New German Village eatery serves up dishes worth the price of admission
Within seconds of being seated in the impressive new South Village Grille, my well-trained server informed me that everything offered was scratch-cooked by a chef who'd attended New York's prestigious International Culinary Center, nee the French Culinary Institute. As Chef Josh Wiest's technique-flashing dishes began rolling out, my server's pronouncement became deliciously obvious.
Taking over the former Easy Street Cafe space, South Village Grille is easily the best place owned by restaurateur George Tanchevski of Old Skool, Local Cantina and Aladdin's Eatery fame. In fact, it's not even close.
Easy Street's lived-in kitsch has been eighty-sixed in favor of a more streamlined design that's casually sophisticated but not swanky. So shorts-clad diners are graciously welcomed into the unpretentious, handsome room where innocuous rock 'n' roll plays and a single top-end TV silently screens classic movies.
Neutral tones, white brick, muted, black-framed mirrors, a marble bar and reclaimed wood contribute to an upbeat ambience that's unlike countless louder, garage-door-happy local eateries. Rather than “rustic-chic,” I'd call South Village “rustic-urbane.”
The cocktails I tried were interesting and refreshing. Shaken with Watershed vodka and Aperol, Il Volpe ($11) — “the fox” in Italian — slyly references a negroni while balancing bitter, sweet and citrus components. The Negotiation ($11) is edgier and well-named — it brokers a citrus-assisted resolution between smoky mezcal and minty Fernet Branca. The plays-it-safe wine list is filled with ubiquitous crowd-pleasers.
Wiest's attractively plated fare might not be radically inventive, but his fancy-cooking-school chops are consistently evident. Here, routine-sounding ingredients are frequently revitalized into attention-grabbing dishes such as the nifty Beet & Goat Cheese Terrine ($10) — pretty, paprika-sprinkled pinwheels supported by a lovely and lemony arugula and shaved-radish salad.
Crab cakes also take a turn for the better-looking. They're smokily seared, upright little towers fortified with minced red pepper and capped with pickled shallots (Crab Croquettes, $14). Fastening them to the plate: daubs of creole mustard sauce.
Even Calamari ($12) and Chicken Wings ($12) are distinguished. The lightly battered squid is strikingly tender and flavored with a tangy glaze that plays off a creamy, lemony aioli. A multi-stage process that includes curing and confit-style cooking in duck fat results in fall-off-the-bone, crisp, flavor-packed wings.
Take heed of any beef specials because the Strip Steak entree ($32) I recently sampled was one of the best steak dinners I've had this year. The thick-and-juicy, perfectly trimmed, beautifully crusted meat was melt-in-the-mouth tender. It came with a “Heinz 57”-riffing house sauce; crisp potato croquettes; crinkly, expertly roasted broccoli; plus a richness-cutting heirloom-tomato salad.
Two stars shine in the outstanding Scallop entree ($32): plump, sweet, tender shellfish with a textbook, caramelized sear; and large, pillowy gnocchi. Depth and contrast are provided by well-browned shiitake caps, pesto, butter, lemon and arugula tossed in a spicy Calabrian chile vinaigrette.
Chicken Vesuvio is an Italian-American classic that could pass for a French Sunday dinner, and South Village nails it. Two bone-in thighs arrive with blistered skin alongside a slew of crisply fried baby potatoes, an exemplary wine-and-butter sauce, peas and — sharpening the acidic notes in the sauce — artichoke hearts. The meal is delicious, but at $24, hardly inexpensive.
Neapolitan-style pizzas — such as the irresistible Sausage pie ($15) with candied jalapeno rings and a thin crust whose edge is garlicky, golden-brown and more chewy than crisp — are relatively more affordable.
Speaking of dollars, near the end of a recent meal, I noticed that a just-seated couple next to my table left after barely scanning the menu. Forking through huge, ethereally light and brittle, fantastic powder-sugared beignets ($7 for five) that visually resemble craggy cue balls, I thought about ushering the couple back to assure them that the food here is worth the cost. But I was busy.