Sweet Peas shows promise

Sweet Peas

The Frankfort Avenue space abruptly vacated by Furlong’s last year didn’t stay vacant for long: Sweet Peas Southern Bistro, a new venture involving Christopher Seckman of the popular North End Cafe, opened last week in this location, and it’s been packing in crowds all week.

Seckman’s new spot has great potential. It’s comfortably upscale without being stuffy, offers excellent service and fine, well-prepared food. But it still seems to be groping a bit for a clear identity. With a down-home comfort-food menu that bears a close resemblance to the bill of fare at, say, Cottage Inn, it needs to come up with a way to justify prices that significantly exceed downscale diner fare. And if it plans to reach that goal with creative fusion that might be dubbed “nouvelle Southern,” it needs to take bolder steps than merely garnishing pot roast with barely cooked veggies in place of the long-simmered country custom.

Call it “good but not great” for now, but based on North End’s trajectory into one of the city’s most popular dining rooms, there’s every reason to expect this sibling to build on a good start and grow into something even better. This is one to watch.

3 stars
Sweet Peas Southern Bistro
2350 Frankfort Ave.
(502) 894-9091

There hasn’t been a whole lot of change from the look and feel of Furlongs, nor would there have been any good reason for the new folks to do that. Those who remember Furlongs fondly will be pleased to find little change in the long, comfortable bar down one side of the building, the enclosed front porch, or the four comfortably upscale and rather intimate dining rooms, each in a different color – pastel shades of lemon and lime in two, bolder hues of dark red and terra cotta in others. Interesting, bold paintings add bright touches, and old-house fittings like well polished wooden floors, ornate woodwork and old-fashioned pocket doors provide a heritage feel.

Each room is furnished with only four or five tables, draped in white cloths and covered with white butcher paper, set with modest, diner-style flatware rolled in grocery-store paper napkins. Seating is mostly in attractive upright wooden office-style chairs; one room features an old church pew as a banquette. Recessed ceiling lighting is intelligently placed to bathe each tabletop in warm light while keeping the overall scene cozily dim.

Sweet Peas is currently open for dinner only, with the aforementioned menu that warmly evokes down-home diner fare. There’s a short list of appetizers, salads and soups, including split pea, chili and vegetable, are $2.50 for a cup, $3.95 for a bowl.

A half-dozen “Specialities,” with choice of soup or side salad, range in price from $8.95 (for a vegetarian pot pie) to $10.95 (for pot roast); other options, all $9.95, include a turkey Hot Brown, vegetarian Brunswick stew (burgoo by another name) and the somewhat less diner-style fettuccine Alfredo.

Ten “Plates,” with choice of two sides, are $7.95 (for a vegetarian dinner made up of any four sides of your choice) to $13.95 (for a sirloin steak). Among other options are fried cod ($12.95), fried shrimp ($9.95), and that diner favorite, chicken-fried steak ($10.95).

There’s also a daily special, which the proprietors managed to resist billing as a “blue-plate special,” ranging from Monday’s spaghetti and meatballs ($9.95) through to Wednesday’s prime rib ($15.95) and fish-on-Friday’s baked catch of the day (market price).

A la carte side dishes, all $2.50, include green beans, collards, cole slaw, cottage cheese, carrots, creamed corn, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy, broccoli casserole, baked beans, french fries, black eyed peas and a cup soup or a side salad.

Unlike your basic diner, Sweet Peas boasts a full bar with, the server assured us, a wide selection of beers. The wine list is intriguing, offering an exceptionally affordable selection of wines in a wine-bar-style choice of three-ounce tasting glasses ($2.25 to $3.25 for most choices), full glasses, a half-bottle carafe or a full bottle (mostly $24 or under), all at fair markups.

That’s the good news. The sad news – particularly surprising from the North End folks, who’ve demonstrated serious wine-geek chops at their other location, is that this list is frankly boring, consisting largely of mass-market labels from “industrial” producers distributed by Brown-Forman and Gallo.

It’s not all glum, though – I spotted a few interesting wines, including the basic Ravenswood Zinfandel ($3.25, $6, $11 and $23 depending on serving size), and further applause to management for not penalizing those who choose smaller portions. There’s one Kentucky wine on the list, an off-dry Riesling from Lovers Leap Winery in Lawrenceburg ($2.75, $5, $9.50 and $20). A few “staff favorites” at the end of the list, most available only by the bottle, feature more interesting wines at somewhat higher prices, including an Australian Shiraz from the McLaren Vale’s Coriole, an excellent producer ($35) and Schug Merlot ($40)

Our meal began with a complimentary basket of a half-dozen tasty little two-bite corn muffins served with honey butter in a crock and regular butter in foil packets. I liked them a lot and quickly inhaled more than my share.

Courses are served on large, heavy off-white earthenware plates with only minimalist garnishes and plating. We started with a pair of shared appetizers, fried oysters and fried okra (both $5.95). Close to a dozen small oysters and a good-size mound of okra were both crisply breaded and grease-free. The oysters were fresh and fine, served with a crock of tartar-style mayo that wasn’t really needed – the accompanying lemon wedges provided all the flavor accent necessary. The okra came in the form of small fritters containing three or four small slices each, held together in crisply-fried spheres the size of ping-pong balls. A mild, pink remoulade-style dipping sauce made a good flavor contrast.

A side salad, included with one dinenr, consisted of standard mesclun lettuces, a bit tired-looking and dry, topped with shredded carrots and a couple of thick cucumber slices. The blue-cheese dressing, served on the side as requested, was tasty but idiosyncratic, thin and tangy, with lumps of cheese stirred in, I’m guessing it’s based on yogurt rather than mayo or sour cream. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s perhaps a healthy alternative, but a bit unexpected.

We held off on wine until the main courses, then enjoyed a half-bottle carafe of Toad Hollow Erik’s the Red ($12.50), a fruity, slurpy and fun blend of 15 red-grape varieties from California’s Paso Robles region, made by Kentuckian Todd “Toad” Williams, brother of comedian Robin Williams. (Despite its tutti-frutti “cepage,” its very berry flavors seemed a lot like Zinfandel to me, not that there’s anything wrong with that.) It was served in an attractive carafe with rather heavy and short wine glasses.

The pot roast ($10.95) was not a bad take on comfort food, but frankly it fell well short of the best I’ve ever eaten. Perhaps made from brisket, it was more stringy than tender, and as previously noted, the veggies – carrot slices, strips of celery and roast-potato wedges – appeared to have been cooked crisp-tender and added to the roast at the end of cooking rather than simmered into melting tenderness in the roasting pot, sharing their flavors with the meat.

Fried chicken ($11.95) was a generous portion, half of a frying hen, separated into a wing, a thigh and a smallish breast piece, all crisply breaded and fried deep golden brown. Most of it was grease-free, but a pocket of chicken that should probably have been trimmed from the thigh piece during prep rendered during frying forming a sizzling pool of fat inside the breading that turned it soggy and greasy underneath. Apart from that single flaw, however, it was true diner-style fried chicken, right up there with the city’s best.

My wife harrumphed because the green beans weren’t simmered into submission with ham hock and onions, but I like my veggies a little closer to the garden and thought these were just fine.

Another side, cole slaw, was crisp and fresh, but made in an idiosyncratic style, cabbage and carrots (and maybe onions) finely chopped and dressed with a tart and slightly sweet vinegar dressing. I can’t complain about ingredients or preparation, but it just wasn’t what I think of when I ask for slaw, and I ended up leaving most of it.

Desserts – an assortment of pies and cobblers – sounded appetizing, but we pleaded satiety and passed on it, this time.

All in all, it was a fine dinner, with extra points for atmosphere and service (actually, our server was extremely professional, the bussers efficient but perhaps just a little too quick to grab finished plates out from under our forks). It was good, and it will be better. We’ll be back. Dinner for two was $49.39, plus a $10 tip.

ACCESSIBILITY: Although the front of the building boasts an imposing set of stairs, the entrance from the parking lot is a model of access for wheelchair users, and the dining rooms and bar are accessible throughout.

(February 2006)