Strip away its trappings, and Sissy's Southern Kitchen and Bar is a warm, stylish Southern restaurant where you can snack on fried chicken while sipping a glass of champagne. Occupying the quaint A-frame that was once Hector's on Henderson, it feels like a place where you could have cocktails with friends or take your mother for lunch.
The trappings -- namely, owner Lisa Garza -- give Sissy's another dimension. Garza became a local celebrity in 2008 after competing on Next Food Network Star, where her combination of eccentricity and glamour made her one of the series' most memorable contestants. Like many reality-show veterans, she saw some post-show turbulence, including a divorce and remarriage, before emerging again with her own restaurant.
At Sissy's, she's partnered with chef Jeffery Hobbs, with whom she worked at Suze, the restaurant she co-owned with her ex-husband, chef Gilbert Garza. The menu is inspired by Garza's childhood in Memphis, with recipes culled from her catering business and classic Southern cookbooks such as Sara Foster's Southern Kitchen. It can be cutesy -- Lisa is Sissy, and Jeffery is Bubba, and those nicknames appear on some recipes -- but that also adds a welcome personal touch.
The fried-chicken-and-champagne theme is a metaphor for Sissy's goal to be elegant yet down-home. (Sissy's is not the first to use it -- Fried Chicken and Champagne was the name of a cookbook published in 2011.) And fried chicken looms as a hot local trend for 2012, with the recent opening of Chicken Scratch/The Foundry in West Dallas as well as the arrival of Max's Wine Dive from Houston, coming to Dallas later this year.
Sissy's recipe brines the chicken and soaks it in buttermilk, then "fries" it in a pressure cooker. The result was an insanely moist chicken with a texture as soft as pudding, within a thick, crunchy crust. A drizzle of Sriracha sauce added a jolt of heat. It comes as a 2-piece plate ($11) or in a bucket (10 pieces for $20) -- dark meat, white or mixed -- with choice of coleslaw or the better option, mashed potatoes, skins on, made from three spuds: russet, red jacket and Yukon gold.
Shrimp and grits ($18), with 8 to 10 medium-size shrimp on yellow grits from Homestead Mills, was the next-best thing. The grits' subtle grittiness was pleasurably rustic, a reminder that you were eating adult food and not baby puree, with a dose of Sriracha to reinforce the point. Portion size was just right: neither skimpy nor overloaded.
Texas fish & chips ($14) would be a letdown if you're expecting cod; it's a mildly witty variation using catfish instead. It came with seasoned fries and house-made "gribiche" -- a cheffy take on tartar sauce. The entrees all exhibited Southern flair, from a pork T-bone ($16) with cornbread pudding to redfish ($22) with hominy maque choux. Dallas-Fort Worth boasts a roster of fine Southern restaurants such as Hattie's in Bishop Arts and Buttons in Fort Worth, but few dive in with such wholehearted conviction.
Cast-iron Texas quail ($24) had two fat birds on the bone with herb-flecked skin; but they seemed hastily cooked and rubbery. The accompanying Kentucky hoppin' John -- a ragout of black-eyed peas with onion and chunks of ham -- was excellent. The waiter didn't mention it, but you can get the quail and the chicken-fried steak ($18) in a reduced-size "Sissy" version, which we'll do next time to leave more room for the worthy appetizers.
Fried oysters (six for $12, 12 for $22) were exceptional, one of the best renditions out there. The oysters were dipped in a light batter and fried until pale tan, creating a crust that had the same mellow flavor and crispness as fried clams in the Northeast. They came with a cane-vinegar green sauce and an addictively hot spicy mayo. The other must-get were the squash puppies ($7) -- hush puppies with grated yellow squash mixed in, served with honey butter and jalapeño jelly. The size of golf balls, they had big crunch on the outside and a cakey, eggy interior with persuasive, satisfying strands of squash.
Purple hull pea cakes ($9) were a fried cousin to the squash puppies, but the crunchy coat enclosed a mixture of pureed black-eyed peas, with a few peas left whole for texture. Served with a salad of baby arugula, it would almost suffice as an entree for a light eater.
Desserts such as sweet potato tart ($6) and Alabama lane cake ($9) were Southern all the way; cocktails, too. Garza was a pioneer at infusing vodkas with fruit, and she has a collection of punches and teas combined with alcohol and fruit such as the irresistible Cucumber Cooler ($9.50), with gin, kaffir lime, cucumber and an especially floral elderflower. The wine list is a knockout, with food-friendly wines from regions such as Alsace and, in keeping with the restaurant's mission, a half-dozen sparklers by the glass.
Service is hit or miss; one night, we waited an hour for our food. But the servers look fabulous in their designer uniforms and aprons from Garza's apron line. So does the restaurant: Wooden tables have a mirror-finish gloss and the china is $30-per-plate Spode. Sissy's Southern Kitchen and Bar is so carefully detailed and designed, it feels like it was made for TV.