South of Beale is not a restaurant, not a bistro, not a cafe and not a bar. It's a gastropub, and apparently that's difficult to define.
On its stylish Web site, South of Beale has a window that offers a series of definitions for gastropub: "combining a pub with the concept of gastronomy"; an "environment with a strong emphasis on chef-driven food, paired with good ale & wine, in a casual setting"; a "public house with high quality food a step above the basic 'pub grub'."
A Londoner who keeps an occasional blog about "pubology" calls the "phenomenon of the gastropub" a "contentious" subject, but that controversy seems to be about the emotional investment the British have in their pubs.
And a person could say that the prefix "gastro" -- it just means stomach -- has an unattractive sound.
But after a few visits to South of Beale, we forgot such quibbles.
The food chef Nick Ragazzo produces here is fanciful, skillfully executed and consistent from night to night. We tried a third of the plates on South of Beale's imaginative current menu, and all but one of the dishes were delicious and cleverly presented.
The braised pork belly, an absurdly rich pocket of meat and fat, melts on your tongue, and the (relatively) light and well-made fennel and apple jus that comes with it somehow makes it seem less indulgent. I took the sauce home to elevate some noodles I boiled the next day.
The oxtail wontons ($10), savory beef in plump dumplings, were on a special three-course menu last week with a sweet chili sauce, but the dish is also served with apple and pear chutney.
The Lobster & Scallop Cake -- you get one for $13, two for $20 -- is a rich and sophisticated version of the fresh fish croquettes one of my relatives makes. The title ingredients are blended with leeks, formed into pancakes and sauteed, served with a "chowder cream," clam stock and cream with a green tint supplied by melted leeks. It's garnished with bacon.
Our server accurately described the Sesame Seared Tuna ($13) as "deconstructed sushi." The servings of tuna top crisp, bite-size rice cakes, and come with a spicy mayonnaise.
The dish I could not resist ordering a second time -- hey, I needed to make sure the first order wasn't a lucky aberration -- was the Five Spice Seared Duck ($19). Ragazzo grinds cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, fennel and black peppercorn fresh for the spice mix. Portions of duck, wrapped in dense, seared skin, surround a plate of fried rice that is also generously laced with pulled duck. On top is an egg sunnyside up. Some of these plates are just gleefully calorie-laden.
From the a la carte menu, we ordered some "Cheddar Grit Fries" -- crispy batter logs filled with cheese grits -- and the satisfyingly creamy butternut squash mash.
The one disappointment was the dish of grilled calamari "steaks." The small slabs of white squid tasted burned, I'm guessing because they had accidentally been placed on the wrong surface or pan.
The wine list is small but entertaining -- I had a glass of Lodi Red Blend for $7.50 and a pleasant Ravenswood Zinfandel for $7; both were great with the pork and duck. Owners Ed Cabigao and Brittany Whisenant want to emphasize regional beers; Ghost River, Southern Pecan and Schlafly from St. Louis are all on draft.
For dessert, we had a brownie that was surprisingly average given the standard at South of Beale, but it was topped with an extravagantly good almond brittle. An apple and blueberry crisp with vanilla cream was also quite good.
The place itself, on an industriously well-kept stretch of vintage South Main, is clean and minimal in its furnishing. The background of deep brown and red brick walls more or less disappears at night. At the bar and tables, you are served a bowl of sweet and spicy popcorn, which is best when it's fresh and hot.
The server we had at South of Beale (that name, sadly, devolves to the acronym SOB) was efficient, knowledgeable and very friendly without being cloying.
South of Beale
Address: 361 S. Main
Telephone: (901) 526-0388
Hours: Opens nightly at 4. Open until 1 a.m. on weekdays and Sunday, until 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Reviewer's choices: Oxtail wontons, $10; Braised pork belly, $18; Lobster & Scallop Cake, 1 for $13, 2 for $20; and Five Spice Seared Duck, $19.