One of the things that always made me resentful at shows like Top Chef is the fact that as the lowly viewer, I was never offered the privilege of tasting the winning dishes which so often look succulent and mouth-watering. Though America’s Next Great Restaurant, which concluded its finale on Sunday, is in the same vein as cooking shows like my beloved Top Chef, ANGR had a different goal. Find a panel of experienced restauranteurs and celebrity chefs, introduce them to a bunch of people who like to cook, and see if you can produce a new chain restaurant capable of achieving Chipotle-level success.
Fans of the show know that ANGR concluded on Sunday, with judges Bobby Flay, Steve Ells (founder, chairman, and CEO of Chipotle), Lorena Garcia (Latin cuisine extraordinaire/entrepreneur), and Curtis Stone (master chef/bestselling author/new and improved Jamie Oliver) bestowing top prizes to Jamawn Woods and his brain-child, Soul Daddy. This is where I stray from my loyal Top Chef roots and cross over to Great Restaurant camp, because as of yesterday, I, and anyone else located in the New York/Los Angeles/Minneapolis area got to taste the food I’d been salivating over all season long.
The question is: Are Wood’s grits and pulled pork actually worthy of my pining?
In short, yes and no. I hit up the NYC location, located downtown at 189 Front Street across from Pier 11, this afternoon for quick sample. And by quick sample, I mean my esteemed dining companion and I tried (almost) everything on the menu, which is smartly limited in choices. (There’s no official site for Soul Daddy yet but Eater.com has pics of the menu up.) Here’s the rundown:
There are three main entrées: country-style ribs, baked herb chicken, and pulled pork, which comes either a la carte or as a sandwich with cole slaw. Non meat-eaters (why are you here?) can also opt for a vegetarian plate, which consists of four sides and a bread. Sides include black-eyed pea salad, wild rice salad, sweet potato salad, green bean salad, green salad, cabbage slaw, collard greens, and cheese grits. “Breads” might not be the best term, but you also get the option of a whole wheat biscuit or a cornmeal waffle.
The place wasn’t as packed as yesterday’s opening day, but it certainly was busting. After loading our trays with most of the (decently priced) menu items, my colleague and I found a couple stools in the industrial looking Chipotle-Goes-to-Alabama decorated locale and dug in.
I wish I could start on a more positive note, but the first thing we tried were the grits, a Southern staple which my partner immediately deemed “inexcusable” and “desperately in need of salt.” This gripe was unfortunately indicative of the problems to come, but there were some highlights.
The pulled pork, which I tried on a whole wheat bun with slaw, was juicy and tender, if a touch bland without the BBQ sauce – there are a couple varieties for those who prefer mild or hot. I don’t think I got enough pork to justify the gigantic bun, but I did notice the gal behind me in line got a much more heaping portion than I did. After my colleague sampled the ribs and we both begrudgingly tried the chicken (it’s unappetizing yellow skin lacking the crispness that we’d both anticipated), we gathered the pork was the best of the entrées.
The real standouts were the sides. Despite the icky grits (most of which ended up getting eaten anyway, we’re not proud), the wild rice salad and sweet potato salad were all above adequate, while the collard greens were simply “inoffensive.” The whole wheat biscuit (a blatant attempt to keep within Wood’s “healthy soul food” parameters) was perfection. It was warm and buttery flavored, but I’m maintaining that it was totally healthy.
I only wish they offered dessert. Without some kind of pudding or cake, the meal seemed incomplete. I suppose it would be hard to make a low cal fried Oreo, but come on, at least give it a whirl.
Here’s the thing: Soul food is not healthy. Soul Daddy is. So does the baked chicken really satisfy a craving when you really want fried chicken with gravy? No. (The fried chicken argument was a bone of contention on the finale, with most of the judges urging Woods to go healthy and omit the caloric but oh-so-delicious item from the menu.) The food isn’t atrocious, but it is enough to inspire a national franchise? Not likely, especially with the portion control hoisted on patrons. (Three spare ribs in a “meal”? Really? Who eats three spare ribs?) I’ll admit I’m a bit of a health nut myself, so I thought the wild rice and sweet potatoes were refreshing, but the lack of salt in most dishes was an unfortunate slap in the face that heathy food is typically low in sodium. Fat and salt does not a happy heart make.
Well, I’ve said my peace. Am I wrong? Has anyone tried the L.A. or Mall of America locations? Anyone still pissed that they’ll never get to try Sudhir Kandula’s Spice Coast or Joey Galluzzi’s Brooklyn Meatball Company?