Atta Grill Simple, delicious, affordable food BY TRICIA CHILDRESS "You have to try the soups here," the customer behind me gushed. "They're the best in town." The employee behind the order counter vigorously agreed, adding, "All of our soups are made from scratch."A small bowl of she-crab soup clearly convinced me that Black Oak Grille is a true find in the university area. Black Oak Grille is located in a free-standing building tucked behind a video store off JW Clay Boulevard and Highway 29. Chef Mark White with his wife Dawn and partners Bob, Hilda, and Scott Poole bought the restaurant last June from the Roasting Company. The Whites met the Pooles through a mutual friend. What is a chef, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and whose first job after graduating was in Charlie Palmer's famed Aureole kitchen on New York's upper East Side, doing in a counter service restaurant in Charlotte? "My wife and I had the dream of owning a restaurant. We liked the concept of a friendly counter service restaurant and the university area had the demographics we were looking for," White said. "Our mission is to serve quality food quickly without the expense and time required in a full service restaurant. Plus we serve wholesome foods which are a good alternative to fast food." A native of Columbia, SC, and graduate of USC, White worked for 15 years with South Carolina's California Dreaming, including opening their Gulf Stream Cafe in Garden City, SC. He also worked as executive chef at The Veranda in Ft. Myers, Florida. If you prefer restaurants with an illusion of intimacy or hipness, try take out. The exterior of Black Oak is so plain you might drive right by. The interior is cavernous and sparse, too sparse. Dawn White, a professional photographer, plans to fill the walls with black and white photos, but for now the dining room's blank walls stare back at you on one side and the other walls are large expanses of windows that overlook the parking lot. Families dominate the room and on one night the music was outplayed by babies crying. When did parents stop removing crying children from dining rooms? But it's not the ambience that will bring you back. It's the food. Selections are ordered at the counter, but the food is delivered to the table, a feature they've not been doing at lunch, but plan to implement soon. Chef White offers a menu packed with comfort foods and the flavor of each is distinct. His densely flavored she-crab soup is at once unexpected and possibly addictive. The moist rotisserie chicken slides from the bone. Entrees are served with his signature Romano bread, which is also offered by the basket. Sides are a predictable round up of Southern offerings, but turned out exceptionally well. Hats off to the baked cinnamon apples, which are soft but not mushy, and the "Low Country" collards with their subtle pungency. The Caesar salad offers crisp romaine dressed lightly. Lush ribs, grilled over oak coals, are brightly complemented by, albeit doctored, commercial based barbecue sauce. The parade of dishes is dangerously filling, but still we made room for dessert, with the help of to go containers. Desserts are not made in house, but the folks at the counter swore that I wouldn't find a better carrot cake, which they call a Minnesota Carrot Cake. The instant appeal of Black Oak is the price, especially in these Bush times. For the quality of the food, you cannot beat the price. Entrees range from $6.59 to $11.95 and that includes one side, bread, and a salad. A four person "party pack" of rotisserie chicken is only $5.50 per person and can be arranged for parties up to 200. If you can get beyond the lack of ambience, White's food is terrific: simple and delicious.