Weeks before its Oct. 20 opening, I was hearing Corks & Cleaver Wine Bistro's name being tossed around. "It's opening soon!" "I can't wait!" I would hear.
The restaurant/wine bar is open for lunch and dinner, with appetizers, little plates, big plates, salads, flatbreads and sandwiches, frites with sauces and cheese plates -- the latter two good choices for upscale "bar food." The menu's emphasis is Southern with a New American accent.
I went for lunch the Friday after the opening and got there just a little before noon. Corks & Cleaver is at 1308 27th Ave. in downtown Gulfport, the same location and configuration as the former Red Sky Crabhouse. You are greeted as you arrive at the restaurant's courtyard and led to your table within the courtyard, on the balcony or inside. I opted for inside, which is the main dining area and what's called the VIP room, and that's where I landed with several other diners.
The restaurant's menu has been posted on its Facebook page, so I had a preview. Still, it was hard to choose. I narrowed it down to an appetizer -- "Chicken & Dumplings" ($12) -- and a small plate -- Braised Berkshire Pork Belly ($14).
Meanwhile, I enjoyed the sunny view from my windowside seat. Decor is minimal but warm -- exposed brick, wood, comfortable seats. I was watching more guests walk up the iron staircase when the appetizer arrived, my server removing the dish's domed lid with a flourish.
"Chicken & Dumplings" has quote marks because it's not what you think. The playful name acknowledges a beloved Southern dish but puts a New American twist on it.
Sweet potato and ricotta gnocchi, baby turnips, roasted cauliflower, baby leeks and parsnips hang out with slim fried chicken strips in a rich bath of truffled pan sauce. The creamy sauce, the tender gnocchi and the crunchy chicken bring textural interest. The veggies are just right -- tender-crisp and bite sized. There's a suggestion of cinnamon around the chicken and gnocchi, a bouquet of sage hovering in the sauce. Altogether, it's a delicious reminder of crisp autumn.
This in itself would have made a satisfying lunch but I owe it to you, the reader, to settle on not just one thing.
My server had advised me the pork belly, despite its designation as a small plate, is a good-sized serving. He wasn't kidding.
Small plates arrive on simple white plates while "big plates" are served on rustic wood. My small plate was heaped with Braised Berkshire Pork Belly and all its accoutrements, in this order from bottom: creamy potato cake, slow-cooked greens, Southern-style slaw and beer-battered shallot rings, with the pork belly just below the slaw. It was downright fun eating my way up, starting with the meltingly creamy potato cake, followed by a bit of the tangy greens and the rich pork. Another herb -- thyme? -- subtly made its presence known, and there was a faint ribbon of cinnamon here, too.
The combination of textures and flavors gave me a visual of a hunting lodge in the Southern mountains, an atmosphere of wood smoke and fall leaves.
Apparently I was onto something. Chef and Gulfport native David Dickensauge, who gained fame in Baton Rouge as executive chef at Bin 77, does like to adjust his menu to the season's flavors, partly to take advantage of local produce in season, said Joey Homrighausen, one of the owners of Corks & Cleaver.
"He's very particular about ingredients," Homrighausen said. By the way, Kimmy Homrighausen, his wife, happens to be the chef's older sister.
Dickensauge likes to use purees and sauces to enhance food rather than butter, he added, so natural flavors can shine through. He also builds a dish to take advantage of juxtapositions of textures and flavors.
"He likes to build a plate from the bottom up. To me, as an eater, that's the benefit of a compound dish. You get to understand his idea, his concept," Homrighausen said.
Corks & Cleaver offers about 20 wines by the glass and about 20 proprietary wines. "We're increasing in the next couple of weeks," Homrighausen said. "The goal is 45 to 50 by the glass."
The restaurant also offers a wide variety of beers -- 21 bottled beers, 17 of them craft, and 16 draft beers, 12 of them craft.
"We decided not to do liquor," he said. "We definitely will be doing beer dinners and wine dinners. They'll be four- to five-course dinners, twice a month."
The bar is downstairs with the courtyard, where live music is offered on weekends.