Approaching Milk & Honey Co. on a quiet street just off Old Town Keller's Main Street drag, you half expect horse-drawn carriages to be parked out front, not mud-caked Ford pickups.
The 9-week-old restaurant is a sepia-toned trip back in time -- serving sophisticated Southern-fusion dishes in an intimate, dollhouse interior. Vintage plates, clocks, utensils and family photos cover the walls. Thick quilts serve as tablecloths. Mason jars hold the candles and cutlery.
But in the kitchen is a chef as contemporary and of-the-moment as they come. At age 23, Joshua Harmon puts the "pre" in precocious. His résumé is dotted with apprenticeships at some of New York's hippest dining spots: The Dutch, The Breslin and Buddakan, along with a previous full-time gig as a saute chef in Stephan Pyles' exacting Dallas kitchen.
When family concerns brought Harmon back from New York and Dallas, he, along with his mother, Ginger; sister, Chelsea; and his fiance, Jessica Little, opened Milk & Honey in a space once occupied by two different restaurants.
With an old soul's respect for classical technique, Harmon totally transforms Southern cooking with his global pantry of ingredients.
Take his riff on the well-worn fried green tomato ($8). Harmon ratchets up the taste with the addition of ham that is house salt-cured, smoked,then baked, feta cheese "crema" and a hint of dill. Then he offsets the tomato and feta's tartness with a dash of sweet Texas honey. Brilliant.
In his "breads and spreads" ($7), the toasted baguette wedges can be slathered with one of the most compelling, sour-cream-charged tzatziki sauces this side of the Acropolis, or a smoked tomato butter that is pure Texas hickory and mesquite. And in Harmon's cheddar grits arancini ($8), you'll find a marvelous marriage of Tennessee and Tuscany. Normally an Italian classic of deep-fried risotto balls, Harmon's version has creamy stone-ground grits instead of the risotto, and then ups the ante by stuffing each ping pong-size ball with goat and cheddar cheeses.
The chef shakes up another classic -- steak and eggs ($26) -- first by covering his 6-ounce Texas Angus filet in a cayenne-fired Japanese-spice blend before cooking it to a perfect medium-rare. The meat ends up floating on a pale lagoon of horseradish-potato puree, while draped in pickled, roasted mushrooms and wilted spinach. The steak is crowned with a tempura-battered chicken-fried poached egg, whose yolk dribbles down the entire dish like the tastiest volcano eruption imaginable.
The Southern fish muddle ($23) unites exemplary flaky wild salmon; a single, exotic (as in New Zealand-imported) green-lipped mussel; and a Gulf shrimp broiled to maximum flavor -- all sitting on more of those winning grits fortified with goat and cheddar cheeses, roasted tomato, basil and bacon. And further bridging the tastes of southern France and New Orleans is a shallow pool of tomato-shrimp broth.
Granny Steel's fried chicken ($15) has been bathed for six hours in a brine of salt, sugar, lemon, thyme and rosemary, producing one of the moistest pieces of chicken I've tasted. It comes with two dipping sauces: a spicy riff on sweet-and-sour with notes of rosemary and honey, and the other a marmalade of orange and mandarin all floral with clove, cardamom and ginger. But the crackling exterior, with cayenne and Old Bay, is flavorful enough on its own.
The lone miscue in Harmon's menu -- and it requires a tweak rather than a full overhaul -- is the pork chop. Though its outer char is beyond reproach and its glaze pleasing, the entire chop suffered from an overzealous salt shaker.
Harmon's 21-year old sister, Chelsea, is the pastry chef, and, clearly, culinary skills run in the family. Her Derby pie ($7) is the classic amalgam of chocolate chips, pecans and bourbon extract on a buttery piecrust.
For all of Milk & Honey's nods to the past, its kitchen is turning out some of the area's more progressive and imaginative nouveau Southern cooking.