I wish I were prescient enough to have predicted that a boom in southern and soul food was coming our way, a welcome respite from the relentless Italian-food invasion. We have good southern food here and there, both high and low end, but the depth and breadth of regional southern cooking has yet to be thoroughly explored, which is hard to fathom given Chicago's strong connections to the south.
There are compelling signs, though, that change is afoot and that others are following the path struck by Analogue, the Roost, Anita's Gumbo, and Carriage House. Paul Fehribach of Big Jones is set to publish a deeply researched cookbook on regional southern food in May. (Persimmon pudding pie, anyone?) And last October the North Center jazz spot High Hat Club opened its doors and quietly began offering a highly particular variant of southern Louisianan food: Creole-Italian, featuring "dirtbag Bolognese" and meatball po'boys (review coming soon). If three examples constitute a trend, then I'm looking at the recent opening of Luella's Southern Kitchen in Lincoln Square as a very good sign.
In the cold north the arrival of a place such as this is best accompanied by a backstory that establishes some legitimate ties to the south. For chef Darnell Reed, an 18-year journeyman within the Hilton Hotels empire, that connection is his grandmother Luella, who brought her corn bread and gumbo recipes with her from Mississippi when she came to Chicago in the 40s.
Grandmother made a light gumbo, apparently. At Luella's it's milk chocolatey and a bit thin due to a slightly undeveloped roux. In a cheffy touch a runner pours it into the bowl tableside, a presentation duplicated with the milky she-crab soup garnished with Japanese flying fish roe rather than traditional (and difficult to source) crab roe. That's what you do to compensate when you don't have a local supply of crabs and you're a casual counter-service operation.
Most of the shrimp I tried at Luella's was remarkably good, fat and sweet, swimming in a buttery New Orleans-style barbecue preparation (not actually barbecued) and resting in a pool of ultracreamy grits. They're in the low-country boil too, a minimally seasoned vat of crustaceans with sausage, potatoes, and corn, served with toasted baguettes to sop up the liquor. But they're a different size altogether in the shrimp po'boy—too small to stand up to a deep-fryer—and they don't leave much of an impression when overwhelmed by bread, remoulade, onions, and a pink out-of-season tomato.
As you might have gathered by now, Reed doesn't focus on any one region in the south, instead pulling from the Carolinas, Georgia, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Delta. But a dish of less certain origin—chicken and waffles—is one of his better ones; boneless bird bits are mounted on thick, crispy, sweet Belgian waffles with bourbon-spiked maple syrup.
He's also presenting a few modernized mashups like catfish tacos and a fried green tomato BLT. The best of these is the braised short-rib mac 'n' cheese—panko-showered, thick, ridged pasta tubes that allow maximum adhesion to the creamy sauce. There's not a tremendous amount of beef in this dish, but as rich as it is, that's not a liability. Reed's most unfortunate experiment is a "southern flatbread," a small cardboard-textured disk of dough dotted with big, irregular chunks of deep-fried pickles, smoked chicken, andouille, and a blanket of pimento cheese, all drizzled with sweet, mustard-based Carolina barbecue sauce. It's a cartoonish attempt to knit together incompatible regional foods, and it undercuts the credibility the rest of the menu establishes.
Among the handful of sides, such as glazed sweet potatoes and a highly composed beet salad at odds with the homier aspects of the menu, none is better than the simple biscuits. They're big and fluffy, with a sorghum-honey drizzle bearing just a hint of the bitterness I longed for in the gumbo. Desserts go one for one: beignets are leaden, cakey, and greasy, while a slab of Mississippi mud pie nearly collapses from the powerful chocolate burden it bears.
Despite its flaws, Luella's is crowded at the moment. It's BYO and staffed with folks who seem every bit as joyful as the figures in the Ernie Barnes prints on the bright wooden walls. Much of the attraction is that there's nothing else like it in the neighborhood, and it's probably better than it even has to be.