Monday, November 7, 2011

Smoky cocktails, house cured charcuterie, and bacon bitters: Snackbar, Oxford, MS

Don't let the miles of farmland on all sides or the quaint town square fool you, Oxford, Mississippi is a little gem of a food town. Oxford takes its cuisine seriously, after all, it is the home of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization that researches, documents and celebrates southern culture through food. Because of this, it is odd that I have not spent much time writing about the gastronomic riches in my own backyard. There are plenty of culinary experiences, from the simple BBQ at Handy Andy's to the soul food at Ajax Diner, for which which much has already been penned; I cannot add anything unique. However, recently my passion for one establishment has reached a crescendo that I cannot ignore. I am in love with Snackbar.

One of John Currence's four brilliant concepts, the french brasserie is wrapped in warm wood walls, hung with deer heads, creating a cozy lodge-like feel, yet the funky, hip lighting lends an urban, almost European atmosphere. No matter the season, there is a feng shui about Snackbar that beckons me. This used to be a point of contention with my partner, who only just recently came under the same spell, thanks to a magical fall cocktail called the Antigua. Smooth Don Julio anejo tequila, an aged liquor, is mixed with a house-made, slightly sweet, chipotle infused, agave syrup, a splash of soda, and finished with a caramelized slice of orange, making a drink that can only be described as "smoke-in-a-glass". Drinking the Antigua, you cannot help but think of falling leaves, Fair Isle wool sweaters, and wood burning fires. Another favorite off the seasonal cocktail menu is the Panacea. Made up of Bernheim Original Kentucky Wheat Bourbon, Averna, which is a sweet and bitter Sicilian herbal liqueur, Heering Cherry Liqueur, and a Galliano Rinse, this is a great choice for those who enjoy a good Old Fashioned.

Pickle Plate
The drinks alone are worth the trip to Snackbar, however the food is equally memorable. Locals extol their truffle parmesan frites, an addictive, exquisite french fry served aside a hangar steak or as a side dish. Regardless of how they are served, I promise you will not forgive the last one at the bottom of the parchment-lined cylinder for being the last one. Their raw bar is fresh and their charcuterie includes greats like duck leg pâté and pâté de foie de poulet (chicken liver, mushroom pâté). While classic dishes stay on the menu, many of their dishes are seasonal including a past favorite, the fried mac and cheese small plate. On a recent trip, I reminisced to the waitress about an inventive pickle plate about which I still fantasized, and after a quick check with the chefs, she returned to the table with a whipped-up version that will tide me over until the original returns. Prior to my original plate, I thought of pickles as cucumbers, drowned in dill or bread and butter brines, found in the grocery store aisle. I had no inkling of the complexity of spices, let alone the diversity of vegetables that can be pickled. Our mini version included a curried cauliflower, a lemony shrimp, crisp, thin haricot vert, a briny egg, crunchy okra, tangy black-eyed peas, and even cinnamon and clove spiced mango.

Boudin Balls
Off the charcuterie menu, we ordered boudin balls, a cajun pork and rice sausage, rolled and deep fried, harkening to Currence's roots in New Orleans. Although paired with a grainy mustard and greens, the perfectly crisp outside and creamy sausage and rice mixture on the inside, needed no accompaniment. Snackbar's burger has been praised in many southern magazines as a favorite, and while not out-of-the-ordinary, the compilation of local and house made accoutrements certainly make it a winner. White Oak pastures beef is topped with sister restaurant's Big Bad Breakfast bacon, house-made cheddar, house tomato jam, creole mustard, onions, and greens, and then sandwiched in a airy brioche bun.

The hearty and yet delicate risotto was made with healthy portions of fresh lump crab meat, sweet corn, red bell peppers, shallot, and thyme. And to further indulge the creamy factor, the pasta was finished with a lush mascarpone cheese. The redfish courtboullion, served as a special, included a perfectly cooked, flaky filet, topped with a tomato based sauce reminiscent of a sweet caponata.

On a recent return trip to satisfy an Antigua craving, Brian served us at the bar, where we tried a new fish special, the corvina. Billed as similar to a sea bass, this firm, yet mild white fish was served atop a pumpkin seed puree with roasted baby eggplants; it hit all of the rich notes of fall, yet remained light.

Redfish Courtbuillion
The cocktails are the creative inventions of the superb bar tending staff, often egged on by owner John Currence. He once told me, jokingly, that seeing the creativity and shear volume spawned by a contest amongst the bar staff to develop the most unique bitters, he feared where it might eventually lead. Fortunately bacon bitters, a mainstay on the cocktail list, was clearly a winning result. Currence's dynamic leadership style has undoubtedly allowed Vishwesh Bhatt, Chef at Snackbar and member of the City Grocery Restaurant group for over ten years, to exercise his talent, masterfully coupling classic country french flavors with southern comfort food.

Perhaps one of the other reasons I have restrained from writing about local eateries, is that Snackbar, located a half mile north of the square, still seems like a well kept secret from the throngs of college students, football fans and tourists who patronize the well established haunts. While I hate to jeopardize the neighborhood pub aura, I can no longer keep quiet about my love affair with Snackbar.

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