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The Genteel South

Britton's does Terrific Soul food, Upscale

Michelle Gienow

Britton's Bar and Grill

This location is closed

By Michelle Gienow | Posted 4/10/2002

Maybe it's just in Baltimore, but it seems to be a rule: The Southern-cooking restaurants worth their salt are more often of the storefront carry-out variety than of the china, crystal, and linen persuasion. I'm very happy, then, to report that there's an exception. Britton's Bar & Grill, which opened a few months ago in the Antique Row space where Leilani's of Hawaii used to be, has it all: ambience, professional service, a liquor license, and--most importantly--fantastic Southern food.

The upscale dining experience does come with a price to match. (Soul-food fans on a budget should visit Britton's at lunchtime, when most items are available for much less). Entrées hover around the $20 mark, and one special we ordered was priced at a shocking $35. I say shocking because the server failed to mention this price difference while describing the evening's extra menu dishes; many restaurants neglect to mention specials prices, but that's usually because they're in line with the rest of the menu. When something will run 75 percent over the average cost, mention this to your mark--er, customer. OK, I should have asked, but I do feel strongly that the onus is on the establishment in this situation.

That said, the special in question--"The Mother Ship," jambalaya paired with a crab cake--was really, really good. The sausage, shrimp, and chicken-packed jambalaya was wonderful, with acid-sweet tomato melded into a luxurious brown roux; the buttery broiled lump crab cake stood out against the jambalaya's spicy heat. There was more than enough left over for another serving or two, which is true of all the portions at Britton's (every diner we saw leaving during our visit was toting a carry-out container). So I guess if you amortize $35 over a couple of meals, it's not so bad. You just got to pay to ride that mother ship.

I would have been envious of my companion's jambalaya-crab combo had my own entrée not been such a knockout. Britton's Louis Armstrong catfish ($18.95) was the best catfish I've ever had in a restaurant, period. Two large, meaty filets were fried (the fish is also available Cajun-spiced and blackened, but I wouldn't want to miss the glorious light, golden batter) and then dressed with an absolutely transcendent sauce: a cream-based concoction infused with roasted red peppers and a multilayered combination of subtle heat and other, unnameable, flavors and spices. Enamored, I asked our server what the sauce was. "Armando sauce," she said. Can't find a reference to that particular sauce in any of my cookbooks or on the Net, but whoever you are, Armando, my salutations.

The true test of any Southern kitchen is its way with fried chicken, and Britton's did not disappoint. The server explained it would take extra time to prepare our order of Britton's Southern-fried half-chicken ($17.95), a caveat that made me happy--indicating that the kitchen has the patience to do it right, from scratch. The results were more than worth the wait: light, crackling-crisp skin over moist meat, with a light, tangy gravy served on the side.

As for sides, all the principal Southern-food players are accounted for: collard greens, macaroni and cheese, green beans, biscuits, and corn bread. As delicious as the dense, chewy corn bread and airy biscuits are--especially when slathered with the house peach butter--I urge you to curb your enthusiasm. More, much more, is coming, and you'll need to save room. Two sides come with each entrée, and it's a tough choice. Smoky, meaty thick-cut collards are divine, but even better is the mac 'n' cheese, baked with a sharp custard. If you can manage dessert, let me know how the peach cobbler ($5) or bread pudding ($4) are--terrific, I'm sure, but by the end of our monumental meal dessert simply was not a physical possibility.

In the end, the meal was like getting the best picnic food ever, albeit served in a sophisticated setting. Unfortunately, after enjoying one of Britton's Southern-style feasts you can't lay back on the picnic blanket for a nice, long nap.

Gimme somethin' funky with the skin on top:

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