For years, a few of the city’s southern specialists like the Redhead and Char No. 4 have been destination spots for their shrimp and grits, to the delight of expats homesick for the low-country staple. But lately it’s become less novelty and more standard New York fare (especially on brunch menus), rising to the ranks of fried chicken and country ham in this down-home-food-obsessed city. Brothers Ted and Matt Lee, the James Beard Award-winning authors, have been making the dish since their childhood in Charleston and perfected a recipe for their new cookbook, The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen (Clarkson Potter; $35). We asked them to assess the offerings from a slew of newish restaurants and rate them on a five-crustacean scale. Here, their critical look at the current shrimp-and-grits landscape, from chef-y creations to more classic takes that can satisfy any hankering for the Dixie dish.
*This article originally appeared in the March 4, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.
At Ducks, the head-on shrimp are terrifically fresh—crucial with this preparation, Ted points out, as the juices inside the head can go bad especially quickly. They’re served alongside roughly ground, rich grits, tomatoes, and spicy andouille sausage in a cast-iron dish with a Chinese soup spoon, inviting ramen comparisons. The only complaint: “The elements are all on point,” Ted says, “but it feels separate—like a warm mise en place.” $14; 351 E. 12th St., nr. First Ave.; 212-432-3825. Brunch only. 3/5
The rendition here is nothing if not unique; the buttery, winey sauce sits over a heap of cheesy, puddinglike grits. Mixed in are a mélange of spices, bacon, onions, and bell peppers (Elberta was the only restaurant to use this last ingredient in its grits, but bell peppers can be found in many traditional Charleston recipes). The shrimp are “Über-fresh,” says Ted. “They’re not messing around.” He adds: “These would be my hangover grits of choice.” $14; 335 Flatbush Ave., nr. Carlton Ave., Park Slope; 718-638-1936. Brunch only. 4/5
“The dish rises and falls on the quality of the grits,” says Ted. And these, from the South Carolina heirloom-grains producer Anson Mills, are well cooked and soft, not stiff. It’s an unusual take: two eggs sunny-side up, cheese, chipotle honey, and white pepper. But “shrimp are already sweet,” says Ted. “You don’t need to add honey, and the seasoning is a little out of control.” $15; 245 Eldridge St., nr. Houston St.; 646-559-5962. Brunch only. 3.5/5
The sauce is the star—vinegary and like a dark roux, with cooked onion, Worcestershire and hot sauces, celery, and butter. Matt praises the intense flavors and tartness, but adds that the “dish would have been improved immeasurably if the quality of both the shrimp and the grits were higher.” The commercially produced grits fell short of stone-ground varieties in terms of texture, and Matt thought a meatier shrimp would have made more sense with the Pickapeppa-esque sauce. $13; 126 Union St., nr. Columbia St., Columbia Street Waterfront District; 718-855-5700. 3/5
Littleneck serves its pillowy, textured grits (also from Anson Mills) with thick-cut lardons of bacon from Berkshires-based Nodine’s Smokehouse, a poached egg, and slices of nearby bakery Caputo’s baguettes. The shrimp are hearty, if slightly less robust in flavor than others. And a lack of strong acidity in the dish to cut richness makes Ted miss the lemon wedges often served on the side in South Carolina—“A pro move at home or in a professional kitchen,” he says. $16; 288 Third Ave., nr. Carroll St., Gowanus; 718-522-1921. Brunch only. 3/5
The unanimous favorite of our shrimp-and-grits crawl was a simple take served in this large, bare, tiny-menued Bushwick space opened by a southern-expat couple. Ted loves that the flavor of the “aggressively seasoned” grits (stone-ground, from Georgia’s Logan Turnpike Mill) isn’t clouded by cheese, and Matt praises their toothsomeness. The toasted smell coming from the shrimp indicates an intense freshness, the brothers say. “If you’re confident in the quality of your shrimp, you can do this,” Matt says, referring to the simple preparation, which uses Old Bay and brown butter. Adds Ted: “I’ll be here every night.” $13; 1084 Flushing Ave., nr. Porter Ave., Bushwick; 347-295-2227. 4.5/5
It’s funny, Ted says, that the most traditional of all the contenders was served at a glitzy, mirror-walled Lower East Side hotel restaurant. But the new chef, James London, is from Charleston, and he’s brought with him a simple, fantastic dish using Anson Mills grits, which, Ted notes, seem to have been cooked primarily with water instead of dairy (meaning their bright corn flavor is prominent). A poached egg is nested atop the grits along with shrimp that are mingled with roasted red pepper, tomato, scallion, and crumbles of bacon from Tennessee’s cult cured-meat producer Benton’s. $18; 107 Rivington St., nr. Ludlow St.; 212-796-8040. Brunch only. 4/5
When our waitress takes our order, she checks that we’re okay with the head-on shrimp preparation. Make sure you tell her you are: The flavor from the heads of the wild-caught shellfish is excellent. But the roller-milled grits, though satisfying, are “maybe a shade overcheesy,” says Ted, and while we all like the crisp Niman Ranch bacon, Matt deems the dish overall fairly “unremarkable.” $21; 509 Amsterdam Ave., nr. 85th St.; 212-470-5566. 3.5/5