What comes to mind at the words "Parson's Chicken & Fish"? If you're on this site and don't otherwise reside under a rock, my guess is that you're reminded of the latest trendy opening from Land and Sea Dept. (of Longman & Eagle fame), and the sun soaked, table tennis-ed, and yes, crowded, patio where you've been dying to while away your summer.
But I'm more interested in what comes to mind for the rest of you. Vague, 70s Americana like the venture itself would prefer? An even more vague Chicago fried chicken and fish shack association bolstered by the elephant in the room, "who the hell is Parson?" question? In reality, Parson's is both and neither of these things, as my recent venture to eat all of the fried things revealed.
The meal began innocuously enough, with a plate of Oysters ($14.00/half dozen) representing both the East and West coasts of this fair country. Honestly, I can't remember which was which—my inexperienced palate approaches oysters the same way the rest of my body approaches golf: each swing (or bite, if you will) feels like the first time, and I've never gotten the hang of it enough to discuss the experience in a meaningful fashion. So too, here. One set of oysters was briny, the other not; one was creamy, the other not. But as with golf, I was bettered by the experience, and as it should, my hunger was piqued for the deluge to come. From this point on, the dishes flew from the kitchen with controlled abandon.
First up were the subtlest Hush Puppies ($4.00) I've ever experienced. Contemplate that strong, dense, corn taste you get from the best hush puppies. Set that aside for a minute and imagine a world where corn is light and fluffy and plays nice with others. That's where these puppies reside. Even with heavy hitters like scallions and ham hock, nothing got out of line. I have to give a quick nod to my favorite component, the creamy, cream cheese pats that dotted the interior—nice touch. From here on out, when I bite into any other hush puppy, my first thought will inevitably be "if only..."
The Baccalà Fritters ($5.00) were another ace. More rustic than a traditional brandade, the fritter's compacted, briny burst is enhanced by the flaky texture of the fish. "Juicy" isn't a word I usually apply to fish, but it absolutely fits here. And just as a proper dipping sauce should, when the dish threatened to collapse under its own richness, the Preserved Lemon Aioli proficiently and piquantly lightened the load.
Drawing clear influence from Federal Hill calamari dishes, the Clam Roll ($10.00) was a sight to behold. Its beauty did not translate well to the eating experience, though, as each bite of the soggy bread based dish required a deftness honed after years of elbow-up taco eating. On the subject of clams, while some bites tended to be more cornmeal breading than anything else, encountering a full specimen proved enjoyable.
Now here is where things got odd. I am, unabashedly, a rather harsh judge of Fried Fish ($8.00/3 piece). But this dish started with a leg up—the daily selection was pollock, my childhood favorite. All points gained, though, were lost the first bite in. The fish itself, though tender and flaky, was not seasoned on its own. This, combined with a batter 30ish seconds away from a proper brown, resulted in a fish whose taste came through middling at the front, but was quickly obscured by a lingering fry oil taste. The tartar sauce added little to the experience; next time, I'll try to sub out the fritter sauce. Come to think of it, when I'm next craving a fried fish dish in the area, the fritters, not the fried fish proper, will be my order.
Speaking of elephants in the room, let's talk about the Fried Chicken ($12.00/half chicken). First, the good news: the chicken itself, whether leg, wing, thigh, or breast, was beyond moist. But the other components... could use some work. It was hard to identify the problem at first bite: the chicken's juiciness clouded the issue and led to all sorts of ridiculous internal comparisons: broasted chicken meets skillet fried, perfectly roast chicken that's been fried after the fact, and the like. The rose colored glasses wore away though, as the chicken cooled. A revisit after a sweep of the aforementioned offerings, and the chicken's moistness remained. But beyond that was... not much in the way of flavor, despite the 12 hour brining process. The batter itself, at first glance, is some of the hardest fried (read: darkest) in the city. Though it added an intense crunch to the dish, even to the bitter end (wait for it), along with it came a burnt, acrid taste (nailed it) that awkwardly lingered. At this point, Parson's chicken isn't better than the city's most ubiquitous chicken shack, Harold's, and hell, it's not even better than the exemplary waffle-supported version at Longman & Eagle.
The Funnel Cake ($6.00) went a long way toward assuaging my confusion. The dish was a delight of textures; spooning through the crisp, chewy batter itself led to a creamy, custardy brown butter base, while occasional shards of brittle cracked and startled. Something though, is needed to cut through the richness—a fruit jam or even ice cream would work wonders.
So the question remains: what will I think of from here on out when I hear "Parson's Chicken & Fish"? Well, I won't think "elevated shack food." I'll leave the regular old stuff to Harold's and other places on the South Side that have been chuggin' along for years with an ain't broke mentality. No, I'll think of the technique and deftness that accompanied the smaller plates—characteristics I've heard permeate the menu's non-primal fish and fowl cuts. And I'll also remember the Negroni Slushy, because hey, a guy's got to spend his summer somewhere.