Kitchen Shift 

click to enlarge JUSTIN FOX BURKS

Settle into a bar stool at South of Beale and notice how the downtown pub gets it right: old-brick ambience, hip décor, friendly servers, premium drafts. But don't get so sidetracked by your Schlafly pale ale that you forget to eat, because this newcomer to South Main is redefining pub grub.

"We left the menu up to our chef, Jeff Garrett," says Brittany Whisenant, who, along with Ed Cabigao, opened the pub in early August after three months of building renovations. "All we said is that we want restaurant-quality food but nothing too stuffy."

The trio met when they worked at Grove Grill, but Garrett's roots reach back to New England, which probably explains his menu's propensity for seafood. There are new spins on crab cake (lobster and scallop cakes served with wilted spinach and roasted-corn cream, $13), mussels (steamed in bacon, butter bean, and tomato broth, $11) calamari (steaks grilled with piquillo-pepper castrique, $10) and dip (sesame shrimp toast with molten brie, $12).

Garrett's menu, served until the bar closes between 2 and 3 a.m., offers something for red-meat eaters too. The S.O.B. burger ($11) piles fried-green tomato, blue-cheese mousse, and pickled red onions on top of a beef patty; the tasso ham and chipotle tamale ($12) is delicious with its crawfish red-eye gravy; and the crispy oxtail wontons ($10) are fried for dipping with mango-basil salsa.

"We thought people might be a little put off by the oxtail, which is really cow's tail," Whisenant says. "But it's one of our best-selling appetizers so far. It tastes a little like short rib or pulled pork."

Eclecticism also extends to the pub's wine list, seasonal sangria, and half-a-dozen signature cocktails. Blueberry Muffin is a crowd-pleaser, Whisenant says, listing these ingredients: blueberry vodka, blueberry-pomegranate juice, and blue Curacao. The sangria also is inventive, marinating peaches and basil in white wine. "They are good drinks for the summer, but they will change up along with the menu," Whisenant says. "We want everything to stay fresh and seasonal."

South of Beale, 361 S. Main, (526-0388)

Chef Ben Vaughn's new restaurant Grace hasn't opened yet, but it's already moved.

Originally planned for an historic building on Cooper near Union, Vaughn and his wife, Audrey, decided on a different location after a frustrating summer spent chasing permits. They were denied a beer permit because the building was too close to United Methodist Church, despite the pastor's support. A liquor license was possible but only with a prolonged and expensive appeal.

"We had our hearts set on the building, but our pockets aren't that deep," Vaughn says. "We decided it's time to move on. What matters most is getting our restaurant open."

The couple hopes to open Grace — also the name of their daughter — by the first week of October in the space formerly occupied by the dessert and wine bar, Sweet Bistro. "We are excited because the neighborhood has a lot of charm," Vaughn says. "We can't wait to put the brown paper up on the windows and get going. The space will be distinctly different."

Plans so far include an intimate salon in the front of the restaurant for mingling and drinks and seating for 50 in the back. Dinner will be served Monday through Saturday.

And what about the food? Vaughn, who was executive chef at River Oaks Restaurant in East Memphis, promises his trademark combination of French cooking and locally grown ingredients, along with some new techniques like sous vide, a cooking method popularized by Napa Valley chef Thomas Keller. Food is vacuum-sealed in plastic to enhance its flavor and texture and cooked slowly at low temperatures.

"We will have clean and simple food with lots of cool flavors pulled together," Vaughn explains. As an example, he cited this: crudo of tuna served with chilled English peas, baby croutons and micro-celery salad and finished with chilled roasted garlic horseradish. Micro celery by the way, are tiny, organic celery tops.

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