Southern cooking to the rescue

Restaurant: The new Britton's gives Baltimore a place to settle back for classic soul food -- just when we need it.

Sunday Gourmet

January 27, 2002|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Restaurant Critic

Southern cooking, in my opinion, is the ultimate comfort food -- something we all need a little more of this time of year. Unfortunately, Baltimore has a shortage of Southern restaurants. There is Charleston, which serves an upscale version of the cuisine, but its food doesn't involve enough gravy. Gertrude's at the BMA, which specializes in Eastern Shore cooking, has the same problem -- or virtue, depending on your point of view.

Neither restaurant gets into serious Southern comfort food mode, otherwise known as soul food. Classic example: beans simmered for hours on the back of the stove with fatback. (In this scenario, the only good vegetable is a cooked-to-death vegetable.)

To make up for Baltimore's lack of a full-fledged soul-food restaurant that serves both sweetened iced tea and martinis, James Britton of Class Act Catering has opened Britton's Bar and Grill. It's in the space on Howard Street where Leilani's of Hawaii used to be. Besides the expected ribs and fried chicken, Britton has added some Cajun and Creole dishes to the menu. Not to mention a classic Maryland crab cake. (Lest we forget, Maryland is in the South.)

For those who don't want to throw their diet resolutions to the wind and indulge in barbecue or meatloaf smothered in gravy, Britton's menu, which is quite short, also includes a dinner salad or two and grilled salmon. The dishes are named after jazz greats -- Louis Armstrong catfish, Cab Calloway meatloaf -- which adds a bit to the supper-club ambience.

The Leilani space has been renovated and is now a series of cozy rooms on a couple of levels done in soft yellows and dusty reds. There are a lot of plants, blond wood and exposed brick, with tables decked out cheerfully in red and white table linens. The bar's TVs compete with the light jazz on the sound system; but even so, Britton's isn't as noisy as a lot of new places.

The staff is welcoming, although I was taken aback when we arrived with reservations and the hostess told us our table was ready and then said we would have to wait 10 minutes to be seated.

As so often happens (don't ask me why), the appetizers turned out to be the best part of our meal. The soup of the day was a full-flavored chicken gumbo -- not as thick as gumbo sometimes is, which worked well for a first course. Then there were fat, salty-sweet oysters on the half shell with a fiery seafood sauce.

Best of all were the shrimp, plump and freshly steamed just long enough with an appealing blend of seafood seasonings. The buffalo wings with blue cheese, celery and carrots were fine, too, if a bit greasy -- although I noticed we got 10, not the promised dozen.

As for main courses, the best was the catfish, delicate and very fresh. Order it fried. You could choose blackened, but then you'd miss the light gold batter, and I'm not sure the fillets would stay as moist. Have them with the homemade potato salad, with firm potatoes and pleasing seasonings. (Dinners come with one side; anything beyond that -- including the biscuits and corn muffins -- is extra.)

Britton's fiery jambalaya offers lots of chicken, andouille sausage and shrimp with rice, a substantial meal. The collard greens that came with it were too salty to eat.

The meatloaf, made from ground turkey, didn't do it for me. It had so much brown gravy that surely whatever benefits came from making it with poultry were lost. I did like the macaroni and cheese on the side, baked so that the cheese and pasta had become one.

The pan-fried pork chops were wonderfully tender, but they too were topped with a lake of brown gravy. Maybe it was the promised caramelized apple brown sauce, but it tasted like what appeared on the meatloaf. If you get the pork chops, you might as well go whole hog, no pun intended, and order the sweet potatoes with marshmallow or the green beans cooked to within an inch of their lives.

Naturally, when you're eating like this, you're going to want dessert. It could be peach cobbler or bread pudding or apple pie -- or one of the fancier cakes that I imagine are available because of the catering company. (They weren't on the menu.)

The desserts we tried involved good down-home pastry and what tasted like canned fruit, and were prettily served in big white bowls. The downside: No vanilla ice cream was available, and apple pie with chocolate ice cream is strange.

Britton's Bar and Grill definitely fills a void. It needs to work out the glitches, though. Still, it has a great staff -- just the kind of warm, homey people you want serving you comfort food. And there is valet parking. You could do worse.

BRITTON'S

Food: ** 1/2

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Where: 889 N. Howard St.

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday, dinner Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $3.50-$9.95; main courses, $15-$22

Call: 410-728-4889

Rating system: Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *

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