simplicity and affordability, fried chicken and barbecue, perhaps with some spiked sweet tea on the side. The jumbling-together of admittedly appealing, generally indulgent foodstuffs has gotten a bit old, restaurants playing at a vision of the South without an intelligent take on it. But Maysville succeeds in a much more nuanced viewpoint more in line with the accomplished chefs of the region, Knall's mentor Stitt among them—starting from familiar ingredients, sure, but not echoing tradition without opinion. Instead, it's a restaurant with a point of view (and a great bar besides) in a polished restaurant I can't wait to return to.