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14. Building a Better Biscuit

 Embers Biscuits & Barbecue put up its signage yesterday as workers work busily to finish interior work. The restaurant is anticipated to open in late July.

Embers Biscuits & Bar-B-Que put up its signage yesterday. The restaurant is anticipated to open in late July.

Newcomb’s new drive-through/to-go concept banks on bang-up breakfast and barbecue.

Biscuits and butts are the foundation of Oxford’s next Don Newcomb venture, but there’s more to it than that. And why not throw in a smoked Reuben while we’re at it?

Somewhere between a quick gas station or fast food breakfast and the sit-down experience of, say, Big Bad Breakfast exists an unfilled niche, observes Newcomb, Oxford’s dentist-turned-restaurant entrepreneur. Under his leadership, first McAlister’s Deli and then Newk’s Express Cafe developed into major franchise operations. The latter, now in its ninth year, recently opened its 54th store. That brand’s successful groove has enabled the never-static Newcomb to ponder his next move, which aims to open in Oxford in about a month as Embers Biscuits & Bar-B-Que—located on University Avenue, the launchpad from which McAlister’s and Newk’s became household names.

Newcomb’s vision for Embers is fast, high quality, drive-through or takeout breakfast, plus a fresh slant on barbecue.

Last fall, Newcomb came across a piece in Garden & Gun by John T. Edge about Earline Hall at the Biscuit Pit in Grenada. To be sure, recent years have seen biscuits trend up with culinarians and fast-food purveyors alike, but Edge was quick to separate Hall’s honest product from others. “White-tablecloth chefs now serve [biscuits] instead of baguettes,” he wrote. “Fast-food operators now build their brands on biscuits-and-tots combos. But something has been lost in the gestation. Too many of these nouveau biscuits are behemoths, fat specimens with canted tops that recall margarine-goosed popovers. Too few are slender exemplars of the baking arts that rely on the long career and deft touch of ladies like Earline.”

The article stuck in Newcomb’s thoughts like a biscuit crumb lodged between the teeth of one of his former patients. He’d already considered doing something different for breakfast, and Hall inspired him. “If John T. says it’s good, by damn, it’s good,” he thought.

“I’m really not a restaurant person; I’m an entrepreneur,” Newcomb specifies. “I went down there and asked Earline to come up and teach me how to make biscuits.” Hall says the quality of the biscuits owes to the buttermilk, but the finished item incorporates more—a confluence of nuance and, perhaps, just a little everyday magic.

“She came up and spent a day with me, and I realized I’d never be able to make biscuits like that,” Newcomb says. “She uses no recipe; it’s all touch and feel. She pours a little of this and that in, and she plays with it and rolls them out, and they’re good.”

So, Newcomb asked Hall if she’d come to Oxford if he were to open a restaurant, and Hall, a 17-year veteran of the Biscuit Pit, headed north.

“I try to put together the people who can get it done and give them an opportunity to do what they like to do, in a good working environment,” he explains.

Hall’s biscuits, slender, dense, and crumble-resistant, are a treat in and of themselves—as I learned when I bum-rushed the joint this morning in the middle of interior construction and biscuit testing—but they will also bookend eggs, smoked bacon, grilled balogna, barbecued Boston butt, and pastrami. Yes, that’s correct: barbecue on a biscuit for breakfast. Drive-through. In Oxford. That’s a thing that will happen. Soon.

“I’d like to bring the quality of breakfast up for people on the go,” Newcomb says. “We’re going to do biscuits like they’re supposed to be: handmade. We’ll do two-egg omelets, and all eggs will be cooked to order—not a big pan scrambled up, where you take a scoop and slap it on the biscuit.”

From left: Earline Hall, Ross Polancich, and Don Newcomb.
From left: Earline Hall, Ross Polancich, and Don Newcomb.

With Hall secured, the project that would become Embers—which would come to incorporate Newcomb’s love of smoked foods, as well—was suddenly happening. Newcomb already had the building, which he owned, on University next door, to the West, from Sno Biz. Next, Newcomb needed a manager. Ole Miss grad Ross Polancich had worked in the Newk’s organization and also had experience with barbecue as manager of Chimneyville Smokehouse in Jackson. Polancich says he was happy to head back north to Oxford and work with “Doc” again, applying what he’d learned.

“It’s an art,” Polancich says. Because of the slow process of smoking, he notes, there is little room for error. “You’ve basically got one shot each day. If you mess up a piece of meat, it’s not like you can remake it really quick. We’re all about the quality, and we don’t want to sacrifice quality for convenience.”

Smoked foods will be Embers’ forte, and it goes beyond breakfast. They’ve already begun stacking firewood out back and testing out the equipment. The space today was filled with the aroma of yesterday’s smoking.

“This is not going to be your typical barbecue with ribs and chicken halves and things like that,” Newcomb says. “The core will be smoked Boston butt. We’ll have a really good pulled pork sandwich. It’s got to be smoky, tender, and juicy, and you’ve got to have just the right sauce and just the right amount. We’re going to make our own sauce … Instead of whole chicken or chicken halves, we’re going to smoke skinless, boneless, fresh chicken with our marinade, and we’re going to slice it. We have our own white ‘ivory’ sauce for the chicken. There are a lot of things you can smoke that are handheld and good, without being your typical barbecue.”

Case in point: the Reuben. Newcomb’s also a longtime fan of Reuben sandwiches, and good ones, he says, are hard to come by. Embers will smoke the corned beef for its Reubens, which will be available in both sandwich and quesadilla configurations. Each will use a combination of provolone and swiss cheeses, and the sandwich’s bread will be buttered and grilled.

Another basic sandwich Newcomb feels isn’t done well on other menus is the grilled cheese. “The bread has to be white, buttered, with American cheese, and grilled,” he says. “We’re going to do a variation with a thin slice of tomato, sprinkled with oregano, between the two pieces of cheese.”

Among Embers’ side items will be homemade fries and potato chips, Polancich says.

Barring unforeseen delay, Embers anticipates opening to the public by late July, with walk-in and call-in ordering and drive-through service.

— Tad Wilkes, tad.wilkes@hottytoddy.com



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