July 25, 2016 | BITE: My Journal
Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen: Love Letter to Nashville
Carla Hall sits down to explain the heat ratings and help our crew “pick our chicken face.”
I’m trying to remember the last time I had a Ritz cracker in my hand. I’m not quite delirious, but very excited. Did I ever frost a Ritz with pimento cheese? No, in Detroit, in my house, it was peanut butter. But my pals and I, convening from assorted directions to Brooklyn tonight, are in Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen. “A Love Letter to Nashville,” it says.
Before our boozy cocktails arrive, Hall delivers Ritz crackers and pimento cheese for the table.
I’d read the place has only 28 seats, so -- preferring fast fried chicken sitting down to slow fried chicken standing up -- I’d emailed. And here is Carla, herself in a big denim apron, delivering wrapped crackers and plastic cups of cheese, lest we starve while trying to figure out how to order.
Above the kitchen, a staccato of birds traces the evolution of the flame-cropped Thelma logo.
Framing the kitchen counter where customers can put in their order is a staccato of birds and the legend, “The Evolution of Thelma,” an ode to her beloved grandmother who just kept cooking. “Pick Your Own Chicken Face,” the menu challenges. Carla pulls up a stool at our table to advise. There are six “Hoot’n-Heat levels,” and mystifying options for the chicken itself -- by the piece, by the plate, by the family meal.
Customers can give their order at the kitchen window or discuss choices with a waiter.
“Are we a family?” Not officially, but like many families, we can’t possibly agree. A couple of us will only eat dark meat. The thought of anything but white meat is a vexation to some. One of us thinks liking both makes her a superior human being. We have our mayonnaise haters and our mayonnaise junkies and one or two players who welcome any exposure to potato salad and cole slaw. For them, the specific binding agent is a big never mind.
My spiked honey bourbon lemonade is long and boozy. I like the pineapple doodad, too.
My $14 spiked honey bourbon lemonade might be one of the best cocktails I’ve had all month. All year? It’s big and boozy, with a generous wedge of pineapple -- not too sweet at all -- and seems to last forever. Across from me, my pal sipping “That Dog’ll Hunt” is getting happy, too.
A box of corn bread and biscuits arrives at the table with small plastic tumblers of fruit jam.
“The Jefferson,” with two sides and bread, is the only choice for me. A leg and a thigh. Dark meat. (Is that Thomas Jefferson? I wonder, forgetting to ask.) I consider ordering it extra hot. But then, weighing my affection for Szechuan spice, the age of my digestive system, and my need for seven hours of sleep, I switch to “Hootie Hoot” hot, number 4 out of 6 on the swelter level.
My plate is worth the trip: #4 Hootie Hot dark meat, elegant potato salad, cole slaw and a biscuit.
Dinner comes on plastic -- my personal selection, gorgeous -- or in paper, two assortments of bread. The biscuit is huge, very serious -- butter and peach blackberry or apple bourbon jam to go with for $2 extra. The not-too-sweet cornbread is fine, too. I could do a lot of damage tonight with bread alone. I’m not one of those disciplined creatures who can break off a corner of biscuit and abandon the rest.
The $2 buttermilk biscuit is big and seems to last forever with “that’s my jam & butter.”
What’s astonishingly good is the chicken. I bite into a tiny leg. It needs to cool down a bit, but it’s juicy, crisp, definitely hot, even faintly torrid -- just right for me. And best of all, it’s remarkably greaseless. The cole slaw tastes made to order -- that fresh -- and is another excuse for an indulgence of mayo.
As a mayonnaise freak, I would swoon over the potato salad, even if it weren’t so elegant with its mix of sweet potatoes and Yukon gold, plus scallions and celery for crunch. Snipped fresh tarragon, lemon thyme, parsley and basil are discreet toss-ins. (The recipe is from Carla’s Cooking with Love.)
Those are black-eyed peas instead of slivered nuts in the chopped salad because this kitchen is nut-free.
Those are black-eyed peas in the chopped salad. Carla’s Kitchen is a nut-free zone in a bow to her partner Evan Darnell, whose child has an allergy.
The only serious letdown for me tonight is the vapid mac’n’cheese. I’m often disappointed with macaroni that’s not crusty and browned like my mom’s. But it’s very rare that I can’t eat it anyway. I do like the horseradish-spiked white barbeque sauce someone ordered. I dab some on a leftover shard of biscuit. Sauces are only $1 extra. I should have asked for my own.
Ryan lets me taste his white meat, the candied yams and a steal of collards n’pot likker.
I taste my friend Ryan’s white meat, his candied yams and the collards. That only makes me more pleased with my brilliant choice. Across the table Andrew is tackling the full-out, ultimate, fiery BoomShakalaka bird. A bell rings and the staff shouts “Boomshakalaka” as he takes his first bite. Andrew doesn’t cry out. I don’t see actual tears. But he sure doesn’t look happy. I can imagine him revving up on the fuel and taking off, possibly hitting the ceiling, smashing jams and pickles for sale and the barn lamps above.
We’re sharing three desserts: Nana’s pudding, sweet potato bread pudding and mixed berry shortcake.
Desserts come in plastic, too. (Lots of packaging, no dish-washing.) Nana pudding with vanilla shortbread. Sweet potato bread pudding with sweet potato puree custard and bourbon raisin sauce. And mixed berry shortcake with sweetened whipped cream.
There are Nashville products for décor and sale, a Hall’s long love letter to Nashville on the wall.
Outside, there are folks waiting for our table. We catch the last of the sunset fading over the shipping yard. It feels to me a little like coming back from overseas and waiting outside JFK for Carmel. I feel as if I’ve been far away, definitely father south than Cobble Hill, wrapped in Carla’s doting hospitality.
As she left for home that evening, Carla carried a script for Waitress, The Musical in her tote. She would be rehearsing to join the show’s chorus that weekend. Could be you were first bewitched by her charm on Top Chef or you know her from The Chew. But the stage was her first love, what she trained to do. She’d have only a few hours to prep for her Broadway tap.
A collection of vintage family recipe cards papers the bathroom wall. Hall bought them on eBay.
Thus, it’s possible Carla may not be there when you go. No one will hand you Ritz crackers and pimento cheese, I’m guessing. But the same cooks will be frying that chicken and tossing the potato salad. Start with Spiked Honey Lemonade. It will make you happy while you wait.
115 Columbia Street, entrance on the corner of Kane Street. 718 855 4668. Monday and Wednesday through Friday 4 to 10 pm. Saturday 2 to 10 pm. Sunday 2 to 9 pm. Closed Tuesday.
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