If ever a restaurant deserved to make a go of it, it's Full Belly. Owner Isabelle Gaddie, a former jazz, blues, Motown, R&B, and gospel singer, opened the cafe on Halloween 2011, between Ryan and Mound on the east side, just north of the Mound Correctional Facility. As Lady Novella, she'd fronted a nine-piece band, performing for Coleman Young's birthday and touring the country for the Defense Department, among other gigs. As the years passed and the strain of lugging 1,400 lbs. of equipment began to wear on her bandmates, she sought an easier venue and decided to open a jazzy gospel restaurant.
It took seven years to get the place on Nevada rehabbed and open, and in that time, six of the band members died. Two remaining ones, lead singer Shawn Upshaw and drummer Charlie Styles, have played at the restaurant, but for the time being, Gaddie has had to call off her Friday live entertainment for lack of funds.
Although the block is non-threatening, with plenty of foot traffic on a summer evening (it's across from the 7th Precinct), and though even Anthony Bourdain visited last summer to sample Gaddie's oxtails, recent customers have been insufficient.
It's not because the soul food menu doesn't shine. It does, with a strong emphasis on meat. Nor is there a lack of décor. The place is dressed up, with white tablecloths and water goblets, and black-and-white pictures of Billie, Duke, B.B., and Lena on the walls, as well as Lady Novella herself (plus a banner: Department of Defense Overseas Shows).
There's a sign warning patrons that this is not fast food; Gaddie and one chef do all the cooking and serving — and tend the garden of tomatoes, peppers, and collards outside the door. "Everything is from scratch," Gaddie says, remembering that even when touring, she'd visit farmers to get fresh vegetables to eat.
Bourdain was right to try the oxtails; they're big and meaty, three or four for $14, with a stylish gravy that goes well with mashed potatoes or rice. Guests get two sides plus salad and cornbread, and the buttery cornbread is baked crisp all around, not sweet, one of my favorites over two visits.
Entrées are traditional, both beef and pork ribs, fried chicken, pork chops, catfish, plus rib-eye, salmon, crab cakes, and shrimp. The hefty rack of "dinosaur" beef ribs have more give than your average pork rib, and their sauce maintains a good sweet/tart/smoke ratio. Pork ribs are the St. Louis cut. Crab cakes are appropriately crisp outside and yielding inside. Catfish, cod, and salmon can be had either as main courses or on sandwiches.
I found jambalaya not too spicy nor successful, with lots of chicken, sausage, and shrimp, but a rather uninteresting sauce.
Ask for the complete list of sides, which is longer than what appears on your menu. You can have mustard and turnip greens, very soft, or collards, a bit crisper and my preference. Yams are, of course, super sweet; mac-and-cheese is the drier variety. Corn on the cob, broccoli, spinach, cole slaw, and okra may be available, the latter somehow formed into symmetrical balls, fried, and mustardy-tasting.
Ask for carryout boxes for some of all that food, so you'll have room for dessert. Gaddie is proudest of her warm peach cobbler, the "crust" floating in a bath of dense, cinnamony peach liquid. Or the coconut pineapple layer cake might remind you of church suppers; I counted three layers of creamy filling, plus the coconut frosting.
It's very pleasant to sit at the sidewalk tables and to chat a bit with Lady Novella, who is thoroughly gracious, no diva detected. We were lucky she had time, but I sincerely hope that when you visit, there will be too many customers for that luxury. If business picks up enough, maybe Friday night music will return.