Restaurant Review: Rex 1516

South Street West is building up quite a nice little Restaurant Row, if you ask me. Sometimes, we drive that way on the commute home for work and have put quite a few places on our “to visit” list. I’m even curious about the random little place that’s just called “Indian Restaurant.” You’ve got to love a place that just tells it like it is, right?

Our most recent discovery of what makes this neighborhood worth a visit is Rex 1516, which serves up Southern-inspired cuisine. Although it’s only been open about two months, it seems that many others have already discovered it, as all the tables and the bar area were completely full on our Friday night visit.

The restaurant has a casual, inviting vibe (I loved the fact that they had old Alfred Hitchcock movies playing on the television over the bar area) with simple décor and a menu of comfort foods to match. At first glance, the dishes might seem pretty basic—mac-and-cheese, spinach salad, steak, and the like. But, this is a great example of how a skilled chef can take a few simple ingredients and bring them together in some truly memorable dishes.

My first course was the mac-and-cheese and I think I would rank it among one of the best that I have ever had at a restaurant. Gruyere, fontina and swiss cheeses made for a rich flavor combination and the right amount of gooiness—I like when you pull your fork away from the dish and get those strands of cheese that just don’t want to let go. The addition of roasted tomatoes and cubes of ham added to the complexity of the flavors and kept the cheesiness from becoming totally overwhelming. The perfectly al dente elbow macaroni and crunchy bread crumbs made for the right texture. I tried not to eat the whole thing. I failed.

Chester opted for the crawfish pot pie. While the pie crust on top was flaky and buttery, the crust that was molded inside the dish to hold the filling was a bit too thick and hard to eat. That didn’t really matter to us though, because the filling was pretty amazing on its own, due to the combination of rice, cheese, red peppers, onions and mushrooms, sizable chunks of the fish and a healthy does of spiciness.

For an entrée, I had the pork loin, stuffed with cornbread & sausage stuffing. I’m always a bit hesitant to order pork at a restaurant, because more often than not, it seems to come out of the kitchen as dry as a bone and difficult to chew. Not the case at all here, since it’s brined for a few days before being prepared. It was tender enough to cut through with a fork and the morel mushroom sauce added a rich, earthy flavor. It was accompanied by sweet potatoes, mashed with just the right amount of sugar and cinnamon. I wanted to eat them all, but I figured that I had already consumed enough carbs as a result of my mac-and-cheese overdose.

Chester chose the ribeye. It was cooked to a tender, perfect medium-rare, in spite of the fact that since it was a very thin cut, it could have easily been overcooked and dry. It was simply seasoned with just salt and pepper (which let the flavor of the meat really come through) and topped with lightly fried onions/shallots. There was a small ramekin of a dark, onion-based sauce provided, but the steak was juicy enough on its own that it didn’t really need it. Chester thought that the creamed spinach was a bit too salty, but gave it points for not being overly soupy.

Although we were approaching uncomfortably full (in a good way—kind of like how you feel after Thanksgiving dinner) status, we couldn’t resist trying out the honey brioche bread pudding for dessert. We would have liked there to be a bit more of the Southern Comfort glaze to soak into the thick slab of bread, but the addition of figs and molasses flavored whipped cream provided an unexpectedly good flavor combination (and I’m not even a huge fan of figs).

Rex also has a pretty robust wine, beer and cocktail menu. Chester chose a red wine and I enjoyed the lime rickey, a refreshing combination of gin, bitters, lime and club soda that was a nice complement to a heavy meal.

Regis Jansen, the executive chef, came out of the kitchen and chatted with us after our meal. He mentioned that he grew up Alabama, learning to cook with his mom, and that gave him his passion for food and cooking. He has been in Philly for the last seven years and after stints at several area restaurants, he teamed up with the owners (who also own Jet Wine Bar across the street) and started working on the concept for Rex.

We commented on the fact that the menu seemed a bit heavy, especially as we are heading into the warmer months. Regis noted that the opening had been slated for the winter—which happens to be his favorite season to cook for—but there were a few delays that pushed it back. They decided to launch the restaurant with the existing menu, but there are plans to change things up on a seasonal basis.

Service was also friendly and attentive throughout the meal. It did seem like it took awhile for food to come out to our table, but we didn’t really mind because this lag provided a nice break between the substantial courses. The only real drawback for me was that the restaurant was pretty loud—granted, we were seated right near the bar and a super-chatty bachelorette party. But, when the food is this good, I’m sure the noise level is going to be the norm for a long time to come.

Overall, Rex 1516 is definitely worth a visit. In addition to dinner, the restaurant also serves lunch and brunch on the weekends. I personally can’t wait to return and see what will be on the menu for the summer months.

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