Southern cuisine often falls into one of two camps: time-honored, casual comfort food or refined and modern takes on Southern classics. The concept of elevated Southern restaurants has evolved to include fine-dining establishments where traditional dishes are re-imagined with advanced culinary techniques. At Toups South, chef Isaac Toups and Amanda Toups' new restaurant inside the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, there's a successful marriage of the two, but its defining characteristic is the bold approach of a chef known for Cajun roots and culinary skill.
While the chef's first restaurant, Toups' Meatery, is a decidedly Cajun affair, the food at the new restaurant speaks to the larger region of the South. Thick, puffy sourdough biscuits are accompanied by crab fat butter, a bright orange medley that throws a creamy, funky curveball with flavors reminiscent of South Carolina Lowcountry she-crab soup. "Smoke sticks" (which are more like smoke discs) are a reminder of Toups' touch with Cajun charcuterie. The smoky, spicy sausage is served in thick slices with mustard and sweet pickle slices.
Toups appeared on season 13 of Bravo's Top Chef and was voted fan favorite because of his animated personality and unpredictable style. That loud and demanding presence is here, too. It's in the stack of fried pork chops that arrive on a butcher block, harpooned with a giant steak knife like some sort of mad Cajun caveman feast. It's in the barbecued deckle steak, a cowboy campfire dish in which an enormous slab of smoky, fatty beef is delivered swimming in a stew of hearty baked beans, topped with pickled mustard seed and onions. That brash attitude is seen even in desserts. A giant chocolate chip and peanut butter cookie is served in a sizzling cast-iron skillet, a preparation that begs for a giant glass of milk.
Grilled Gulf tuna feels worlds away from the seared ahi preparations that dot so many menus. Here, the large slabs of fish are crusted with a punchy mix of herbs and nestled in a thick ragu of tomato-braised eggplant. A pasty, mayonnaiselike tonnato sauce adds a salty element that seems like overkill on a plate teeming with bold flavors. A bright salad of basil and mixed herbs provides a necessary breath of freshness needed in the loud dish.
Many of the dishes are daring and unapologetically self-assertive, but others are more refined and exercise restraint. A delicate crab salad — served in a tiny mason jar — is garnished with satsuma and carries the faint essence of ginger and a whisper of cayenne — just enough spice to contrast the creamy layers of crab and complement its clean flavor. A slab of lacquered pork belly sidles a crisp square of watermelon and gets sweetness from a brown sugar glaze. The fatty belly is balanced by bursts of cool watermelon and the crunch and spice of seasoned pork rinds.
Though Toups South is a more grown-up and elegant affair than its Mid-City predecessor, the chef made a name for himself by pushing the boundaries of modern Cajun cuisine, and that approach prevails here. Dishes demand attention and speak loudly in a Southern accent while straddling the line between refinement and excess.