Some say Sazerac is America’s oldest cocktail. Certainly the New Orleans manufacturer of Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey says so; they branded the cocktail in 1850.
Casey Walsh, bartender and general manager of Mason-Dixon Kitchen & Bar, makes a delightful one. The rye cocktail is concocted with Peychaud’s bitters, muddled with sugar, poured into a chilled old-fashioned glass that’s had a quick dip in Absinthe, and then garnished with lemon peel. It goes down very well with chef Henry Besser-Rosenberg’s Cajun shrimp and cornbread, which is how we start one pretty good dinner at this Preston Street smokehouse.
Mason-Dixon has been open since last October, replacing the short-lived Quan Viet Fusion, which in turn had replaced the short-lived ThaiPas. The purple and orange walls of those places are now white, and the sesame smells have been swapped with aromas of barbecue.
The menu mixes what you’d expect from a southern barbecue restaurant – ribs, brisket, a burger, fried chicken & waffle, mac & cheese – with a bit of what you might not. The smoked beef marrow, for example, with its creamy-rich, liquid-y fat within the bone that’s served on toast with a pickled salad.
There are two more salads on offer: ye old beet with goat cheese, and a kale Caesar — dishes that now appear codified in the modern menu rulebook. Common as they are, the first stands out from the pack with beets that have seen the smoker. And with goat cheese that’s seen the fryer, showing up as soft balls within crunchy panko crusts. Apples, candied walnuts and a pile of arugula complete the plate.
There’s a black slate of juicy pink shrimp, which snap happily as you bite into them. The shrimp are coated with a beautifully-balanced spice mix and paired with chorizo of terrific flavour. Beneath the shrimp and sausage is a long smear of roasted corn purée punched with the heat and smoke of chipotle peppers. A hunk of cornbread is terrific when dunked in the smear.
Smoked mushrooms next, piled on pesto-smeared puff pastry, tucked in with crisp slices of the house cured and smoked bacon, and with cold-smoked cheddar, gratinéed overtop. A terrific winter dish.
Besser-Rosenberg is the smoker. He’s an Ottawa boy who began his career in the kitchen, as many do, in the dish pit. Over four years, he worked his way up the line at Pat Garland’s Absinthe Café, before heading to Vancouver’s Pacific Institute for culinary school. There, he developed a passion for barbecue. After travels through the American south to see what they know about spice, smoke, and meat, he ran the critically acclaimed Vancouver restaurant Buckstop, before coming home to open this place.
Curiously, the only dish that lets us down is the ribs. They come on a combo platter with slices of the delicious beef brisket. Dunked liberally in the bbq sauce, the ribs work better, but without lubrication they are too lean, dry, and under-seasoned. With the meat comes fries that are pretty forgettable, balanced with an above average cabbage slaw.
More restaurants should offer cookies for dessert. These are spiced dark chocolate, served warm, with a gentle chilli kick. Next time, I’ll order them with ice cream (3 bucks a scoop.)
The wine list is short with only one choice by the glass. Focus instead on the sizeable Bourbon collection, the cocktails, beer (two on tap, a dozen in cans) root beers, and cider.
Large plates, $15 to $30
Open Monday to Thursday, from 5pm to midnight;
Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.
424 Preston Street, 613-422-7880