Anatomy of a Classic: Grilled Quail

Johnny Autry
by Kim Severson - Arkansas - February/March 2013

A sweet secret from the Ozarks

It’s time to talk about quail and chocolate gravy. Wait—don’t stop reading. There is a reason they should be married, and chef Robert Newton has figured it out. It’s not a far leap, if you take a moment to consider classic moles from Puebla and Oaxaca built with a touch of bitter chocolate and usually spooned over poultry.

Drawing culinary lines through seemingly disconnected regions is not a new sport for Newton, who was born in Missouri but grew up just across the border in Arkansas and now operates Seersucker with his girlfriend, Kerry Diamond, in Brooklyn. The restaurant has a wall filled with jars of pickled vegetables and a menu built from an amalgam of things like New York ramps, Missouri ham, and Carolina grits. But he has a particular fondness for chocolate gravy. He grew up seeing it cooling on the stove in countless kitchens in the Ozarks, a sweet slurry of cocoa powder, sugar, and flour stirred into milk. As Southern food goes, chocolate gravy is about as regional as it gets.

Quail, on the other hand, is much more broadly loved. Once the province of hunters exclusively, the bird is now readily available at groceries such as  Whole Foods, and farmed versions work just as well in Newton’s smart take on two seemingly unrelated Southern ingredients.

His favorite memories of chocolate gravy come from Mildred’s house. She was an Ozark auntie of sorts, and “there were always biscuits and a pan of whatever kind of gravy she would have going so you could get a snack,” Newton says. “Chocolate gravy is one of those lost things. I don’t ever see it on a menu.” So he decided to revive it, drawing on his culinary school education, his French-style training at places such as Le Cirque, and his study of food from Vietnam and Mexico to create a deconstructed quail mole. 

The birds, which he says work best semi-boned, are given an aggressive spice rub,  then grilled quickly over a hot flame. Meanwhile, you will have made your gravy, which resembles the best lowbrow dessert until you add the cayenne. Pool the gravy on a plate, add a bird, drizzle it with a little more chocolate gravy, and then shave some Virginia peanuts on top. A beautiful marriage, Southern style. And, believe it or not, that cold gravy makes a fine pudding the next day. 

Recipe on next page