With a motto like "Kickass Bar + Comfort Food," I was expecting The Southern to lull me into a contented food-induced slumber. The Bucktown restaurant is known for upscale interpretations of southern classics and for cheffy versions of mac and cheese (which is also served on The Southern Mac's food truck and downtown storefront). I knew to expect bold flavors and thoughtful presentation when I ordered the Fried Virginia Oysters ($12.00), but I wasn't prepared for the absolute wallop the dish packed.
Maybe I can partially chalk my experience up to a lack of exposure. Before trying this dish, I only had the pleasure of slurping oysters in the raw. But I think it's more than that. As over-the-top as this dish was, deliberate restraint in the technique ensured that its stars—oysters and lemons—remained in the forefront throughout.
Whole oysters are dipped in buttermilk, dredged in cornmeal, and fried just long enough for a crust to set. The light breading, which had a nice grit from the cornmeal, was largely perfunctory; its sole purpose was to barely contain the flavor bombs within. Sure enough, the breading held for a split second before the oysters exploded with a brininess that blew everything else away.
Even more shocking were the fried lemons. Like the oysters, they were barely touched by the fryer oil, which meant that their naturally bright acidity wasn't muted at all. I was basically eating whole raw lemon slices, but something about breading and frying them made that ok. By the time I finished the dish, I had developed an alternating oyster/lemon rhythm that was infectious enough to be toe-tapping.
The two were so good, they didn't need the shrimp boil aïoli. However, on its own the dip was wonderfully subtle; mayonnaise with a light garlic touch was mixed with very concentrated shrimp stock and what tasted like Old Bay Seasoning. It would be perfect for dipping for the hand-cut fries I saw on surrounding tables. But as far as the oysters and lemons were concerned, I think a few healthy shakes of Tabasco would better contribute to the shocking jolt the dish seems to be aiming for.
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