And Finding, in Randallstown
As Bob Dylan sang, "The times, they are a-changin.'" That's certainly the case in Randallstown. Back in the day, Liberty Road travelers could hop from one Chinese joint to another -- there was one on just about every block. And the love for Eastern chow seemed solid: As interest in Cantonese cuisine declined, hankerings for Szechwan rose; when Szechwan waned, Hunan waxed, all within the space of a few miles.
But this is a new day. The burgeoning ethnic cuisine in those parts is American Southern, aka soul food. If our recent dinner at Courtney's Place is any indication, this is the kind of soul food guaranteed to win your heart as well as your stomach.
Forget curb appeal and forget ambiance at this unassuming suburban space, home to a pantheon of former eateries. The bar is tiny, and the bilevel dining room is a mélange of low tables, bar tables, and booths. The ceiling is wood-beamed, and there's a small performance area (call for entertainment schedule). The owners have attempted to claim the space by hanging numerous framed collages depicting aspects of African-American life. I hope they'll do a little more sprucing up to make the restaurant more attractive, but really, it's the food that matters.
Our party -- me, C.C., my pal Mike, and his mother, Dottie -- began our feast with an order of buffalo shrimp ($6.95), potato ships ($4.25), and a cup of crab soup ($3.50). Our young and overwhelmed server forgot the soup, but we enjoyed the buffalo shrimp so much we ordered more. The crustaceans themselves were on the small side, but they had a sugary, faintly vinegary glaze that proved crunchy and darn near irresistible. We didn't even avail ourselves of the accompanying plastic cup of hot sauce -- this was a tasty and truly original dish. Mike enjoyed his "ships," potato skins generously stuffed with cheese, bacon, scallions, and sour cream.
The wait for our entrées was short, but the quality of the service took a nosedive after that. Mike's New York strip steak ($12.95) was a lovely hunk of meat, lean and broiled just as he had ordered. Never one to show favoritism among potato side dishes, he selected potato salad and french fries. The fries were fine, if ordinary, but the potato salad won raves from both Mike and his mom. I found it too creamy, but the seasoning was zippy.
My fried-chicken platter was terrific. For $10.95, you get half a bird -- four generous pieces of chicken. And what a bird: darn near grease-free and delicious, with a light, crispy coating. The sides were swell: Courtney's string beans were cooked with just a little salt pork or ham, which added a rich, smoky flavor, and the mac 'n' cheese was delicious too, if on the lukewarm side.
C.C.'s barbecued ribs ($9.95 for a half-rack, $14.95 for the whole) were big and meaty, though not of the so-tender-the-meat-falls-off-the-bone variety. The sauce coating the ribs was less smoky than spicy and sweet, which was fine with C.C. She liked the accompanying onion rings and candied yams. Interestingly, Courtney's yams tasted more of spice than sugar, a refreshing change from the usual syrupy-sweet potatoes.
The prettiest dish and the winner of the bunch, we all agreed, was Dottie's Southern-style catfish with pepper slaw ($12.95). The fish itself, a medium-sized filet, was lightly breaded, crisp on the outside, and moist within. The warm slaw -- a mix of slivered red pepper, green pepper, and onion -- was piled on top. It made a wonderful accompaniment to the fish. I didn't care for the copious amount of ham hock in the collard greens, but Dottie, who knows collards, rated them excellent. Our server brought her potato salad instead of the interesting sounding smothered onions and potato rounds she'd ordered, but we accepted the switch, not wishing to discombobulate him any further.
Good thing too: The dining room had begun to fill, and our server, apparently a thoughtful and deliberate young man, was having trouble keeping up. It didn't help that every time a pretty young woman entered the scene, his jaw would drop and his gaze would follow her progress through the room. Still, a 40-minute wait for coffee (95 cents) and a strawberry daiquiri ($5) was a bit much, especially as the coffee, which reminded me of instant, was awful, and the daiquiri left a chemical aftertaste. Our server did make a rather long and formal apology, acknowledging his difficulty in keeping up, and we had a much shorter wait for good apple pie ($2.50). The only other sweet available was carrot cake; someone in the kitchen needs to whip up some fruit cobbler or pecan pie.
Courtney's is off to a good, if slow, start. A couple extra servers might do the trick. We noticed the restaurant did a brisk takeout business, and its bar was busy all evening. We'll be back, for the catfish and the jazz. Open 11:30 A.M.-2 A.M. daily.