August 15, 2016 | BITE: My Journal

Soaring with Zora

Jalapeño cornbread, lush and rich, comes with maple butter alongside.

          It’s just after 9 pm Thursday. The three of us fantasize a finale of peach cobbler and, sure enough, Zora's Café peach cobbler is on the way. It’s quiet. Zora and her mother have left. The brand new soul food endeavor seems to be fading for the night, so far undiscovered. And then new life -- a family of four ventures in and is seated in the corner nearest the kitchen.

Green tomatoes, looking forbiddingly sandy, are actually moist and tart from buttermilk bath.

          At that moment, a burly young man who has been eating alone up front with a rotation of staff in attendance stands in the doorway. “I just had dinner,” he says, addressing the narrow cubbyhole of a room. “It’s my first time here. This food is wonderful. I’m coming back.” Everyone applauds.

Hush puppies to dip into “Ms. Linda’s” remoulade are good solo or with fried catfish. 

          Well, I’m loving Zora, too. Our friend Michael works around the corner and he’s excited to find a new haven for lunch. Virginia-born Lyn, a disciplined eater, takes seconds or is it thirds, of the “Southern Potato Salad,” so like that of her beloved Shenandoah Valley Granny.

I never thought I could be particularly excited about collard greens, but these are thrilling.

          And she agrees with me that “Papa Tony’s Collard Greens,” a huge serving for $8, with ham hock ($2 extra) may be the unparalleled best either of us has ever tasted. “Mama Bea’s Red Beans” are good too,  and don’t need rice.

The wall above the kitchen window is papered in tropical plants.

          Zora’s is tiny, with just 18 seats at thickly shellacked checkerboard wood tables, and a wall above the kitchen papered in tropical greenery. It’s so small you have to walk through the steamy kitchen to get to the bathroom. On a scorching night, I don’t have high hopes for the air conditioning when I step into the narrow storefront and the staff, seated at tables waiting for action, rises up to greet me, taking most of the space in the center aisle. But seated, I feel the overhead fan stirring the air.

Our server, Antoinette, introduces herself and takes charge of our destiny.

          Our server, Antoinette, introduces herself and delivers jalapeno cornbread, dangerously rich, “on the house” with maple butter. Of course, we have to try the fried chicken – crispy skin, juicy flesh, just $15 -- a thigh for me, the moist breast for the two of them to sample, a leg to take home for Art who couldn’t come. Alas, with its overnight brining “in house,” and who knows what salting along the way, it’s much too salty for me.

My fried chicken -- a breast, a thigh and a leg -- is too salty for me, perfect for salt-loving Lyn.

          But Lyn, who craves salt, prefers it to the boring baked bird she wishes she hadn’t ordered. She and Michael seem happy enough with a pile of catfish fried into curls. Michael had hoped he could talk her into ordering smothered pork chops. I could have told him to forget it. Lyn is one of those fashionably thin creatures who normally eats salmon every day of the week and is being a good sport about fried catfish. I am interested in “Miss Bea’s Oxtails” myself, but I know that isn’t in the cards.

I’d prefer oxtails or pork chop, anything but the fried catfish that delights both my companions.

          The place is so new, neither of the two wine bottles Antoinette shows me have been opened. I don’t recognize either maker, so I choose the cabernet because I like the look of the label and get a generous pour, smooth and fruity. Michael is sipping mixed lemonade-tea from a giant canning jar.

There’s no room for a service table, so Antoinette steps up to the mirror to hand-write the bill.

          Focusing on small plates and surprisingly generous sides pleases our warring desires. It starts with the very ordinary deviled eggs Lyn and I share while waiting for Michael, five halves for $7. I compare them to the fancy, fussed-up deviled eggs I’ve eaten around town as a way of pointing out that a rash of cayenne pepper, paprika. and pickle brine is really all you need to revive memories of family picnics.

When I see devilled eggs on a menu, I must have them. These are five halves for $7.

          Four little hush puppy rounds come with Linda’s special remoulade for dipping. The big discs of fried green tomatoes look clumsy in a thick cornbread crust, but they are juicy and tart from their buttermilk bath. It would be easy to miss the sun-dried tomato aioli underneath, but I see Lyn dragging a triangle of tomato through the bright orange goo.

It’s not a great time to think about calories when you’re making the macaroni-and-cheese.

          Only the macaroni and cheese is a disappointment – I’m not sure if it’s the low fat milk and not enough cheese, or the lack of a crust and more enthusiastic browning, or all of the above.

I enjoy watching my pal throw off her usual discipline for more Southern style potato salad.

          With Lyn beaming memories of Granny in the luscious potato salad, Michael planning future pork chop excursions, and me excited by a secret soul food find so close to home, none of us is surprised to find peach cobbler on the dessert list.

I’ve eaten too many canned peach cobblers. So, I especially appreciate this fresh peach beauty. 

          This peach cobbler emerges from the oven -- thin slices of brandy-tossed fresh fruit and raisins under a fine crumble crust. The sweet potato pie, subtly spiced, with a pillow of bourbon whipped cream, is also excellent. I would have tried Velma’s fluffy homemade yellow cake with chocolate frosting too, the third $8 dessert, but my companions have suddenly discovered enough is enough. The chef steps out to escape the steamy kitchen in a moment of calm. Antoinette introduces him, Jose.

 Zora Browne welcomes early dinner guests and reaches for menus. 

          Zora’s seems almost too small to survive discovery, but Zora and her mom, Linda, a retired United States Air Force doctor with twenty years of catering experience, are determined that it will. Those are their portraits on the wall. And they choose the music, too: mostly Sinatra swinging along with an occasional soulful rasp from Ray Charles in “Georgia on My Mind.”

This soul food classic, the sweet potato pie, is a must even if you can only manage a bite or two.

712 Ninth Avenue between 48th and 49th Streets. 212 757 5888. Tuesday through Sunday 4 pm to midnight. Closed Monday.



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