In my house, the only thing that will separate da boys from da telly on a playoff night is a promise of mannish food. The words that propelled them off the couch and toward Chinatown were these: Chili. Fried chicken. Smothered ribs. Deep-fried shrimp.
I left out the black-eyed peas and collard greens. Wouldn’t have had quite the same propulsive effect.
Two months ago, the husband-and-wife team of LeRoy and Jennifer Walden moved their southern “soul” food from a mostly takeout joint in Hallville, just east of Kemptville, to Ottawa. Jean Albert’s American Style Soul Food now occupies a Somerset Street restaurant that used to house Hot Peppers Thai eatery and before that, the Italian restaurant Zibibbo.
For now, they serve lunch and dinner every day but Monday. There is a plan to serve breakfast soon.
This is homey food, rich food, imbued more with culinary charm rather than distinction. American southern food is based on ingredients at hand, on the land, in the waters, designed for those working hard in the fields under a baking sun. And mostly, at Jean Albert’s (named for the Waldens’ grandmothers) it’s pretty tasty stuff.
On the tasty list goes the chicken gumbo, with its gentle hit of spicy heat. Tasty too is the house chili, topped with chopped onion and pully cheese. The whisky burger at lunch is very good, covered with ham and cheese, moist and crunchy and oozy.
If you like things on the sweet side, you’ll like the sweet potato chips, which have been sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. That same fragrant sugar dusts the house corn bread. These are mini flapjacks, served warm, about the size of a wide-open mouth, and they disappear from my table in 22 seconds flat. I find the cornmeal flavour a bit obscured by the sweetness, but I am alone in this feeling.
There are ribs, with a choice of sauces, and they are good. The Tequila sauce we choose is thick and with good zip, not too sweet and slightly smoky, while the ribs are meaty and of the “you don’t need teeth to eat this stuff” school of ribs cooking. Tender, gooey, smothered. If you like your ribs like this, you’ll like these ribs.
There’s catfish, that great ugly bottom feeder, battered and fried and still wet-fleshed, served with tartar sauce and coleslaw. Add a side of cornmeal-crusted shrimp – why not?
The southern fried chicken at dinner is greaseless, the meat moist and the batter crisp. Lunch brought something a bit dryer, a bit less impressive. A pulled pork sandwich at lunch seemed to have been made a while ago and left to sit, as the bottom bun arrives sodden with juice. We resort to knife and fork to eat it.
Mains come with a choice of two sides. I think we’ve managed to try them all. Mac and cheese and coleslaw are good versions of those classics, candied yams and baked beans are both too sweet for me, collard greens are perfectly bitter, dirty rice is tasty and black-eyed peas are, well, how do you mess up black-eyed peas?
The best of the trio of desserts tried is the sweet potato pie – thick, yet light and smooth, with a nice balance of cinnamon and nutmeg. A peach cobbler is disappointing. The filling tastes of canned peaches and the scone-like crown (which actually arrives buried in the peaches, rather than poised on top) tastes starchy. I was none too crazy about the buttermilk pie either. Seemed to have an oddly chemical flavour to it.
You can wash all this down with homemade lemonade – not too sweet, not too acidic, and addictively good. Or with very fine iced tea. There’s an odd liquor arrangement whereby you can spike your lemonade or iced tea in the main dining room, but if you want a beer or a glass of wine, you need to go upstairs to a lounge-like space.
There’s a wine bar up those stairs, but we are told the only wine available is French Cross. For now, I’d stick with the wonderful lemonade, with or without the shot of tequila.