Geography notwithstanding, Miami really isn't part of "The South." Though Florida as a whole is undoubtedly a Southern state, those who live here know that the South really ends somewhere near Palm Beach County's northern border, and Latin America actually begins in Miami, with Broward and Palm Beach constituting something of a demilitarized zone of transplants from the Northeast.
So when word came out that Chef Jeff McInnis, recently departed from the Momofuku-esque Gigi, was going to be cooking regional Southern fare at a new place on South Beach, it was at least something different from the waves upon waves of burger joints and steakhouses. It seemed a far cry from Gigi's Asian-inspired small plates, but McInnis' work before Gigi at the Ritz Carlton South Beach, more Mediterranean than anything else, wouldn't have exactly suggested pork buns either.
Yardbird Southern Table and Bar opened in October 2011 and clearly was on to something; the place was immediately packed, and the crowds haven't stopped coming. Turns out, the chameleon-like McInnis hails from the Florida Panhandle (according to the map I've laid out above, that definitely is the South) and started his cooking career in Charleston, South Carolina, so maybe the food at Yardbird is actually closer to home than initial appearances would suggest.
(You can see all my pictures in this Yardbird flickr set).
As with Gigi, where McInnis teamed up with experienced restaurateur and club-owner Amir Ben-Zion, Yardbird is a collaboration between the chef and John Kunkel, founder of the rapidly expanding Lime Fresh Mexican Grill chain. They've created a look and feel for the place that is casual and Southern-accented without being entirely hokey: white-washed brick walls and unfinished wood-beamed ceilings, jars of pickled vegetables and blackboard drawings of farm animals as decoration. It's sort of Crate & Barrel meets Cracker Barrel.
The menu likewise plays on traditional tropes of the Southern genre while updating them with some contemporary style. Astute menu deconstructionists will be able to spot several McInnis dishes that got translated from Asian to Southern when he moved restaurants: that short rib meat loaf is a variation on one he did at Gigi; the pepper-spiced watermelon that accompanies the fried chicken used to be a component of a Gigi small plate; there's a fried green tomato BLT that comes from the same family as Gigi's pork belly BLT; the "Sweet Tea-Brined Southern Ribs" bear more than a passing resemblance to what used to be Gigi's "Southern Boy" ribs. Working with flavor profiles that have a more personal connection, the hope is that Yardbird's versions ought to be even better.
Things start well at Yardbird. "Small Shares" are the kinds of things that used to be known as appetizers, once upon a time. Among these, my favorites include the "Southern Edamame," peas steamed in their shells, slathered in a chili-inflected butter, and sprinkled generously with coarse sea salt. They're best eaten like their namesake, dragging your teeth down the pod to release the peas within while simultaneously catching all that spicy butter and salt.
I was at least equally fond of the "Melons & Cheese." Planks of watermelon are topped with equal-sized planks of grilled farmer cheese, then garnished with fresh celery leaves, a drizzle of Meyer lemon olive oil, and a sprinkle of salt. A deceptively simple dish, it offers a wonderful contrast of cool fruit against creamy warm cheese, further brightened and enhanced by the other components.
The Farmers Salad, on the other hand, feels more haphazardly thrown together: a lot of lettuces, not enough vegetables for real variety, and nebbish slices of hard-boiled egg, though some slivers of pickled onion and a smoked Vidalia onion vinaigrette do their best to keep things interesting. And the "Meat Loaf" (really braised short rib, shredded and pressed back together) was more exciting when plated with the smoky plantain purée and a molasses drizzle at Gigi than here at Yardbird, where mashed potatoes and tomato jam "ketchup" are a more pedestrian pairing.
"Mama's Chicken Biscuits" offer a small-scale way to sample two of Yardbird's more "signature" items in one package. Slabs of fried chicken breast are sandwiched within split buttermilk biscuits, with a smart addition of pepper jelly to perk things up. There are good flavors here, and some fine biscuits, but soggy fried chicken unfortunately literally dampened things. The "Fried Green Tomato BLT" likewise offered good flavors, but the "Double-Down" like assemblage of fat slabs of fried tomato and crispy pork belly was unwieldy and sloppy.
As is the style these days, Yardbird's menu suggests that instead of individual starters and main courses, the restaurant offers up dishes meant for sharing. This sometimes-dubious premise (Don't most people think of pimento cheese or a salad as starters for a meal? Are shrimp 'n' grits, or a pork chop, really dishes made for sharing?) then serves as the excuse for plates hitting the table willy-nilly as they come out of the kitchen. Shared or not, I've usually found that notwithstanding this disclaimer, most restaurants still tend to course things out with at least a modicum of sense to which plates come out when. Not so much at Yardbird, where our entrées - excuse me, "Big Shares" - of "Llewellyn's Fine Fried Chicken" and "Sweet Tea-Brined Southern Ribs" were among the first things to arrive at the table.
Setting aside the pace and sequence of the meal, the fact that the fried chicken showed up within a few minutes of ordering it makes at least one thing clear: it's not cooked to order. And perhaps that's why some pieces had a flaccid crust, while others had dry meat. I was initially ready to quibble when culinary thought-mine Ideas in Food tweeted, "Texture is as important as flavor," but in some cases, it's true. Fried chicken is undoubtedly one of those cases, where it's really all about that crispy skin encasing still-juicy flesh. Yardbird's missed the mark for me, which is a shame because the rest of the plate - savory cheddar and chow-chow waffles, that peppered and mint-flecked watermelon, a little pitcher of spiced Tupelo honey - were all right on target. Yardbird makes much ado about their "27-hour" fried chicken recipe - I wish they'd spend just a little more time and attention on the final step of the process.
Those ribs were another miss for me, with not a hint of smoke, though perhaps it was buried underneath the over-sweet sauce with which they were shellacked. But that's not to say that Yardbird can't do great things with pork.
A Carolina style pulled pork sandwich (lunch menu only) topped with cole slaw and served on a puffy freshly baked bun was absolutely delicious - and even better if you stick some of those house-made pickles under the bun. A hearty serving of a black-eyed pea salad made a nice accompaniment.
Another winner was their mac n cheese, a gussied-up version using thick, curly torchio pasta and Grayson cheese from Meadow Creek Dairy in Virginia, striking just the right balance of chewy pasta, gooey cheese, and crusty bread crumb topping.
Yardbird's bar, as it should, focuses on bourbon, that great Southern spirit. They've got more than fifty mostly small-batch bourbons, including some highly-sought items like Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve (in 15, 20 and 23 year iterations). But even though any self-respecting bourbon fan would usually drink such things neat - maybe with a drop of water or a solitary ice cube - Yardbird imposes a $2 upcharge for a neat pour. It is obnoxious and unseemly to charge extra for serving bourbon in the manner in which it ought to be drunk.
[Update: a commenter helpfully noted that Yardbird, responding to a comment from Miami Herald critic Victoria Pesce Elliott, stopped the upcharge about a month ago. The explanation for the charge - that there is more liquor in neat and rocks drinks - is arguably accurate. But when your bar specializes in small-batch bourbons - which will typically be drunk neat or on the rocks - that should be factored into the price on the bar menu, especially when the price for nearly half of those bourbons is already over $15. Indeed, anyone getting a $20+ bourbon and not drinking it neat should have to pay a $2 stupidity charge.]
Also obnoxious was when on another visit (with the kids) we were invited to wait at the bar for 15-20 minutes and order drinks while they "got a table ready for us." The place was busy - as it always is - but I could see that there were at least a couple tables that were cleaned, set and ready to go. The bar, meanwhile, was already packed, and our 14 and 11 year olds were not exactly welcome there anyway. When we opted to hover at the hostess' station instead of adding a couple cocktails to our tab, we were seated not more than 10 minutes later - at the same exact table that was ready when we walked in.
Individually, every server we've had at the restaurant has been friendly, attentive and helpful, despite a near-constant press of customers. So what's particularly obvious - and frustrating - is that the none-too-subtle efforts to pad the bills come from the top down. These kind of ploys come off as more South Beach hustle than Southern hospitality, and management ought to think more carefully about whether they're worth it in the long run.
Yardbird is a good restaurant right now, but an inconsistent one. It could be a great restaurant; indeed, there's no better evidence of the heights to which Southern cuisine can climb, if appropriately pushed, than what Chef Sean Brock has done with Husk in Charleston. I suspect Yardbird doesn't have such lofty aspirations, but I hope that its popularity doesn't keep it from looking to improve.
Yardbird Southern Table and Bar
1600 Lenox Avenue, Miami Beach
 Yardbird's social media presence is a different story. The restaurant's Twitter timeline has more dropped g's and y'all's than a season's worth of Dukes of Hazzard episodes. They'd do well to take a look at how a place like Husk Restaurant, which is as authentically Southern as it gets, uses Twitter without resort to any such contrived and insincere caricatures of Southern hospitality.