Fried chicken and shrimp ’n’ grits are not the foods Nick Palermo grew up on in Syracuse. In fact, he had hardly cooked Southern at all before answering a Craigslist posting for the head-chef position at Bethesda’s new Barrel & Crow.
But you wouldn’t know it from reading the menu—where collards and corn show up in lots of dishes and the deep fryer gets a serious workout—and you certainly wouldn’t know it from tasting many of the plates that turn up at the dinner table. In most cases, there’s nothing pretender about them. And that’s with a cuisine that, while it’s an easy sell—butter! bacon! deep-fried everything!—is deceptive in its simplicity. In the context of the bougie food world, few things are more disappointing than a plate of flabby-skinned chicken and salty, heavy sides that don’t justify their massive calorie counts: It’s not as easy to pull off as it looks.
Palermo, though, is an ace with the fryer. His fried chicken tastes like what you might find at a Memphis luncheonette, despite its very un-Memphis-luncheonette preparation. It gets its faint hit of spice from a rub that includes curry powder, cayenne, and smoked paprika and its sublime tenderness from a turn in a sous-vide machine, where it cooks in butter and thyme before being dipped in buttermilk and flour and crisped up. It’s served over puffy waffles, and the crunchy, golden skin is terrific with maple syrup.
He nails fried green tomatoes, too, en-casing firm, juicy slabs of the fruit in a shattering crust and piling it with excellent pimiento cheese and slightly sweet red-pepper jam. It’s hard to pass up a round of soft, airy beignets laced with crab and dabbed with tartar sauce. A pair of soft-shells have an airy tempura batter set off with pickled radishes and stems of cilantro. Then there are the crazy-good rustic potatoes—baked until soft, then fried and finished in a pan with butter, garlic, and Old Bay.
Not everything benefits from a turn in bubbling oil—the deep-fried collard greens that arrive with a bitter, too-charred pork chop are sheathed in thick, greasy batter and taste like an experiment that never should have made it past the messing-around stage. And while I loved the plump shrimp bathed in a sauce of chicken stock, andouille sausage, and caramelized leeks, I’m not sure the accompanying grits gained anything by being transformed into croquettes.
Once you get away from the fried stuff, the menu ventures in different directions. Some dishes lean toward a brasserie (steak tartare, chilled Blue Point oysters, charcuterie and pâtés); others channel an Italian bistro (a plate of watery pappardelle or the wonderfully fluffy meatballs that Palermo became known for at the Old Angler’s Inn). Among the more ambitious plates—a boring, shreddy short rib, a nicely cooked duck breast with dull accompaniments—the standout was a cut of mackerel with grilled-corn salsa.
I’d stick with the crispier side of the menu and get a salad such as the lovely array of beets and strawberries with local goat cheese. And I definitely wouldn’t skip dessert. Not only does Barrel & Crow have a dedicated pastry chef (a sad rarity these days, especially at restaurants where most entrées are in the $20 range), but it also has nabbed one of the area’s bigger talents, Rita Garruba. Her confidently unflashy sweets—including a deeply chocolaty pudding laced with orange zest as well as a strawberry shortcake with almond cream—seem understated but deliver big when it comes to flavor. They don’t taste Southern exactly, but they’re a good foil to Palermo’s menu, and it’s nice to end on something other than a deep-fried note.
This article appears in our September 2015 issue of Washingtonian.