In its early days, South on Main was a lot more willing to throw out the old menu and create a new one from scratch. Ok, that’s not entirely right; some favorites like the Hot Chicken Liver Salad and the Ribeye Cap have been somewhere on the menu in some form or fashion since opening day. Still, with the latest lunch menu, it will be easy for some folks to miss the changes. That’s because plates like the Catfish Basket and the SoMain Burger have garnered a number of fans who would certainly clutch their pearls if these beloved dishes were taken off. Still, chef Matthew Bell has room to maneuver on the lunch menu, and he’s come up with at least half a dozen new items that continue the restaurant’s creative salutes to Southern cooking.
“Lunch is one those things where people are sitting at their desk and they say, ‘I want that,’ whatever ‘that’ is,” said Bell. “That’s a little hard for me, to eat always ‘that,’ but every place has to deal with that. So I try to keep the regulars happy while still having some fun.”
“Fun” is the name of the game when it comes to South on Main’s Beer-Battered Onion Rings. Long a staple on the nightly bar menu, Bell decided to put them on at lunch for this new menu. I am not exaggerating when I say these are some of the best onion rings I’ve had. The flavor of the malt in the beer comes through unmistakably, and the rings are as crisp and nicely seasoned as you could ask. You won’t believe that’s Frio Light in the batter, namely because the onion rings have far more flavor than you would think possible from that brew.
You will always find at least one soup on the lunch menu at South on Main, and the new one this spring is a Green Curried Cauliflower Soup. Bell has been playing with more Indian and Pakistani flavors in his cooking in recent months, and this subtle soup takes those spices nicely. Bell credits his friendship with chef Zara Abbasi with influencing this soup and other Asian-themed dishes.
“She and I talk a lot, and much like the influence Africa had on food in the South, you see how things like a curry and a gumbo are so intertwined and intimately related,” said Bell. “The flavor profile is obviously different, but I just think especially in the spring, there are many things that curry speaks to, and cauliflower is one of those.”
A couple of the new dishes on the menu made me think of Sundays in the Appalachian Mountains, where families observe the Sabbath by making most of Sunday’s meal on Saturday. The new Egg Salad Sandwich calls to mind an egg salad that has been sitting overnight in the fridge until the egg and pickled flavors mingle and marry together. It could only go on toasted buttermilk sandwich bread, and the sandwich with South on Main’s hand-cut potato chips would fit right in on Grandma’s front porch on a spring day.
“We’re always trying to find that food that is not your grandmother’s food, because nobody can make your grandmother’s food,” said Bell. “But when you take that bite, it feels like your grandma or your family or your home. That’s what we’re going for.”
That Sunday picnic feel extends to the latest trout dish on the menu, the Trout and Potato Salad. This more than anything reminded me of home in North Carolina. The fish from Sunburst Trout Farms (which is literally minutes from my grandmother’s house) tastes as fresh as catching it yourself. Bell leaves to skin on to crisp up and pairs the filets with a mild potato salad with notes of green onion and white pepper. It just tastes like spring to me. Admittedly, the heritage of this dish was always going to hit my heartstrings just so, but I have no doubt that it will be a hit with most diners.
“I have to give my wife (Amy Bell) credit for that one,” said Bell. “She does like whatever our trout dish is, so I asked her what she wanted. She said she wanted trout and potato salad, and I just thought that’s awesome.”
Making an encore appearance at lunch is the Onion Tart, a light, simple tart that won’t leave you stuffed and sleepy at the office later on. The charred onion and the mixed greens salad complete this smart lunch option that still manages to build some deep flavors without being difficult.
But if you just have to have a heartier lunch, I would definitely recommend the Duck Confit. The tender duck is seared with a lovely crust and tastes amazing, and the sides are just as impressive. Bell is no stranger to collard greens, and this plate’s version is laced with vinegar and salted fat flavors that would appease any judgmental Southern palate. The cheddar grits are just as good and regionally appropriate, with the corn flavors playing first-string instead of taking a seat in the background. Bell tops it off with his signature pepper jelly, adding a sensible sweet heat that cuts through some of the fatty texture.
By now you might have grown tired of hearing us praise South on Main at every turn. But when food is this good and a menu is this well thought-out, there’s nothing you can do but acknowledge it for its excellence. To me, there is still no better restaurant in the city at taking Southern moments and memories and distilling them into each bite. With this new menu, South on Main has done just that once again.