Every square inch of our table at Revival was already overflowing with food. Still, the fried chicken was calling my name. Taunting me, actually. I asked my server for guidance.
"Trust this," he said, tapping his not-insubstantial waistline.
Done. I started slow — the fried chicken equivalent of training wheels — with a two-piece order. After the first bite I was filled with regret; I should have gone with the half bird, at least. Yeah, it's that good.
Suddenly, seemingly from out of the blue, fried chicken is everywhere, and nobody does it better than Revival.
The success is born out of discipline and dedication. Chef/co-owner Thomas Boemer scrutinizes every step of a procedure that includes putting painstakingly sourced Amish-raised birds through a three-day process, one that starts with a tenderizing buttermilk marinade and ends in a careful spin through the fryer, in lard. The result? A deeply browned, appetite-triggering coating that boasts a pronounced crispness but doesn't separate from the juicy, abundant and intensely flavorful meat.
As good as the standard version is, the "Tennessee Hot" rendition is even better. Taking his cues from a pair of legendary Nashville hot chicken shacks — Prince's and Hattie B's — Boemer liberally brushes the just-out-of-the-fryer chicken with a spice blend that's heavy on the cayenne pepper and paprika, burnishing it to a tantalizing red brick color, the slow-burn heat penetrating all the way down to the bone.
How hot is it? "It's spicy to the Minnesota palate, and delicious to everyone else," said my server. Truer words were never spoken. But the times, they are a-changing, because Boemer reports that nearly half of all his fried chicken sales fall in the Tennessee Hot variety. I have never been more proud of my home state.
A Southern childhood, revisited
Fried chicken nirvana aside, Revival is no one-hit wonder. Previous local attempts at Southern fare have generally harbored about as much authenticity as Dick Van Dyke's community theater Cockney accent in "Mary Poppins." But Boemer, following a welcome trend among American chefs, is immersing himself in autobiography.
Although he was born in Minnesota, Boemer grew up in the South — first the Carolinas, then Missouri — and the region's food, so foreign to his Midwestern taste buds, left an indelible impression on the would-be chef. Revival is his effort to recapture the unforgettable meals of his childhood and adolescence. It's sense memory as restaurant.
"My friends' mothers would spend the whole day cooking this incredible family meal, and it was nothing like we had at our house," he said. "That style of cooking is disappearing. We just don't take the time to do it, people just don't cook any more. It's important that these traditional Southern comfort food dishes be represented."
And they are, right down to the Type 2 diabetes-inducing sweet tea, the glorious bread-and-butter pickles, the crispy pork rinds, the egg-topped johnnycakes and the impressive array of bottled hot sauces.
Boemer's menu reads like the script of a Southern cooking travelogue. A nuanced curried rice dish pretty much encapsulates a few centuries of lowcountry culinary tradition into a single wide bowl, although Boemer incorporates fried chicken rather than the time-honored method of braising the bird. Plump, snappy shrimp — where does he find them? — and ultra-creamy grits catapult a person's taste buds straight to the balmy South Carolina coast.
The pork shoulder — oh, the pork shoulder — is nurtured over oak and hickory embers for eight hours until the smoke permeates every melt-in-your-mouth molecule of fat and meat, with flashes of vinegar cutting through the rich, husky goodness. And then there's the double cheeseburger, an instant classic that pays respect to the thin-pattied type found at Main Street diners. Skip the bacon add-on at your peril (Boemer makes it on site).
Vegetarians need not despair. The dozen or so side dishes are all beautifully rendered minus the benefit of animal fats and proteins, although they can be added later; witness the rice/black-eyed pea delicacy known as hoppin' John, which is delicious without pork but, it must be said, even better with it.
Boemer's mac and cheese is a revelation, a peppery crock of toothy pasta bathed in a molten Cheddar sauce and crowned with a crusty layer of butter-fortified breadcrumbs. Delicate heirloom rice is finished in butter, and that's all it needs. Fluffy, mahogany-brown hush puppies exude a clean, can't-eat-just-one corn taste.
But special praise must be reserved for the collard greens. So often they're cooked to near-mush, but not at Revival. Boemer, who buys the entire harvest of a southern Minnesota farm, maintains the plants' distinct texture and mellows their inherent cabbage-like bitterness with a bit of brown sugar.
Although the caloric pile-on can feel overwhelming (do garlic-steamed clams really require that habit-forming bacon?), Boemer also thoughtfully offers a few palate-cleansing detours around the intersection of Fried Avenue and Swimming-in-Butter Street.
Aromatic buttermilk ("To me, it's one of the quintessential scents of the Southern kitchen," he said) is the backbone of a tangy dressing — lighter and brighter than any standard-issue ranch — that clings to garden-fresh Bibb lettuce and croutons fashioned from sprightly cornbread. And he's currently offering a stunner of a watermelon salad, the melon a refreshing foil to smoked chicken and peppery watercress. More, please.
Praise for pie
Pastry chef Tess Bouska approaches her work with the natural dexterity of a White Lily flour-dusted Southern grandmother. Her specialty? Rarely seen — in local restaurants, anyway — iterations of time-tested treats.
Her prowess is immediately evident in the warm, butter-brushed biscuits, each so ethereally flaky that they very nearly split open on their own volition. Bouska could teach a Ph. D-level course on the art of making pie crust — heck, she could chair the department — and she doesn't disappoint when it comes to filling them with seasonal fruits and berries.
If there's an angel food cake on the menu, by all means, order it. But nothing surpasses the wonder that is Revival's banana cream pie. In this era of deconstructed desserts and their zillions of moving parts, we overlook the homespun merits of good-old fashioned pie.
Bouska removes all traces of the supermarket shortcuts that have besmirched the reputation of this Southern staple, replacing them with a best-practices strategy that includes a sturdy graham cracker crust, a hedonistic vanilla pastry cream, plenty of freshly sliced bananas and a flourish of mascarpone-enriched chantilly cream.
Visiting Revival and not partaking in this indulgence is the equivalent of touring the Vatican but skipping the Sistine Chapel. Get this: it's $4.50 a slice, maybe the bargain of the year.
After relocating their Corner Table to a roomier address a few blocks to the south, Boemer and his co-owners Nick and Chenny Rancone made a few key fixes to transform the place into Revival. Yes, it's still as cramped (and as loud, sometimes punishingly so) as ever, but playful, back-to-the-'70s decorative touches affectionately mirror the nostalgia coming out of the kitchen.
In a frustrating function of demand far outstripping seating capacity, be prepared to wait. And wait. Revival is a no-reservations zone, and the line, particularly at dinner, can easily stretch into 90-plus minutes. My suggestion is to knock back a locally brewed beer or cider across the street at the Lowbrow, or stroll down to Corner Table and sip through the wine list's lovely selections of California whites and Spanish and Italian reds.
One more tip: With the kitchen's default mode at "fever pitch," a planned takeout program hasn't taken off, yet. Until then, order accordingly. As leftovers go, that fried chicken is spectacular.
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