Friday, March 2, 2012
Lisa Garza draws from Southern heritage for Sissy’s on Henderson
Chef Jeffery Hobbs loves when customers tell him that the food is just like grandma's.
The candles on the tables at Sissy’s Southern Kitchen & Bar are perfect. They’re centered on each table, with their green moss accents evenly distributed around them in their glass holders.
The table settings are no different; Spode Delamere china plates adorn the polished – yet rustic – wood tables, and even the blooming flowers in their vases seem to be facing the chairs where the diners will soon be seated.
It becomes evident that Lisa Garza does not easily overlook details. And as she makes what is likely her fourth or fifth run through her restaurant, it seems she’s finally assured that everything is finally exactly where it needs to be.
“To me, the details matter because I think that’s what people sense – that’s how they know you care. When they sit down at the table and they see that you took the time to address the things that they touch, the things that they feel, the things that they hear, it lets them know that they’re welcome here. That’s the definition of southern hospitality,” she says. “The practice of southern hospitality is ‘everything I have is available to you.’ And I think at the end of the day, when you really think about what really embodies the South, you think about southern hospitality, and wonder ‘Well what is that really about?’ It is about the details. It is about thoughtfulness and really thinking about the person, really caring about the person you’re serving; it’s not just a dollar or a customer walking through the door.”
If Garza, who opened Sissy’s to much fanfare last weekend, seems passionate about the South, it’s primarily due to the fact that she is. Originally from Memphis, Garza has created a restaurant that she hopes will ‘transport people into a different time and place.” A walnut and marble bar runs nearly the length of the restaurant, over which light fixtures from Neiman Marcus hang, having been salvaged from the fire nearly 100 years ago in 1914.
“It was important to me to be true to the culture that we’re representing. It’s my family’s culture; I feel a responsibility to protect it and be honest. When it comes to cuisine and restaurants, I’m a purist through and through. And I think that’s what people really want – they want an authentic experience, and they know when it is and they know when it’s not,” Garza says. “And I believe what keeps them coming back to a place and makes them want to spend time there is that it feels real – it doesn’t feel fabricated. This restaurant comes from within me and the whole time that we were building this, I had a vision and I tried to stick to that vision – when my friends come here from Mississippi or Kentucky or Alabama, I want them to come in here and say ‘I feel like I’m home.’
And if the decor alone isn’t enough to make those friends at home, the food should certainly strengthen the sentiment.
There is, of course, the fried chicken. And yes, cornbread and biscuits and fritters are all available. But Jeffrey Hobbs (formerly of Suze) has made each dish unique to Sissy’s, whether it’s the ‘Squash Puppies’ – or, hush puppies made with squash – the Deviled Eggs with creme fraiche and Tobiko caviar, the Smothered 1855 Pork T-Bone (bourbon-spiked, caramelized onions) or the Texas Fish & Chips made with Shiner Corn Meal. Hobbs’s approach is one that embraces the simplicity of a dish while also taking full advantage of his experience and imagination.
“It’s food from the heart – we want to prepare meals here that are comfortable, but not too simple. Yes, there are a lot of simple ingredients on each plate, but we like to be able to put them together in a thoughtful manner and execute in such a way that it elevates the dish,” Hobbs says. “I loved it when our first order last night was a half dozen fried oysters and a woman said it tasted just like her grandmother used to make. I don’t expect my food to bring that type of reaction from everybody that sits down, but at the same time it’s really nice when it comes across that way – when it brings people back.”
It would appear at first that Garza and Hobbs are on the exact same page when it comes to the impression they want their customers to make, but a deeper look into the kitchen at Sissy’s might reveal an indication of an eventual rift – an immersion circulator.
“Jeffery and I fight a little bit about the some of the modernist approaches,” Garza says with a laugh. “And he’ll always say, ‘I promise, it’s making it better, it’s not damaging the integrity!”
While Garza laughs about the anecdote, she is undoubtedly serious about presenting an atmosphere true to the culture she is attempting to recreate. The waiters all sport bow ties and mix matched shirts, while the waitresses wear shirt dresses and aprons. Three mounted buck heads adorn the back wall, and their bar features what they call ‘Old-school Southern Cocktails.’
And while Garza can spend every minute ensuring the exact replication of the Southern culture she knows so well, she knows that its ultimate purpose is to bring to her customers an experience they can relish. The hospitality, the food, the decor are her way of making people feel welcome and comfortable, of pursuing what she loves to do.
“It’s just fun, and it’s not so serious, and I feel like dining doesn’t have to be so uptight. That was the biggest thing for me segueing out of fine dining, was that I really like to have fun, and I feel like food should be fun and there shouldn’t be so many rules. And we get kind of caught up in the rules,” she says. “Yes, I love going to New York and eating in a really expensive, awesome restaurant, but I feel like people have a better time in an environment where they can unbutton their top collar and eat with their fingers.”
Which is convenient, of course. There’s no other way to eat fried chicken.
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