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Review: Sadie’s Southern gives family recipes a twist, but doesn’t mess with classics

“Don’t mess with the classics” could be considered the guiding mantra for the entire menu at Sadie’s Southern

Chef Brendan Cox talks about bringing Southern classics to the menu Sadie's Southern in Chapel Hill.
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Chef Brendan Cox talks about bringing Southern classics to the menu Sadie's Southern in Chapel Hill.

“Don’t mess with the classics.” That’s the entire menu description of the deviled eggs at Sadie’s Southern.

If you’ve ever been to a picnic or potluck supper, chances are that’s all the description you need. You know those words translate to simplicity itself: pristine ovals of boiled egg white filled (piped, if you’re being fancy) with a creamy pale yellow puree of the yolk with mayonnaise, mustard, salt and pepper. Maybe a dusting of paprika — but none of that newfangled Spanish smoked paprika, thank you.

Sadie’s Southern nails it.

Not that the recipe is particularly challenging. In fact, it’s easy to imagine that the only challenge for chef Brendan Cox was to resist the temptation to add a professional chef’s touch to the recipe. Cox, a native of Washington, DC, worked in that city’s restaurants for 15 years (including a stint under the acclaimed Todd Gray at Equinox) before setting out on his own.

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The fried chicken entree at SadieÕs Southern in Chapel Hill is made with a buttermilk brine and a crackly crust that shatters when you bite through it into the juicy meat beneath. It is served here with grits and cole slaw. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Locally, he is known for his sophisticated take on farm-to-table cuisine at Oakleaf, his fine dining restaurant in Carrboro. He opened Sadie’s Southern in November with his wife, Leslie.

Cox describes his latest concept as Southern comfort food inspired by family recipes, and he has taken the concept to heart. When his kitchen crew was divided as to whether “classic” deviled eggs should contain pickles, he neatly solved the problem by serving them with pickles on the side. (Homemade, of course; this is Brendan Cox, after all.)

That’s not to say that the chef is above the occasional chefly tweak. He substitutes gnocchi for traditional dumplings in his take on chicken and dumplings, an improvisation that can be forgiven on two counts. First, there is no single definitive dumpling, as regional variations are so diverse that gnocchi by any other name could slip in undetected. Second, Sadie’s chicken and gnocchi dumplings are mighty fine eats, whatever you call them.

Cox goes rogue with his Sunday pot roast, too — partly with the recipe, which veers off the traditional path by braising the beef in dark beer (with lip-smacking results) but also when the dish is offered: every day except Sunday.

He explains: “It was the only dish that we regularly serve that didn’t make sense on a brunch-only menu, although if we have excess we will often run Sunday pot roast hash as a feature.”

By and large, though, “don’t mess with the classics” could be considered the guiding mantra for the entire menu at Sadie’s. Cox makes a pimento cheese that any Southern grandmother would recognize, and serves it up in a small Mason jar with Ritz crackers on the side.

Exemplary fried green tomatoes, shrimp fritters and Korean-inspired honey red chili chicken wings (another detour off the traditional path, and one you should allow to lead you astray) round out a small but diverse appetizer offering.

While the wings brazenly fly the Southern coop, Sadie’s fried chicken entree is happy roost close to home with a buttermilk brine and a crackly crust that shatters when you bite through it into the juicy meat beneath.

I haven’t yet tried the cider-brined pork chop with roasted sweet potatoes and braised greens, but it’s at the top of my to-do list now that I’ve seen (and smelled) an order pass tantalizingly close to me on it way to a nearby table. I can, however, heartily recommend a pan-seared filet of N.C. mountain trout with pecans and lemon-brown butter sauce, served with green beans and creamy stone ground grits.

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The shrimp and grits at Sadie’s Southern in Chapel Hill. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

If you’re looking for a light bite, you’ll find several paths to satisfaction among the half-dozen or so sandwiches on offer. Your only challenge will be choosing among an offering that covers the spectrum from N.C. shrimp salad on toasted brioche to the Sadieburger, an old school double cheeseburger with house pickles and a not-so-secret sauce (a classic blend of mayonnaise, Dijon mustard and ketchup). I haven’t come across a dud in the lot, but for my money, the star of the show is the the best oyster po’ boy I’ve had in recent memory.

Banana pudding is the obvious choice for dessert, though the custard beneath that textbook browned meringue topping isn’t always completely set. A nostalgia-inducing lemon pound cake with whipped cream is a worthy alternative.

Happily, kitchen miscues are scarce as hen’s teeth (to borrow a suitably homespun phrase). The only other letdown I’ve yet to encounter was an order of shrimp fritters that were underdone in the middle.

Cox was clearly paying attention when people criticized the dining room atmosphere of Alberello, the Italian restaurant he previously operated in this space, as cold and uninviting. He’s given Sadie’s Southern a much cozier feel with lots of greenery, large photos of produce on soft blue walls, and curtains in the floor-to ceiling windows.

At once cozy and contemporary, it’s a suitable setting for a meal that doesn’t mess (much) with the classics.

Sadie’s Southern

72 Chapelton Court, Chapel Hill

984-234-3017

sadiessouthern.com

Cuisine: Southern

Rating: 3 1/2 stars

Prices: $$

Atmosphere: cozy meets contemporary

Noise level: low to moderate

Service: friendly and attentive

Recommended: deviled eggs, pimento cheese, fried green tomatoes, chicken wings, oyster po’ boy, fried chicken, pan-seared trout, chicken and gnocchi dumplings

Open: Lunch and dinner Monday, Wednesday-Saturday; brunch Sunday

Reservations: not accepted (large parties call ahead)

Other: beer and wine; accommodates children minimal vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.

The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.

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