It's hard to believe 10 years has passed since Mac and Cindy Edwards opened McEwen's On Monroe, the popular downtown eatery known for its Southern-accented menu, good wine list, and comfortable yet elegant atmosphere. Starting as a modest lunch restaurant, McEwen's has evolved over the years into an attractively mellow place that still packs them in for lunch while delivering a dependably enjoyable bistro experience for dinner.
During its decade of operation, McEwen's has expanded twice, including the addition of its comfortable and popular bar. Its kitchen has been a revolving door of talent that has included chefs John Pearson, Johnny Kirk, and Michael Patrick. These days the top chef is David Johnson, an Arkansas native with experience working at Jarrett's and Grove Grill. Patrick Gilbert is the chef in charge of lunch.
Its dining room is done in olive tones with vibrant artwork and a few charming antique accents. The combination doesn't overwhelm at lunch but lights up elegantly for dinner. The bar is warmed by pretty wood finishes and exposed brick, while the gussied-up wine cellar downstairs doubles as a private dining room.
The restaurant describes its lunch menu and dinner menu as different as day and night, a description we found to be pretty apt during our recent visits.
We started our lunch at McEwen's with the soup of the day, a flavorful oyster and artichoke combo prepared from pureed oysters and chunks of artichokes. It was delicious, with a surprising tartness. The grilled chicken tostada salad consisted of greens dressed in a vibrant, balanced vinaigrette (chipotle-lime, but those flavors were subtle) topped with a crisp tostada disk that was in turn topped with grilled chicken, diced bell pepper, corn, and mild orange sauce. The salad element combined well with the loaded tostado, but it was a shame the chicken tasted so charred. The chicken pot pie was a luxurious version: A big pillow of fresh-baked puff pastry in a bowlful of rich, velvety cream sauce subtly fragranced with tarragon and full of carrots, peas, and pieces of tender roast chicken.
We had the roast chicken salad on toasted whole wheat, and found out firsthand why the salad is so beloved by McEwen's regulars. It combines pieces of roast chicken and pecans with diced apples, purple onion, and sweet pickle, spiked with tarragon and minimally dressed. On the side was intensely flavored, caramel-colored potato salad: al dente roasted red potatoes with thyme, purple onion, and other strong flavors.
Somehow, we ended up ordering virtually all chicken, but there are plenty of other options, including the grilled Portobello mushroom sandwich, the trailer park club (pepper jack cheese and chow chow added to the typical BLT plus cold cuts combo), and grilled rainbow trout.
At dinner we found several of the appetizers we ordered to be sensational. Fine-textured house-smoked salmon was smoky as bacon with a fantastic remoulade that easily stood up to the salmon's flavor. Perfectly, in fact. The Ecuadorian ceviche tasted fresh, brimming with lime juice and a spicy diced tomato relish, served in a crispy tortilla shell. It was a very light and refreshing starter. The buttermilk oysters, a McEwen's standard, consists of chicken-fried select oysters, which these days are served on half shells with a little splash of shallot-and-champagne vinaigrette in each one. Nice presentation, nice flavor contrast. Only the popular barbecued duck confit enchiladas were lackluster: The crisp exterior and pepper jack cream sauce couldn't redeem the mass of bland pureed meat inside.
As for the entrees, we were all wowed by the made-to-order vegetarian plate. This caprice de chef consisted of three lively dishes: Delicious sweet-and-sour shredded napa cabbage, spicy spaghetti squash and caramelized onions, and finally, Portobello mushrooms stuffed with sprightly artichokes. This plate, which is different every day, was packed with adventurous and delicious flavors. The fork-tender Niman Ranch pork osso bucco was a delectable wintry dish: The flavorful, braised meat (a far cry from bland store-bought pork tenderloin) blended nicely with cheddar stone-ground grits and a hearty, tomato-spiked sauce.
The pan-seared sea bass was perfectly cooked, luscious buttery fish with a delicious shiitake mushroom risotto in a sweet-savory broth of miso, orange, and soy. The grilled swordfish steak with lime butter was criss-crossed with ribbons of vibrant cilantro-macadamia pesto and paired with black Thai rice, a robust and successful combination.
The appeal of fresh-out-of-the-oven baked goods is not lost on the folks at McEwen's. Beautiful, tender Southern biscuits — the real deal, and expertly wrought — were served with dinner. We could have made a meal of them.
The three fresh-baked cupcakes paired with housemade vanilla ice cream stood out among the desserts: peanut butter with chocolate frosting, a spicy pumpkin, and a spicy pear each with cream cheese frosting.
We found that McEwen's famed banana cream pie has lost none of its charms: The banana slices in thick custard with moist crumb crust is as fresh-tasting and delectable as ever. The most exotic of the bunch was the ginger-coconut flan, with a lovely silky texture, bold and enticing ginger flavor, but a bit too sweet. The chocolate torte was a departure from the gooey molten type of chocolate dessert. Instead, it was dense and springy, garnished with dried cherries.
A focal point at McEwen's is its wine list, not surprising, since Mac Edwards was a wine rep before opening the restaurant. Currently, there are 80 to 100 bottles that change often, and at least 20 of those are available by the glass. The beer list is more exotic than most. Importantly, the staffers know the wine well enough to make good recommendations.
Service was welcoming, knowledgeable, and efficient. There was only one lapse: At lunch our server forgot the to-go sandwich we had ordered (it was freshly made and on our table in five minutes after we reminded her). Overall, the servers were professional, experienced, and at ease.
There's a good reason McEwen's is still going strong after 10 years. The restaurant has found a wonderful balance between elegant fine-dining and casual hanging out, resulting in a comfortable bistro atmosphere. The service is informed, pleasant, and efficient, and then there's the consistently good food. It incorporates robust flavors in the chicken salad, the house-smoked salmon, the swordfish, and other dishes. Yet it also maintains its Southern streak, as evidenced by the buttermilk oysters and authentic homemade biscuits, but doesn't go to silly extremes with that theme.
The talent in the kitchen and the restaurant's seasoned personality are big factors, to be sure. But not to be underestimated is the constant watchful eye of owner Mac Edwards, cracking jokes with customers, filling water glasses, delivering entrees, or whatever else it takes to keep McEwen's at its best. M
McEwen's on Monroe 122 Monroe
For more information, see our Dining Guide