For some reason I was not expecting the menu at Soul Flavors in Jersey City, to be as large as it was—considering the small space we stepped into and the maybe ten tables set up. The restaurant is small and specific, sparse and straight to the point. Parts of the space do not feel put together nor aesthetically planned, but you realize the point is the food and the atmosphere created by the people, not the physical space.
The menu though large is pretty narrow in scope, featuring soul food. The specials sounded good, but completely divergent from what the menu offered. In effort to taste the vision (the main/ original vision) of the chef, I stuck to the menu and ignored the special dish with scallops (my weakness). From the large selection, I headed for the prix fixe so I could get something from every category also to help narrow down the options.
For appetizers we had the half and half basket—two biscuits and two cornbread pieces—two soul food favorites. The biscuits were multi-layered, crunchy on the outside, while the inside was fluffy, melting the butter easily. The cornbread was sweet and smooth—a crusty outer shell was intensely sweet contrasting the less dense innards. They were both delicious, but one of each was just about enough.
Part of my prix fie was my chosen appetizer of codfish cakes. These were small balls—crisp from being fried on the exterior but the inside of the balls were a gummy chewy texture that was both unsettling and curious for the tongue. It felt raw and stringy on the inside. The flavors were good—they were not fishy and well seasoned—and the crunch of the outside made me keep coming back for more.
For a main I had smothered chicken—fried chicken drowned in gravy onions. The enormity of the portion took me by surprise and definitely was intimidating. I was given almost an entire fried chicken in pieces drenched in gravy. Unfortunately, the presentation was hardly appetizing (I imagine making a dish with ingredients and foods all the same color would render presentation difficult). The first bites were delicious—swimming in southern comfort and soul. Subtle crunch of the fried skin and the steaming meats revealed, the warm gravy and course chopped onions. But further into the meal the salt became overwhelming. After finishing two of the many pieces of chicken, the salt was too much to get through and I longed for the seasoned skin and the crunch from my first bites. Unfortunately my fist real experience with smothered fried chicken was not what I hoped it would be.
My date had twice cooked pork ribs. This too looked sloppy on the plate—solitary with no garnish—just the sauce. The meat was tender, and fell apart easily. But at the same time not very memorable. The sauce was kind of nondescript—brown with faint tang and sweetness. The dish was lacking some character, though it was obvious the correct amount time was spent on the dish with the resulting texture of the meat.
For a side I got the whipped yams, envisioning one of my Thanksgiving favorites, a sweet potato casserole, topped with marshmallows, mixed with rum and brown sugar. These, at Soul Flavors, were served in a small ramekin, sweet and hot. The first bite fulfilled all my greatest wishes—smooth but startchy—sweet but also encapsulated a kind of tanginess that yams can have. But near the end they lost their initial shine, succumbing to the saccharine qualities.
The other side dish, that we got to complement the twice cooked ribs was a portion of mac and cheese. The top of the side dish, also in a ramekin, was smothered in sharp orange cheddar cheese. Elbow macaroni, cheese and maybe cottage cheese (like the mac and cheese I remember) became dry after the top layer of cheese was devoured—the insides lacking one of he pain ingredients- cheese! The insides just ended up being slimy noodles, feeling greasy from the cheese, but wanting flavor.
We were given the strange option to bring our desserts to go—strange but welcome. Both of us were swollen with sweet and salty already. I even took my leftovers home, which is mighty unusual—1. Because there are generally no leftovers 2. Its not my style. I chose bread pudding for my meal, so that was completely transportable and pre breakfast the next morning. It was creamy and rich—a bread custard sprinkled with fruity tart raisins and topped with a bourbon glaze. The bread pudding heated up nicely at home, and was absolutely delicious the next day.
Even though my meal fell a little short of my expectations, I would visit Soul Flavors again to try other things on the soul food menu, and maybe even try one of the specials. I remain curious about the rest of the menu; the classic soul food dishes mixed with what seems like a more elevated, contemporary spin. Even what I had gave me a sneak peek into the vision of Chef Wayne, and what he is trying to bring to the Downtown Jersey City area-- soul.