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Restaurant Tours: nouveau soul


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Imagine the jubilation in the old slave quarters if they'd known that their unique culinary style and sensibility would one day become a catchy idea for a white restaurant. Soul Kitchen has even less soul than my kitchen, which at least is black. Still, the food is good, and most of us are into accessibility, so it's worth a hip hop over to Leavitt and Chicago for catfish rolled in pecans and sweet-potato flan--nouveau soul from proprietors Scott Gray, who also owns the Lizard Lounge, and Pam Scariano.

Gray's bluesy tapes provide the background music for chef Monique King's advance on Dixie. Her "tomorrow the world" approach includes not only updated versions of soul food, but also its kissin' cousins, country-style Cajun and the more refined Creole, and their shirttail relatives Caribbean, Cuban, and Mexican.(There's also spaghetti puttanesca on the menu; apparently the owners wanted to have something for everyone.)

All of these cuisines (save the puttanesca) were influenced by the Atlantic slave trade. Africans became cooks in the great houses from Brazil to Jamaica to New Orleans to--most surprisingly--Mexico, where the diseases the early Spanish settlers brought with them killed off so many natives that the settlers imported large numbers of Africans to replace them. Everywhere they went, the Africans used the fruits of the seeds they had carried with them (yams, watermelon, black-eyed peas, and okra) along with local ingredients to re-create old recipes and introduce new ones.

Considering its territorial imperative, Soul Kitchen is surprisingly successful, especially the interpretations of southern dishes. King's training is French and her approach light. She tries to get around the sins of soul food--high fat and cholesterol--by using vegetable oils whenever possible, but says some of the menu items are deep-fried simply because that's the way people like them.

That was true of a couple of appetizers we tried. Beer-battered, deep-fried catfish with honey mustard and a smidgen of curry ($4.50) and wonderfully garlicky fresh-corn hush puppies (also deep-fried) with sauteed shrimp ($4.25) were bad for us and we liked them that way. (We all need a cholesterol buzz now and then.) They were much better than the underseasoned, Mexican-inspired cod cakes ($4.50), with a red-pepper aioli (garlic mayonnaise) that tasted like Thousand Island dressing and had the soul of a new machine.

Soups went from the sublime to the ridiculous. We savored a creamy chowder of corn, crab, and potato chunks ($3.25) seasoned with sage and thyme one night, but on another we had a cumin-spiced carrot soup ($2.75) that used up our lifetime allotment of cumin. (According to Pliny, when his students wanted to fake exhaustion, cumin was what they ate to give them an unhealthy pallor.) Then there was the Caesar salad ($3.75; Caesar Ritz had a restaurant in Tijuana). They might want to try adding salad dressing.

Entrees were terrific, although the best were soul-food inspired. Among our favorites was the tender, juicy pork loin ($10.50) in a tangy barbecue sauce, with sweet potatoes and greens in their "likka" (the highly seasoned juice that comes from simmering). Although pork was banned by most African tribal religious beliefs, it became a staple of the slave diet because it was often all they had to eat.

Fresh, farm-raised catfish ($9.50), an equally good choice, is first rolled in Dijon mustard and ground pecans, then sauteed in vegetable oil and served in a mustard, caper, and pecan sauce. It came with black-eyed peas and greens. Robust roasted free-range chicken ($8.75) with black beans and rice had enough garlic to keep any vampires away.

We loved the hearty Cajun duck-and-oyster gumbo (the word comes from ngombo, the Angolan name for okra) with celery, peppers, and spicy andouille sausage ($12). King uses butter instead of the traditional lard for its dark, nutty-flavored base and depends on ground sassafras to do most of the thickening. She proves her versatility with a Caribbean shrimp curry over rice with avocado ($11.50) that's perfectly seasoned, neither too spicy nor too bland.

Desserts (all $3.50) weren't on par with the main courses. Although the chocolate pecan bourbon cake was predictably moist and dense, we couldn't taste the bourbon--a real downer for my tablemate, a Kentuckian. The peach bread pudding was ice cold and too cinnamony, the peaches tasted canned, and the sauce was more runny than rummy. Lime-banana trifle made with coconut pound cake and bananas was too citrusy. Sweet-potato flan with an almond brittle topping and cornmeal sugar cookies was OK, but we would have preferred the southern comfort of an authentic sweet-potato pie (my personal cure for the flu), a "mammy jammy" (huge and delicious) coconut cake, or one of the littler versions called "jodies." Our weak decaf, though it was French Roast, tasted like Sanka disguised with cinnamon.

Soul Kitchen's decor is dominated by three large, vibrant paintings of restaurant scenes by Gray's artist friend Joe Hindley. The deep-green walls, leopard-print tablecloths, and black vinyl booths are more South Beach than South Cottage Grove. Ditto the skinny-minied waitresses who, although fast and helpful, were dressed for Soul Train, not soul food. Considering the economy and the fact that it's only been open a few months, business seems surprisingly good, but then this is the perfect location for a hip dining spot: a rapidly gentrifying area in the midst of the boho art scene.

Soul Kitchen, 2152 W. Chicago, is open for dinner from 5:30 to 10 Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 Friday and Saturday, and 5 to 9 Sunday. Reservations are accepted during the week and for parties of eight or more on weekends. Soul Kitchen doesn't have a liquor license, so bring your own bottle. For more information call 342-9742.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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