4Bells, 1610 Harmon Place
OK, I know: I should wait for Dec. 31 before pronouncing judgment, but what the heck? How can it get any better than this? 4 Bells is the best new restaurant of 2015 — a year crammed with a number of pretty amazing contenders for the title. And, right along with the others, it’s specializing in cold seafood and hot chicken.
Both are at their best here. But even better is the outstanding —Out. Stand. Ing! —customer-coddling service. Each staffer we encountered did everything short of cartwheels to make sure we had a grand experience.
And maybe the best spot for that experience was the one we were assigned at the 18-seat bar, watching the culinary ballet and chatting up our fellow diners. (Thanks, unknown sir, for sharing those ethereal, better-than-granny’s biscuits. And to the ladies whose heap-o-chicken we admired. “This is only the HALF order!” they gawped over their pyramid of fowl.) It’s super-moist and rich with flavor under its dressing gown of perfectly-fried batter. Best in town, we decided, upon ordering our own ($17 half, $29 whole). It comes with a singular cortege of sauces: honey butter, a creamy pan-juice gravy, proud with flour; a fruity Delta sauce, and a smackin’ hotter number. In a local dining scene newly-dedicated to fried chicken Southern style, this is the best of the best.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We started with a slab of ultra-creamy chicken-liver terrine, frosted with a puree of parsnips and attended by sweet little cipollini onions, flash-fried onion crumbles and brown butter. Plus chewy toasts for spreading. Next, a quartet of Oysters Casino, each little liquid globe topped (“like pizza,” laughed our server) with a collage of pecorino melted over fine-diced bacon and rapini.
Choosing a second entrée ($21–$38) was the sole problem of the evening: the whole fried snapper under a garlic-chili glaze? The steelhead poached in olive oil? The pork chop dressed with graham grits? Yes, yes, and yes — next time. Tonight we opted for the seared scallops — the largest in captivity, I swear: role models of sweetness and quivery texture set upon a sweet-corn pancake along with bacon bits, corn kernels, sweet pecans and savory chicory. They’re served with a sauceboat of coffee-maple syrup—a freestylin’ update of the Southern chicken-and-waffles routine, and testimony to the truth in the small print on the menu listing the kitchen’s outlook as “innovative Southern” conceived with “Northern craft.”
So are the side dishes ($8). I could dine on them alone, starting with the Bourbon-braised collard greens topped with bacon and Gorgonzola and the odd but OK-it-works integration of diced scallops into corny hushpuppies, served on a bed of diced cukes. Or the decidedly left-of-Kraft pimento mac & cheese, calling on penne pasta bathed in a smoky, near-liquid cheese sauce and topped with fine-ground popcorn.
Desserts ($10), I warn you (no: command you), are a must. And not a panna cotta on the menu. Instead, true Southern fare we rarely see here in the tundra, like shoofly pie, Brown Derby pie, hummingbird and Co’ Cola cakes. And our choice, a superior, Gold Medal quality peach pie celebrating chunks (no mush here) of the true, sweet fruit.
I sipped a Bourbon-blessed Seelbach cocktail, then a Surly. My wine-imbibing pals marveled at generous BTG pours. They really do want us to come back! Gilding the lily, valet parking is free with a $50 tab. Three cheers for 4 Bells!