“It’s not South… it’s Southern,” I’m told; I try hard to listen as an epiphany of smoked flavours explodes in my mouth. I nod with the deep-sworn sincerity of a recent convert.
I take in the lovely surroundings of The Boston Butt, a split-level restaurant with the family-friendly part downstairs and the bar upstairs. Mounted papier-mâché pig, ram and stag heads stare back at me from the walls as I nibble on the Veg Burgeois P.I.G., or soft mini brioche filled with smoked mushroom chilli jam and topped with mascarpone and crispy mushroom. And that isn’t the only tempting dish on their rather extensive vegetarian part of the menu. Seated, however, on leather-bound couches running parallel to big round tables, just like the diner booths in the movies we’ve all grown up watching, I long for meat to chew. My mind plays a classic Sunday rendition of the mouthpiece. (You can’t hear it but I’m writin’ to you in that darlin’ Southern drawl that’s creepin’ up on me, Peaches!) Over a plate of their buffalo-style hot smoky chicken lollipop with a gorgonzola dip, Chef Siddharth Kashyap tells me about the Grillstock Festival, where he became smitten by the huge smoker trailers that passed him by.
The flavor of the meat there swept him off his feet. Armed with a mission, and with co-owners Nishant Rao and Meghana Shinde in tow, Kashyap decided to start smoking all foods. “Some just weren’t good to taste,” he admits, as I laugh through a mouthful of chicken. Amused at how tactless his food has made me, he happily lets me work my way through the second lollypop, while telling me about southern culinary traditions. Smoking, he tells me, was born from the economics of survival in southern America. In colonial days, meat distribution was driven by class distinctions and the tougher cuts of meat, like the Boston butt i.e. the cut from the shoulder of the pig that the restaurant is named after, were relegated to the slave class. The Boston Butt was stored into barrels called ‘butts’, hence the name. (Y’all can stop cringing now!)
Smoked on low temperatures for hours or days, cured over years, these cuts got their prized taste from traditions like pit cooking and slow roasting, all of which helped them acquire the flavor that has made Southern cooking the phenomenon it is today. It brings to mind similar Mughal and Persian culinary traditions. But southerners don’t believe in grand or fancy cooking. They use words like ‘hearty’ and ‘soul’ to describe their food.
A southern kitchen is described as the place where ‘bacon’s sizzlin’, grits are simmerin’, fried chicken’s poppin’, green beans are boilin’, cornbread’s bakin’, okra’s steamin’, collards are stewin’, banana puddin’s settin’ and pecan pie is coolin’ on the window sill’. (That’s the dream!)
Kashyap has adapted some Indian and other culinary traditions, even while largely maintaining the authenticity of southern food. That’s how an otherwise deep-fried, saucy chicken lollypop dons a smoked, sassy avatar. No liquid smoke for the chef; he believes in wooden pellets as they maintain the southern tradition of marinating the meat in brine while smoking it for hours on apple wood and birch and finally teaming it up with hot sauces. The first rule of southern cooking is thus followed: ‘Cook everything until well done and then some.’ Kashyap is just as much in sync with the fifth rule: ‘Always have biscuits or some kind of soppin’ bread every meal’. The Boston Butt folks bake their own bread and make their own ice-cream and sodas.
“When I first asked for the Weber Smoky Mountain, the only smoker available in India, they weren’t sure I got the name right,” says Kashyap, “They had a chef confirm that I wanted to smoke the meat and not barbecue it.” The passion and dedication nurtured for years by a child, whose father used to have him besotted with weekend backyard barbecues, is palpable as he reminisces about his childhood. I sink my teeth into the Asian-style smoked pork belly with pappardelle – silky bands of pasta with the juiciest smoked pork. While the pappardelle reminds me a wee bit of a chowmein wok, the overall flavor transports me to a world of cool breeze, front porches, fast horses and faster cars, beautiful women putting magnolias in mason jars, brawny men, acoustic guitars and beers – a world I have glimpsed in so many movies including one of my all-time favorites, Sweet Home Alabama. I am yearning for some typical sweet tea and sweeter peaches. Then they bring out the buffalo tenderloin steak, bless their heart! I find myself yearning for a good ol’ bourbon to accompany it. They serve their own range of pre-Prohibition era-inspired cocktails but I am high on steak.
One bite and I hear Etta James crooning ‘At last, my love has come along…’
Kashyap and Rao tell me they’re planning to have music that complements the ambience and the food. Southern America is known for its jazz, blues, country, gospel, rock n roll; so they’re introducing those performances by the people at the True School of Music, who just got done mourning their beloved platform—the recently shut blueFROG in Mumbai.
I make a mental note to turn up in a checkered shirt, a pair of jeans, and maybe even a hat the next time I visit, and sip on some of their Tiramisu Soda or the Curry-Scented Bitch and feast happily on my steak while letting the country roads take me home.
How to Get There:
The Boston Butt
Where: 1st floor, Rampart Row, Near Rhythm House, Kalaghoda, Fort, Mumbai
Contact: 022 30151244
Timings: All Days 6 PM to 1 AM
Cost: ₹1,650 for two people