It had everything I could want in a sandwich place.
It had a streamlined – but diverse – menu with about as many locally sourced ingredients as possible. And those ingredients weren't used in a run-of-the-mill fashion, either. They were lifted to foodie-approvable levels. And, if that wasn't enough, it also featured one of the city's finest children's menus.
Yes, Mockingbird Kitchens was definitely singing my kind of tune.
The creation of Jim Martin and his wife, Zoe, the lunch spot inside Cottage Flowers at Barr and East Wayne streets showcases the Southern fare Martin learned while honing his skills in Charleston, South Carolina. The city native also worked locally at the now-defunct Blu City Tavern and more recently at the Brass Rail, where his sandwiches are still sold.
It came as no surprise that the best sandwich had all the makings of something you would find along the Carolina coast – the shrimp salad.
Medium-sized shrimp were poached and chilled, then dressed with just enough creamy citrus vinaigrette to still allow the sweet, juicy shellfish to shine. A little more sweetness came from fresh corn. Celery and butter lettuce gave it crunch. And cherry tomatoes brought a little more acid along with some sweetness to this masterpiece.
The herbed foccacia bread – from Zinnia's Bakery, like most of Mockingbird's bread – was the perfect vessel for it all, too.
From there we went to New Orleans for a muffuletta, and a tasty one. It was served on a pressed and grilled sub bun packed with salami, pepperoni, mortadella, Swiss cheese and a house-made olive spread with crunchy little carrot bits in it.
Next up was a daily feature from south of the border – carnitas. Stringy pulled pork was slow-roasted along with poblano peppers, onions, Southwest spices and a touch of cinnamon. It was super moist like a sloppy joe, and more sweet than spicy. But it was the hint of cinnamon that made it more unique than the carnitas many Mexican places turn out.
The Pesto Chicken sandwich sounded kind of mundane, but, of course, it wasn't. For starters, the slow-roasted chicken breast was perfect – juicy and nicely seasoned. But the pesto was the star. Martin's is made with kale instead of basil, roasted garlic and peanuts instead of pine nuts. Add a slice of provolone cheese, some spot-on, thick-sliced peppered bacon and sweet roasted red peppers, and it was a harmony of goodness.
Mockingbird also offers salads, a few of which mimic sandwiches. The Roasted Beet Salad had red and yellow beets nicely roasted to be tender; rich, creamy goat cheese – which I don't think I could have had too much of – and candied pecans. It was dressed with a balsamic reduction that nicely offset the hearty beets.
I actually think Mockingbird could make entrées out of its side salads, because all of them were fantastic.
The best was another daily feature – lima bean and blueberry. It still sounds kind of weird, but the big, plump, sweet blueberries, crunchy bits of kohlrabi, sweet onions and the al dente beans got just enough vinegar kick from its honey-cider vinaigrette to make it the perfect mix of sweet and savory. Lima beans were front and center in the succotash, also, along with cherry tomatoes, corn and bell peppers in a similar vinaigrette.
The potato salad was the heartiest side option with big chunks of red potato, bright green peas and sweet onions in the thick mayonnaise-mustard base with a lot of crispy bacon on top. If ever it was possible for something to have too much bacon – which isn't possible, really – this potato salad might have been it. Martin also offers Lexington slaw, which incorporates a little barbecue sauce with its cabbage and scallions, and a Southwest quinoa salad with black beans, avocado, peppers and corn in a zesty cilantro vinaigrette.
Soups were available daily at Mockingbird, and the ones I tried – chili, clam chowder and chicken-andouille gumbo – were great, but the side salads were far supreme.
Speaking of supreme, that is exactly what the children's menu was. The chicken strips are slow-roasted like the chicken for the pesto sandwich, not breaded and fried. The grilled cheese is made with Swiss and provolone and comes with a fresh slice of tomato, and can include bacon for just $1 more. There are no french fries on the side of those meals, either. The kids can pick one of the restaurant's regular sides if they choose, or they can opt for apple slices or ants on a log.
The real highlight for my kids came from something I would never have guessed could have been as good as it was. A little sign promoted fresh fruit parfaits, which were made up in large plastic cups and placed in a nearby refrigerator that also held some bottled beverages. I figured they were layered with instant pudding and whipped cream from a can, but I still got a couple because I thought my kids would enjoy them.
But this was Mockingbird Kitchens, and there was nothing instant or from a can. These parfaits were made with fresh lemon curd made that morning, real whipped cream that was about as creamy and delicious as it gets, fresh strawberries or blueberries and crumbled vanilla wafers. Next time, I will be getting one for myself.
The parfaits would be a fine dessert, but don't pass on the cookies, bars and cupcakes near the register, as all of them are made in-house by Jim and Zoe. The most interesting find – root beer float cookies. These flavored sugar cookies, dotted with white chocolate chips to represent the ice cream, were really moist and chewy but still a tad crisp on the exterior. The peanut butter cookies and snickerdoodles also had that same perfect texture. The chocolate brownies were also fantastic thanks to big chunks of walnut throughout, and I would not turn down another one of Mockingbird's tart lemon bars.
I would never turn down an invite to go back there, either. Nestled in the flower shop, of course it had a quaint, friendly atmosphere with a mismatch of outdoor patio furniture along with wooden country kitchen tables with bench seats. And even though you order everything at the counter, the service was great. I was checked on regularly after the meals arrived, and those meals were delivered as promptly as can be expected when there is a line 10-deep during lunch rush.
Restaurant: Mockingbird Kitchens
Address: 236 E. Wayne St.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday
Handicapped accessible: Yes
Credit cards: Yes
Menu: Muffuletta ($8), pesto chicken ($8), shrimp salad sandwich ($9), roasted beet salad ($7), soups ($3.50 cup; $5.80 bowl), sides ($2), dessert (cookies $1; bars $2.50; cupcakes $2)
Rating breakdown: Food: *** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: * (1 maximum)
Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).