Jeff’s Cuisine is the warmest spot in Sono if you ask me. Its namesake, Jeff Esaw, is not only an accomplished, award-winning chef of southern cuisine and barbecue; he’s also a great host. Often welcoming patrons in personally and guiding them through his extensive menu, he does everything possible to create a memorable experience, transmitting his enthusiasm to the gracious staff.
It was as if we could hear the seductive sound of classic Blues before we even walked through the door recently…actually it was emanating from an outdoor speaker above the back entrance.
Once you’re lured in you’ll find the soulful music keeps playing, whether from the chef’s own selection (he might take requests) or from the dining room that hosts live acts on Friday and Saturday nights. Feeling the good vibes, we didn’t need much convincing to start the meal with one of Jeff’s inspired cocktails, in this case his Strong Island Iced Tea. It reminded us of southern sweet tea but with citrus and sour mix to cut the intense sugariness. Imagine a spiked Arnold Palmer, sweet but refreshing.
Jeff’s roots are in Gullah cooking, a term I admit to having no knowledge of prior to our visit to his spot on North Main Street a couple doors down from the Sono movie theater. The culinary tradition of the Atlantic coast from the Carolinas down to Northern Florida, it is the result of West and Central African slaves being brought to this country centuries ago and adapting their techniques to the ingredients available in a new land…some of the earliest “American” food.
He learned from his Aunt Daisy Bell, cooking as it’s been done for generations, and today Jeff executes those recipes with zeal and passion, preserving tradition while evolving with the times. We may not equate soul food with modern ideas of good health, but Jeff isn’t afraid to replace lard and ham hocks with leaner flavors when he sees fit, although you wouldn’t know it by the flavor he extracts from his ingredients.
Southern Cooking may be a blanket term but it’s difficult to otherwise sum up Jeff’s vast repertoire. From the Mid Atlantic coast down to the Caribbean, across the coast of the Gulf of Mexico into Texas, up to Kansas City and back east, it’s not only a geography refresher but also a credit to the chef who shows deference to each region’s particular flavor profile and method of preparation.
We began with shrimp and grits, a specialty of Charleston and the low country, which Jeff suggested as a good intro. Shrimp (and some tender pieces of crab) delicately cooked in stock, reduced to a sauce whose salinity and richness were handily cut by the creamy grits. Some warm, crumbly cornbread served on the side for dipping added a sweetness a notch above the grits and worked surprisingly well with the predominant seafood component.
Although we arrived ready for battle with smoked, sauce-glazed and bone-in masterpieces, the “Midwest Tour” platter that arrived for our entree was impressive. Piled high with Eastern Carolina pulled pork in the center, it also featured bright red Cajun smoked sausages, Kansas City wet ribs and Texas brisket. Apologies to Memphis and its dry ribs, but we had to say when somewhere on the barbecue belt.
While the smoked sausage and the brisket were well executed, the pulled pork was the hands down favorite. Thoroughly shredded and chopped into tender morsels, it represents the finest of Jeff’s barbecue heritage in Eastern Carolina. From a backbone of cider vinegar there was a great sweet and sour balance with his secret recipe barbecue sauce, and a little heat coming by the second or third bite. Most importantly though throughout the tasting experience the natural flavor of slow cooked pork was never overwhelmed by seasoning.
We took turns getting our fingers sticky on some wet ribs (signifying the use of a sauce marinade rather than a dry rub), and in Kansas City we found an abundant amount to bite into from end to end of each bone. They had the delectable crunch of pork ends cooked low and slow in dry heat and glazed with piquant barbecue sauce close to the finish.
Since we were condensing generations of soul food into one dinner we felt obliged to litmus test the fried chicken. It was an exercise in restraint compared to secret recipes we’re used to; drumsticks, thighs and wings, minimally coated and lightly seasoned, fried just golden brown for a crust that was neither greasy nor messy. Without excess bits of fried batter sticking to each other it easily gave way to perfectly cooked dark meat inside.
Jeff wouldn’t let us remain only on the inland route though, suggesting his crab cakes, and rightfully so because they were the other revelation of the meal, again expertly fried. When pierced with a fork they revealed oversized pieces of sweet crab meat held together by just enough breading to keep shape. A dab of bright cayenne-spiked tartar sauce drizzled over them maintained the dinner’s median level of jowl-tingling heat.
Of course with all this protein, some carbs and maybe even a touch of green were welcome for digestive purposes. The black-eyed peas with rice were quite salty, but collard greens were mild, served simply in their own broth to bring our palettes back to earth. Baked beans, stewed with molasses, were smoky and studded with slivers of [more] pork. The mac n cheese reminded all of us of mom’s; elbow noodles, buttery but not oozing with cheese, the signature crunch of browned edges exposed to the heat of the oven.
With dinner we drank Turbo Dog dark ale brewed just outside New Orleans. It had a nice bitterness to it and a distinct aroma of chocolate that went well with the concentrated flavors of slow cooking.
The portions were generous and the staff was indignant at the idea of anyone getting up with nigh a square inch of space left in their stomach. After giving us a whole five minutes to digest our waitress talked us into a trio of desserts.
First up banana pudding served chilled; smooth custard flavored with cinnamon, chunks of ripe but firm banana and softened vanilla wafers for a bit of trifle-like texture.
Red velvet cake was quite dense but moist with a subtle cocoa flavor and a conservative amount of cream cheese frosting.
Before putting the spoons down once and for all we reached deep down for room to savor the peach cobbler. Served warm, we all appreciated that it wasn’t overly sweet and that the fresh peaches retained their natural tartness, holding up to the soft, buttery pastry dough. Added to it were some scoops of vanilla ice cream, melting into the cobbler to achieve that wonderful temperature equilibrium between oven and freezer…where ice cream melts before pastry cools, sauce ensues.
We felt as though we had each experienced an enlightenment of barbecue and hither to unknown Gullah food in the span of an hour and half, yet we were left wanting more of Jeff’s offerings. It just wasn’t physically possible to get more food or culture in one sitting, leaving things like a whole menu of Po-Boys, Florida jerk chicken and Mississippi fried catfish for next time.
Fortunately Jeff’s cuisine is open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner, either takeout or sit down. With a full bar he offers a range of cocktails inspired by his culinary travels, as well as beer and wine. Or he’ll bring his hospitality and smoker to you along with his full catering service.
Jeff's Cuisine 54 N Main Street, Norwalk 203.852.0041