Chefs cook what they know best based on heritage, training or their own idiosyncratic style. When chef Josh Hixson opened 3 Crow Restaurant & Bar in Rockland over a year ago he was inspired by his Louisiana and Texas roots. He uses local ingredients but draws from Southern, Cajun and Creole idioms for delicious and often playful dishes, including kale with hominy, cornmeal-coated catfish, hush puppies and chicken and “dumplings.”
Hixon also owns 40 Paper, an “Italian Bistro & Bar” in Camden. But in a telephone interview, he explained his thinking at 3 Crow. “Southern cooking,” he said, “is the only true American cuisine.”
Some may take issue with that. Not me. I am strongly partial to Southern cooking, which is why I was so eager to try 3 Crow. It more than lived up to my expectations.
I went nuts for my starter of fish “ribs” ($8), actually collars of barbecued salmon. Serious chefs in New Orleans and elsewhere these days are reaching for this unusual cut (at least to Westerners; Asian chefs know it). The fish tasted sweet from the sticky-delicious bourbon and molasses barbecue sauce slathered on the crisp skin as well as creamy – odd for fish but true. A slaw of Brussels sprouts soaked up the rich fish juices and flavors. If you haven’t had fish collars before, be forewarned: They take some effort to eat, as the flesh is riddled with small bones. To navigate the minefield, pick the collar up in your hand, just like you would chicken wings.
Though offered as a starter, the gumbo ($9) was a hearty and delicious bowlful – spicy, smoky Andouille sausage with onions, bell peppers and celery in a double-rich chicken stock thick with shredded chicken and topped with a dollop of white rice; it could have sufficed as the main course of a light supper.
The fish of the night ($21) was catfish. A sweet Gulf fish, generally available farmed, the catfish was lightly coated in cornmeal, gently fried and served over a wonderful, coarsely textured celery root puree. Mysteriously, the puree was bright green, and it had a flavor I couldn’t identify. The secret ingredient turned out to be kale juice, which accounted for the novel color and taste.
We paused to look around. The restaurant is in a 100-year-old building that originally housed the Atlantic Spice Co., which produced the 3 Crow spice brand for which Hixson named his restaurant. More recently, it was a nondescript clothing store. Hixson transformed it into a Modern-meets-Arts-and-Crafts style space with tables and bar made from reclaimed wood and thoroughly contemporary lighting fixtures – glass globes holding filament bulbs that hang from the ceiling like bolts of light. The long and prominent bar is a good spot for dinner or for sampling from the 16 craft beers on draft or the extensive list of whiskeys. The L-shaped room also offers cushy banquettes.
The waiter brought our chicken and “dumplings” ($18), another successful dish and a playful surprise: The “dumplings” were actually potato gnocchi – fluffy, feathery pillows flavored with fresh thyme. They came with a tender confit of Creole-spiced chicken leg, carrots, peas and asparagus, all bathed in rich chicken stock with a touch of wine. The homey, easy-to-like flavors of the dish personified comfort food.
Were he in the South, Hixon’s Kale n’ Hominy ($6) might have been made with collards; by choosing kale, the chef was playing with Southern cooking in his adopted Northern clime. Hominy is rarely seen in these parts; Hixon sources his from Anson Mills, a famous heirloom granary in South Carolina. Hominy is derived from dried corn kernels that are soaked in an alkali solution, which makes the kernels puff up to three times their usual size. These chewy, soft nubs of corn are usually cooked slowly in soups, stews and casseroles. Hixon mixes them with braised kale spiked with vinegar, shallots and toasted garlic. Yet another soulful dish.
Hixson’s wife, Tara Barker, makes the desserts and continues the menu’s spirit of fun with items like “Coffee & Doughnuts” and “Root Beer Float.” The menu doesn’t state that the desserts are all gluten-free, and they’re so good you might never notice that without being told. Barker has celiac disease, so she can’t digest gluten. A chocolate devil’s food cake ($6) – a cupcake, really, was as tender and soft as if it were made with the usual wheat flour. The chocolate flavor was intense, and crunchy old-fashioned peanut brittle and ultra-creamy molasses egg-custard-rich ice cream gilded the lily. The parfait – a fudgy espresso brownie layered with a soft Kahlua cream mocha mousse – was equally satisfying.
As I licked up the last spoonful of cream and crumb, dinner done, I realized we’d swept every plate clean. That ought to tell you something.
John Golden, who lives in Portland, writes about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for local and national publications. He can be reached at: