by Rick Bostick
Local Gastropub dishes out entrees like double-cut pork chops from Berkshire Farms.
During a recent foray downtown for dinner, I noticed that I was smack dab in the middle of the youngest crowd I've ever seen at a new Memphis restaurant. Who were these energetic and nattily dressed twenty-somethings with their endless amount of friends filling up the long communal tables? Why did they descend upon this particular place for Friday-night dinner? And how in the world could they hear each other when they were all talking and laughing and taking cell phone pics simultaneously? In my flat shoes and utilitarian stretchy headband, and only one friend in my entourage, I suppose I could have felt absolutely ancient, but I sat back, relaxed, and decided to consider myself in-the-know instead.
In January 2010, owner Jeff Johnson opened this popular place, Local Gastropub, after re-imagining the deceivingly skinny space on Main Street where Sauces used to be. Gastropubs present a new way of dining that's less fancy-pants and more accessible, and with its emphasis on great food that's expertly prepared, Local's menu appeals to a variety of diners. Those looking for elevated but affordable pub fare such as meatball sliders, Delta fish and chips, and gourmet burgers will be pleased; others willing to splurge a bit on entrées in the $14-$24 range can find sophistication as well.
The main level of the restaurant has a darkened, low-key, brick-and-chalkboard motif with a bar and communal seating. As we were led past all that to go downstairs to our table one Saturday evening, we came upon a semi-hidden downstairs passageway toward the back of the house and arrived at a surprising new space: a refined white-tablecloth affair under bare Edison lightbulbs with the welcome sounds of Wilco, Ryan Adams, and Jeff Buckley in the background.
Our server was succinct in his explanation of the menu, and we ordered spinach salad and she-crab bisque as our appetizers. The salad, made up of goat cheese, hard-boiled egg, red onion, dried cranberries, and a herb vinaigrette, reminded me of both a chopped and a composed salad since every part of it was very small and organized, but all of the flavors meshed well and were complemented by the slightly sweet dressing. My next dish, the she-crab bisque, a much-buzzed-about low country staple, was colorfully dotted with herbs and red peppers.
I liked the description of the Tuscan steak with its fire-grilled herb and olive oil crust, and I chose loaded scalloped potatoes as my side. Grilled perfectly pink with a good sear on the outside, this was steak in the hands of someone who really knew how to best present it. We also ordered a grilled flatbread, or oblong pizza. The Margarita, with whole milk mozzarella and a bright tomato sauce made my companion, a self-proclaimed pizza obsessive, apoplectic in delight. The one piece I managed to wrangle was notable for its perfect puffy crust and crisp, but not burnt, edges.
For dessert, our choices were cheesecake or the mysterious Chocolate Explosion; intrigued, we selected the latter. Despite its name, said Explosion was very tame and well-confined to a square of hot-from-the-oven, cake-like brownie. On the side were two scoops of vanilla ice cream with thin strands of raspberry and caramel sauces. This dessert was nice but fairly typical; I suppose I just favor a more daring take on sweets.
Overall, I found the service at Local to be straightforward, courteous, and unobtrusive. The time between courses was reasonable, and we never felt rushed. The way the water was presented in a French lemonade bottle on the table seemed like a nice touch. The wine list was not available at the time of my visit, but a few local beers were on tap.
During my next meal at Local, I wanted to sit upstairs for a more casual experience, but the tall communal table, the few small tables up front by the door, and all the seats at the bar were already occupied. (There is communal seating upstairs and downstairs, and even though I first imagined the delicious conversational awkwardness of strangers forced to eat a meal together, during my visits, these table were claimed by large groups of people celebrating.) I really enjoyed the jaunt downstairs into what felt like a secret dining room.
For my appetizer, I chose pan-seared sea scallops with a risotto cake, pancetta, and a smoked tomato beurre blanc. It crossed my mind that the preparation of yet another dish at Local was spot-on, with tender scallops complemented by the crunch of the rice cake and pancetta, and the mellow, buttery tomato sauce adding a richness to the dish. We shared the spinach artichoke dip, a white cheese extravaganza served with warm tortilla chips but with a salsa that came across as plain.
I enjoyed the "local" components of my entrée, pan-seared Tennessee duck breast, which was accompanied by Delta Grind grits and grilled asparagus. The grits were, in a word, transporting. I love grits, and I have been clamoring for them a few times a week ever since I was a child. I cannot say enough about these particular grits, which were unbelievably smooth, silky, and creamy. The duck breast was seared and checkerboarded with the main attraction — the fat — and its pan juices added a luscious dimension to the dish.
My companion and I ordered another grilled flatbread, one with goat cheese, asparagus, and pancetta. Crisp on the edges with a chewy, cornmeal-dusted crust and bold flavors, it was just flawless. We both agreed that the flatbreads were the standout, must-try item on Local's menu.
On my way out, I saw a sign announcing that weekday lunch service was starting up the following week. My goal was to try a few of the sandwiches that hadn't been on the dinner menu. First, we selected the smoked turkey club; with bacon, shredded lettuce, purple cabbage, and mayonnaise on toasted wheatberry bread, it was layered with deep, smoky flavors. I can't say I've ever really enjoyed a club sandwich before, but this club featured a better grade of components and was a success. The grilled pimiento cheese BLT sandwich tasted of bright, forward flavors with a hint of creaminess. The ribeye sandwich was the last sandwich I sampled. While the meat was a bit tough, the thinly sliced, crunchy fried onions and the blue cheese butter that topped it were highlights. Hand-cut sweet potato fries, our choice of side, were good enough to fight over. All in all, it's clear that many people have strong opinions about what a gastropub truly is, and there's a certain chutzpah in buying into the newfangled pub-with-really-great-food trend. While I didn't find the dishes at Local Gastropub to be wildly inventive, the food served there is well-executed, pleasing, and hearty. I'm all for jolts of challenge and discovery when it comes to dining out, but sometimes I crave food that is relatively simple but executed with attention and care. I enjoyed this restaurant's take on comforting pub classics, especially since carefully chosen music and the modern aesthetic of the space set an enjoyable scene; these elements make Local Gastropub the kind of fresh and accessible spot that diners of all ages can appreciate.