At Kenton's, the Magazine Street restaurant from New York restaurateurs Sean Josephs and Mani Dawes, the allegiance to bourbon is instantly apparent. An expansive backlit bar anchors the elegant space, stretching nearly the length of the restaurant and showcasing an impressive selection of glowing amber bottles. Here, wheated bourbons meet white whiskies and domestic ryes sit next to Japanese and Scottish bottlings. It takes a discerning eye to locate the relationship between the all-American drink and the refined approach to chef Kyle Knall's menu, but it's there — displayed in nuanced takes on Southern-accented dishes, most of which include the signature charred and smoky flavors of the spirit.
Kenton's opened last fall, following nearly a year of renovations to the space, and the chic bistro exudes warm elegance and finesse, which is mirrored in the menu. Despite touting neighborhood appeal, Kenton's is an upscale restaurant and dishes are priced accordingly.
Several dishes connect the dots between the rough-hewn aesthetic of the brown spirit and some of the menu's more sophisticated approaches. Warm, whole wheat rolls glistening with butter offer the perfect opening to any meal; the domes burst with the aroma of rosemary, delivered fresh from the oven on cocoa-colored butcher blocks.
Grit cakes, shaped into cubes and fried until golden, straddle the line between rustic and refined. The crispy squares have creamy insides and are topped with delicate ribbons of country ham and wisps of bourbon-flavored aioli, giving them a salty and fatty touch.
Charred crescents of butternut squash form the core of a hearty vegetarian starter, in which blue cheese and walnuts meet kale leaves dressed in a lemony vinaigrette that provides just enough zing to balance the heavier components.
The kitchen does its best to elevate some Gulf Coast standbys, which arrive gussied up and clock in at noticably high prices — a reminder that it's a Magazine Street bistro, not a Gulf Shores seaside shack. Red snapper tartare was briny and fresh, with the flavors of horseradish and lemon giving the dish an almost effervescent pop.
The deviled crab is worlds away from traditional versions, usually served in a shell stuffed to the brim, overflowing with crab filling and breaded bits. Here, the crustacean's shell arrives balanced daintily on a bowl of ice, topped with buttery crumbs and a dollop of inky caviar. At $16, it's a precious dish, but the fresh, clean flavors of jalapeno, lime and cilantro interspersed with buttery flakes of the crab help it shine.
Wood-fired oysters hide beneath a blanket of smoky breadcrumbs topped with slivers of pickled shallots and a wedge of lightly burned lemon. It's a hearty rendition of the New Orleans favorite that feels slightly less sinful without an excess of butter and Parmesan but is every bit as tasty, imbued with the flavors of smoke and charred citrus.
A few dishes sound good but fall short in execution, including lamb carpaccio sprinkled with fried shallots and drizzled with yogurt, which was overly citrusy. Lamb flavor seemed missing and the dish called for some spice. Likewise, a duo of pork loin had some successful elements — buttery brown spaetzle and glazed turnips imbued sweetness and crunch — but at almost $30 for the plate, the loin and belly failed to excite and seemed overpriced.
At the end of an evening, a light grapefruit granita was a refreshing palate cleanser. A plate of dime-sized petit fours served as a reminder that despite some of its more humble leanings, a dinner out at Kenton's is a fine-dining experience.