Regular readers of my columns know I love southern food. I will never say no to fried chicken, pan-seared trout or tasty Cajun dishes. When I read Rex 1516 opened on South Street several months ago, I had to dine there. The menu features a strong nod to the American South.
Rex seats about 40 people, including the bar at the back of the restaurant. Edward and I settled into a table for two by the window so we could watch the comings and goings on South Street.
I immediately fell in love with the menu. A number of classic dishes are tweaked with southern accents that intrigued my taste buds. I sipped an icy cold Bombay Sapphire martini ($9) while Edward enjoyed a glass of Malvasia ($8), a nice crisp, dry white wine from Spain.
We began dinner with the crawfish pot pie ($9) and southern Caesar salad ($8). Crawfish etouffe is one of my favorite dishes from New Orleans. Sweet, tender crawfish tails were lovingly prepared with the holy trinity of celery, peppers and onions. Seasoning is important and so is the sauce. You must not miss this dish when you dine at Rex 1516. It is one of the most original ideas in food I’ve seen in months. The pie crust was golden and flaky, perfectly prepared in an individual metal pie plate. I broke the crust and steam emerged. It was so piping hot, I had to wait a bit before my taste buds traveled to the Big Easy. I am getting hungry as I write this because the memory is strong.
The Southern twist to the Caesar salad was the cornbread croutons, which could have been a bit more crispy. Still, the bite-size pieces of romaine were cool and beautifully napped in a buttermilk dressing. Buttermilk is another key ingredient in southern cooking and it played its part well here.
The mac and cheese ($7) was prepared with Gruyère, Fontina and Swiss. Edward and I enjoyed this dish in a big way. The elbow macaroni was al dente, as it needed be, while a bit of tomatoes enhanced the three beautifully melted cheeses. The big surprise was the topping of crispy Serrano ham. Oh, be still my heart. This was genius. The contrast of flavors and textures was outrageously delicious, with the slight saltiness of the ham adding a bit of zing. I’ve got to try this at home.
Salmon was the fish of choice on restaurant menus during the '90s. Halibut and striped bass have replaced it in many establishments. Edward and I decided to try the salmon at Rex 1516 ($17) and I’m glad we did. A thick, center-cut filet of immaculately fresh fish was seared and topped with a ham hock reduction, which added a marvelous flavor to this fatty fish. I’ve never heard of such a thing but it worked. A mound of green rice received its color from the use of minced fresh herbs, which changes ordinary long grain rice into something special.
The only disappointing dish of the night was the pork loin ($21). It was a bit overcooked, but not dry as dust. It was stuffed with a cornbread and sausage dressing and napped in a morel sauce. Morels are in season now but the sauce was overly sweet and detracted from the pork. Whipped sweet potatoes also were too sweet to my taste and the collards imparted a bit too much vinegar. Edward, on the other hand, liked the tang of the greens.
Service was excellent. Several servers took good care of their guests with ease and a smile. Evidently Rex 1516 has a following because the restaurant was nearly filled by the time we left.
The southern accents here will keep you happy during dinner. Do not miss the crawfish pot pie. And don’t forget to make a reservation.
Two-and-a-half tips of the toque to Rex 1516. SPR
1516 South St.
Contact the South Philly Review at email@example.com.