It’s not exactly an obvious combination, is it? Fried chicken and champagne?
Obvious or not, that’s the value proposition at Birds & Bubbles, the peculiar and yet oddly compelling restaurant from the home cook turned chef, Sarah Simmons.
The restaurant is on an uncharming Lower East Side street, in a narrow subterranean space that was previously an appropriately named restaurant called Grotto. The hours suit the clubby neighborhood nearby, with a 2am closing time Thursdays through Saturdays.
The backstory in brief: Simmons was a retail strategist who started a supper club in her apartment, cooking the soul food she’d grown up with in South Carolina. After winning Food & Wine’s Home Cook Superstar award in 2010, she started City Grit, a so-called “culinary salon,” where guests buy tickets to dinner. Originally an extension of Simmons’ in-home supper club, nowadays she cooks there only occasionally: visiting chefs prepare most of the meals.
Simmons knows her stuff. I liked the food at Birds & Bubbles a lot. It’s Southern comfort cuisine, and does not blaze any culinary trails. But the chicken’s really enjoyable, the bread and side dishes well above anything you get at the average poultry joint.
Unfortunately, the wine menu looks like it parachuted in from another planet, or at least another restaurant. It consists mostly of champagnes over $100 a bottle, with only a few sparkling wines in the $45–65 range and a handful of cheap, uninteresting still wines you probably don’t want.
If you order cocktails or bubbly by the glass, as we did, the costs quickly mount up: dinner for three was over $200, including tax and tip. That’s an awful lot for a meal whose centerpiece is fried chicken served in a stainless steel bucket. The food menu is inexpensive, with salads, appetizers and soups $5–13, mains $17–24, and side dishes $9.
For a group, the Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner ($55), which we ordered, offers a good cross-section of the menu: a whole chicken, a bread basket ($12 if purchased à la carte), and your choice of three side dishes. You don’t have to eat chicken: there’s a crawfish étouffée, shrimp & grits, a steak, and so forth. But you don’t order the salmon at Peter Luger, do you?
We ordered a trio of starters, all very good: the Deviled Eggs ($5; above left), the Kale and Kabocha Salad ($13; above right), and the Boudin Balls ($9; below left).
I didn’t get a good photo of the chicken itself, only of the bucket it came in (below right). The photo makes it seem smaller than it is: there’s a whole bird in there, more than enough for three normal appetites, bearing in mind the side dishes are ample too. The breading is crisp, not at all greasy, and has a slightly sweet tang with hints of brown sugar. I’m writing this a couple of weeks later, and I still remember it fondly.
The sides were all terrific: the Seasonal Slaw (two rows up, right), the Brussels Sprouts (immediately above, left) and the best of the group, the Vidalia Onion Soufflé (below left). The bread basket (below right) was also very good.
There are unexpected service grace notes: reservations are taken, coats checked, and incomplete parties seated. But order a stem of champagne, and the server does not show you the bottle: it will come to the table already poured. For $19 a glass, that’s not good enough. And the side dishes came without serving utensils. After the appetizer course, silverware is replaced only if you ask. These points would go without mentioning at most casual restaurants, but dinner for three was $212 all-in.
Birds & Bubbles is not a large restaurant. A micro-focused concept could work here. But the alcohol is so expensive that it verges on insulting. After the novelty wears off, who will keep coming for $200 fried chicken dinners?
Birds & Bubbles (100B Forsythe St between Grand & Broome Sts, Lower East Side)
Food: Southern cuisine, focused on fried chicken; a champagne-centric wine list
Ambiance: A subterranean grotto on a dimly-lit Lower East Side block