The Cork & Cleaver
Mark and Jessica Anderson
As a husband and wife who enjoy eating and drinking both with our motley crew of kids and without, the Andersons are not often blown away by new restaurants. In fact, it never really happens. But when we walked in the door of The Cork & Cleaver Gastropub, in the section of Midtown that we often cruise right by in favor of pizza, the first thing noticed was the open kitchen and the smiling face of the line cook who greeted us, pan sizzling. Her broad smile set the tone for our visit.
The Cork & Cleaver is the type of place that makes you feel comfortable. It’s not a white tablecloth kind of place where you have to watch your manners and your dress—and that’s by design according to the owner, Ryan Friday. When he and his brother, a restaurateur from Perry County, designed The Cork & Cleaver they wanted to focus first on hearty but delicious pub food.
At The Cork and Cleaver you can easily arrive in jeans or in a suit and tie without feeling out of place in either. That flexibility does not mean a cut to quality. Many times during the meal, we remarked to each other, “it’s fancy food in a unfancy atmosphere.” This is not an insult. Instead, it’s exactly what The Cork & Cleaver strives to be with the addition of “Gastropub” to its name, according to Friday. He wanted his restaurant to be a place where all kinds felt welcome and the food was casual but perfect. Within the first few months of opening, Friday’s The Cork & Cleaver hits the nail on the head; tough to do in the often-fickle Midtown Montgomery neighborhood.
We started with a Farnsworth (house-designed gin concoction) for the lovely Mrs. Anderson and a Cucumber Gimlet for the always spicy Mr. Anderson, coupled with the grit cakes appetizer. We definitely recommend ordering an appetizer and cocktail to start, with the open kitchen, the scents are strong and left our mouths watering.
The grit cakes were well dressed with a house-made remoulade so good we ordered an additional cup. The amount of dill added to the sauce gave it the perfect amount of zip that is often lacking in remoulades outside of New Orleans. This appetizer earned a two syllable “daaayyyum” from both of us as we chowed down.
Often with new restaurants the tempo can be off, pleasantly not the case with Cork & Cleaver. When our appetizer was finished, and we had to stop from licking the remoulade out of the cup, our server was ready with a wine list that was the perfect complement to our entrees and water refills.
While the cocktail menu was intriguing and good; the wine list is really where Cork & Cleaver shines. Wines matching up well with the selection of red meats should have fans of red wine singing; Meimoi is on the menu for just $13 a glass. Yes, you read that right. No, it’s not a Wine Down Wednesday price. This attention to a crucial detail shows that Friday and his team created exactly what they set out to - fancy food and delicious drinks in an approachable atmosphere.
Under the suggestion of our server, we ordered the ribeye and filet. The ribeye was ordered as it appeared on the menu, cooked medium rare. It came out exactly as expected. The filet was ordered medium, with the three-cheese mac and cheese, but the brussels sprouts were substituted for the Gouda grits. Following the grit cakes appetizer, and not a huge brussels eater, the grits substitution was a welcomed change. The filet came out cooked as desired and as with the grit cakes, the macaroni and cheese was licked clean. All four sides were healthy portions.
As card carrying Southerners, the Andersons can be finicky about side items—especially things like creamed spinach and macaroni and cheese. Cork & Cleaver again hits the mark. The macaroni and cheese is very clearly made in the old-school style, done with love and real heavy cream, wide pasta noodles and quality cheeses. The difference shows. It’s what you would expect when you sit down to Sunday lunch with your grandmother. It’s probably the best we’ve had in this city that isn’t at the table of a family member.
The same is true of the creamed spinach. The word floating around the table was “decadent,” which is usually reserved for dessert and not spinach. Far removed from Popeye’s food of choice, Cork & Cleaver’s iteration of spinach is exactly that—made with heavy cream that truly makes it decadent.
The meats were cooked as we ordered, with an infused smoke flavor clear in every bite. We finished the meal with a serving of the recommended bread pudding. It was light and spongy with a clear bourbon sauce finish. This recommendation did not let us down and it was a solid dessert offering.
What struck us both about Cork & Cleaver was the openness. From the staff to the physical space, everything seemed bright. While not expressly family-friendly, I would not hesitate to bring (well-behaved) children here. A look at the brunch menu shows a wide selection for kids, and bottomless mimosas, which is a nod to both kids and adults—because for brunch with kids you need bottomless mimosas.
Between the attentiveness of the staff, the quality of the food and the fact that this locally-owned establishment is open on Mondays in a town desperate for quality, locally-owned places open on Mondays, the Andersons give The Cork & Cleaver four out of five stars. Add it to your list for date night, a long lunch or Sunday brunch; you won’t be disappointed.