When it comes to multifaceted spectacles such as the stunning indoor-outdoor restaurant-bar that now dominates the 12South landscape, there are many different ways to see things. While one diner might say, for example, that Urban Grub overwhelms with confounding multiple entrances and long wait times, another might argue that its labyrinthine layout affords coziness, with ample dark corners and private cabanas for conferring or canoodling. One might say Urban Grub's dazzling twinkle-lit-and-landscaped patios, wood-paneled dining rooms with retractable glass walls, and flickering pizza oven qualify 12South's newest hot spot as over-the-top and indulgent. Meanwhile, another might point out that a scant $15 at the easygoing fish pit and Southern cantina buys a taco-and-margarita meal that rivals anything of the sort in town.
In short, there's a lot going on at Urban Grub.
Co-founder Jay Pennington is not new to big-concept, eye-popping, architecturally arresting and culinarily eclectic restaurants. Almost two decades ago, he breathed life into a sleepy Vanderbilt-area backstreet with Bound'ry and its sister, South Street. Pennington, is no longer involved in those enterprises, but his ambitious 12South endeavor, which he co-owns with Billy Inman, shares many of the best qualities of those landmarks — from dazzling décor to bumpin' bar to playful yet accessible menus.
With a repertoire that winds through the South, from Apalachicola oysters (served raw or roasted) to Memphis ribs, with hints of hot chicken and touches of Tex-Mex in between, you might say Urban Grub's fare is a little all-over-the-place. On the other hand, with appetizers starting at $5 and steaks topping out at $43 and a bar menu ranging from $6 Bellinis to a $125 bottle of Silver Oak cabernet, you might say there is something for everyone.
Knowing that culinary doyenne Deb Paquette — a long-ago Bound'ry alum and owner of the beloved and bygone Zola who also helped Pennington launch the Local Taco brand — consulted on the menu, we were not surprised to find global flavors littered throughout executive chef Edgar Pendley's pan-Southern coastal-flavored repertoire. Hints of the Mediterranean, Asia and the tropics weave through Pendley's recipes for grilled Scottish salmon with pistachios, raisins, butternut sauce and pineapple salsa; Sriracha cocktail sauce on oysters on the half-shell; steak frites with chimichurri; and chocolate cheesecake with ancho chili.
Roasted beets — a signature Paquette ingredient — embellished Pendley's playful starter of frog legs, deep-fried and sauced in the tangy, orange-tinted style of Buffalo wings. A quartet of amphibious gams plated with a medley of cubed roasted beets, shaved celery and bleu cheese made an amusing presentation, but the meat itself was flavorless and slightly watery inside the cloak of batter and hot sauce.
A generous logpile of innovative pork fries provided a creative twist on chicken fingers, with strips of smoked pork tenderloin buttermilk-battered, fried and served with the white barbecue sauce that more often accompanies poultry. Such a simple, filling and affordable bar snack ($7) made us wonder why we have not seen more of its kind.
A whimsical hybrid of tacos and hot chicken traded tortillas for fluffy slabs of Bunny brand bread. While the spongy loaf didn't exactly whet our appetites, the tender spice-dusted chicken — topped with tangy pickles — was a welcome boneless (read: more manageable) version of a cayenne-encrusted Southern classic.
Meanwhile, soft flour tortillas loaded with fried haddock, coleslaw and caper aioli were an excellent rendition of a familiar favorite street food. By contrast, pulled pork tacos, topped with romaine and what looked like crisp strands of Bloomin' Onion, lacked the brightness or sting of the promised elements of pineapple and habanero, resulting in a bland bundle of meat and lettuce.
Two standouts emerged in our visits. The first was an elegantly simple charcuterie platter of house-cured meats, including a thick slab of buttery tuna pastrami, supple kerchiefs of prosciutto, and "duck candy" — tender slices of rich meat laced with sweet hints of anise and other warm spices. In addition to the meats, the cast-iron tray carried cheddar, olives and a ramekin of pimiento goat cheese that traded the ubiquitous thin tags of red pepper skin for plump flesh of sweet orange bells.
Another exceptional entrée was a walnut-and-herb-encrusted fillet of trout cooked in a wood oven, topped with a lush tangle of arugula tossed with roasted butternut squash, orange segments, pecans and bacon vinaigrette.
Megan Williams' dessert roster was, overall, a blockbuster. Think butterscotch-bourbon blondies with caramel and smoked pecan ice cream, and peaches-and-cornbread pudding with buttermilk anglaise and cinnamon vanilla custard. But banana pudding — capped with a caramelized meringue the size of a small silo — stole the sweet show.
While dishes such as the trout, pepper-tinged shrimp and grits, and fried catfish with tomatillo salsa and fries don't need add-ons, à la carte meats — steaks, double-cut pork chops and lamb chops — have à la carte accompaniments, including decadent oven-browned mac-and-cheese, gouda-chipotle grits, and mashed potatoes that can be topped with caramelized onions, bacon, roasted garlic, lobster claw meat and truffle oil.
As far as salads go, Berries and Butternut was a gorgeous colorful medley of blackberries, raspberries, pecans and roasted squash over fluffy greens. Conversely, Korean wonton salad fell flat, with thin soy dressing and overbearing strips of fried noodles.
With so much going on in the menu, Urban Grub is a good place for sampling and sharing. In several cases — such as spicy grilled shrimp and biscuit, with intensely sweet pineapple pot de crème and bourbon butter — a single tantalizing forkful was plenty, while anything more was too much. Our server explained that he could place our order so that all plates would come out together, or he could pace the evening as a "tasting." The tasting plan suited us; unfortunately, it didn't work. Our food landed on the table in a simultaneous avalanche. But assuming the tasting system gets refined, it will make an excellent strategy for enjoying an evening in a multifaceted restaurant with many angles to admire.
Urban Grub serves dinner Tuesday through Sunday and brunch on weekends. The restaurant is closed Mondays.
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