Walking into Punk's Simple Southern Food, the latest of the Clark Cooper Concepts restaurants and the next door neighbor to Coppa Osteria in the Rice Village, I couldn't help but be charmed by its down-home country vibe.
Like the other restaurants in their portfolio (they also own Ibiza, Brasserie 19, Coppa Ristorante and Coppa Osteria), a large part of Punk's identity is communicated through its interior design, which embraces you with simple wooden tables, distressed aluminum chairs, wooden walls, and country-leather stools -- think country diner, but with a modern spin. The word "Southern" is emblazoned on the far back wall in a bright blue neon. Brown wooden walls and mirrored frames above the elongated wooden bar evoke the feeling of an old-time country western saloon.
Design aside, I think they had me at the sweet corn hushpuppies. Exceedingly light and fluffy, with a slight pop of texture from the corn kernels, the generous order of rounded fritters had the quality of just-fried donuts -- airy and piping hot -- with a salty-sweet flavor that was highly addictive. I plopped one, two, three, and a fourth (somewhat guiltily) in my mouth, forcing myself to push the plate away so that I could save room for some of the other things we'd planned to try.
And we had plenty on order: Deviled eggs, pimento cheese served with fresh veggie sticks, chipotle tomato butter broiled oysters, pickled shrimp and tater tots were the other starters we had that evening, all of them dishes that you might have have as part of a typical southern family meal, many of them made with executive chef Brandi Key's family recipes.
"'Punk' was Charles' nickname when he was a kid," said Key as she explained her inspiration for the menu. "He used to run around in the backwoods as a kid, then come home to a great dinner, and that's what we're trying to do with this menu."
Dishes are simply presented, often on simple white stoneware, or, in the case of the buttermilk fried chicken, on an aluminum tray. You may be tempted by other things on the menu, like pulled pork sandwich or Ma's meatloaf, but Grandma Pat's buttermilk fried chicken is the thing to get.
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Order a half chicken or a whole to share, and it will come with a homemade biscuit and jam, along with a side of mashed potatoes. Other sides are available a la carte, like the mac 'n cheese, braised collards, or Lola's butter bean succotash (a standout) -- all solid fixin's to add on to your meal if you are a sides kind of person. For myself, I couldn't get enough of "Mom's cornbread."
The large square of cornbread was one of the best I've ever had, so moist and dense and lightly sweetened, I would have happily subbed it for dessert. But then if I did, I would have missed out on sweets endings like the banana pudding or the strawberry rhubarb pie, both homey and comforting.
Punk's also has a good looking cocktail list, champagne list, beer and whiskey selection for those wanting to spike their meal with some alcohol. I ordered a glass of bubbly to start, and ended with a raspberry fizz because I kept on seeing these pretty bright red drinks passing me on their way to other tables. Mine arrived topped with a tuft of crushed ice that reminded me of a snow cone, a pretty, deceptively light drink that tasted like sweet raspberry punch.
As the evening came to an end, I looked around to see a crowd of couples and families. Everywhere I looked, there were trays of chicken or sandwiches, and tables full of plates to share. The patio, with its low-hanging string lights, looked like a great spot to kick back and relax. In the background, soothing country music was playing, giving the ambiance this mellow, laid back kind of feel -- kinda simple and kinda southern--just like its name.