When Jeff McInnis and Amir Ben-Zion opened Gigi in late August 2010, they did so with a clear, all-encompassing concept: small plates, honest grub, good value, late hours, and a hip urban setting. The formula proved immensely popular, and it still is. McInnis, meanwhile, has since left the employ of that midtown Miami establishment and re-emerged as partner (with John Kunkel of Lime Fresh Mexican Grill) of Yardbird Southern Table & Bar in South Beach. This time, the theme that binds is the American South, and once again Chef McInnis has a huge hit on his hands.
As with Gigi, Yardbird appeals by way of factors beyond the buoyant bill of fare. The décor, music, and overall ambiance are synchronized with the style of food to enhance the meals like a secret seasoning. The wood-beam ceiling, reclaimed wood walls from a farm in North Carolina, white reclaimed-brick walls, butcher-block tables, Mason-jar lamps, and other recaptured rural appointments merge into a comfortable farmhouse aesthetic antithetical to glitzy South Beach. The American blues tunes that saturate the air are likewise a refreshing change of pace from the Miami restaurant norm of notoriously awful music.
Bottles of bourbon line a shelf above the bar, which is located on the shorter side of the L-shaped, 140-seat room (plus a dozen more seats outside); an open kitchen occupies the longer stretch of wall. Some 50 bourbons are offered ($7 to $35, plus Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve, aged 23 years, for $78 or $135).
McInnis and chef de cuisine Phillip Bryant split the menu between 11 "small shares" and seven "big shares." The former category includes a charcuterie platter, three salads, a few snacks (such as pimento cheese with crudité), and four appetizer-size items. Snacking on a succession of smaller rather than larger plates brings a wider variety of flavors per meal. Plus chefs seem to be more meticulous when confined to a small dish in much the way a miniaturist in any field has to get details right. Most important, this manner of dining puts control in the hands of the customer. Want to eat a gargantuan, Cheesecake Factory-size meal? Order lots of food. Watching your weight or wallet, or just in the mood for a light bite? Two or three plates will do.
That's what I had as my first meal at Yardbird. It was a rainy evening, still early, and the place was packed. I grabbed a seat at the bar and took a look at the beer list. The choice was among 11 domestic drafts from craft breweries ($4 to $8) and an equal number of bottles likewise produced in the States ($5 to $7). I settled on a pour of Bell's Oberon pale wheat ale, a brew from Kalamazoo with mild citrus notes.
Brunswick stew beckoned with alligator sausage, smoked rabbit, butter beans, pickled okra, and preserved lemon — but because I wasn't sharing, it seemed too heavy to start. I also postponed a fetching fried green tomato BLT with Snake River Farms pork belly and Tabasco glaze in favor of a fresh "farmers salad" with cucumbers, ripe heirloom tomatoes, baby carrots, and corn kernels atop a mix of local organic greens (arugula, spinach, brassica, bibb), all tossed in a sweet-and-smoky Vidalia onion vinaigrette. Salad ingredients, like many of the menu items, change according to what's in season.
I paired the salad with a "lil' bit of 'meat loaf'" — or, more specifically, McInnis's interpretation: slow-braised shreds of short rib pressed into a trio of succulent squares glazed with homemade tomato jam. This is similar to a dish he made at Gigi, but here the meat is taken to the prom by crisp little nuggets of fried okra and a modest dollop of creamy mashed potatoes pooled with a dense and shiny smoked onion bourbon jus. An à la carte side of Brussels sprouts leaves were sautéed in olive oil with sunflower seeds and the sweetly contrasting crunch of green apple.
The salad, meat loaf, and sprouts were enough that I skipped dessert. And though it is true that dining on small plates can add up, this was a delicious meal of fresh food that came to $28 pre-tax and tip (plus $6 for the suds).
On a subsequent visit with dinner guests, I caught up with the Brunswick stew. The sausage is spicy, the rabbit tastes a bit like smoked ham, and the other aforementioned ingredients combine for a great gumbo-like grab bag of flavors. Biscuits from an à la carte basket were ideal for swiping up the last streaks of stew, but we had already enjoyed most of the four moist, buttery rolls with honey butter and strawberry-rhubarb jam.
We also sank our teeth into a few of the "big shares," such as a platter of "Llewellyn's fine fried chicken" — a signature dish here. It is a sizable plate of food — half a Bell & Evans bird, marinated for 27 hours and served with a "cheddar & chow chow" (green tomato relish) waffle, spicy Tupelo honey, and chunks of watermelon splashed with citrus and basil. If nothing else, it's refreshing to be served a dish that one might not have the patience, talent, or ingredients to prepare at home. But it's also impeccable fried chicken with crunchy, grease-free coating over juicy meat. A shareable side of macaroni and cheese, with torchio noodles, Grayson cheese (a creamy Taleggio-like raw cow's milk from Virginia), and a crisp herbed-crumb crust, was likewise a cut above.
A stack of tea-brined pork ribs shone with a distinctive honey-sweetened barbecue sauce. Vinegary cabbage slaw alongside not only cut the grease but also was quite tasty. The same can be said for a plate of plump Florida shrimp and Adluh stone-ground grits, bolstered with Edwards Virginia ham and Highland Gaelic Ale. That description might sound more like a list of commercial sponsors than dinner, but chefs who spend extra money on quality sourcing have every right to let their customers know.
The origin of some 60 American wines stretches from Napa County, California, all the way to Sonoma County, California. Just kidding. There are actually bottles from boutique vintners all over that state, as well as from Washington, Oregon, and even Virginia and New Mexico. It is an exceedingly user-friendly list too, with bottles subdivided into pairing categories — as in whites that match "with pickled or tart," "fried or crunchy," and so forth, and reds "with grilled or smoky," "saucy or tangy," etc. There are separate lists for "what to drink when you're eatin' chicken," and a "yard sale (a little love for the locals)," which might feature a discounted 2007 Huwiler Sauvignon Blanc or Fallbrook Merlot for $10 each.
A Southern restaurant would hardly be a Southern restaurant without fresh homemade lemonade and iced tea. Yardbird has it covered. The service staff also exudes Southern hospitality and works surprisingly efficiently considering just how busy and new the place is.
Pastry chef Peter Merrill's desserts keep up the Americana nirvana. Chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal-raisin cookies, and a whoopee pie get paired with bourbon-infused milk — which sounds suspect but is prepared in the spirit of an egg nog, with the two incongruent liquids fused by sweetness.
Beer, bourbon, blues, and Southern American fare, at an affordable price point, in a fetching farmhouse environment — a distinct and integrated vision completely realized.