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By Edwin Goei
Is Bosscat Kitchen & Libations a bar that moonlights as a restaurant, or is it a restaurant that's actually a bar? There was a time when we'd call it a gastropub, but that term is now as trite as frozen yogurt. As with other newcomers of its ilk, Bosscat is not a pub that merely serves gentrified bar food. Today's food-centered taverns tend to flaunt some sort of specialization, something beyond the thick burgers and premium fries that are basically prerequisites. The recently opened El Amerikano in Fullerton, for instance, majors in Mexican, with nachos and enchiladas, plus the jalapeños in the mac and cheese. The Eureka! chain is a student of whiskeys.
And Bosscat? It's fluent in okra and cornbread in a menu that's as Southern-accented as Polly Holliday's Flo. Its chef, Peter Petro—who also helms the kitchen of Ten, the trendy sushi bar that shares a hallway and a bathroom with Bosscat—cooks dishes here that may be more Southern than Ten is Japanese. There are collard greens and hush puppies. Actually, the collard greens are in the hush puppies, stuffed inside golden, fried orbs of cornbread batter, the outside craggly, the insides fluffy and steamy—a completely original invention that might seem like a joke if it weren't so delicious. And it's with this dish you realize that Petro isn't making fun of Southern food; he's making Southern food fun.
Take what he does with okra, a vegetable that most chefs who do Southern cooking around these parts seem content to relegate to the deep fryer. Petro doesn't take the easy way out. He pickles the pods along with cauliflower and asparagus, and he also offers them toasted, glazed in a sticky whiskey sauce and served with sugary Chinese sausage as a side dish that preserves just enough of the plant's mucilaginous charms. The deep fryer is saved for stuff you probably wouldn't think should be deep-fried—such as meatloaf, which is cut into cubes, then rolled in parmesan and breading before taking the hot-oil plunge. The results are disorienting. When you bite into the crispy outer cocoon and make the soft landing into the meatloaf mush, you discover the dish possesses two textures with which you're familiar, but never together.
24647 MacArthur Blvd.
Newport Beach, CA 92660
Region: Newport Beach
There are a few dishes for which Petro plays it straight. For the shrimp and grits, he sautés the shrimp in a Creole-spiced pan sauce then lays them atop a creamy bed of grits so enriched with Gouda you can hardly finish the thing without a glass of an assertive wine or a swig of whiskey. You must also try the cornbread madelines, an idea Petro seemed to have lifted directly out of Southern Living magazine's Best Recipes of 2012. And they are just what you'd imagine: cornbread baked in madeline molds, which is ingenious because the shape maximizes the crust-to-crumb ratio—something that would make both Boss Hogg and Proust proud.
You should also order the fried oysters, a simple but well-done dish my date insists on having every trip we've made. And if you must get a burger, opt for the Bosscat, a tall, juice-spurting, greasy-good, satisfying, two-fisted thing with bacon, black garlic sauce and a glossy bun that Petro would have never had a chance to show off at Ten.
But perhaps the most popular dish is the Duroc belly poutine, which isn't Southern nor is it faithful to the Canadian staple. It transcends that just as Bosscat has transcended being a gastropub. The base consists of potato wedges fried beyond the point of fries, resembling gnarled driftwood and crunchy throughout like those forgotten but coveted French fry leavings. Atop them are piled strips of pork belly still wiggling with fat, melted cheese curds and a duck fat-fried chicken egg whose yolk oozes out onto everything.
Everyone orders it—from the Newport Beach bros and their buxom blondes to the groups of young executives with near-identical dress shirts rolled up at the sleeves and no tie. All seem to have come for this simple, easy-to-digest Southern food in an airy restaurant with a barn-door motif and stools with wrought-iron legs that look as though they were recently forged by a blacksmith. It's perhaps apropos that the room is asymmetric—a sprawling rhombus with a bar in the middle and a tasting room where they keep a mostly Kentuckian and Tennessean stash of whiskeys off to the side. The restaurant doesn't fit into any boxes. Yet the waitresses are all young and versed in Southern hospitality in their denim and coordinated plaid shirts that you expect them to say, "Y'all come back now, y'hear?" when you leave.