Photo | Daniel Anderson/Lagniappe
Daphne’s Southwood Kitchen,  commanded by Chef Jeremiah Matthews, features fine dining in a casual atmosphere with ever-changing internationally and seasonally inspired small plates and entrées.

Southwood Kitchen • 1203 Highway 98, #3, Daphne 36526
• 251-626-6676

Once in a blue moon a restaurant comes along and almost immediately rises to local cuisine stardom. But an instant reputation for being great is something that warns me to proceed with caution, as I’ve been burned before, both ways.

Early on a good buzz can get you through the door, only to be disappointed, and a few months later the joint becomes stellar. Other times you get deceived by a great initial experience that loses steam and fizzles out, so take those early reviews with a grain of salt.

This month’s mark was certainly the most talked about restaurant of the year from where I’m listening. Southwood Kitchen is commanded by Chef Jeremiah Matthews, known for his menu at the acclaimed Jesse’s of Magnolia Springs. In the former Rosie’s Grill (next to the Record Bar) in Daphne, Southwood didn’t leave that piece of real estate vacant too long before making Highway 98 its home.

So, early on I was hearing good things about this place. Let me spoil it for you: It’s great. With that drama out of the way, let’s discuss why.

It was back-to-school week for Graham and Lucas. I wanted a special dinner before the third and eighth grades stole my boys from me, so after crossing the bay twice, I changed into fine dining/casual atmosphere clothes and crossed it again with the whole family in tow. Making our 6:30 p.m. reservation early, with Katie driving, I treated myself to a Dettling ($10) bourbon of Big Escambia Spirits, Alabama’s first field-to-glass bourbon since Prohibition. It’s smooth. I need more.

I’ve been asked “What did you eat?” many times by inquisitive friends. The answer is, pretty much everything. We ate most of the menu. Round one began with deviled duck eggs ($7). Larger and creamier than their chicken counterparts, this plateful had a Japanese twist to it with duck skin furikake lending a salty flavor that was pretty powerful.

Pimiento cheese and pork rinds ($8) made in-house were a delight. I’m nowhere near sick of pimiento cheese, nor of pork rinds. The yellow pimiento cheese was smooth, a must for the brittle skins.

If you’re celebrating big, why not dive into three appetizers? Pork belly+watermelon salad ($12) was definitely my favorite, with a red wine vinaigrette and a bit of arugula. I’m kind of over the fad of pork belly, but this was fantastic next to watermelon that was perhaps lightly grilled on one side. To sweeten the pot, diced pickled sweet peppers and feta were sprinkled atop the near-perfect dish.

Girls order first, so Katie began with Niman Ranch filet of pig ($19). Served medium, this succulent piece of meat did not go to waste, herb salt grilled with a peppercorn port demi glacé. Paired with mushroom and sweet pea risotto, it was a heck of a meal.

Graham was happy with the kids menu and the grilled cheese ($6). Alongside hand-cut fries, the little man seemed pleased. I asked how he rated it. “About a six,” he said. Don’t get your feelings hurt, Chef. He’s a pro with very high standards. He only gives a 10 to pot stickers.

I wanted the oysters so bad I considered ordering double, but to my dismay they sold out before I got a chance to order any. May as well order two more appetizers for my meal.

I started with the Diver Scallops ($16 for two). These little buggers came with goat cheese green onion orzo with arugula and pickled red onion. The lunchbox pepper gastrique gave it the caramelized sweetness it deserved.

BBQ shrimp ($10) was not that different from the New Orleans versions, with a shrimp stock butter sauce and grilled bread. I was tempted to drink the sauce, but instead allowed my family to dip the complimentary bread we’d ignored to this point.

Lucas is at that point of really testing the man side of the menu. He’s come into his own at 13 as an omnivore. I used to worry about his myopic appetite. I worry no more. He was eyeballing the bacon-wrapped elk chop (he knows elk is my favorite) but changed his tune for the bone-in ribeye ($37). Keep your strips and filets, the MacDonald boys go for ribeye every time. My little city slicker caveman smartly ordered mid-rare and explained the bloody meat to his little brother. Proud parent moment, indeed. I was prouder still when he shared his mashed potatoes with bone marrow butter. A better steak and potato meal I’ve not had in some time.

Our server, Jason, could not have been more helpful, and when he fetched us boxes I told him there was no room for dessert. I relented when he told me the options. We pondered the cheesecake with créme brûlée top (?!?!) and fell for the apple cobbler ($8) with ice cream and four spoons. It was as good as I expected. I finished the meal with a glass of Courvoisier ($10) after being told there was no port. Katie had Community Coffee ($2) and it was great.

Everything we had was wonderful. Lest you think I’m overly kind, I’ll drum up some negativity. The ambience is a little lacking. I don’t love how bright it is after sundown. And if you run out of oysters before 7 p.m. you should consider another sack.

Minor offenses aside, I think Southwood Kitchen has been around long enough to say they’ve lived up to the hype. Jason nailed it from a server aspect and the kitchen staff was stellar. I don’t feel anything was lacking. From flavor to service to expediency it was top-notch, and that has to be tough with four people ordering nine different things. I’ll be back for elk and oysters.