By Jennifer Kornegay
Daphne, Alabama, sometimes takes a backseat to its flashier neighbor, Mobile, but while this quaint community is quieter, less big-city excitement doesn’t equal boring, especially when it comes to eating. If you know where to look, you’ll find Daphne’s dining scene is diverse and delicious.
Case in point: Southwood Kitchen. Don’t let its strip-mall location fool you. The exterior is styled with the welcoming look of a house. A large carved-wooden sign announces its name. And inside, there’s plenty of palate-pleasing action in an intimate atmosphere, thanks to owner and executive chef Jeremiah Matthews’ ability to blend his formal culinary training, interest in international foods and an appreciation for the flavors of his home.
Matthews moved to the area in 1983 and left to attend the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Paris, then went to college in upstate New York before a stint cooking out West. Then, he came back to south Alabama. While he was the chef at lauded Magnolia Springs’ eatery Jesse’s, an opportunity to open his own restaurant popped up and was too good to not to pursue. “I’d spent enough time working for others and felt like it was time to do it for myself,” he says.
In August 2017, he opened Southwood Kitchen. The spot has a neighborhood bistro vibe, thanks to friendly, chatty servers, a relaxed ambiance and the regulars occupying bars stools and tables. “We’ve got people who come in and eat here three and sometimes even four times a week,” Matthews says.
They’re drawn to a menu whose selections lean toward fine dining but are devoid of any pretense and defy any rigid classification. While a close look reveals Matthews’ classical French background in technique and some ingredients – duck-fat whipped potatoes, braised items with jus reductions – there’s plenty of Alabama too, like a lunch starter featuring a generous dollop of creamy, sharp pimento cheese waiting to be scooped up not by regular ole crackers, but crunchy, just-fried pork rinds still crackling from the hot oil.
The midday meal continues with sandwiches like hot-sauced chicken with house-made pickles and hefty burgers anchored by patties of 100-percent certified Angus beef ground in-house daily. “I love a good burger myself, but our salads have big fans too,” Matthews says. The fresh and filling salad options share a common leaf. “All my lettuces are grown locally and hydroponically,” he says, “and our diners love the difference you can taste from that.” A standout is the black and blue beef tender salad with bite-sized bits of grilled steak, pickled okra, tomatoes, bacon and crumbled gorgonzola topping a blend of romaine, iceberg and spinach.
At night, dinner brings a variety of options, some with international influences that invite your tastebuds to take an adventure. Elk tenderloin is embellished with green-garlic chimichurri, black garlic lacquer and shitake-spinach risotto. A Korean barbecue-style dish with ginger-scallion noodle stir fry and soy caramel is a favorite. But standards like shrimp and grits and beef filet, which Matthews calls “fail-safes,” are almost always available.
“I like a lot of different foods, so I took a little from everywhere I’ve worked and traveled and all my training to create the menu,” he says. This interest in a wide variety of cuisines keeps the menu changing, as does his commitment to cooking with the seasons and using locally sourced ingredients. “A lot of my veggies come from the same farm where I get lettuces. Often the eggs we use come from my own farm,” Matthews says.
And proximity to the Gulf means offers of practically still-swimming fish dishes at night. “At dinner, there are three to four fresh fish specials. I get fish from the Fairhope Fish House, and usually, what I get was caught that morning,” he says. He also keeps a few Alabama-farmed oysters available. “I love the boutique, farmed oysters, like those from Murder Point and Point aux Pin.”
Matthews is picky about the quality of what comes into his kitchen and goes out on diners’ plates, but he’s also always striving to find new and tasty ways to approach foods. “Really, whatever I can get my hands on, I try to make something nice out of it,” he says. “It’s all about pleasing our customers. When people are done eating here, I just hope they leave feeling like they can’t wait to come back.”
1203 U.S. Highway 98, Suite 3D
Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
dinner, 5 p.m.- 9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday