Southern Cross Kitchen
The shrimp and grits were going to be taken off the bill. So were the fried pickles.
And it was the least this friendly but utterly confused dining room staff at Southern Cross Kitchen could do after showing up beside our table with hot entrees - oblivious to the fact that we were obviously still digging into our starter plates.
"We don't want you to Yelp about us!" our waitress said with a shudder. "We want you to come back."
Perhaps checking the restaurant's Yelp rating is what co-owner Kim Strengari was so engrossed in, enraptured by her smartphone while our meal spiraled into disaster just one table away.
I knew we were in trouble right off, when a server couldn't even manage to deliver a $2 biscuit without making me rearrange our still-empty table to make room. I shouldn't have bothered. The leaden disc would've made a better hockey puck.
But it was not until later, when I declined to take home the rest of my fried chicken despite having taken only a few bites, that Strengari finally awoke with both alarm and charm. I hadn't made a fuss that the par-baked (then flash-fried) bird was juiceless and completely bland. I was coaxed by a manager to confess and then it, too, was removed from our bill.
"We make mistakes," Strengari said, "so we try to make it right."
The apology reflex is correct - to an extent. After three months in their newest venture in Conshohocken, just across the river from where Strengari and her partner, Marianne Gere, own Stella Blu and Gypsy Saloon, wouldn't it be better to get it right, instead of discounting the bill to apologize for goofs?
Southern Cross Kitchen is named with the Crosby, Stills & Nash song partly in mind, a verse of which is among the restaurant's many chalkboard quotes. My meals, though, instead evoked the immortal lyrics of rockabilly legend Marvin Rainwater: "So you think you've got troubles; The more you try the worse you get."
There is considerable promise in Southern Cross, a deceptively large bilevel space dressed up with appealing rustic accents (burlap, wrought iron, and hanging herbs), live music, and 23 taps of craft beer that, on their own, make the bar a destination. (I would come back just for one of my favorite new stouts, Babayaga from Pretty Things.)
But this restaurant's challenges run deep - from the under-trained service ("haven't tasted that, but it looks real good!") to a kitchen that couldn't find the American South if you gave it cast-iron pans and a GPS.
It's not that a skilled outsider can't learn Southern comfort spirit. But with little more than a cute concept and Internet recipe research from Gere to inform her chef, it's no wonder this menu has been reduced to myriad shades of mayo and cornmeal-crusted cliches. Or that one of the tastiest dishes, a creamy shrimp and grits, could just as easily have been sold as scampi with polenta over at Stella Blu.
There were a few other deep-fried high points, like the green tomatoes stuffed with goat cheese over a bright red pepper sauce; or those juicy fried pickles with Green Goddess mayo; or the fried oysters that were creamy-tender even if the corn crust was flaking off.
The tender braised short ribs were another can't-miss favorite that was generic enough to work, with pancetta-studded Brussels sprouts and polenta (er, grits) enriched with cheddar. The pork belly sandwich, grilled on ciabatta with ham, Swiss, and a slathering of Dijonnaise, was a worthy variation on a Cubano. The chicken and spicy sausage jambalaya was also extremely tasty, even if a bit too soupy (and assembled from parts, rather than cooked inside the rice) to be authentic.
And Southern Cross has more than a few great beers to wash it down, with those 23 rotating taps featuring American stars from Firestone Walker to Left Hand's refreshingly restrained English-style IPA, 400 Pound Monkey.
But let's face it: the giant craft-beer list, as much as I applaud its thirsty march to prominence, is becoming an all-too common cover for restaurants that don't have the rest of their act together. Anyone can order good beer.
And Southern Cross' many menu flaws cannot be completely obscured by the latest high-octane Imperial IPA. Or I could be wrong, judging from the dude at the bar who obliviously devoured a plate of calamari that had such a fishy stink I could smell it from the hostess stand.
In most cases, this kitchen's sins were a matter of finesse. The crab "martini" might have been fine had the shellfish not been smothered in too much Cajun mayo. The flavorful tequila and pickled jalapeño Margarita sauce was wasted on overcooked shrimp. The pulled-pork sliders were neither tender nor smoked, elevating the creamy cole slaw to star status. The meat loaf with mashed potatoes and green beans was so unremarkably bland for $22, I would have complained had it been served at a diner for $15.
In terms of value, I understand charging a small fee for the biscuits and corn bread, given that complimentary bread so often goes to waste. But though the moist corn bread was good enough, one can only hope the new pastry chef has since lightened those biscuit sinkers. (Curiously, Philly-style oyster crackers and horseradish are the non-Southern freebie nibblers.)
There is no excuse, though, for $28 crab cakes whose precious lumps were manhandled into pasty mush, then set over salad filled with half-raw beets.
On the other hand, I should be grateful our second-night server forgot to tempt our corner table with mention of some of the $30-plus specials on the chalkboard.
Based on my first visit, I wasn't sure I'd have been given the time to eat my money's worth. And the food rocketed out into the dining room at a 20 minute-per-course clip - despite a request to slow things down. Every 10 minutes or so, our server would creep up to our table, hoping to whisk our plates away and eagerly asking: "I don't want to rush you, but are you still nibbling?"
Yes, and though I'd hoped for some improvement on this return visit, I was getting Southern-fried heartburn in the process. Not that I'd Yelp about it.
Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/ laban_chats.
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Jane G's near Rittenhouse Square. Contact him at 215-854-2682, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @CraigLaBan.