Herb & Soul began last September as a catering and carryout operation in the back part of a Parkville convenience store. The offerings included interesting Southern cuisine and soul food but also typical carryout items like cheese steaks and wings.
The owners — Brandon Taylor, Yuriy Chernov and David Thomas, the executive chef — were encouraged enough by the neighborhood's response to think about expanding or even moving. They at one point considered a property in the Hollins Market neighborhood.
I'm glad they stayed put. Parkville doesn't really have any place like Herb & Soul, which after a quick but effective remodeling is now a kind of combination cafe, gathering space and music venue. When we visited on a Saturday night, there were smiles all around. Couples, parties and families with children were lingering over their dinners.
There are some terrific things to try on Thomas' opening menu, an earnest attempt to push classic soul food and Southern cuisine into more healthful territory. Part of Thomas' approach involves the kind of responsible sourcing we've come to take for granted in Baltimore's contemporary dining scene, with the same trusted names listed on the menu — places like Richardson Farms, Roseda Beef, Springfield Farms and Taharka Bros.
Thomas' menu, at first glance, is a series of choices between the traditional and the chef-driven. You can go for the comfort of Old Bay fried chicken, cornmeal-crusted fried catfish, and shrimp and grits or lighten things up with honey-rosemary roasted chicken, pan-fried catfish with a Thai curry glaze or poached shrimp.
But it's not that simple. There are within a single dish aspects of the new and the old, like the wild boar hash Thomas incorporates into the shrimp and grits or the mashed root vegetables he serves with a teres major steak.
There are a number of vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options, mostly among the side dishes. But Thomas isn't forcing Southern cuisine where it doesn't want to go. No one orders fried chicken expecting spa cuisine.
The fried-chicken entree was outstanding — four crispy-skinned and thoroughly juicy pieces of great-tasting chicken. And the accompanying macaroni and cheese was unapologetically creamy and luscious. An appetizer of fried frogs' legs was effective because it was so straightforward, prepared and served simply, with fried pickles.
There are two variations of the classic egg roll among the appetizers: one filled with collard greens, sweet potatoes and pulled jerk chicken that we loved, and another with crab meat, macaroni and cheese, and shredded Brussels sprouts that was trying too hard.
A few dishes are very close to wonderful but have seasoning problems. The curry glaze on the pan-fried catfish is halfhearted, as though Thomas were anticipating objections to a strong curry presence. There is an unwelcome sweetness in the creamy polenta accompanying the shrimp and grits. And the steak, though well cooked, needs more salt.
Not all the parts fit together at Herb & Soul, which is both charming and frustrating. The owners will have to figure out what to fix and what to leave alone.
The back half of Herb & Soul is a deluxe, camera-ready dining area, a sophisticated mix of salvaged wooden tables and upholstered chairs, appointed with oversized candles and lustrous mirrors. The front half, though, is stark, with a host stand and bakery counter on one side and a performance area on the other.
The friend who encouraged me to try Herb & Soul described a blissful, jazz-infused Saturday evening where the music created a seamlessly maintained dinner-club atmosphere. When we visited, the entertainment was a singer-guitarist who overwhelmed the room with an amplified performance, which made the minutes we waited for food seem like hours.
As for the slow pace, Herb & Soul will have to find a way to minimize the impact of its catering and carryout operation on its dinner service. We saw large orders being picked up to go during our long wait.
If Herb & Soul could focus all of its talents and energy on dinner, at least during dinnertime, it would be the pride of Parkville.
Herb & Soul Gastro Cafe and Lounge
Rating: one-and-a-half stars
Where: 1702 Yakona Road, Parkville
Contact: 410-668-1886, herbandsoul.com
Open: Tuesday through Saturday for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers $5-$12; entrees $11-$23
Food: Contemporary versions of classic Southern cuisine and soul food
Service: Friendly and encouraging
Best dishes: Old Bay fried chicken, shrimp and grits, fried frogs' legs
Parking: On-street parking
Noise level/television: Live music is frequently featured during dinner service. A television in the dining area was tuned in to a cable movie channel when we visited.
Special diets: Vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free menu items are noted on the menu
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]