At first glance, there's plenty about Justin Beckett's Southern Rail to suggest it's going to be just another pileup of overworked dining trends. There's the rustic-meets-Steampunk décor, the open kitchen, the communal table set with mismatched flatware, Homer Laughlin diner ware, and dishtowel as serviette.
It's the neatly rehabbed comfort food from Beckett, of popular Arcadia eatery Beckett's Table fame, that sets this deluxe dinner house apart. Housed in part of The Newton, former home of The Beef Eaters, Southern Rail takes the trend in mashing up fine dining with MasonDixon cuisine a step further. The tidy, not-overwhelming menu features dishes tarted up with sausage gravy and sides of cornbread, to be sure, but Beckett has finessed classic American dishes with some more subtle Southern influences, as well.
(Signature cocktails are less restrained and tend toward Southern tea sweetness; the Rail Runner wrecks good bourbon with honey syrup and Lillet, while something called That Dog Won't Hunt mashes rye and mescal with maple syrup and lemonade. The Bloody Mary is divine, though -- sharp with Tabasco and green olive juice, spicy with black pepper, and topped with a pickled carrot, the perfect prelude to either Sunday brunch or a latenight supper. And, in a town that shies away from pink wines, we were happy to find a Charles and Charles rosé on Southern Rail's everyday drinks menu.)
While not every simple dish is a success (the chicken and dumplings is beyond bland), many of Beckett's original recipes are stellar. A casserole of broccoli, cauliflower, and leeks offers a blissful combination of tender vegetables tossed with soft rice and bound with a creamy smoked onion sauce and sprinkled with the crunch of spiced nuts. The imaginative cornbread salad offers greens tossed with pickled beets, marinated tomatoes, okra, and grilled cauliflower. And whether you order it as a light entrée or as a sweet and salty appetizer, you mustn't miss the tomato, bacon, and onion tart, a gorgeous presentation of fire-roasted grape tomatoes drizzled with honey, nestled into caramelized onions and bacon chunks all piled into a flaky butter crust.
Blackened catfish is served cioppino-style, glammed up with olives and potatoes and tender sweet corn. The crispy duck leg confit is superb. Slow-cooked and cured in its own fat, it's briny but not too salty. It's served with an exceptional sausage-rich dirty rice, tangy with hot sauce and ham hocks, and a clump of unfortunate, overcooked collard greens.
I'll be back on Thursdays for the meatloaf. I swore I'd go to my grave never once having typed the phrase "melts in your mouth," but I must renege on this oath after eating Beckett's Gramama's meatloaf, moist and tender and punctuated with crispy bits of carrot. Its side dish of butternut squash dressed with shaved shallots, mushrooms, and spiced nuts is one dish I'm craving still.
It seemed churlish not to order bread pudding in a Southern restaurant. My dining companion and I ordered the bourbon-rich dessert meaning only to taste it, and ended up fighting over the last dense, sticky-sweet spoonful.
Beckett recently has added a weekend brunch menu that's worth sampling. Seated outside, with light-rail cars clanging past, we couldn't resist an order of bread pudding French toast, dense, moist, and lightly sweet and not overpowered by a good dousing of banana caramel bourbon sauce (nor by several banana slices that tasted suspiciously of butane).
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Shrimp and supercreamy grits came piled with fresh spinach, saved by tender shrimps in a fragrant chunky tomato pottage. The fried-green tomato po' boy was better once picked apart: The cornmeal-crusted slices of tomato slathered in creamy, tart pimento cheese spread were exemplary and should be ordered on their own as an appetizer; they're wasted in this otherwise humdrum sandwich. (I ordered mine the "chef's way," which turned out to be served with a generous glob of tasty bacontomato jam. Alongside the pickled carrot and tart tomato slices, this proved to be one too many tart tastes.) A side of soupy gumbo wanted more greens, although smoky flavors of shredded barbecued chicken and adouille sausage were nice.
We wrapped up brunch with a sticky bun, drizzled with a citrusy glaze, dotted with dried fruit and pecans, and less moist than a traditional sticky bun; we were reminded of an especially hearty cinnamon roll. Equally pleasant was the Southern hospitality of our servers, whose "ya'll come back now" approach was hardly necessary, given the quality of the vittles here.
The Newton, 300 West Camelback Road Southern Rail 602-200-0085 www.southernrailaz.com Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekends