Cornbread is a part of the dialog at Rex on the Royal.
It’s the very first thing you’ll style while you settle into one of many soft teal cubicles that anchor this dramatic new eating room on South Avenue the place the historic Royal Theater as soon as stood. It beckons heat from contained in the folds of purple linen, a scoop of honeyed butter on the prepared. And once I cracked one open, its earthy steam mingling with the anise kiss of a Sazerac in my different hand, I used to be totally primed for a Southern journey.
There can be creamy crocks of she-crab soup, juicy pork chops over zesty collards, extra nice cocktails, and a (gluten-free!) banana pudding cheesecake to observe. However first, these corn muffins…
I appreciated the stability of sweetness and fluff in its crumb, in addition to its deep rustic corn savor. However cornbread expectations are totally different relying on which aspect of the Mason-Dixon Line you occur to be consuming. And this explicit recipe has adopted its personal telling journey of modifications within the first few months of Rex on the Royal, opened in October by Jill Weber and Evan Malone of Sojourn Philly, who additionally personal Sor Ynez, Cafe Ynez and Jet Wine Bar.
Rex chef Aaron Paik, who beforehand labored on the Sanctuary Lodge in Kiawah Island, S.C., initially made it with pure Jimmy Purple, a revived heirloom grain from Edisto Island, S.C., cultivated by Marsh Hen Mills that speaks to the Lowcountry traditions Rex on the Royal evokes. However that early model was dry and fewer candy, a profile true to regional choice, says Paik.
That these muffins have since been modified with some yellow corn and extra sugar to sweeten them into one thing Philadelphians is likely to be extra accustomed to is just a part of the dialog on the coronary heart of this venture. Who will get to hold forth the legacy of Southern meals because it evolves?
Weber, additionally an archaeologist, wished to create a tribute to the Southern Black cooks who moved to Philadelphia a century in the past throughout the Nice Migration and tailored their foodways (together with many from the Lowcountry coasts of South Carolina and Georgia) to the Mid-Atlantic. Nonetheless, Rex on the Royal doesn’t purpose solely to be a Southern restaurant, and the meals ought to replicate its regional transformations.
It’s a captivating idea and compelling that it will come to life on the location of the traditionally important Royal Theater. Opened in 1920 as a first-run cinema operated for and by Black Individuals, the Royal turned a cultural hub that later hosted dwell performances from Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, and Fat Waller. The theater sadly languished vacant for almost half a century between when it closed in 1970 and when it was finally demolished in 2017 to make manner for the residences and homes constructed behind the brand new restaurant.
To see the lights lastly blink on and the keen crowds circulate into this magnificence behind the Royal’s preserved facade after a number of years of development ought to be trigger for celebration on this stretch of South Avenue in Graduate Hospital.
Weber and Malone, who beforehand operated the a lot smaller Rex 1516 only a few doorways east, have stepped up their sport with this large new 250-seat house, whose chandelier-hung ceiling, walnut-paneled partitions, and mezzanine lounge accessed by a sweeping staircase exude a uncommon special-occasion grandeur. A retail bottle store and cafe on the aspect, with imminent plans for all-day service (breakfast biscuits, glowing wines by the glass with uncooked bar oyster), provides a extra accessible, informal dynamic to the operation.
There’s real hospitality from the various workers led by basic supervisor Brian Jackson. And regardless of its measurement, this house designed by Philadelphia’s Gabrielle Canno nonetheless exudes persona and heat, from the comfy round cubicles that ring the principle eating room to the lengthy amazonite bar that energizes the house close to the doorway, the place crowds linger over well-made cocktails that vary from traditional Remy-spiked Sidecars to a festively rummy Hurricane.
There’s a listing of worthwhile wines by the glass with a pure bent one may count on from Weber (strive the Kivelstadt KC Labs Zinfandel). However there’s additionally a repertoire of authentic cocktails blended by lead bartenders Joshua Scheid and Nick Baitzel created with meals in thoughts, just like the carrot tequila brew known as Por Dio, whose turmeric spice echoes the vegetarian accra fritter burger created from mashed black-eyed peas, or the vivid orange leche de tigre that brightens the each day crudo scattered with benne seeds and tangy chowchow.
All these parts have contributed to meals I’ve loved on the entire as a eating expertise. However whether or not Rex on the Royal has the culinary imaginative and prescient to essentially obtain its lofty historic tribute mission is an open query. Weber and Malone fell into working a Southern-themed menu on the authentic Rex as a result of their opening chef was from Alabama. And although Rex cultivated a variety of specialties I appreciated — a flaky crawfish pot pie that is still on this menu, for instance — I valued the unique extra as a vacation spot for upscale burgers and cocktails than a haven of studious Southern cooking.
With a extra deliberate focus right here on Lowcountry influences and their Philadelphia connections, Weber and company culinary director Lucio Palazzo turned to former Geechee Lady Rice Cafe chef Valerie Erwin for consulting assist. Erwin supplied an early menu with requirements like Hoppin’ John (performed nicely right here) and has since added latest tweaks just like the curried Nation Captain tackle seared scallops. However Erwin had no curiosity, at 69, in working such a big restaurant. And her efforts to assist them of their seek for a youthful Black Philly chef by no means fairly landed the best match.
A wider nationwide search related them with Paik, 33, a Brooklyn native of Afro-Dominican and Sicilian heritage whose experiences within the Florida Keys, in addition to in Charleston, have added some welcome layers of lightness to Rex’s repertoire — particularly that sunny crudo.
What does crudo must do with Black cooks in Philadelphia a century in the past? Not a lot. Neither is there any connection to the oyster stews, terrapin croquettes, and deviled crab detailed by Boothby’s chef Harry Franklyn Corridor in his 1901 cookbook, 300 Methods to Prepare dinner and Serve Shellfish, which Weber has famous as an affect.
Rex on the Royal is now nonetheless sharpening its Southern fundamentals. And most of the appetizers pattern on the heavy aspect, with a trio of fried starters that each one really feel in want of tweaks, from a tempura batter for the okra that was not particularly crisp to fried inexperienced tomatoes that have been shingled merely over a smudge of pimento cheese and appeared dry and not using a sauce. After a wealthy crock of she-crab soup, I used to be prepared for a nap earlier than we even bought to the entrees.
That might have been a disgrace, as a result of the shrimp and grits is excellent. The pork chop was one of the memorable I’ve had in months, tender and juicy over collards laced with smoked turkey ringed by a creamy grain mustard sauce.
I perceive why individuals rave in regards to the unconventional rooster and dumplings. The properly grilled breast and smoked thigh are hanging over the darkish jus that swimming pools round orange candy potato gnocchi. It was definitely tasty. However I didn’t take into account this cheffy deconstruction to be extra satisfying than a well-executed model of the common-or-garden one-pot traditional made with good substances. The bountiful Frogmore seafood stew would have been extra my pace — had the kitchen not forgotten so as to add the fish of the day to the flavorful broth stuffed with shellfish and andouille.
Talking of classics, Rex’s hefty ($22!) burger was additionally a shock letdown. It towered over a brioche bun with its signature pimento cheese, crispy onions, and bacon. It was even completely medium-rare. Nevertheless it had additionally rested so lengthy earlier than being served it arrived oddly juiceless.
These are the sort of small-but-impactful errors that may so simply be fastened, as lengthy the dialog retains rolling. The desserts are already stable, together with the “milk and cookies” favourite from Rex 1516 that presents beignet-like fritters of cookie dough with oozing chocolate facilities beside a RumChata shake, which I slurped till I hit backside.
And so I’ve few doubts: Rex on the Royal is already a vivid addition, bringing a vibrant dose of eating life and good flavors to a major South Avenue handle. And but, I can also’t assist feeling there’s a a lot bigger step for this bold venture to know. At some point, if it manages to search out the culinary expertise to obviously crystallize its mission to turn out to be a contemporary homage to the Black Southern cooks who labored in Philadelphia a century in the past, it might actually turn out to be essential.
The Inquirer isn’t presently giving bell scores to eating places as a result of pandemic.
1524 South St., 267-319-1366; rexphl.com
Hours: Dinner Sunday by means of Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, till 11 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Avenue parking solely.