Picture your grandmother, the one who made you scratch-made meals as a child, her pie crusts impossibly buttery with Southern-Living-worthy latticework. Now imagine she’s driving a candy apple red Corvette and wearing Wayfarers. If that grandmother was a restaurant concept, she’d be Fine & Dandy, Jackson’s new classy burger joint that harnesses nostalgia and flips it on its head.
Fine & Dandy Chef and Culinary Director Jesse Houston calls it “grandma chic,” a juxtaposition of Southern flavors and global perspective. It all starts with the plates, vintage heirloom china that owner Ray-Scott Miller, President of Miller Hospitality, found by scouring estate auctions. “These old timey plates exemplified who we are,” says Miller. “We’re taking these old plates but making them modern and cool again.”
We’ll catch diners a little of guard. They may come in with that preconceived idea [of a burger], but once they have a menu put in front of them, I think they’ll instantly be drawn to the other portions of the menu, which include steak tartare and deviled eggs that have caviar and truffles on them.
It’s the same with the glassware, which Houston says, “totally looks like the crystal-edged glass my grandmother would have drank a Diet Coke out of while chain smoking.” Interior designer Mary Sanders Ferris worked with Miller and Houston to carry the concept forward into every corner of the restaurant. The tables are walnut butcher block and marble, juxtaposed against fixtures that ooze Sunday-best fine dining. Toile wallpaper, a callback to vintage early 20th century scenic décor, is festooned with edgy contemporary art depicting Jackson landmarks. The kitchen is encased in glass and tile, what the team calls “the jewel box,” which will allow diners to observe the preparation of Houston’s innovative dishes.
The menu features signature burgers, along with playful snacks, fresh takes on salads, and plenty of surprises. “We’ll catch diners a little of guard,” forecasts Houston. “They may come in with that preconceived idea [of a burger], but once they have a menu put in front of them, I think they’ll instantly be drawn to the other portions of the menu, which include steak tartare and deviled eggs that have caviar and truffles on them.”
We’re not trying to overdo things, but we are trying to class them up without it feeling stuffy. It’s just going to be a fun place to eat.
Houston and his team are serious about doing justice to their high-end ingredients, but the menu also reflects their collective sense of humor. Dishes have names like “The Worst Ribs in Town” and “Tater Tots We Didn’t Make.” The latter embraces the truism that humble tater tots are meant to come from the freezer, and it also points out the fact that almost everything else is made from scratch in-house. “We’re not taking ourselves too seriously,” says Houston, who has been twisting diners’ preconceptions for years. “We’re not trying to overdo things. But we are trying to class them up without it feeling stuffy. It’s just going to be a fun place to eat.”
In the “Salads, Not Salads” section of the menu, Houston expands the diner’s awareness of what a salad can be. There are certainly a few constructed on the traditional bed of greens, but others are more like composed vegetable dishes. “We’re arranging these things based on the flavor, not off an idea that people need to have a salad on the menu,” explains Houston. The chef is especially excited for the Avocado Mango Salad, a combination of chopped avocado and mango tossed in a sambal lime vinaigrette over warm Delta Blues rice, with chopped peanuts, crispy garlic and shallots, and fresh cilantro, mint, and basil. The dish hearkens back to his own recent memories of cooking in Mexico and Vietnam, cultures that share almost all those ingredients.
Houston and Miller see eye to eye on their approach to food. “In order for people to love your food,” says Miller, there needs to be nostalgia there. You need to be able to say, ‘there’s this hint of my childhood. A hint of my history. It hits home. It hits to my heart.’ But at the same time, it feels modern and new.”
Aside from the food itself, the most important element of creating a feeling of home is the service. This is the world of Hospitality Director Marisa Marino, new to Jackson, who plans to elevate the dining experience to a new level. Houston calls her “a strong-willed person” and a “fireball.” Miller explains that her greatest assets are an “empathy and intuitiveness that makes her one of the best people at hospitality I’ve ever met.”
Ray-Scott Miller’s approach has enabled all of this to happen. He has a unique skill set: a passion for food informed by extensive travel and time spent in kitchens of chefs like John Currence of Oxford; and a business and real estate background that gives him a unique edge. He believes in the power of collaboration; assembling talented people and trusting them to do what they do best. “What we’re doing with Fine & Dandy is where I see the future of Miller Hospitality,” he says. “Supporting young talented chefs to do what they love, and providing a structure and a business model so they can be successful.”
Miller’s humility and drive can be traced back to the influence of John Currence, whose portfolio of restaurants have helped put Mississippi on the contemporary culinary map. In the early 2000s, Currence made Miller his pastry chef, a post often perceived in kitchens as second fiddle. It was here that Miller had his formative pie crust experience. “My pie crusts were never good enough,” Miller remembers. “[Currence] insisted on all these steps that I had to do to get it right.” Currence left Miller with the pie crust recipe, pointed him to the hottest part of the oven, and left him to figure it out. Miller persisted. “Culinary school taught me how to cook food,” he says. “John Currence taught me how to cook food well.”
It’s clear that all involved at Fine & Dandy have deep trust and belief in the food and in the team. And they want the diners to trust them, as well. “We really want to bring something new and fresh to the market,” says Houston. “We want you to trust us – that we know what we’re doing and that the plate of food that we create is going to be the best thing for you.”
When it opens this fall, Fine & Dandy will shake up the city’s culinary scene and surprise guests while paying homage to the beloved food traditions of the region. One thing’s for sure. It’s not your grandmother’s burger joint.
Learn more at www.eatdandy.com.
As one of several chefs that have been reshaping the culinary landscape in Jackson with high quality food and creative menus, we wanted to know more about what inspires his cooking and who his kitchen heroes are, so we sat down for nine questions with Chef Jesse Houston.
Q&A with Jesse Houston
What is your favorite meal to make at home? Lately I’ve been making a lot of pasta, which has always been a great love of mine.
What is your favorite kitchen gadget? A Japanese mandolin
What is your favorite restaurant (excluding your own) anywhere? Why? Mr. Chen’s. The food is incredible and affordable. They always impress me with new flavors and textures. On top of that, I can go shopping at the Asian grocery while I’m there.
What is your favorite food memory? Eating good sea urchin for the first time and being transported back in time to being a kid playing at the beach.
What is the most underrated ingredient? Celery.
When it comes to food, what is your guilty pleasure? Fast food. Specifically Taco Bell or Popeye’s chicken.
When you choose to celebrate, what’s in your glass? Usually a fancy ass beer or bourbon.
Who is your culinary hero? Rene Redzepi is of course the chef that everyone is watching. But also recently and more locally, David Bancroft is very inspiring.
Good music, painting, cooking. They all require a certain amount of artistry and sense of balance in the ingredients. Pick a musician/band or visual artist that you think gets it right. Ben Folds has always been able to get my heart and soul to an emotional place.