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Soul Food

Restaurant celebrates true Southern style cuisine

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The out-of-town journalist sitting several tables away remarked she had never heard of, much less tasted, a hushpuppy before she saw it on the menu at Southern Comforts BBQ & Soul. While the idea of not knowing what a hushpuppy is seems strange to us, remember some folks in St. Louis eat fried ravioli, chili lovers in Cincinnati use spaghetti as a base for that dish, and there are those who prefer the root of the turnip to the greens and Dunkin' Donuts to Krispy Kremes. (Note: She didn't order any hushpuppies either.)

But hushpuppies are part of our culinary heritage and the traditional accompaniment to Southern fried foods as catfish, seafood, and chicken. Historically the heart of Carolina cuisine has always been barbecue, whether eastern or Lexington styled, and small, family run "home cooking" restaurants featuring one meat dish with two or three side orders. These side orders typically include, but are not limited to, macaroni and cheese, fried okra, collards and other greens, cole slaw, and hushpuppies.

The 160-seat Southern Comforts, located on East Boulevard, opened last December. Owner and Chef Shayne Lewis trained in Le Cordon Bleu in France. Lewis says, "The focus of the menu and theme of the place is gourmet barbecue and southern comfort foods. From our beer brined pork chop, beef, and pork barbecue to southern fried chicken, everything will be finger-lickin' with flair."

Comforts is a little bit fish camp with a dash of Low Country -- a rich uncle to Dori Sanders' country kitchen and an ode to three styles of Southern barbecue. Comforts offers pure Southern cuisine. This is not trendy food, nor fused food. Neither is it Spa food: gargantuan portions and the deep-fat fryer preclude this.

Lewis has put together a team of chefs in the kitchen: Tyler Brown, a graduate of Johnson & Wales in Charleston, worked in Charleston's Peninsula Grille and Chapel Hill's Fearrington House; Brian Wood, who worked with Lewis at the Meeting House which Lewis co-owned; and Elvin Howard who worked at Marais and Zydeco.

The interior is sectioned by big booths complete with hooks to hang jackets, comfortable tables, separate dining areas, and a bar. Black and white photos punctuate the wall space. The crowd seems to know one another and among them you may see Ken Lewis, who is Shayne Lewis' dad and CEO of Bank of America.

Start your meal with a memory bite. Especially in these lean times, there is nothing better than sinking your teeth in a hot biscuit and the ones here are luscious. Then try a taste of the Southern coast with their finely flavored she crab soup, thick with crab. There are enough choices among the appetizers to make a satisfying meal. Two cheers for the pimento cheese, a garnish on the fried green tomatoes appetizer. Mix this with the smoked corn salsa for an impressive taste. One dish which may not trigger a nostalgic impulse is the platter of battered and fried slices of dill pickles with ranch dip. While I wouldn't choose these to nosh while sipping wine, they are actually pretty good.

Lewis, who was born in Dallas but grew up here, serves three varieties of barbecue: a Texas styled beef brisket, a Memphis styled chicken with a thicker smokier tomato sauce and Eastern north Carolina styled pulled pork shoulder served with a side of dip. The slow cooked, richly flavored pulled pork is served in a portion as large as the parking lot of Central Church of God on a Sunday morning. Well, maybe not that big. A nod to the Southern hunt camp heritage, and among the heartier entrees, is the full-bodied venison meatloaf with portabello gravy.

The sides are all star attractions and imbued with a soulful touch: sophisticated macaroni and cheese with the pronounced taste of cheddar; collards braised in a potlikker slapped with pork; cole slaw made of finely sliced green and red cabbages; balanced sweet potato hash browns; and an unapologetic old-fashioned masterful corn pudding.

What is so refreshing about Southern Comforts is the return to fresh vegetables. Too many of the meat and three (or two) restaurants have for too long used canned and frozen produce, rather than fresh from the field vegetables. Our palates were being ruined. But not here.

Entree prices range from $12 to $19 for the BBQ Rubbed New York Strip. Daily blue plate specials with one side are $14. Entrees include a choice of two sides, and additional sides, which are served in huge portions, are only $3.

Southern staples, although still an apparent mystery to some chefs on the Food Network, have long been overlooked in the national culinary spectrum. But folks in New York stand in long lines for our homegrown Krispy Kreme doughnuts and are anxiously awaiting the opening of Danny Meyers' Blue Smoke, a barbecue restaurant with a built-in pit.

How nice for us that Lewis chose to celebrate our culinary heritage and managed to keep things simple, enjoyable, and tasty to boot.

Southern Comforts, BBQ & Soul, 1511 East Boulevard. 704-331-9222. Hours are Tuesday through Thursday 5:30pm until 10pm and Friday and Saturday 5:30om until 10:30pm. Sunday Brunch is 11am until 2pm. AmEx, MC, Visa, Dis.

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