Carriage House is the Southern home I never had. Growing up in New England, I wasn't exposed to much Southern food. I'm pretty sure the only cornbread I ever ate was the neon yellow cake they pedaled at Boston Market. As a late adapter, I'm making up lost time by eating enough Southern food to foie gras-ify my liver. At Carriage House, chef Mark Steuer does a dandy job gussying up classic Southern flavors in a sleek way that almost makes everything feel light. But this is not light food. It may not be the type of "butter gone wild" food Paula Deen pigeonholed, but it packs a coy arterial punch, kinda like a taser wrapped in a doily.
The beignets get a lot of attention here, but if you're going to insulate your aorta with starch, I'd recommend the cornbread ($7). Served in individual (but still large enough to clobber your stomach) skillets, Steuer's cornbread skews more towards corn cake. It's moist and tender, with a hint of sweetness. What puts it over the top is the adjoining dollop of foie gras butter. You can practically feel your cell phone autodial 911 as you're eating this stuff. It goes down smooth, and feels far lighter than it is. Spread on the cornbread with some apple preserves, it's a far cry from the embarrassing cornbread of my youth. And nothing like a good skillet of cornbread to completely negate the fact that you got off the train a block early for exercise!
For further evidence of Steuers cornmeal prowess, order the shrimp and grits ($14). I mean really, Steuer is to cornmeal as Dumbledore is to magic. Grits come from Geechie Boy in South Carolina, and this commitment to rigorous sourcing is what sets this stuff apart in a grit-happy city like Chicago. Unlike the mushy Oliver Twist porridge-like slop that grits can sometimes resemble, these retain a wonderfully mealy texture. A tad sweet, a tad earthy, they're thick and rich without leaning on butter or cheese for a flavor crutch. It's basically a savory corn version of rice pudding, which is an excellent canvas for the spicy, savory onslaught of head-on shrimp, Tasso, and a bacon-based sauce called "hunter gravy." The shrimp are plump and succulent, and Tasso is reliably delicious because it's impossible for that not be the case where fatty ham is concerned. But it's all about the hunter gravy. The butch name is fantastic. It paints the picture that someone hunted down pigs in the wild, butchered them with their bare hands, and tossed copious bits of bacon into gravy. That's the imagery I'm hanging onto, so don't tell me otherwise.
Is there a better bread for French toast than Pullman bread? That was a rhetorical question, because the answer is obviously no. The uniform shape makes it ideal for French toast. This is what Pullman bread was born to do. Carriage House's Pullman French toast ($10) is the exemplar of Southern French toasts. It's white bread that is sturdier and lighter than the cotton candy-like rubbish they sell in grocery stores; a more wonderful Wonder Bread, if you will. It's not very sweet, so when it's battered and griddled, it doesn't wind up tasting like pan-fried birthday cake. It gets its sweetness from the slivers of crackly brûléed bananas and sorghum whipped cream, heaped in heinous amounts over the plate.
A meal at Carriage House is a deliciously debilitating experience. Steuer packs each and every bite with more soul than a Paula Deen cackle. Despite being reduced to a lethargic balloon, it's absolutely worth it. As far as I'm concerned, the best kind of Southern brunch is the kind that gives you an emotional hug while discreetly manhandling your heart.