Southern cuisine, in a number of important ways, is where Italian food was in this country a decade or so ago. For all its regional specificity, for all its intensely divergent expressions, it’s still perceived as fairly homogenous outside of the South. Most people are just now beginning to understand the difference between, say, Cajun and Creole, or what sets the Low Country culinary heritage of South Carolina apart from its neighbors. We are just at the beginning of what promises to be an exciting, rewarding journey through all that the South has to offer at the table.
Rex 1516, the excellent new restaurant on a stretch of South Street that’s evolved into one of the more exciting dining destinations in town, takes this exploration in another direction. Rather than focus on the representative dishes of a specific part of the South, the team here is taking the flavors of the region and giving them a more chef-y treatment than they generally tend to receive up here. In that regard, Rex takes its cues as much from the groundwork laid by Marigold Kitchen as it does from, say, the excellent regional-specific barbecue spots around town.
Take the stuffed beignet, for instance. Here, it’s enlarged and expanded until it looks like the perfect hybrid of an empanada and a calzone. One is more than enough for two people to share. It’s filled with chaurice—like a cousin of chorizo—as well as shrimp, onion, jalapeño and blackening seasoning. Tucked inside the fluffy interior, and against the deeply nutty fried carapace, each forkful embodies much of what makes this kind of food so rewarding and overtly delicious. It’s even better with the sweet-spicy jalapeño jelly that comes with it, but that accouterment isn’t strictly necessary; the beignet itself is excellent enough on its own.
As you’d expect at a restaurant with such deep roots in the South, Rex’s menu demonstrates a love of the many cuts and flavors that the pig has to offer. Executive chef Justin Swain, who has recently stepped in to replace Regis Jansen, who had to leave as a result of medical issues but whose menu is still largely intact, honors the glories of swine with verve and real skill. (As Swain settles into his new role, he will be adding more of his own dishes, as well.) Warm cabbage salad arrives as a mountain of sliced purple ribbons studded with “pork belly croutons,” essentially deeply crisp cubes of meat and fat. The vinaigrette’s acidity cuts all that richness, and its own apple-cider brightness is tempered by the genius addition of rendered belly fat. The result is like some kind of wonderfully piggy sauerkraut in the very best possible sense.
A mac-and-cheese appetizer also takes advantage of ham, but in a far more subtle way: as a topping of house-whipped ham butter mixed in with the breadcrumbs. It works well in the service of the gruyere, Swiss and Fontina enrobing the pasta.
Not everything was as exciting. I was left a bit cold by the crispy flounder, which was a straightforward, pan-fried filet that could have used more salt and a squeeze of lemon. It was improved when forked with excellent, nutty black-eyed peas and a remarkably subtle ham-hock jus, but on its own, and in the context of the other fireworks on the menu, it was a tad disappointing.
But that was really the only letdown in an otherwise remarkable performance. Chef Swain clearly knows his stuff, and has learned well from Jansen, as a wonderful half of a Cornish hen attested, its black-pepper and maple glaze sticky against the teeth and protecting meat of serious succulence. Creamy, thyme-kissed pureed Yukon gold potatoes allowed them to approach the bird’s own savory majesty, and the little hillock of collard greens with sweet apples and golden raisins cast the classic in a new and exciting light.
All of this is well paired with a beer list of range and depth, a more modest but still well-written wine program, and cocktails that do justice to the Southern heritage of the place. (The sazerac was particularly pleasant.)
Desserts follow a similar trajectory, taking the familiar and raising it several notches. Pecan tart was framed by a chocolate, Oreo-like crust and a crown of wonderfully tart homemade buttermilk ice cream: perfect for cutting the richness of the ambrosial bourbon custard holding those pecans together. Fluffy chèvre cheesecake was topped by a smart blueberry apple jelly, but—almost unbelievably—it was the rosemary shortbread swords alongside it that nearly stole the proverbial show.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, as Rex 1516 is full of unexpected twists on dishes you thought you knew well. That’s its charm, and that’s where it succeeds most ebulliently.
1516 South Street
267-319-1366 | rex1516.com
Photograph by Felicia Perretti