The pan-fried pork shoulder at Sylvain in New Orleans. (Andy Staples)
NEW ORLEANS -- NOLA-based scribe Brett Michael Dykes is a friend to hungry sportswriters. He never steers us wrong when we visit his city. On a Friday night last April, a few of us got a direct message on Twitter from Dykes stating that he would be imbibing at Sylvain. If we were thirsty, we should join him. If we were hungry, even better. The food, he said, was incredible.
I hadn’t planned to eat an official dinner. I had been grazing at some schmoozefest and figured I’d had enough. Then Dykes introduced me to Sylvain chef Alex Harrell.
Dykes grew up in Terrebonne Parish. If you prick him, he will bleed LSU purple and gold. Harrell, on the other hand, grew up in Dothan, Ala. He rolls with the Alabama Crimson Tide, and that Friday he did not pass on the chance to remind Dykes of the Tide’s 21-0 win against the Tigers in the BCS National Championship Game the previous January.
The conversation then turned to Dykes’ favorite dish, but it never really left football. Dykes said his favorite meal in New Orleans at the moment was Harrell’s pan-fried pork shoulder with greens and grits. Harrell chuckled. “You know, those grits come from Alabama,” he said to Dykes. “They kind of burned going down, didn’t they?”
Any chef who will use his sourcing to troll his diners based on their college football allegiance belongs in the Heaven Is A Buffet Hall of Fame. But Harrell would belong there simply for creating that beautiful dish.
A man who grew up in Dothan would have eaten a steady diet of pork, greens and grits. These are absolute staples in the South. Sylvain’s concept is elevated comfort food, so Harrell’s challenge was to create a twist on the ingredients while still keeping the dish rooted in its paper-plate, church-picnic ancestry. The pork allows for some creativity, but greens and grits are greens and grits. The only way to elevate them is to cook them better than anyone else. Harrell does. His greens are sweet and bracing at the same time, with just a tiny kick to finish. The grits are so smooth and fluffy that they would never burn the esophagus unless that esophagus belonged to an SEC West rival.
The pork is the star, though. Harrell balls up slow-cooked, shredded shoulder meat and pan fries it. This locks in the juice and produces a crust that puts some of the best barbecue bark to shame. The great thespian Thomas Lennon* described the dish best: “It’s a pork doughnut with no hole.”
According to the teachings of the ancient philosopher Ty Webb, that makes it a pork Danish, but let’s not get caught up in semantics. By any name, Harrell’s dish dominates like his beloved Crimson Tide defense in the national title game.
* This actually happened the night I visited Sylvain. It was that kind of night.