Chow, Baby recently played the lottery for the first time. I didn’t win, so I’ll have to delay the opening of my karate-themed soul food restaurant, The Kickin’ Chicken, which I planned for Magnolia Avenue. The Near Southside these days is like a restaurant garden in perpetual bloom, and I stopped recently to smell the roses at a couple of new spots. Heady perfume indeed, for the most part.
Brewed (801 W. Magnolia Ave.), a self-described gastropub and coffeehouse, is still a little hard to reach, thanks to nearby construction, but I soldiered through.
The place has a shabby chic vibe, with comfy couches and deer heads on the wall, like a cross between an opium den and a hunting lodge. Every nook and cranny is filled with vintage bric-a-brac that looks like it was salvaged from some eccentric artist’s garage sale. You order at the counter, and the food is delivered to your table.
My guest and I started with the decadent, no-ketchup-required Brewed fries ($4.50), which draw their flavor from duck fat, garlic salt, and pepper, and an order of Dijon-infused deviled eggs ($5), aggressively seasoned with horseradish. Neither were for the faint of heart. The fries were excellent from the first crunch, while the eggs, owing to their unusually bold flavor profile, took some getting used to.
Our first entrée featured a succulent, skin-on Texas redfish ($15), sitting on a bed of braised local greens cooked with onions and pork. The fish was flaky, tender, and ambrosial — an all-around impressive dish. The only near-miss was our other entrée, the quail and grilled plum salad ($12). The quail tasted like chicken, because, as we found out, the smaller bird was stuffed to the beak with meat from the larger one. The skin was crispy and beautifully cooked, but the chicken obscured the quail’s flavor.
The most fascinating feather in Magnolia’s cool-restaurant cap has to be the Flying Carpet Café (1223 Washington Ave.), a rug shop/BYOB Turkish bistro, set in a converted turn-of-the-century house. The ambience is homey and relaxed, and the front of the house is filled with stunning authentic Turkish rugs.
I love a kitchen that isn’t afraid of strong flavors, and the Flying Carpet’s shows no fear at all. The hummus ($8) with toasted pita bread was garlicky, rich, and fresh. The appetizer dolmas ($8), grape leaves stuffed with rice and garlic, were almost too tart. The lemon in the accompanying tahini cream sauce coupled with the lemon in the dolmas put them a little over the top, though the dish was still moist and fresh-tasting. The flatiron steak ($20), served au jus, was cooked a perfect warm, red medium-rare, and so tender it felt like cutting into a pound cake. The imam bayildi ($22), roasted eggplant stuffed with tomato, onion, garlic, and parsley, was soggy and overpowered by garlic. It was the only miss in an otherwise great dinner.
The service bordered on hovering — our server did everything but ask us for a bite. But service is usually the last element of a restaurant to come around, and it wasn’t as though it was bad — just a little over-eager.
There’s a lot to be excited about on Magnolia. Both of these restaurants are charming, with some serious skill in the kitchen. More importantly, each fills a different niche. Luckily for all of us, many competent people also dream of opening eateries, and, unlike Chow, Baby, some of them actually follow through.
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