Welcome to 1516 South St., location of the restaurant that almost never was. Annexed by the folks behind Philly Kitchen Share, the space was this close to becoming a modern deli in 2010, but after the partners disbanded, the project fizzled and the address went into the business of growing cobwebs.
Perhaps that’s what inspired Jill Weber, of across-the-street wine bar Jet, and partner Evan Malone to turn 1516 into a restaurant with a “faded mansion” aesthetic. When she hired Alabama native Regis Jansen as the chef, that look earned an extra adjective: Southern faded mansion. What does this look like, you ask? Think distressed-wood floors and exposed brick, marble and mahogany. Think frosted-glass pendants large as ripe cantaloupes, dripping smoky light. Think a Louis XIV sofa that begs for Vampire Jessica or an equally lithe young creature to drape across it. Faded Southern mansion? As a Penn anthropologist, Weber should know.
The dreamlike ambience of this four-month-old restaurant is convincing, but it’s Jansen’s bayou breeding that imparts a truer sense of the South. The lanky 29-year-old is a life-sized licorice whip; it’s hard to imagine him growing up in Fairhope, outside Mobile, on a steady diet of his mom’s home cooking. When Jansen adapted her crawfish pot pie recipe for Rex 1516, “I had to cut the amount of cheese by three-quarters!”
The panko should probably be cut as well. I chiseled a hole in the flaky, golden pastry cover of that very pot pie, savoring the cartoonish plume of aromatic, seafood-scented steam. Were I Pepé Le Pew, a smoky heart would have encircled my head. When my fork resurfaced, instead of crawfish tails enrobed in silky gravy, a clump of papier-mâché mix clung to its tines. This is the way Mama Jansen has made this pot pie for decades, thickened with bread crumbs and a blend of pepper Jack, mozzarella and cheddar in lieu of roux, so who am I to question decades of culinary tradition? Someone who needed to chug down his fizzy lime rickey just to wash the paste from his gums, that’s who.
The pot pie’s texture was unfortunate, because the flavors came over honest and pure: the mellow sweetness of a slowly sweated vegetable, the tingle of jalapeño, the richness of the seafood. And the pie crust, fashioned by dessert prodigy Shamus Moriarty, ranked among the flakiest I’ve had. In Moriarty, Jansen has no truer culinary ally.
“My take on Southern food is to try to take it away from a caricature of itself,” Jansen explains, “the ‘we got collards and ham hocks and we fry everything’ mentality.” That’s an admirable approach, one that dovetails with the smart philosophies of so-called New Southern cuisine and its patron saint, Charleston’s Sean Brock. But in the case of the crawfish pot pie, Jansen did exactly the opposite.
Other, less egregious misfires occurred along the way to dessert, but they didn’t interfere with Jansen’s ability to convey his style of Southern cooking. An arugula salad furnished with candied pecans and brown-sugar-and-thyme-roasted pears made a fine starter, but lacked enough of the sweet-and-tangy maple-and-cider vinegar dressing. The same candied pecans and sliced apples felt too generic for the cheese-and-charcuterie board. It’s 2012, not 2002. We expect more.
Japanese bread crumbs browned in Jansen’s “ham butter” is the best thing to happen to mac ’n’ cheese since … well, ever. Keep your lobster mac, your crabmeat, your chopped black truffle; ham is where it’s at. Too bad the cheese sauce was runny and broken.
I loved the spicy cornbread-and-andouille stuffing in the roulade of pork loin, but the dry meat was pounded too thin and cooked too long. I soaked the pork in the juices of braised collards, cooked up to five hours with ham hocks. It’s ironic that Jansen, a chef trying to unchain the South’s collards collar, makes some of the tenderest greens I’ve had. Ditto for the potatoes (sweets mashed with cream, brown sugar and Bourbon; whites mashed with buttermilk), okra (with bacon!) and chicken gravy.
Then again, the best dish at Rex 1516 was probably the least typically Southern. The serious burger, starring an inch-thick patty of ground brisket and filet, spoke to Jansen’s tenures at 1601 and Royal Tavern. Bookended by house-baked buns, the beef was topped with bacon, Gorgonzola and red-onion jam. The skillet-roasted chicken breast and hanger steak (glistening with whiskey-spiked shallot butter) also made respectable mains.
Moriarty’s Southern-inspired desserts, meanwhile, are more worth reverence than respect. The sweets feature intricate, intuitive details: vanilla beans pressed into a strawberry-rhubarb pie’s pâte-sucrée crust, a sticky toffee bread pudding based on house-baked honey brioche. Many feature boozy elements (Bourbon marshmallow, SoCo toffee) too, if you haven’t already gotten your fill from the neat cocktail list curated by manager Heather Rodkey. The Deep South was a chance to try elusive Bartram’s Bitters, here anchoring the sweetness of the drink’s rooibos-infused vodka laced with honey syrup. The beer list, like any forgotten mansion, is also full of treasures.
The best way to end a meal at Rex, though, is the king’s gateau, a column of flourless chocolate cake cloaked in waves of airy peanut-butter mousse and garnished with peanut brittle and banana ice cream. The king to which this confection refers is, of course, Elvis Presley, he of the proclivity for peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches. But it’s hard to imagine any monarch, past or present, turning this dessert away.