Social Kitchen & Bar
225 E. Maple Rd.,
Open 11 a.m.-midnight daily
Restaurant writers generally depict numerous details of any given establishment — wine, atmosphere, music, location, service. But most would likely agree that of paramount importance is the actual food on the plate, the flavors on the palate. By that measure in particular, Social Kitchen & Bar is doing a hell of a job.
Of course, those other facets aren't unimportant either, especially in saturated markets like Birmingham where whatever's new seems de rigueur. Inside Social, the decorative style is thoughtfully and tastefully done with a contemporary, urban aesthetic. An undeniably nifty piece of art portraying a metro area map in the style of the porcine primal cuts dominates one wall, while orange and sepia touches accent an otherwise white interior. Everything from the floorboards to the servers' plaid shirts to the placemats were given due consideration.
Such decor could easily be made subject to a number of business needs, and in this case, Social straddles a line between a restaurant and a scene. On two visits, the rooftop lounge served dull, saccharine drinks in Solo cups from a makeshift bar. It's a beautifully appointed space with a fine view of Maple and Old Woodward, but the outstanding food menu sets loftier expectations. And at the risk of revealing a premature descent into the role of aging curmudgeon, I could have done without the thumping Muzak-inspired electronica on constant playback.
Still, it's the food in which we're most interested, isn't it? And the menu is well-conceived and well-executed. Plenty of area restaurants have embraced upscale comfort food, but few have made it feel as creative as Social's chef-owner Zack Sklar.
There's a subtle thread of Americana running through each dish, but his influences are widespread: The sandwich menu, for example, features grilled cheese on naan, falafel, and a sizable variation of a classic Reuben.
Social's steamed mussels are given a Latin twist with chorizo and white beans in the broth. We also rather enjoyed the crispy brussels sprouts ($9), dressed liberally with salt, capers and nuts. These arrive in a paper boat, and other dishes are often served on cake pans, cookie sheets and personal iron skillets.
Our party was pleasantly surprised by the chicken-and-waffle appetizer ($10), a hearty, shareable plate that's been done in raised fashion across the country over the past few years, often to mediocre results. The chicken here, however, was crunchy outside and still moist inside, and the waffles were similarly crisped on the exterior and pleasantly soft with each bite. With just a bit of maple syrup and bacon, this was as good as any treatment I've had.
Main plates are generous but, refreshingly, not obscene. They prepare a very nice flank steak, ostensibly cooked sous vide and then seared, but this might be one restaurant where I'd offer the unusual advice to seek out the chicken ($21).
Roasted under a brick, it's a remarkably crispy, moist piece of meat, and the accompanying spinach and fingerlings are delicious. It's more or less what one would expect, I suppose, but isn't it often the case that restaurant chicken is flavorless and dry? In that regard, Social offers a pleasant surprise. Also delicious is the sea bass ($28), which arrives in a sizzling iron skillet. Served with olives, capers and a tangy sauce, it's a bright, lively dish that also entertains with some pan-crisped noodles underneath the fish.
The wine list is a bit showy, skewing toward expensive New World bottles, but the glass selection is nicely diverse and appropriately priced.
Desserts continue the comfortable, casual feel. An elevated cookie jar contains an assortment of homemade goods that varies from time to time. Doughnuts ($7) coated in cinnamon sugar are delicious and impossibly airy. I dare you to stop yourself from eating every last bite, even on a full stomach. And our party was also enamored with a hearty slice of buttery pecan pie with bourbon cream.
On Sundays, Social offers a wonderful brunch, a meal often laden with sugar in too many eateries. There are definitely sweets and starches on the menu here — like an epic sticky bun ($7) coated with caramel sauce and pecans or extra fluffy ricotta pancakes with fresh blueberries and lemon curd — but they're never dulled by excessive sugar. Take the time, though, to dive into other items like the kale and quinoa salad; a beautifully cooked steak with a fried egg, greens and a subtle ranchero sauce; and the corn crêpe filled with pulled chicken.
Social also provides an expansive make-your-own Bloody Mary bar. But our party agreed that for $11, we'd rather slurp down the awesome wares of skilled bartenders rather than assemble ours from the unknown flavors of house ingredients.
Open only a matter of weeks, Social has experienced a few of the standard service hiccups associated with anywhere new — multiple waiters coming over, a few plates coming too early or too late — but in general, the staff seems eager to please and understands the food they're serving.
The aura that somewhat defines a restaurant's character is a big part of the dining experience, and Social's atmosphere seems angled at providing a fun, casual feel for higher-end diners. The results in the room are mixed, but the results on the plate are outstanding. For elevated casual eats, Social Kitchen & Bar shouldn't be missed.
Evan Hansen dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]