Upscale soul food would seem to be an oxymoron, as soul food’s origins are with folks who often couldn’t afford a higher-status meat than chitterlings. But as of June 3, Frank Taylor of the Southern Hospitality Group (which includes downtown’s Sweet Georgia Brown, Seldom Blues and Detroit Breakfast House) is bringing catfish and fried okra to the plush confines of the Fisher Building, charging $4 for a side of said okra or for an order of red beans and rice.
Most of the Café’s offerings merit the "upscale" label only in price. I’ve begun to doubt that anyone is going to match the late, lamented Ja*Da, downtown, where co-owner Armanda Herbert took down-home recipes and gave them just enough of a twist to make them standouts, but not enough to make them unrecognizable to their friends. SHG’s Corporate Executive Chef Jerry Nottage does no twisting. The results are uneven, with some fantastic traditional dishes and some that simply reiterate what I consider a debased — though widespread — version of Southern cuisine.
When I complained about the soft, gloppy, bland potato salad, for example, a companion pointed out that it was "standard." But does that make it right? My mom was from Alabama, and her potato salad wasn’t overcooked, with more dressing than potatoes.
But let’s talk about Motown Soul’s excellent dishes, of which there are many. Beginning with the sides, which, as everywhere, come two to an entrée: greens are sharp and pungent, with abundant ham (that’s upscale) and a firm, nonsquishy character. Macaroni and cheese has a somewhat uneven (nontraditional) cheese distribution, but it’s sharply and appropriately cheesy, nonetheless.
Fried okra makes the most of that often-maligned vegetable, although, as with the fried green tomatoes, a taste of cooking oil lingers. Sweet potato fries are so sweet that you wonder whether something’s been added. Red beans and rice are not memorable, and the dressing (stuffing), though nice and peppery, is too ground-up; as with potato salad, I like to be able to discern individual morsels, not a soft mash.
You’ve got to thank anyone who serves fried green tomatoes, though, which are difficult to get right. Motown Soul delivers three big slices to a serving ($6), and they’re properly firm, yet juicy enough.
Beef short ribs are where the chef shines. Here I have no complaints about soft, which for meat means tender. These rich ribs are impossible to write about without the words "melt in your mouth," and I suspect that that sensation is as much for the fat content as for the tenderness. Fried chicken and waffles comes in the form of three juicy, meaty wings with an unobtrusive but excellent crust. They’re propped up in a triad above a missable waffle. Next time, I’d go for the chicken without waffles, which would mean a half chicken and plenty to box up.
I enjoyed catfish, served whole except for the head. Here the crust is crunchy and thick — thicker than it needs to be — but it serves the function of keeping the white flesh moist and sweet. That thick crust on the pork chops, though, was a disaster, a real intrusion. The meat inside was so tough that it was difficult to cut with a table knife.
Salmon croquettes, on the other hand — that most humble, homey of dishes — had a light and tender but crisp crust. When a large portion of the menu is fried, it would behoove the chef to think light coatings most of the time.
Other fried items include oysters, served with a pungent, horseradish-tinged tomato sauce; shrimp; and chicken-fried steak with cream gravy.
Oddly, pork ribs are not among the offerings, although the manager says that the menu is a living document.
For sweetness — the corn muffin that comes with dinner is very sweet, with an almost cake-like texture, and the lemonade is also sugary. Our waiter told us the peach cobbler was "not sweet at all," which makes me hesitate to try the other desserts (banana pudding, pound cake, sweet potato pie). The cobbler was, again, more all-one-texture than I prefer — I’d like the peaches to have less resistance than the crust. But the spicing was good, and I’ll admit that a super-soft cobbler is indeed the standard.
What kind of wine goes with soul food? I confess myself baffled by the question. Taylor has assembled a list and trained the staff on what goes with what. I tried a red from Sonoma that was somewhat fruity, but I can’t say that I’m closer to an answer. If you give up, Kool-Aid ($1.95) is also on the menu.
We encountered some problems with service in the restaurant’s third week. Our appetizers were brought at the same time as the meal, and when we commented, the server replied, "But they put it all up" — implying that "they" had more weight than the customer. On that visit and on a second one, in the Café’s fifth week, our waiters were awfully pushy. One repeatedly urged us to order more items and pointed out several times how he’d saved us $4 by rustling up some CityFest coupons. I know it’s meant as a compliment (read: tip-inducer), but I don’t care to be called "young lady" by someone who’s half my age.
The Café is attractive, with its big windows on Second Street and the Boulevard, white napkins and heavy silverware. When I lunched there during CityFest, it was nearly full. I hope that other customers’ mamas were better cooks than cafeteria-standard, and that they will therefore politely request that the low spots on the menu be brought up to the highs.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.