Restaurant Reviews

True Grits

Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, and Andre "the Hawk" Dawson are the only baseball players in major league history to hit more than 400 home runs and steal more than 300 bases. Mays waltzed into the Hall of Fame, and if steroids don't get in the way, Bonds will, too. But Dawson, a Miami native who closed out his career with the Florida Marlins in 1996, has thus far failed to round up enough votes for induction. It is the opinion of many, including this writer, that the Hawk should be in the Hall. And so should his banana pudding.

Baseball season began this week, but you won't find any evidence of the national pastime at The Mahogany Grille. Dawson and his brother, Vincent Brown, started this Miami Gardens soul food restaurant last November in order to fulfill a dream that began with their late mother, Mattie Louise Taylor-Brown (a professional cook whose photo graces the back cover of the menu). The Mahogany Grille is neither a sports bar nor a funky chitterlings joint, but a handsome dining establishment with warm, namesake wooden accents and fresh flowers on white linen tablecloths — the idea being that the humble nature of this cuisine shouldn't preclude it from being eaten in style.

Or, for that matter, from being given a fanciful name like "neoclassical soul food," which is what the chow here is called. Neoclassical anything involves a redoing of recognizable classics — not repeating them lifelessly, and not reinventing them, but bringing new perspective in a subtle manner. I suppose that's vaguely what Mahogany's chef, Francis Evans, is doing, but it's really traditional Southern soul food that he cooks up, with a few low country and Caribbean dishes sprinkled in. From the latter category come jerk chicken wings, and a trilogy of conch treatments: as light and freshly fried fritters; with blue crab claws in a tomato-based stew; and in a sparkling, spicy, cevichelike salad, speckled with fiery flecks of habanero pepper, and nestled in a martini glass.

But we're putting the conch before the cornbread, which isn't how it works at Mahogany. In fact if you fail to show restraint regarding not only those moist, crumbly, superior squares of cornbread, but also the flaky buttermilk biscuits, and if you're not judicious when slathering softly whipped honey butter on top of both, you'll struggle to make it through the conch, and will surely be taking part of your super-size entrée home in a doggie bag.

Appetizers aren't Mahogany's strong suit. A pair of pan-fried "jumbo lump" crab cakes pleased with assertive seasoning, but the shredded crabmeat wasn't jumbo lumpy at all. "Jumbo prawns" weren't jumbo either — just regular old shrimp — yet sautéed onions below, fried onion rings on top, and a glaze of sweet and smoky Creole-seasoned barbecue sauce made them taste pretty good all the same.

The toughest decision you'll likely make while dining here is which Southern fried chicken dish to order. You can't go wrong with the one accessorized with pork-riddled collard greens and macaroni and cheese (a good, old-fashioned, Velveeta-like affair). Nor would it be a mistake to choose the chicken and waffles, an incongruous combo that first gained notice at Wells Supper Club in Harlem during the Thirties, but has gained more widespread fame since Roscoe's House of Chicken 'n Waffles opened in Hollywood, California in the Seventies. Either way you'll get half a hefty, juicy bird with crisp, crackly, buttermilk-batter coating.

Another winner is the low country combo of grilled shrimp and smoked sausage, smothered in country gravy and plopped atop creamy Asiago cheese grits. The buttery grits also match up with pan-fried catfish filets, but most main courses come accompanied by any two sides of your choosing. We selected a fresh, eggy potato salad and "soul slaw" to partner a plate of "soulful St. Louis ribs" that were slow-smoked to fall-off-the-bone tenderness. The slaw's vinegary bite helped cut the sweetness of the tomato-based barbecue sauce, in which the ribs came bathed. The meatiest main course is a giant slab of grilled rib eye steak that the plate simply isn't big enough to hold. At $32 it is also the priciest item — everything else is less than $20.

The waiter who brought us an order of chitterlings should have been wearing one of those T-shirts with the words: "It's a black thing. You wouldn't understand." Chitterlings, or boiled pig intestines, are offal — and awful, at least for those like me who have never acquired a taste. A bowl of chitterlings, aswirl in clear, thickened liquid, can best be described as "sausage-casings stew." Yikes! Seriously, though, dishes such as these serve as a reminder of the origins of soul food — it's what the slaves were given to cook up, not necessarily the best cuts of the animal.

Then again the cheapest cuts are often the most flavorful. Take the lowly turkey wing. Take it, as they do here, then braise it and top it with giblet gravy for fare far tastier than a chicken breast cooked any way could ever be. Chef Evans adds collard greens and cornbread stuffing alongside the wings and serves it as one of his Sunday Supper meals.

Sunday Supper begins in the afternoon, when Mahogany becomes packed with a well-dressed, postchurch crowd eager to chow down and have a good time. The bill of fare is not that different from the regular weekly menu, but does contain a few special selections such as those turkey wings, and baked ham, and heavenly banana pudding with crushed Nilla Wafers layered in — reason enough to circle Sunday on your calendar. You may also want to make note of Friday and Saturday evenings from 9:00 p.m. to midnight, when live jazz has this place really jumping.

Bread pudding provides comforting consolation on banana-less days, as does a fluffy white coconut layer cake, and plain, pumpkiny, sweet potato pie. Classic red velvet cake, Elvis's favorite, was a little dry.

Few restaurant staffs go as far out of their way to make you feel at home as this one does; if waiters were judged solely by congeniality, this crew would be the best there is. Alas that's not the way it works, and there is no getting around the fact that on both visits we were left waiting way too long for too many things (I'm not asking for fast food, just not food quite this slow). Yet while the dining room team has a ways to go before qualifying for any Hall of Fame honors, and the fare, especially appetizers, has a little ways to go, too, The Mahogany Grille delights because of a certain intangible, but crucial, something so many places lack. It's got soul.

2190 NW 183rd St, Miami Gardens; 305-626-8100. Open Wednesday and Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Friday 11:30 a.m. to midnight, Saturday 7:00 a.m. to midnight, Sunday 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.

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Miami New Times' restaurant reviewer for the past decade, and the world's indisputable master of disguise.
Contact: Lee Klein