38-70 Gartside Street Wanniassa, Australian Capital Territory 290302 6231 2568
|Opening hours||Lunch Thursday to Saturday noon-3pm, dinner Tuesday to Saturday 6pm-9pm, takeaway 5pm-6pm|
|Features||BYO, Accepts bookings, Cheap Eats, Family friendly|
|Payments||Mastercard, eftpos, Visa|
Mac and cheese is cool. Buffalo wings? Tres chic. Barbecued ribs? Oh please. American food is so on-trend right now and every trendy pub and bar in Canberra knows it. Whether it's Ox in the slick East Hotel in Kingston, or Elk and Pea in hipster Braddon, we all love pulled pork and ribs these days.
But if anyone has a claim to be king of the capital's sudden southern food scene, it's Victor Kimble. The Alabama native with a colourful past and a love of soul food is known for his cooking demonstrations at the markets in Belconnen and Fyshwick and an online empire of spices and seasonings. Now he's opened a restaurant - and not a moment too soon.
Soulfood Kitchen is tucked away at the far end of the Erindale shops, around the corner from that other institution of Canberra's deep south, Goodberry's Frozen Custard shop. Inside it's all dark wood tables with a piano in the corner and an old-fashioned counter towards the back. On a balmy autumn night the restaurant is filled with people and more turn up for a look-see or to browse the menu in the window.
Let's address the counter and the ordering situation first. Soulfood Kitchen is set up like a takeaway joint. You queue at the counter, tell the man what you're having and either carry away your spoils or go back to your table to await the arrival of your meal. You can also book a table and sit down to eat - but even then you must order at the counter (for the whole table). On the night we visit, not all the customers (or staff) have fully grasped this idea. Indeed, Kimble seems to have difficulties with staff tonight, telling us he's down a waiter.
Word has clearly spread about Soulfood Kitchen. The place is packed with families and groups of friends and it's wonderfully warm but gets quite noisy in the dining room. The waiter is friendly and cheerful but clearly feeling the strain, unable to field a couple of mild queries about the menu without reference to the kitchen. The menu itself is pretty simple, with a couple of burgers, a couple of po'boys, racks of ribs and chicken dishes, plus a helping of Creole favourites such as gumbo, jambalaya and red beans and rice. There are tasting platters and combination plates for the indecisive ($38 to $42). But the food comes out in good order, served by Kimble himself.
Surely one of the jewels in the menu is the deep-fried oyster po'boy ($16), two hunks of French bread dressed with tomato, lettuce and mayonnaise and lined with rows of salty, breaded oysters. There is crunch in the fresh lettuce and tomato, a tang of garlic in the creamy mayonnaise and it all wraps like a dream around the nuggety golden oysters which are bad in a very good way. A rack of pork ribs ("Victor's smokin' ribs", $32) is very tender, though only lightly basted in a tangy barbecue sauce. The texture is great. Similarly tender are the buffalo wings ($16), which are fairly standard but beautifully done.
There are two hallowed Louisiana specialities on the menu - the gumbo and the jambalaya. The latter ($19) is buttery and thick with rice and red spice. It is delicious and probably perfect for a cold winter night. It would be better if it packed more of a spicy kick, like a traditional southern jambalaya, and if the use of andouille sausage had been less parsimonious (there are only a few wee slices in the bowl). The gumbo ($21), layered with shrimp, chicken and other meats, is flavourful and quite soupy. It is a dish that should be instantly recognisable to anyone who has visited the state of Louisiana. But it could afford to be ''kicked up a notch'', to use the words of New Orleans legend Emeril Lagasse. Crab cakes ($18) are golden crisp and set off reasonably well with a little dish of salsa.
Some of the dishes on the night are simply overpriced. A bowl of red beans and rice with smoked sausage is good but not $18 good. A side order of corn bread ($6 - count 'em, six whole dollars) results in a single, frankly miserly, yellow muffin.
Towards the end of the night, the man himself wanders out and has a chat, asks everyone a little bit about themselves and picks up a trombone to play a brassy, homespun rendition of Happy Birthday to one table. He plans to set up live music nights once a month on a Friday and why not - a rowdy blues and jazz night with soul food on the table is a beautiful thing.
The execution tonight is honest and the dishes are a great introduction to Creole and southern cooking. At times, it feels conservative and safe, as though the punchy flavours of the dishes have been toned down. And the service needs to ratchet up in a hurry. This is an unreconstructed taste of the American south with some standout, choices. For all its faults, there's more character in some of these dishes than any fancy retro slider or pretentious pulled pork in an upmarket eatery.
Natasha Rudra is a staff writer.