by Len Lear
Marianne Gere and Kim Strengari must know something about discovering and developing great chefs. The local restaurant entrepreneurs have opened five restaurants in the past 13 years — Bella Luna in Bryn Mawr in 2000 and the other four in Conshohocken: Stella Blu in 2001, Gypsy Saloon in 2004, Bella Luna Pizza Kitchen in 2008 and Southern Cross Kitchen last November.
Christina Wilson is one chef who got her first chef’s job at Stella Blu seven years ago and was there for three years. This is the same young lady who won the 10th season of the Fox-TV show “Hell’s Kitchen” over 18 other chefs and a $250,000 a year executive chef job at Gordon Ramsay Steak at Paris Las Vegas, where she feeds a few hundred tourists a night. Another of Kim and Marianne’s former chefs, Ralph Pellegrino, also won a competition to partner with New York celebrity chef Rocco DeSpirito on a nationally syndicated TV cooking show.
Southern Cross Kitchen is so named because the food is a cross between Southern classics like jambalaya, fried buttermilk chicken, grits and cornbread, blackened catfish, etc., and modern comfort food. The location is 6 East First St., formerly home to 8 East for two years and just one or two minutes from the Schuylkill Expressway’s Conshohocken exit.
The Southern Cross Kitchen is a two-story operation with a couple dozen beers on tap. There is a terrific vintage feel with the blackboard specials, corny Southern-isms on the walls (e.g., “Here in the South we don’t hide crazy. We parade it on the front porch and give it a cocktail.”), shutters, antique chests, brass chandeliers, wooden tables, wrought iron and hanging herbs. The first floor seats 35 with another 15 at the bar, and the upstairs seats 70 with 20 more at the bar. During our visit last Thursday, both dining rooms and bars were mostly full, so the weekends must really be exploding.
Menu appetizers range from $8 to $15, salads from $7 to $12 and entrees from $14 to $28. These prices are not cheap, but there are lots of other crowded restaurants in the area, like Iron Hill Brewery/Restaurant, that are just as pricey. The economy has not altered that reality.
You cannot go wrong with some of the Southern classics like the fried green tomatoes and goat cheese with a zesty roasted red pepper coulis ($10) or fried pickles with green goddess dressing ($7), and I kneel at the altar of whoever came up with the idea of Philly cheesesteak egg rolls with fried onions and spicy ketchup ($8). In each case the sauces stand out like ghosts at a wedding, although the accompanying buttermilk biscuits ($2) were dry and tasteless. Jambalaya with chicken, andouille sausage, rice and vegetables nestled in a sauce with just a little bit of a kick ($20) gave a hearty nod to rustic comfort.
Yummy Toll House cookie pie, served warm, with vanilla ice cream, and chocolate chip banana pie with ice cream provide a closing chorus to a tune your taste buds will enjoy singing. Desserts are made on the premises. The economy has made many of us tighten our belts, but after eating here, we had to loosen them.
Last Sunday Craig LaBan published a one-bell review of Southern Cross Kitchen, although he praised several of their dishes as well as the décor and beer selection. I would remind anyone who read it that personal taste is a very subjective thing and that a newspaper columnist who has never been a professional chef or restauranteur is simply one more diner whose opinion is not necessarily any more valid than anyone else’s.
After all, one only has to visit yelp.com and check out any restaurant, no matter whether it is a Marc Vetri or Jose Garces palace of gastronomy or a hamburger joint. I guarantee you that every single one will be praised to the North Star by some customers and trashed by others. It goes with the territory.
So the opinions and recommendations from your friends are just as likely to coalesce with or dissent from yours as are the opinions and recommendations from some newspaper employee who may have previously covered high school sports or crime trials.
A while back, for example, Craig LaBan did a hatchet job on Thai Kuu in Chestnut Hill, conferring upon them the dreaded “No-bell Prize.” He practically said that if you eat their meat, your future generations will be genetic mutations. Several local foodies I have talked to since then, however, have told me that they have enjoyed dinners at this charming BYOB. Four of us had dinner there last month and had nothing but praise for the food, décor, prices and service. This is not chemistry, where there is only one correct answer to an experiment. All of us have different experiences at the same restaurant, and there is no one right or wrong answer. Make up your own mind.
Interestingly, the executive chef at Southern Cross Kitchen, Santana Sihamountry (whose brother, Niphone, is now head chef at Stella Blu), is originally from Laos in Southeast Asia, which is a long way from North and South Carolina, but chefs often become experts at the cooking of an ethnic group other than their own.
Vince Viola, for example, for 23 years has been preparing great Chinese food at Yangming in Bryn Mawr, which last year was named “The Best Chinese Restaurant in the U.S.” by a national Chinese culinary magazine, and Vince Viola is an Italian-American who was born and raised in Manayunk, which is more than a few subway stops from Beijing.
There is no doubt that Kim and Marianne have taken a walk on the high wire with Southern Cross Kitchen. On the other hand, a ship in the harbor is safe, but ships were not made to stay in a harbor.
There is great bluesy music here (not too loud, thank you) on tape and live music upstairs on Wednesday and Thursday nights and at Sunday brunch. Southern Cross serves lunch and dinner every day of the week (except for brunch on Sunday). Reservations are not accepted. Free valet parking is available Wednesday through Saturday nights.
For more information, visit www.conshygirls.com or call 484-344-5668.