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Tried Social Kitchen & Bar in Birmingham, MI today...

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boagman Feb 7, 2014 11:30 PM

I did not take pictures today. So sorry.

I should note up front that I've been very leery of trying this place out. From what I'd seen, it seemed pretty hyper-expensive (i.e. $15 for a burger...with nothing else) and was quite the see-and-be-seen place for the Beautiful People, but at least one very trustworthy person told me that it was darned good, so I sort of kept it on the outskirts of my radar for a while, until such a time when it would be relatively better for me to go. Being that this was the last day of Birmingham Restaurant Week, and they had a 3-courses-for-$15 lunch menu *as well as* some interesting-sounding choices for those courses, I bit.

I arrived after parking in one of the nearby free (for 2 hours, anyway) parking structures and walked in. As I rounded the corner outside, I noted quite clearly that they appeared to be pretty filled, if not completely filled. I might not succeed in having lunch there at all, since there was a wait for any table.

I'm pretty smart, though, and I was in a bit of a hurry (nothing pressing, but I couldn't wait 20 minutes to sit down, or anything). I noticed that the bar was absolutely and completely deserted aside from the barmaid, and asked the hostesses if I could sit at the bar, to which they replied, "Please do." So I decided to be the first, and of course, I shattered that glass ceiling. Within minutes, 80% of the chairs in the bar were then occupied. This has happened to me before, on multiple occasions, and I find it amusing, as did the barmaid. No one wants to be the first, or something? Weird, that.

I knew coming in what I wanted to order, and I didn't necessarily let them have the easy way out: I ordered at least one (what I believe to be) challenging dish, and the harder-of-the-two-to-pull-off dessert. In order, I had the Kale Salad (quinoa, parmesan, raisins, pine nuts, pickled onion, rice wine vinaigrette) though I opted out of the parmesan, the Warm Chicken Salad Sandwich (bacon, potato chips, pickles, shredded lettuce, whole grain toast) which was eaten as stated, and Pecan Pie with bourbon whipped cream (the alternative was warm chocolate chip cookies, which isn't any kind of challenge at all...or at least I don't think it is).

Starting off with the Kale Salad, I have to be honest: this is the most hipstery-sounding dish I've ever seen in print, much less ordered, I think. Had it included the word "organic" in there somewhere, I think I would have instantly turned into The Oldest Hipster Alive. Come on: you have to admit that it *sounds* pretentious, at least.

Eating it, though? Very, very easy. The ingredients come together *extremely* well, here, and it may well be the tastiest, healthiest thing I can think of that I've had in quite a while. This salad is normally $9, which I think is a bit high, but I think that $7 would be about right, as it's a generous portion of some really good ingredients that come together very, very well, even sans the parmesan. B+/A- material here, and it wouldn't take any arm-twisting at all to get me to order this again on another occasion, or even just to split it with another diner as an appetizer. This may have been the best thing I had there today, and if it is, it was a very pleasant eye-opener. It was definitely a strong step in the right direction. Served with a multi-seeded cracker which was also welcome.

Next, after a too-lengthy delay (by the barmaid's own standards) came the Warm Chicken Salad Sandwich, which is normally $13. I'll tell you right now that I liked it, that it was good, and that it's completely the opposite of just about every chicken salad of any kind you've ever had. It is, for me by far, the absolute *crunchiest* chicken salad I've ever come across. Flavors are good, but the texture is super-surprising: it has crispy bacon, smashed potato chips, and is served on crunchy toasted whole grain bread! This thing is the polar opposite of what I think of when I think of chicken salad...it's almost as though Mr. Sklar has decided to give a Giant Middle Finger to chicken salad everywhere, and staked out new territory for himself.

It's fine for what it is, but at $13, it's *small* in portion. It's so small, in fact, that had I ordered it a la carte on a "regular" day, I'd be honestly wondering where the other half of the sandwich was. It's served with some absolutely *marvelous* house-made pickles in a tiny little ramekin alongside, but for $13, that sandwich really ought to be about twice its size...certainly 1/3 bigger, for sure. This isn't a problem that's presenting itself *today*, since I've already started out with that great Kale Salad, which went a long way in helping get rid of my hunger pangs, and dessert was still coming, so I wasn't worried about leaving hungry today. It needs saying, though: $13 for that sandwich is far, far too expensive. I'd say that should have been about $8, and $9 if you're really, really reaching. Tasty? Yes. Interesting texture? Yes. Fair for its price? No.

On to dessert! Pecan Pie isn't necessarily an easy thing to pull off. When you're declaring that it's being served with a bourbon whipped cream, you're kind of setting the bar a bit on the high side, even by my standards. This was, like the salad, very good stuff. They did *not* miss, here. I honestly don't fault them their $8 price (usually at dinner only) here for this beauty. In terms of flavor and texture, they pretty much nailed it, again at the B+ level. From the crust to the filling to the crumbled pecans on top to the bourbon whipped cream, this was certainly a hit with me. Again: Mr. Sklar seems to be in love with crunchy textures, and when he can pull it off the way he did today, even in a pecan pie, I'm on board that train with him. He's scratching A- territory, here, and for me to say that, it's pretty impressive. Portion size was spot-on...not too little, not too much.

As much as I want to dismiss this place as another "Buhminghahm" eye-roll-inducing place that's far more about style than substance, I just can't. Even if it's expensive, for the most part (especially in terms of taste and texture, if perhaps not in portion sizes on everything) it's very clear that the kitchen knows how to make things happen, and do it well. Considering that what I ate would normally be $30 plus tax and tip, and today it was $15 plus tax and tip, I consider what I had to be a bargain. $20 would be acceptable. $25 would definitely chafe me a quite a bit, and $30 just ain't gonna happen. However: make that sandwich portion substantially larger, and I could certainly pony up some more cash to make the $25 price point far more palatable. $30, though? Not sure I can swallow that, honestly. It's still chicken salad.

Service was quite good, and my server/barmaid was busy the whole way through. Grace under pressure, I was almost always able to get her attention when I needed to. She was singing the praises of their new Pot Roast sandwich when I came in, and it did sound intriguing, but that's not what I was there for today.

I find myself a bit put out. I want to dismiss this place as another forgettable B'ham joint that charges too much for too little, and can't deliver where it counts: on the plate. Expensive though it may be, Social just made me have some serious second thoughts about their agenda and ability.

I'll be going back, and that says something.

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    VTB RE: boagman Feb 8, 2014 12:18 PM

    Sounds great. I also had a nice ($$) meal there but can't recall what it entailed. Maybe the marvelous sangrias (super strong) had something to do with that memory lapse. I too felt that the quality of the food was much better than what the hip atmosphere would suggest.
    Perhaps the answer to the expense:quality conundrum is for me to just earn more money.

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      Elyssa RE: boagman Feb 10, 2014 07:49 AM

      Social is one of our favorite restaurants in Michigan and you ordered some of our favorite dishes. That chicken salad sandwich is out of this world! We went for Restaurant Week a week ago and I actually think they scaled the size of the dishes down (although the salads are still huge)...at least at dinner time they did. This makes sense since it is 3 courses and I've never felt like they had small portions to begin with. So I wouldn't judge the portion size based on this one meal.

      You should return during regular business because there are so many amazing things to try---we love the Barramundi Skillet, the baked spaghetti and meatballs and ALL of their salads (the chopped salad and cesar are also great).

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        Markcron RE: boagman Feb 12, 2014 11:13 AM

        Actually, that Kale salad seems anti-hip. To me it sceams non-conformist granola-chick, one of whom I recently dated, lol

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