When do I need to head north for a taste of South?
It happens when Paul Martin's Cajun gumbo has my compass spinning toward his latest kitchen post on North Broad Street, where an epic pork porterhouse for two is slow-roasting in the oven and renowned local bassist Gerald Veasley is heating up for one of his Thursday-night jazz jam sessions.
The fact that such a confluence of good food and great music is a common occurrence in Philly once again - this time at South, Robert Bynum's new restaurant and "jazz parlor" - is a positive development indeed.
It's been nearly nine years since Bynum and his brother Benjamin closed Zanzibar Blue on South Broad Street. And though the live jazz scene has kept a steady backbeat in smaller venues along Sansom Street, such as Chris' Jazz Cafe and Time, the genre has for much of the last decade lacked a prominent mainstage.
That began to change in a big way last year with the opening of Heritage, the impressive wood-clad music and whiskey hall in Northern Liberties from the owners of Time. The return of the Bynums to Broad Street with their new project in the former Route 6, however, certifies that an actual jazz renaissance may well be underway - with a new demographic to fuel its growth.
That audience, not to mention several rising musicians, is younger than ever, if Robert Bynum is correct.
The other new detail? They clearly also care more than ever about serious, interesting food.
If Heritage's kitchen impressed with Sean Magee's approach to seasonal ingredients and scratch local cooking, the Bynums have shown a new level of culinary ambition with Martin's approach to new Southern cooking.
After a reconnaissance trip with the Bynums to their ancestral home in South Carolina, Martin has crafted a menu with considerably more upscale refinement than the Bynums' straight-up soul food kitchens at Warmdaddy's and Relish. And he draws largely cliché-free inspirations from the heirloom ingredients and modern notions that are energizing Southern kitchens from New Orleans to Charleston and beyond.
So, instead of fried catfish, Martin serves up silver-skinned Georgia trout over a saffron-tinted sunburst of Creole sauce scattered with green-tipped cauliflower and char-kissed moons of yam. An earthy slaw of celery root rémoulade pairs with the dusky savor of house-smoked wahoo over pumpernickel toast.
Some spice-dusted Gulf shrimp tap a classic lowcountry groove, scattered over creamy Anson Mills grits with lemony lobster butter ringed by the dark Worcestershire tang of a Nola-style BBQ shrimp sauce. Classic pimento cheese spread, meanwhile, gets a fermenter's update from "Pickle Master" Kieren "Chester" McSherry, served with a gorgeous array of veggies - okra, wax beans, mushrooms, purple cauliflower and yellow beets - each pickled in its own distinctive brine.
It's a fine dish for nibbling before jazz sets, which play out in a ticketed "parlor" space along Broad Street separated from the main inner dining room by a glass wall.
It's a deliberate departure from the all-in-one-room setup at Zanzibar, where the music and food were often forced uncomfortably to compete. Ideally, at South, diners come early for the first two courses before moving to the parlor for a concert and dessert. (Try the pocket pie of pastry-wrapped apples, or the chocolate custard topped with toffee.)
With that distinct performance space at the ready, the restaurant as a whole is a surprisingly natural replacement for Route 6, with only some light decor adjustments - replacing the New England tchotchkes inside the glass breakfronts with mason jars of pickles and hanging Spanish moss from the rafters.
Of course, the glass walls allow enough music to seep into the nonperformance dining area that noise levels can grow challenging. The straw-bottomed ladder-back chairs are not especially comfortable, considering entrée prices in the high $20s.
And the service, though well-meaning, can't resist the urge to smother guests with an unctuous eagerness for praise:
"How is your first bite?"
"How izzzz everybody?"
"How are you liking it so far?"
So many people came by to ask, in such rapid-fire succession, I barely had a moment to take a sip or lift my fork.
The Southern-inspired cocktails? Appropriately on a julep theme, but the booze-heavy balance and craftsmanship can be improved.
Martin, though, is turning out food that may well become a draw on its own, considering the continued lack of sophisticated Southern-inspired cooking in Philly. His gumbo infused with Jacob's andouille from LaPlace, deeply earthy, rich and brown around a pillar of filé-dusted rice, remains one of the most genuine tastes of Louisiana in town.
There were a few small hiccups. Too much monotone sweetness in the Beauregard sweet potato bisque. The fried oysters were a little too thickly battered in a corn meal crust, but were perked up nicely with a Pernod aioli and the sweet tang of pickled green tomato jam. I would have loved grilled fish with Sea Island red peas and creamy crawfish sauce had the grouper not been slightly overcooked. His pecan pie overdosed on bourbon and dark molasses, distracting from the delicacy of the nuts.
For the most part, though, Martin's kitchen delivered with finesse and fully formed flavors. On the quieter side, a plate of little brioche toasts mounded with sweet lump crab dressed in capery-mayo ravigote sauce gave me a momentary flashback to Galatoire's. Flash-fried cubes of kabocha squash and toasted almonds cleverly elevated kale in buttermilk dressing beyond the salad mundane.
A wood-grilled chicken marinated in Creole spice shows a bolder personality, served over a brothy basmati perlou (say: "purr-low") studded with charred pearl onions and Brussels sprouts. A vadouvan curry-scented lamb shoulder, slow-poached in duck fat, pulled and formed into a boneless brick bound with Activa meat glue, is a surprisingly contemporary presentation over toothy farro grains that sacrifices none of the meat's gamy goodness.
But nothing at South, really, can top the satisfaction of the gigantic pork porterhouse for two.
This 40-ounce hunk of mahogany-roasted flesh and primal bone makes a tableside appearance whole before returning to the kitchen. Once butchered down, it reemerges as a platter of sublimely juicy slices glossed with intense pork jus, and a rustic side dish of roasted root vegetables, crispy fingerling potatoes, and maitake mushrooms. At $45, and with more than enough meat to share, it's one of the better bargains around for such a bounty of carnivorous pleasure.
The mere possibility that one could then follow that feast with a live performance by the likes of jazz stars Oliver Lake, Robin Eubanks, or Wycliffe Gordon is dessert enough for me.
Next week, Craig LaBan reviews Bar Bombón near Rittenhouse Square
600 N. Broad St., 215-600-0220; southrestaurant.net
The Bynum brothers (Zanzibar Blue) have returned to Broad Street with a polished new take on the jazz club-restaurant, this time north of City Hall in the former Route 6 with an ambitious menu inspired by New Southern flavors. Chef Paul Martin (ex-Catahoula, Strangelove's) goes well beyond his Louisiana gumbo roots to draw modern takes on ingredients from the Carolinas to Georgia, including an epic pork porterhouse that gives the kitchen almost equal pull as the jazz parlor. Overeager servers have a tendency to smother guests, but South is still a worthy new destination for lovers of music and regional American cuisine alike.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS Gumbo; crispy rock shrimp; crab toast; smoked wahoo; pimento cheese; kale and kabocha salad; lamb shoulder; grilled fish with Sea Island peas and crawfish fricassee; shrimp and grits; crispy trout; pork porterhouse for two; chocolate custard; apple pocket pie.
DRINKS There's a list of Southern-theme cocktails (peach julep, South Sazerac; Kentucky Butler), but the "spirit-forward" drinks are not especially artful in craftsmanship. The larger, premixed "bottle conditioned" cocktails are a good value, with the rum-infused New Orleans Buck a favorite. There is a medium-size list of American wines, with hearty reds (Truchard syrah; Ravenswood Tedeschi zin) to match the Southern flavors. The uninspired glass list, though, is somewhat commercial. Best bet for quality value is with craft beers from local St. Benjamin's, Belgian Saison Dupont, or house brews by Evolution, including a low-fizz IPA on firkin.
WEEKEND NOISE It's a music club, so naturally noisy. But even on the non-concert side of the venue, the residual noise can hit an uncomfortable 95 decibels. (Ideal is 75 decibels or less.)
IF YOU GO Dinner Sunday, Tuesday through Thursday, 5-11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until midnight. Closed Monday.
Dinner entrees, $19-$28.
All major cards.
Valet parking costs $15.