The latest entry to the pet-peeve list: “upscale,” as in “upscale soul food.” In the year and a bit since Keith Hicks created the marvelous Ovation (6115 Camp Bowie Blvd.), that’s become the media’s and the public’s sound bite:
“Ovation … home of upscale soul food!” Argh, argh, argh. First of all, Chow, Baby can’t even say “upscale” without making little jazz hands. Ooh, upscale. It’s true, we needed a word to replace “gourmet” now that that’s been slapped on every other food product at Sam’s Club. But both those words have code meanings, depending on the nouns they’re attached to. In “upscale steakhouse,” upscale just means “expensive and gloomy” (no jazz hands).
When these words are modifying an ethnic cuisine, though – as in Cantina Laredo’s “gourmet Mexican food” – Chow, Baby can’t help but think there’s some kind of culinary gentrification at work. It’s cleaned up! It’s closely policed! It costs more! It’s now safe for middle-class white people! Not that all soul food has to stay in Como, or all Mexican food on the North Side. Bring it to Sundance Square, bring it to the West Side – just bring the real thing, please. Like Sonny Vuong did when he opened Sonny’s Diner (6220 Camp Bowie Blvd.) a few months ago. Yes, the dècor is bistro-y. And the menu gives pronunciation guides for the few non-English words. But the food – the food is not “upscale” (there go the hands). It’s the same selection you’d find anywhere along Belknap, albeit at higher prices. Spring rolls (two for $3.25) and egg rolls (two for $2.50) have all the right stuffings, and are served with non-wussy housemade peanut and sweet-and-sour sauces, respectively. Steak pho ($6.75) is the long-simmered kind. Vietnamese iced coffee ($2.50) comes with its own little drip pot. It’s all the real thing.
At Ovation – in a different Camp Bowie strip mall, but also pretty inside – the real-thing chicken & waffles ($10 at lunch) are served with collard greens, just like Chow, Baby remembered from its last visit to 1930s Harlem. True, at Ovation the dish also comes with fancy cinnamon-blueberry infused butter. And the traditional fried catfish ($9) is served with greens, hush puppies, and, hmm, a candied-sweet-potato coulis. Here’s yummy fried green tomatoes ($8.99) … with béarnaise sauce. Once you start getting French words in there, it kind of takes the wind out of Chow, Baby’s don’t-call-Ovation-upscale sails.
OK, a new argh: Other than because Chef Keith is black, why do people persist in calling Ovation’s menu “soul food” when half of it draws from other cuisines? Here’s a creamy chicken fettuccini Alfredo with pancetta ($17.99). Steaks ($28.99 and up) are Midwestern perfection under a red wine reduction or brandy-peppercorn sauce. Sandwiches include cheesesteak, Cuban, carnitas tacos, and Black Castle burgers ($8), the last being Chef Keith’s version of sliders. It’s all fantastic, but it’s all over the world map – and that’s Chow, Baby’s rebuttal to its own don’t-call-it-soul-food argument. History bite: Soul food originated when plantation slaves took the house’s discards – turnip tops, ham bones, pig’s feet – and made trash into treasure.
Chef Keith has better ingredients to work with, but he’s using traditional cooking techniques and ingenuity to turn out some pretty amazing stuff. In that sense – possibly so broad a sense as to make the term meaningless – Ovation’s whole menu is soul food, and the swanky touches do make it … no, Chow, Baby can’t bring itself to use the u-word. It needs both hands for attacking those amazing sliders.