Cocktails and Cajun Comfort at Bourbon Springs
If you haven’t been to vibrant Graham Avenue on the border of Williamsburg and Greenpoint yet, I present to you the perfect reason to explore this part of town. Named after a communal trout fishing lodge that her grandfather founded in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Emily Casey’s Bourbon Springs somehow captures the familiarity of a little restaurant in the south, but with the all the culinary chops necessary to survive New York’s competitive restaurant scene. The Cajun-inspired menu is sure to satisfy and the bar happens to make some of the best craft cocktails in the city. The interior is pleasant and charming; small enough to feel welcoming yet with table spacing optimized for conversation. Bourbon Springs also enjoys a quaint backyard complete with picnic tables surrounded by planters overflowing with herbs, tomatoes, and blueberries. On Sunday evenings, they offer seasonal all-you-can-eat seafood boils, currently featuring crab and shrimp.
Emily arrived for our chat, like a good chef should, carrying a bag of goodies from the market, including an edible flower garnish and raving about how amazing Kalustyan’s is (123 Lexington Ave). Her interest in food and its possibilities has been a lifelong passion. She recounted an all-too-adorable story of her five-year-old self playing “witches” with her friends around Halloween-time. They decided to bake “witch cookies” and substituted the sugar for salt. Being witches, surely they could eat these and they would be every bit as delicious, right? Emily learned her first cooking lesson that, unfortunately, not all substitutions work. Her mother believed in healthy, natural ingredients and never kept junk food in the house. Full of practicality even at a young age, she buckled down and baked for herself. Experimenting with food was a regular childhood activity, and by the time she was in high school, she began an exploration of savory cooking as well.
Emily’s deep connections to the south come not only from her hometown of Roanoke, but also the years spent living in New Orleans. She was supposed to be studying ancient history when at Tulane University but, instead of slacking off in the typical college ways, she found herself spending hours in the kitchen or at the shrimp boats shopping for the freshest of ingredients. She realized it was time for a career change and poured her heart and soul into cooking. She attended culinary school in New York at the Natural Gourmet Institute, worked at the ultra-luxurious fine-dining Indian restaurant, Tabla, and led the Housing Works’ catering team as executive chef.
Last September, the dream of opening her own restaurant finally came true. Although “it still feels really new” to Emily, things are certainly running smoothly.
The finely-honed cocktail menu which, of course, favors bourbon somehow feels perfectly in sync with the down-home southern food. Benjamin Zorn did an amazing job creating the cocktail list and each one is strikingly well balanced. The Country Club features WhipperSnapper whiskey and sour cherry. The cherry flavor is present and, although gracing this cocktail with a pinkish hue, there is nothing girly about the flavor. The excellent Hickory Old Fashioned has walnut bitters that bring out a nuttiness in the Maker’s 46. Although every cocktail offering is strong, my favorite of all is the Graham Ave. Switchel, an incredibly successful play on the colonial farm drink. If you are a ginger-lover, this cocktail will blow you away with the punchy spiciness of a holiday cookie and the subtle acidity of the citrus.
To eat, I recommend starting with the boudin balls, a classic New Orleans appetizer, made with Cajun pork sausage and rice, fried and served with a creamy mustard remoulade. Trust me, these are crave-worthy. Their fried oyster appetizer is a must, with perfectly seasoned breading and a delicate fry. The ham biscuits are also a real treat, with salty, crumbly biscuits and a sweet chutney that provides the perfect contrast to the country ham.
As expected based on the awesome oyster appetizer, the po’boy is also yummy and is, of course, served with a perfect remoulade. The gumbo may be a comforting classic, but my favorite entree (and forgive me for choosing the least Cajun item on the menu) is the bourbon burger, topped with garlic chips and tobacco onions. No, these onions are not cooked with tobacco, but their curly appearance makes them look like dried tobacco leaves, but I digress. Try it. You will surely love it too.
Of course, down-home cooking just isn’t complete without dessert, and boy does Chef Emily know how to satisfy your sweet tooth. The bananas foster features perfectly caramelized bananas served with a gooey, luscious caramel sauce. You will find yourself savagely scraping the bowl to get every last bite. The strawberry shortcake is served with a buttery, salty biscuit to contrast with the creamy whip and sweet, fresh berries. This was topped with those same edible flowers Emily and I munched on earlier which donated a bright, natural accent to the dish. The very best dessert, however, is the pickled peaches served with fresh whipped ricotta.
This has to be among the most wholly satisfying dishes I’ve ever enjoyed. The pickled peaches are made with plentiful cloves that both console and awaken the palate and are just shockingly good. These peaches are delectable even as a stand-alone dessert but are taken to a whole other level when combined with the creamy ricotta.
Bourbon Springs fits right in on unpretentious Graham Avenue. I love that upscale, expertly conceived cocktails (shoutout to you, Benjamin Zorn!) can be found in this homey little restaurant right alongside southern comfort food instead of at a trendy speakeasy or vainglorious bar in one of the Villages. So come, try this little gem that was inspired by the down-home warmth of the south. It is a refreshing respite from the rest of New York and the perfect place to enjoy a dinner that is both interesting and approachable, just like its founder.
Bourbon Springs is located at 425 Graham Avenue, between Frost & Withers St. They are open Tuesday to Friday, 5pm – Midnight; Saturday & Sunday, 11am – Midnight.