Leader of the Pub
Memphis' first gastropub brings imaginative food with striking flavors to South Main.
When a new culinary trend hits Memphis, it's an exhilarating event. When one trend in particular elevates our ideas about what a casual meal is and also what it can be, it's even more impressive. Located downtown on South Main, South of Beale provides a welcome introduction to gastropub cuisine, and during my recent visits, I found its menu to be lively, surprising, and just plain fun.
Gastropubs have been springing up in cities across the country, and owner/operators Ed Cabigao and Brittany Whisenant's experiences living and eating in Los Angeles and Charlotte, North Carolina, made them realize how great it would be to bring this type of restaurant to Memphis. In addition, Chef Jeff Garrett has created a menu that represents the best of gastropub cuisine.
So what in the world is a gastropub? It's a place with an inviting and casual atmosphere like that of a local pub, but with a serious focus on excellent food. (It makes sense that the first gastropubs are said to have originated in the 1990s in England, where neighborhood pubs are ingrained in the culture). The idea is that the pursuit of gastronomic delight should be an accessible, comfortable, and well-priced endeavor. Going to a fancy restaurant on occasion is enjoyable for some, but why not grab every possible opportunity to seek out new dishes and bold flavors. Now we can all partake in the hearty, decadent, and flavor-packed cuisine that gastropubs are known to offer. During my two recent visits, I found that South of Beale gets the feel of a gastropub and its take on the food just right.
I have never been a late-night diner; to be honest, I would rather sleep. However, this month a curious challenge presented itself: the lure of the late-night menu at South of Beale. It sounded inventive and just plain wonderful upon my first read of it online. I was just going to have to stay awake and hungry in order to try it.
The first time we arrived at South of Beale on a Saturday night, we spotted the restaurant's sign, a small orange shingle, right away, and found a free parking space in the restaurant's lot, located right beside the building. Not having to deal with a parking garage or valet set an easy, casual tone right at the start. I took in some of the details: walls made to resemble exposed brick, intimate tables, and low lighting. A large group celebrating a birthday enlivened the space right inside the expansive front windows, but once I stepped in the door, I blanched. The acoustics were not ideal for one raucous party to co-exist in the same space with other quiet groups. I simply shrugged and focused on the complimentary house-made popcorn that was delivered as soon as we sat down at our table. Know that this was not just any old run-of-the-mill popcorn. Served in a small aluminum bowl, it was redolent of lemongrass, Cajun spice, and citrus zest, and it wasn't greasy at all.
Our server told us that the kitchen would be switching over to the late-night menu at ten, but we were welcome to order off of it a little early. This gave us some interesting options. I chose the bacon bar pie, thinking it would be similar to quiche, but a handmade pizza arrived instead. I absolutely loved it: thick, curling strips of bacon, roasted onions, and Brie were generously slathered across a not-too-thin, not-too-thick crust. My dining companion enjoyed the triple grilled-cheese sandwich (aged cheddar, port salut, and manchego were the three cheeses featured). We also shared the crispy Cajun potatoes with avocado dip; this was a good mix of warm and spicy plus cool and soothing. The grilled calamari steaks with piquillo pepper gastrique proved to be a bit less bold and forward compared to the rest of the food we ordered; on the other hand, diners looking for something light would likely enjoy this dish.
So far, we were pleased with the intensity of the flavors at South of Beale, and the desserts we tried were as bold as the rest of the offerings. (I'll admit, I ultimately judge the creativity of every restaurant I patronize by one key factor: the dessert menu.) When our server told us our choices were rice pudding, pound cake, or a brownie, I figured that all of the chef's energy must have been channeled into the savory side of the menu. As soon as our plates arrived, I knew my first impression was wrong. The cherry-studded rice pudding was encased in a huge, warm, crispy globe, which was set upon a vanilla glaze. The warm pound cake was crisscrossed with dark grill marks visible underneath a pretty coating of peach preserves. Even better, both handily sidestepped being too sweet, which is what all good postmodern desserts should avoid.
The late-night menu was successful; I was happy I skipped my usual early dinner in order to try it. This is cuisine for people who are both ravenous and nonplussed by calorie count, I thought as I left — a perfect, easygoing Saturday-night meal.
The next time I visited South of Beale was a weeknight, and the atmosphere was low-key and comfortably subdued. We started with the sesame shrimp toast, butter-drenched and embedded with black sesame seeds and a warm Brie-and-shrimp dip. We also ordered the smoked seafood and avocado salad, the freshness of which my friend favorably compared to the ceviche she had just had on her island honeymoon. In a hollowed-out avocado gleamed a generous amount of salmon, shrimp, scallops, mussels, and crawfish mixed with parsley, vinegar, and bits of red peppers. This dish tasted healthy and light and would be the perfect choice for the abstemious diner. We hemmed and hawed over whether we were brave enough to try the oxtail wontons and peppered the server with nervous questions. Yes, these are basically fried pockets of actual tails, but we tried them, and it was not that scary. They were packed with concentrated flavors that reminded us of good roast beef. The sweet mango-basil salsa complemented the earthy wontons nicely.
For our entrees, we decided to go all out, and the lobster and scallop cakes were a hit. Complemented by roasted corn cream and wilted spinach, they were cartoonishly large with big chunks of the seafood. Our other selection, simply listed as Crock on the menu, was a pot pie with a twist: it included duck, andouille sausage, and root vegetables. A vented puff pastry enclosed it, and it was rich and hearty — a great dish to share on a cold night. We also tried an arugula salad from the reasonably priced "sides" section of the menu. A bit sour due to a vinegary dressing, it needed more balance to be notable, but we did like the presentation, with warm cubes of potato, rough slices of Parmesan, and local yellow tomatoes. We tried the brownie for dessert, and although it looked great studded with peanut brittle and with vanilla-raspberry sauce, we found it just a little cakey.
South of Beale has a straightforward wine list, including wines by the glass at $7.50 and $10.50, and some inventive ever-changing drinks such as peach sangria, along with local and regional beer on tap. As our focus was on the food, I came to the conclusion that more diners should take advantage of having a late lunch, dinner, or late-night meal there. I loved being surprised by what I ordered, and I thought the presentation was dramatic and pleasing to the eye.
All in all, it feels quite sophisticated and on trend to have a gastropub here in Memphis. Maybe the trend will turn out to be a tradition due to South of Beale's gutsy lead.