On my first visit to Southward Fare & Libations, I ordered a dozen market oysters. Gulf oysters from Texas; I’ve slurped down plenty in my day. As the waiter placed the platter in front of me, I knew I was in for a treat. Medium in size, each oyster’s fat firm meat filled out the sturdy shells. I ate them naked, ignoring the horseradish and sherry mignonette served alongside.
Returning for a second time, I looked forward to more of the restaurant’s exquisite barnacles. This time the menu offered more varieties, including Umami, East Beach Blonde, and Wellfleet. I decided to go with Wellfleet, later wishing I had ordered a dozen instead of six. Smaller than a Gulf oyster and slightly sweeter, but deliciously briny with a more palpable bite, the Wellfleet may be the best oyster I have ever tasted.
French poet Léon-Paul Fargue wrote of such oyster bliss, “Like kissing the sea on the lips,” and I couldn’t agree more.
Tucked away in a corner of the bustling East Memphis Regalia Shopping Center, Ryan Trimm’s newest restaurant will be one year old in August. While I am a habitué of Trimm’s Cooper-Young hot spots Sweet Grass and Next Door, it took me nine months to try his new restaurant for the first time. I’d like to blame the blunder on distance, because I live downtown and only occasionally make the trek out east. But I think a lack of buzz surrounds Southward, and Trimm admits to working hard to get the word out.
“There are signage issues,” Trimm says. “We’ve spent a lot of money in marketing, and I’m not used to that.”
Trimm is accustomed to local ingredients and recipes typically found in the Southeast. Southward has plenty of both, but he is not afraid to infuse other cultures into his dishes. “The food I love to cook is inspired by my family and friends,” Trimm says. “I cook what I would make for the people around me who I care about.”
The interior of Southward is rustic yet refined, much like the restaurant’s food. For instance, the bar, lengthy and marble topped, beckoned my friend and me to have a seat as we walked in the door for a second visit. Right off the bat, we got it right: an order of the Dirty Pig Fries, a dozen oysters, and two Back Porch Lemonades.
Admittedly, the Dirty Pig Fries were on the salty side, but that didn’t stop us from finishing every last one. Chefs at Southward start the fries in classic French technique: hand-cut, cold-water-soaked, and double-fried, they also toss them with braised pork, mustard greens, pecorino cheese, and Sriracha. Naturally, the fries required a cold and delicious drink to wash them down. A balanced mix of Tito’s vodka, St. Germaine, lemon, mint, and ginger beer, the Back Porch Lemonade created by Chef Trimm and bar manager Chris Ferri was a refreshing complement to almost anything on the menu.
When we moved to our table in the dining room for dinner, our server set a brown paper bag full of popcorn and pork rinds on the table in lieu of the traditional breadbasket. Next came Tom’s salad. Warm roasted chicken was a perfect counterpart to the arugula in the salad, which also included apple (the menu calls for sliced pears), honey pecans, and sherry vinaigrette. We also ordered two entrees. First was the Berkshire pork, brined for 24 hours, braised for five hours, and served over locally sourced Delta ground grits along with precisely seasoned braised carrots, shiitake mushrooms, and a savory golden brown braising jus. The pork shank without question was the highlight of our meal and the most frequently ordered and applauded dish on the menu.
Next we ordered peeled barbecue shrimp cooked tender to the bite and generously coated in a barbecue-seasoning blend. With only four shrimp, our only complaint was that we wanted more. Unfortunately, the dish’s accompanying red beans and rice were undercooked and on the crunchy side. The two catfish cakes also missed the mark. Served with simple coleslaw and creole remoulade, the bland cakes begged for spicing up. Despite these disappointments, we were impressed with the service at Southward, which was more than notable. Our server, Evan Jones, embodied Southern hospitality as he anticipated our needs and chatted with us as if we were old friends.
Dessert offerings included a banana split, pear pie, lemon parsnip cake, and a Heath bar trifle. The banana split, the restaurant’s signature dessert and Trimm’s favorite, was a monster. A scoop each of Nutella ice cream, chocolate-covered pretzel ice cream, and strawberry champagne sorbet covered with pecans, luxardo cherries, and whipped cream by Sweet Magnolia nestled in a dish with a large split banana.
The menu at Southward is similar to Sweet Grass in its Southern influences and use of local ingredients, but each restaurant is still unique. Sweet Grass feels more confident than Southward, which stopped serving lunch in May to focus on dinner, but Southward’s menu is more universally appealing, a smart choice for East Memphis. While some dishes at Southward don’t feel quite yet grown up, the restaurant’s smart décor and ambitious role is a welcome addition to a neighborhood dominated by more predictable newcomers.
Oysters on the Half Shell: Go ahead and start with 12 (Texas Gulf oysters do just fine) served with horseradish and sherry mignonette. Other varieties come and go based on availability.
Dirty Pig Fries: A shareable portion of hand-cut double-fried French fries are tossed with braised pork, mustard greens, Pecorino Romano, and Sriachia. Count on cleaning the plate.
Berkshire Pork Shank: A 16-ounce Newman Farm pork shank wins the popularity contest thanks to a five-hour braise and a date with grits, shiitakes, braised carrots, and braising jus.
Southward Fare & Libations
6150 Poplar Ave.
Food: Three stars
Service: Four stars
Atmosphere: Three stars