If you're Downtown looking for a lawyer around noon, you might as well have lunch at McEwen's on Monroe. There's a good chance you'll find your lawyer, and so what if you don't? You're sure to have a nice lunch.
It's hard to believe that Mac Edwards opened it just 14 years ago, or that it changed hands, going to Bert Smythe and John Littlefield in 2008. McEwen's has the feel of a place that's been established for generations, run by the same family closely guarding secret recipes. There's a nice lunch menu at McEwen's. It's big and varied, but not overwhelming. Want the seared tuna sandwich but not loving the carbs? You're in luck, because you can get the tuna (with kimchee and a sweet chili sauce) as an entree, and you get lucky again, because you get two vegetables with that.
When someone from the office is getting takeout from McEwen's, I often hear people ask for a piece of banana cream pie. But what I want, even if my meal isn't coming from there, is the squash. Remember your mom's squash casserole, the one with onion in it and cheese and crackers on top? And remember how you always ate the top first? At McEwen's, yellow squash is cooked in a shallow layer and finished with a generous topping of cheese that gets crunchy as it cooks. It's about as simple as a dish can get, and thoroughly satisfies.
Of course, the approach to updated Southern fare is nothing new, but it was when it began at McEwen's. A sparse squash casserole such as this one is a world away from one you might find a mile or two away, in a more traditional meat-and-three place. The same can be said for most of the other dishes at lunch: Mashed potatoes are excellent, laced with just a hint of garlic. The greens are firm, though not tough, and seasoned with red pepper for a kick. Fried okra is good enough, but if it were skillet-fried with a good dusting of cornmeal and black pepper, it would be better.
No matter. You'll be happy with your side items, and you can build your own vegetable plate for just $2 per item. There are about a dozen sandwiches available, including the excellent Cuban: Roast pork, sliced ham, plenty of melted Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard make for a tasty combination, and McEwen's has always had a nice take on this sandwich.
Pork loin is featured on the menu at lunch, glazed with a maple-horseradish sauce. At dinner, you'll find pork tenderloin with a maple bourbon glaze, served over a bed of creamy polenta. The serving is generous, the pork properly cooked and cut in slices that drape over the polenta. But when they say maple, they mean it. Perhaps it's heightened as it's mixed with bourbon, but the resulting sauce was simply too sweet for my tastes.
The small plates menu is a nice one, and light eaters can make a meal from one dish, with a salad or even without. Among the choices are three beef dishes, a very good saffron lobster risotto, and a crab tostada with a Mexican influence (McEwen's does a good job with Mexican-inspired daily specials, too, so if you find one being served when you're there, try it).
For dinner, we were compelled to try fish dishes. It was hot outside, and the fish was a light and suitable selection. Hawaiian blue snapper could have been any mild-flavored fish. The server told us it was like red snapper, only blue, and had no more information to offer. The world of fish is confusing, with names changing by region and some fish called one thing in the water and another when it gets to the table. While I trust McEwen's to be a restaurant that has a reliable source for seafood, I'd like for my server to be able to tell me more about it.
The grouper was excellent. The smoky chile beurre blanc brings a mild heat to the fish, which is lovely paired next to an elevated serving of rice and beans. The basmati rice is peppered with black beans and roasted tomatoes, and is delicious.
For dessert, the banana cream pie is the way to go. They call it McEwen's World Famous Banana Cream Pie, and it's certainly got a loyal following. The pie is very rich, texturally very much like a chocolate silk pie. There's no holding back, not on the cream, the butter, the chocolate drizzle on the top. Have at it. There's plenty for sharing.
McEwen’s on Monroe
Address: 120 Monroe.
Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner, 5:30-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 5:30-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Reviewer’s choice: Vegetable plate ($2 per item at lunch); grilled South Carolina black grouper ($27 at dinner); Cuban sandwich ($8.50, lunch); grilled yellowfin tuna ($9.50, lunch).
Alcohol: Full bar.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars