Tastes of Dixie for a flourishing restaurant row on South Street West
In the Department of Patience Rewarded, Philly's latest hot resto strip - South Street west of Broad - has just changed its status from "long-awaited" to "happening now."
Funky stalwarts such as the Jamaican Jerk Hut and divey Bob & Barbara's Lounge have, of course, admirably anchored that stretch near the former Graduate Hospital with gritty panache. But the opening of pioneering Pumpkin BYOB eight years ago set a higher tone for the coming revival, and after a few years of trickling progress, the blocks from Broad to 18th Street have suddenly, finally, begun to thrum.
From single-origin pour-over coffees at cool OCF cafe to the impressive vegan bakery Sweet Freedom, decent Thai, Moroccan, and Indian options, a new branch of healthy-minded Pure Fare, take-out Italian (Quick Fixx), and very recent debuts for a pie shop (yes!) called Magpie, and a stylish new craft beer and whiskey pub (the Cambridge) from the owners of Hawthorne's, the nightlife vitality is palpable.
Another key but somewhat overlooked contributor to the resurgence has been Jill Weber, a career achaeologist specialized in Syria, who decided as a sideline to open with her husband, inventor Evan Malone, a curious little wine bar called Jet dedicated to bottles obscure and unusual. It's a worthwhile destination for the adventurous oenophile (see today's "Drink"), but caters to a decidedly small niche in this city obsessed with beer.
Their more recent second venture, Rex 1516 across the street, taps into a deeper well of potential. It's a moody Southern bistro that adds both a note of quiet sophistication to the street and a taste of hearty-but-genuine Deep South cooking, from shrimp and grits to crawfish pies and sweet potato whimsies.
"Faded mansion" is the motif Weber and Malone were going for, and with the velvet curtains, potted palms, recovered wood, and wrought-iron accents, Rex certainly delivers that vibe, especially in the intimate back bar where such classic Dixie cocktails as mint juleps, lime rickeys, and Sazeracs are crafted while vintage films like To Kill a Mockingbird play on the TV.
The dining room is left to the earnest talents of chef Regis Jansen, raised in Mobile, Ala., who lends a knowing hand to the Gulf Coast penchant for zesty seasoning and richness.
Imagine my delight at brunch to find crumbles of spicy, house-made chaurice - the highly spiced fresh Creole sausage rarely seen north of Baton Rouge - tucked into the folds of a perfect omelet with tender duck confit and oozing Taleggio cheese. Or a plate of buttermilk-enriched grits topped with spice-dusted shrimp and cubes of crispy pork belly. A sandwich of pulled chicken thighs braised tender in cider, followed by a dessert duo of sweet potato pastries - a pedestal of cheesecake with bourbon toffee next to a flaky hand pie with bourbon marshmallow sauce - sealed the deal for my return.
It was at that subsequent dinner, however, that it was clear just how important it is, especially with this genre, for a native Southern chef to be behind the line. Jansen, it turns out, was off that night, but I'd already guessed as much from a lack of finesse that left some of these dishes feeling heavy, overspiced, or just overcooked.
There were some successes, such as the garlicky hanger steak topped with bourbon butter beside okra and tomatoes, and the very good roast chicken with Dijon-spiked chicken gravy and buttermilk mashed potatoes.
But between the blackened scallops over salad and the blackened salmon special over chipotle cream, the heavy-handed use of Cajun spice powder (even Rex's homemade blend) began to taste redundant. The otherwise flavorful fried catfish starter had sat too long in the kitchen, losing its crunch. Of even greater concern was a roulade of stuffed pork loin that had been terribly overcooked.
Off nights happen in every kitchen, especially with backups manning the stoves (Monday and Tuesday nights, apparently). But training a crew for consistency is essential for longevity. And as I rediscovered on my follow-up meal, Jansen's menu at its best is worth preserving to keep this South Street mix diverse and interesting.
The pork loin that was borderline leathery at dinner number one was, at my second supper, as moist and soulful as if someone's loving Cajun grandma had made it. The juicy roulade of meat pinwheeled around andouille-studded corn bread beneath a rich brown gravy was filled, to my surprise, with big morel mushrooms. A pastry-domed bowl of crawfish pot pie was studded with tender crustaceans in a cheesy sauce that was rich and spicy, yet somehow not leaden, the oozy pepperjack melding with richly creamed house mushroom soup, and the zesty tang of tomatoes stewed (à la Rotel) with jalapeños.
Pickling lent surprising zing to some unlikely summer fruit, with red wine-macerated blackberries adding depth to a refreshing watermelon gazpacho, and, our favorite, mint-pickled strawberries layered atop a bruschetta smeared with black-pepper goat cheese that delivered layers of sweetness, creaminess, and tangy, herbal spice. A crock of Rex's homey macaroni, rich with Gruyère, Fontina, garlicky crumbs, and bits of house-baked ham, was the perfect comfort counterpoint.
For a complete sidetrack from the Gulf Coast theme, Jansen also happens to make one of the more palatable seitan dishes I've eaten, grinding his own wheat gluten and shaping it into a familiar loaf with veggies, ketchup, and bread crumbs. Glazed in a dark Dijon mushroom gravy, with a side of horseradish cream (the optional non-vegan touch), it tasted remarkably like an actual meat loaf.
For such divergent and flavorful fare, Rex has a quirky little wine list, with vinho verde and pinotage to match the smoke and spice. But I was most excited by the 30 or so burly beers chosen by general manager Heather Rodkey, including enticing selections such as powerful Allagash Curieux on draft, a large-format bottle of funky Stillwater Cellar Door farmhouse ale, and the chocolate-coffee darkness of Mudpuppy Porter by Central Waters Brewing in Wisconsin that I'd never tasted. Our soft-spoken server, who deftly described the food with helpful detail (his take on the pork, for example, persuaded us to try again), was just as fluent with the brews.
If I was feeling virtuous for my vegan entree, pastry chef Shamus Moriarty dashed that pretense with desserts steeped in unbridled Southern indulgence. The carrot cake, thus, must be deep-fried, dabbed with cream cheese frosting, and ringed with strawberry-rhubarb cream. The King's Gateau flourless chocolate cake is iced in peanut butter mousse, and crowned with banana ice cream and peanut butter brittle. The peach sorbet is not just summer-ripe, but honeyed.
Not unlike this long-awaited stretch of South Street itself. It is finally ready to be devoured.
Contact Craig LaBan at email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @CraigLaBan.