Soul food restaurants go upscale in places
COLUMBUS (AP) -- Specially commissioned abstract art is on the wall, jazz on the sound system, white linen on the tables and Dom Perignon ($190 a bottle) on the wine list.
On the menu, below the stuffed portabella mushroom appetizer and pan-seared scallops, are deep-fried catfish, collard and mustard greens, and macaroni and cheese. Don't forget the cobbler or sweet potato pie.
Soul food has gone gourmet.
Brownstone on Main, just blocks from the Statehouse and downtown theaters, opened last August and was named one of the five best new restaurants of the year by the city magazine Columbus Monthly. Downtown attorneys meet clients over lunch, jazz fans watch bands from cushioned benches, and doctors leaving late-night shifts at a nearby hospital can get dinner from a kitchen open past midnight.
"No, this is not the food my grandmother makes. It's just very good food," said Danni Palmore, a political consultant and community organizer. Palmore lives downtown and likes the restaurant's convenient location and quick service for meetings, she said while planning a new project with developer Tony Hutchis over lunch on a recent weekday.
Many traditional Southern recipes arose from dishes created by slaves using plantation castoffs, wild plants and rations of cornmeal, mixed with imported African crops such as okra. In the past 20 years, posh restaurants in America's biggest cities started serving old favorites with choice ingredients and new twists, such as substituting smoked turkey breast for ham hocks in collard greens.
"The biggest reason it's happening is the growth of the black middle class," said Thomas Dorsey, chief executive of Soul Of America in Torrance, Calif., which produces maps and city guides geared for black travelers.
Among the first was Jezebel in the Hell's Kitchen section of New York, where owner and chef Alberta Wright has been serving highbrow down-home cooking since 1983.
The big-city restaurants occupy prime real estate, Dorsey said. The now-closed Georgia's in Los Angeles was on Hollywood's Melrose Avenue. B. Smith's first restaurant is in New York a block from Broadway, and its Capitol Hill location is in the former Presidential Suite of Union Station.
Rapper and fashion designer Sean "P. Diddy" Combs chose one of the poshest Atlanta neighborhoods for the newest Justin's, which also started in New York.
"What's happening in the last five to 10 years is Southern food is getting the respect it deserves," said Jeff Gilliam, who started Brownstone with fellow Columbus music promoter Greg Provo.
They noticed the trend while traveling a few years ago. Gilliam, also an investment manager, has eaten at upscale soul food restaurants in Paris and London. They decided smaller cities were ready.
They bought and gutted a three-story building, putting in wood floors, a granite bar and custom-designed wine cabinets. They emptied the basement and exposed its rough stone walls as a backdrop to the live jazz lounge. The top floor soon will become meeting space with the same comfortable furniture and appetizing earth-tone palette.
The restaurant breaks even on operations, but it will take up to four years to recoup the original investment, Gilliam said. If it does well, the partners would like to expand to similar cities such as Indianapolis, Milwaukee or Louisville, Ky.
"We definitely looked at this as not being a single opportunity," he said. "The niche is to get in the marketplace and be the only one."
They're not alone in that thought.
'Just comfort food'
Patrick Coleman began Beans & amp; Cornbread seven years ago in the business hub of Southfield, a Detroit suburb. He said his black customers often skip the soul food for dishes such as salmon, and he'll see Asians eating collards or black-eyed peas for the first time.
"I could see this concept working anywhere in the Midwest," Coleman said. "In a lot of ways it's just comfort food."
Other recent entries include the year-old Gookies -- chef Tom Paige's childhood nickname -- on Cleveland's east side and Alexandria's on 2nd, which opened in July in Seattle.
At the 2-year-old Sweet Georgia Brown in Detroit, the concept has gone so upscale that a pork chop (grilled) and sweet potatoes (baked with honey butter or as "skinny fries") are the most Southern items on the dinner menu.
As is common in the industry, however, nothing is a sure thing. Upscale soul food has already come and gone in Cincinnati. The Shark Bar's Los Angeles location lasted less than two years.
Tweaking the menu
The high-end restaurants happily co-exist with mom-and-pop soul food diners, but traditional dishes such as greens, fried chicken or macaroni and cheese are served on fine china with carved-fruit garnishes, and as Dorsey said, "a little less drippy."
They'll also be paired with pricier items such as lobster or the classic French duck confit, said Thomas Head, executive wine and food editor at Washingtonian magazine.
"Most of the grits that you're finding in restaurants these days aren't Quaker grits. They're stone-ground grits from real mills that grind their own grits and take it seriously," he said.
"It just sort of makes sense that people in looking for the roots of their cooking would turn to the South," said Head, a Louisiana native. "As long as people stay interested in finding the best ingredients and the best that America has to offer, it's a pretty stable trend."