A new modern Southern restaurant in Desert Ridge, High & Rye, stocks 120-plus whiskeys. The leftmost regions of its alabaster bar shelves sport international whiskeys. The rest are American. Befitting a restaurant that cooks elevated fried chicken and heirloom grits, some half the whiskeys are bourbons.
Bourbon flavors the barbecue sauce. Bourbon flavors the baked beans. “I love bourbon,” says chef Brice Niehaus. “It adds a nice sweetness. Instead of using sugar or honey, you can …”
Niehaus can wax about bourbon. He’s the kind of chef who doesn’t fit neatly into a kind of chef here. He moved to the Valley last year from Denver. Before Denver he cooked for seven years in Minnesota. For a time, he even cooked under Gaven Kaysen of Spoon and Stable, who just scooped a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Midwest.
High & Rye general manager Robb Gregg approached Niehaus to be chef as the restaurant concept was maturing. Niehaus and Gregg had worked together in Minneapolis, in the group of five restaurants owned by investor Gene Suh and his “college buddies.” High & Rye is the sixth in the group, which doesn’t consider itself a group and doesn’t have a name.
High & Rye opened on High Street in March. The restaurant is across the way from Rick Bronson’s House of Comedy. The design simulates eating in a mythically polished farmhouse: newly painted wood, posh “kitchen” area, a tabled “backyard,” string lights even inside.
The food is elevated Southern. And yes, there’s barbecue.
Niehaus has a history of smoking food but not one of barbecue. “I’ve always smoked meats, just never in the traditional barbecue sense,” he says. “Smoked salmons. Ducks and stuff. More of a French cuisine but for smoked products.”
High & Rye isn’t a barbecue restaurant. It’s a Southern restaurant that happens to have barbecue, which you may or may not want to enjoy as part of your meal. Smoked meats include 14-hour brisket, 10-plus-hour pork, house-made Texas-style sausage, and ribs. Chicken wings are also smoked; they come sheathed in a rub bristling with sugar and beside a dope sauce made from Point Reyes bleu cheese.
Niehaus sources from Anson Mills, a venerable purveyor of heirloom southern crops like Carolina Gold rice. The coarseness of Anson Mills’ grits often changes by the grind. Niehaus makes a shallow bowl of grits with shrimp, smoked sausage, and tomato sofrito.
He refines traditional elements of Southern cooking. He makes cornbread from heirloom meal, bakes biscuits potent with thyme, pickles cauliflower using champagne vinegar, and finishes with Maldon sea salt for another textural dimension.
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He takes Charleston’s Sean Brock and other new-wave Southern chefs as inspiration. He has closely studied modern cookbooks. He draws on their processes and techniques when making, say, a nice fried chicken with a thin batter and suggestion of Creole spice.
High & Rye musters a Southern platter flush with a biscuit, Texas Toast, cast-iron cornbread, pimiento cheese, bacon pepper jam, and more. The heart of the spread is folds of sliced pork from Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in Tennessee. The platter seems to be made for boozing, for a simple daiquiri made from strawberry-infused vodka, lime, and simple syrup, or better yet, a nice glass of bourbon.
High & Rye. 5310 East High Street, #100; 480-634-4143.
Monday to Thursday 3 p.m. to midnight; Friday 3 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to midnight.