I've always admired the audacity of Pulitzer-winning author James A. Michener, who took up his pen with enough intellectual gumption to write books called Alaska, Texas and Poland. If you're going to commandeer a single proper noun for your title, you're going to have a lot of folks with vested interest and firsthand local knowledge — Alaskans, Texans and Poles, specifically — looking over your shoulder and second-guessing your descriptions of mastadons.
Kind of like how we're all glued to the tube on Wednesdays to see if Callie Khouri & Co. get it right on Nashville. Sure, some of the elements of local color are a few shades from perfect. For example, if you watch the glitzy drama too literally, you'd think Nashvillians are all going trip-trop-trippity-trop across the Shelby Street Bridge a few times a day pondering where to get a tumbler of sweet tea and a tub of quality pork blood. But for the most part, Nashville has done a bang-up job showcasing Tennessee's capital city in her authentic New Millennium glory, from the polished peak of Pinnacle Tower to the manicured shores of the Cumberland and the burnished glutes of Musica. Cue the tears of hometown pride: Pork blood not withstanding, Nashville is doing Nashville proud.
Which brings us to the topic at hand. How does South restaurant and bar on Demonbreun represent The South?
Opened in 2012 by owners of The Ivy in Atlanta's Buckhead district, South sits on the retail strip that housed a string of kitschy souvenir shops back in the day — before the Country Music Hall of Fame migrated to SoBro and a condominium tower sprouted in front of Shoney's Inn. If diners on South's patio can divert their eyes from SEC football on the outdoor flat-screen TVs, they'll see construction cranes nodding and bowing at every depth of field, lifting more steel and concrete onto the gleaming skyline of the New South. You can't swing a dead cat from the front door of South without hitting another new catalyst of regional pride.
Yet step inside South and the view is more retrospective, with murals of dead generals and hoop-skirted Southern belles dominating the pubby decor. There are few establishments outside of Belle Meade Country Club where one can sup under the rueful gaze of the late Robert E. Lee, so the general's floating head sparked an interesting debate at our table. It went something like this: At a time when the South is arguably more dynamic, inclusive and innovative than at any time in history, a time when people are moving here and visiting in record numbers, what does the cartoon antebellum imagery of a restaurant called "South" convey about Southerners? If we brought our Yankee friends to dine on eggs named for Confederate generals, what would they think? Would they think we're all sipping Mason jars of sweet tea and reminiscing about plantation days?
Of course, they might reserve such Reconstruction deconstruction for another venue, since arguably, it's a heavier topic than a cheerful and well-executed menu of pimento cheese, deviled eggs and Jefferson Davis chicken salad (with pickled grapes and candied pecans) demands. It's enough to make you set down your Jackson burger (on Provence bun with bacon and pimento cheese) and ask how we got into this navel-gazing in the first place. After all, we were just looking for Yazoo on draft, bottomless mimosas and $3 Thursday appetizers, not a history lesson.
I'm guessing it's because in the current culinary zeitgeist, we're so used to talking about the interweaving of Southern history and cuisine that we can't nibble a grit without reconsidering its provenance. If you've still got that dead cat handy, try swinging it without hitting a Southern-inspired restaurant whose chef is passionately committed to honoring/exploring/reviving the agrarian history through the use of heirloom ingredients and heritage techniques and whose menu lists the farms where the food was grown. It's virtually impossible, unless, ironically, you fling the feline onto South.
Nowhere on South's Civil War-themed menu is there a word about where the food comes from. No mention of whether the deviled eggs with chow-chow have a free-range organic lineage or if the blue cheese on the arugula salad is kin to local goats. The bacon does not come with a backstory.
Despite its Michener-worthy moniker (and a dose of reclaimed barnwood) South is not that kind of place.
Like its sister restaurants in Atlanta, Birmingham, Ala., and Athens, Ga., South is the kind of place you go to watch a bowl game, get your bourbon drink on or nurse a hangover.
The tomatoes on the caprese salad were neither seasonal nor ripe, but the fries — sweet potato and otherwise — were kind of awesome. Shrimp and grits were comforting and creamy, fortified with gouda and laced with warm-spiced Cajun red sauce. Bourbon-maple French toast was fluffy and sweet.
Steak frites was glistening and flavorful — if not exactly remarkable for its tenderness — and well-accessorized with caramelized onions, mushroom, mint chimichurri and crisp hand-cut fries. No mention of whether the cow was grass-fed or happy.
Two Southern tropes were particularly well-represented on our visits to South: hospitality and fried food. Whoever is doing the hiring over there knows how to identify friendly, efficient people who can uphold the gracious attitude of the lower latitude. Likewise, whoever's in charge of the fryer has got the Midas touch. Fried catfish emerged golden, crisp and flaky, both in the generous fish-and-chips platter and on the po'boy with house-made remoulade. Fried green tomatoes were crisp, golden and juicy on both the eggs Beauregard (with bacon, pimento cheese and chipotle hollandaise on biscuits) and on the caprese (stacked with tomato slices, basil and mozzarella). In fact, the latter would be better if it omitted the anemic red tomatoes altogether and concentrated on the FGTs.
Fried chicken on the chicken-and-bacon sandwich was golden and tender, but the pile-on with gouda and Creole honey mustard was overwhelmed by bread.
Fried green beans with chipotle ranch were perfectly crisp and somehow never got soggy. The server all but pried the plate out of my hand when the meal was over, and I was still nibbling the last segments.
After all that deep-fried, cornmeal-coated, bourbon-soaked indulgence, I was ready to shoot the moon, with a cobbler or bread pudding, or maybe dip down into Louisiana for a bananas Foster. But no. South does not do dessert. That's hardly the Southern way. Then again, change can be healthy. Maybe that's what the murals of a bygone Confederacy are reminding us.
South serves lunch and dinner seven days a week and brunch on Sundays.