Southern Comfort: South Reviewed
The first time I had chef Paul Martin’s food, I was standing in the street. Or a parking lot, maybe. Under a tent and the night sky. We both were—the two of us in attendance at some food festival or another—and though I don’t recall precisely what he was serving (shrimp for sure; some kind of sauce as smooth and rich as velvet), I do remember its effect. I couldn’t stop talking about it, demanding that people drop whatever they were eating and go, immediately, to taste what Martin was cooking. Eventually, I’d annoyed enough people and driven away all my friends and was free to just circle Martin’s table alone like a fat shark, pathetic but happy.
Martin was cooking at Mamou then, a Cajun-Creole place over on 13th Street, and though it was one of those restaurants that seemed to be overlooked by pretty much everyone, I went there, ate, drank—hoping only to get more food and more of those hot, immediate stabs of joy I’d experienced on the street.
But I was chasing the dragon, you know? While everything at Mamou was good, nothing was as good as that first sweet hit. And then Mamou closed, and I forgot all about Paul Martin. Until I made it into South, the beautiful new Southern restaurant and jazz bar opened by the Bynum brothers on North Broad where Martin has landed as chef.
Southern food is the worst kind of food to do wrong. You know the saying Even bad pizza is still pizza? Yeah, well, that’s truth. Even bad cheeseburgers, same thing. Even bad pie.
But bad cornbread is not still cornbread. It’s drywall. And bad grits are simply punishment. They’re like oatmeal’s poor cousin—gluey and dumb. Screw up the grits, and no one—not even your mother—will ever forgive you. That’s because Southern food (low country to swamp-Cajun and everything in between) is America’s French food. Our most canonized, most soulful, most deeply traditional cuisine. It is, arguably, our bedrock cuisine–that food on which anything truly American must be based–or at least our foundational cuisine–that thing by which anything truly American must be influenced. And to attempt it when you don’t know in your bones you can do it well is suicide.
Martin, luckily, knows. He’s from Lafayette, Louisiana, born and raised, and comes to South by way of Austin, France and Portland, plus Catahoula, Heirloom, and those doomed days at Mamou. So when the server brings around the basket of little cheese (gruyère) biscuits, lopsided cornbread muffins and sweet cream cheese honey butter, you can taste a dedication and an understanding of the stakes in every bite.
When Martin calls the hot sauce spiked aioli that comes with his plate of buttermilk-marinated and deep-fried rock shrimp “comeback sauce,” it’s less Guy Fieri than it seems, because the goofy name isn’t hyperbole at all. You taste it, and then you want to come back for more. It’s just truth.
And when the server—one of a very good team that understands that good service often just means a smile and knowing when to stay away—talks to you about the house pickling program and the itinerant professional pickler South employs, it’s not a joke or some kind of Portlandia stunt, but serious business. The evidence of the pickler’s work lines the walls in hundreds of jars, each unique, each used (in its turn) by a kitchen that takes that bitter flavor, that astringent profile so vital in cutting through the butter and cheese and milk and cream of Southern cooking, as seriously as anything. On an appetizer plate of pimento cheese and benne seed pocket bread (big enough to be a meal, nearly), there are pickled beets and asparagus and beans and mushrooms and cauliflower florets turned purple, and they are all—every single one of them—amazing and different and better (in their mean) than any other pickling being done in Philly right now. And even if that might be hyperbole, it won’t feel that way in the moment. Pickled cauliflower should be awful. But South’s is just this side of divine.
Among the pickle jars and the whitewashed wood, under the skylights hung with artistic moss and empty bottles strung from strings (an alcoholic’s mobile, Faulkner’s sweetest dream), Martin and his crew do the classics (the creamed collards will fill you for a week, and stick to you like brimstone preaching). They do New South (excellent crawfish fritters, jumbled up in a smear of sweet-and-sour sauce that tastes, deliciously, like something from a Chinese takeout restaurant). They do fussy, sitting-room food like blue crab toasts with smashed avocado and crispy potato dumplings with a parmesan fondue. And they do modern standards like an excellent shrimp and grits—grilled Carolina shrimp over creamy, white, soft and perfect Anson Mills grits spiked with lobster stock and studded with lobster meat, and topped with a lace of lemon and saffron beurre blanc sauce to smooth things out. I would’ve loved the plate unreservedly if only I could forget the wings of dark and intrusive New Orleans-style shrimp barbecue sauce that Martin’s kitchen chose to spread across the well of the shallow bowl.
The fried oysters look great on the page because they bring so many friends to the table (tasso ham, green tomato marmalade, herbsaint butter), but none of this manages to elevate them above workaday fried oysters. The cocktail list (heavy on the brown liquors) is muddled and overly complicated to the point where I remember grapefruit juice and absinthe more than I do Bulleit rye and Famous Grouse scotch. And while the pressed lamb is vadouvan-spiced and the texture (like a slow-cooked pot roast, only stiffer) is ideal, the grace notes of the sides (bacon, kale, fig gravy) are lost in the dulling bulk of farro.
So no, not everything is perfect. But I love how close South’s kitchen comes, how wide its vision, how inclusive its influences, and the joy of its execution. Southern food is big and wild and hairy and mean. It demands attention and heart and a deep understanding of history—from field and farm to kitchen table and roadhouse plate. It will shame pretenders and ruin those who come to it without respect.
But South is getting there. It’s a restaurant on the verge of greatness—of defining its place in the grand tradition—and I can’t wait to see what it does next.
Two stars – Go if you’re in the neighborhood