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June 03, 2006

Southport Grocery & Cafe

Dominic Armato
We've already been over the cupcakes, and we could go over them seven or eight more times and it wouldn't be enough. They're really fantastic. But Southport Grocery & Cafe has more than cupcakes. It's also a small specialty grocery and a cafe with fairly extensive breakfast and lunch menus. We figured anyplace that can make cupcakes that good must have something going for them, so this afternoon we finally popped in to grab some lunch and check out the other offerings. The grocery is nice, but small. There are teas, oils, vinegars, chocolates, spices, etc. Stylish packaging seems to be a prerequisite, but the products themselves are solid. It isn't style over substance. Given the small selection, however, it's more suited to cute bottle impulse purchases than any kind of serious specialty food shopping. There is a small case of prepared foods that we didn't get a chance to try, but the offerings seem nice enough. And so, having eaten their phenomenal cupcakes, perused the nice (if limited) selection of specialty foods and case of prepared foods, we were looking forward to a tasty lunch.

Sadly, it only went downhill from there.

Dominic Armato
The menu is almost exclusively comprised of salads and sandwiches, and I'm a sucker for upscale salad and sandwich shops, so I had no trouble picking out a couple of options that piqued my interest. I started with their Strawberry-Beet Salad. I figured strawberries are in season, it's a summery day, and I adore beets. The components were mostly tasty in their own right: some peppery pecans, rosemary jack cheese, decent fresh sliced strawberries and a vinaigrette that seemed largely comprised of pureed beets. The exception was the greens themselves, which were limp and lifeless. But it was clear on first bite that the dish just wasn't working. I think the main culprit was a battle between the very savory, salty beet vinaigrette and the sweet strawberries. The pecans worked fairly well, but the cheese was just kind of there... it was a mild-mannered cheese that didn't clash with anything, but it didn't seem to contribute anything to the dish, either. The salad was the kind of combination that may sound good on paper (it did to me), but one taste and it was clear that the dish was a mess of bad pairings.

Dominic Armato
My ladylove had the Cheese Box, which is exactly as billed. It seems like more of a takeout item, since it arrives at the table in a large plastic container. It's comprised of three rather generous hunks of cheese, accompanied by a chunk of good, crusty bread, plenty of grapes and toasted nuts. Only problem was we didn't end up with either the grapes or the nuts. Of the three small bunches of grapes, two were quite moldy in places. And there were no nuts to be found. In the staff's defense, we didn't really give them a chance to rectify the situation. When we pointed out the moldy grapes and asked our server to remove them, we didn't make it clear that we expected to receive more grapes. And by the time we realized that the nuts were missing, our entrees had already come and we decided not to make an issue of it. But disappointing, nonetheless.

Dominic Armato
For my sandwich, I went with the roast beef. This was a dish that, for me, could have been really nice, but was torpedoed by what were either mistakes in execution or in planning. The sandwich was on a very nice toasted crusty bread, with some leeks and roasted tomatoes, and was accompanied by a tasty sauce that, to my surprise and delight, was sour cream based insted of mayonnaise based. The problem, however, was that the house made roast beef was well-done to the core, tough, rubbery and largely tasteless. The flavor was less roasted with care on the premises and more institutional packaged beef. The sandwich also came with tater tots. I love tater tots. And for their little classy twist, they were dressed with a dried herb mixture that I thought was really delightful. But they were either baked, or first fried and later baked, and either way had clearly been sitting away from the most recent heat source for quite some time. They were also tough and chewy. In my book, when it comes to fried potatoes, if they aren't going to be served fresh from the fat, you're better off simply going with some other side rather than trying to hold them for extended periods of time.

Dominic Armato
My wife's sandwich was the best of the bunch, though even that was less than exciting. It was a chicken salad, served on a toasted wheat bread. The bread, again, was very nice. The salad wasn't bad, but wasn't the least bit exciting. The chunks of chicken were very large... some almost like half tenders... which I understand is a stylistic choice, so I can't dock it for that, but it's not one that works for me. There were large chunks of celery and whole red grapes, and as with the roast beef dip, the sauce binding the salad wasn't made with mayo, but rather with sour cream. However, where I loved the sour cream with the roast beef, it didn't work for me here. Unlike the roast beef sandwich, which already had some strong flavors going on with the roasted tomatoes and sauce seasonings, chicken and celery needs a little more to keep it interesting. As a result, the salad didn't have that round, full flavor that a mayo base brings, and didn't have anything else going on to grab your attention. While I appreciate the attempt to do something a little different, I just didn't think it was working. That said, for what it was, I thought it was well executed... just poorly conceived.

And we had minor service issues as well. Our server wasn't bad, just not as available as we would have liked. We wanted to order cupcakes for dessert, but finally gave up when she went to the next table three times in a row and never gave us a glance. We were already a little frustrated, having eaten four mediocre dishes... two that were poorly conceived, one that was poorly executed, and one that was ruined by simple inattention to detail. So, since you pay at the register, we just gave up and stuck to the one thing Southport Grocery does really, really well.

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