Last week, I listened to my friend Necia tell a story about her mother. When Necia was grown and took trips home, her mother always made the same special meal for her. It was a fabulous dinner and a big one — baked ham, collard greens and peach cobbler, along with a few other things.
When Necia's mother died, Necia tried to re-create that supper, even though she'd never actually watched her mother make any of those dishes. She stood in the center of the kitchen with a big pile of fresh greens and tried to channel her mother's spirit to show her just how to do it. And when she was finished, Necia's greens tasted just like her mother's.
My own mother is still living, so I don't need to channel any culinary skills from that source. Besides, she isn't such a great cook, I'm sorry to say. Over the years, however, I've tried to duplicate my maternal grandmother's excellent apple dumplings and braised short ribs — with varying results. This grandmother wasn't one of those lovable, apron-wearing gals with flour-covered hands, by the way. (She married seven times.) But years earlier, she had carefully watched her grandmother rattle pots and pans in an Ohio farm kitchen. One afternoon, I witnessed my well-coiffed grandmother frying pieces of chicken in a big black skillet. It turned out as delicious and crispy as any restaurant chicken, but she blew off any praise from me or Husband No. 7. "Good Lord," she said, clipping a diamond earring to her lobe. "Anyone can fry a chicken."
Well, I can't — and I've tried to channel her spirit in my kitchen for years. Just the same, I'm starting to believe that the "comfort cuisine" that includes American soul food really does have something to do with the spiritual world. I might not be able to make the same country-style fare that my grandmother did, but when I eat certain foods, I feel a strong connection to her and to happier memories.
That's one of the reasons that I was so disappointed when Kansas City's most elegant soul-food restaurant, the seven-year-old Peachtree Restaurant at 18th Street and Vine, closed earlier this year. The members of the Willis family decided that it made sense to pull up stakes and move to a new location above the bustling Bristol Seafood Grill in the Power & Light District. I can understand why Vera Willis' son, Roy Wilmore, the restaurant's general manager, felt that the Power & Light District had the potential to draw a lot more customers — it probably will. But I liked the 18th and Vine venue for a lot of reasons. It was warm and comfortable, the food was consistently good, and it was a solid anchor for a neighborhood that's been "in transition" for too many years. On the subject of happy memories: I never had a bad meal in the place.
But the Willis family hasn't just left 18th and Vine for downtown; they've been expanding into the suburbs. In addition to the original buffet on Eastwood Trafficway and the new downtown location scheduled to open this summer, there's now a three-month-old Peachtree Restaurant in Lee's Summit.
On the night I drove out there with Bonita and Keith, I had a sense of déjà vu before we even went inside. Where had I seen those light fixtures before? The hostess at the front explained it all: "This used to be a Fritz Co. Grille," she said, referring to a short-lived chain of Lawrence-based steak joints ("Ego Trip," June 21, 2007).
The place is far more glamorous in its new incarnation as the Peachtree. Like the 18th Street location, it's tastefully decorated with shiny, dark woodwork and framed vintage photographs, and the tables are draped in white linen. The place was packed on a Friday night, and our little trio was seated dangerously close to the kitchen's swinging door (one of my least-favorite places to sit in any restaurant). But we were having a nice time, and our server was adorable, so what the hell. We began the meal with two fine starters: fried cornmeal-breaded catfish fingers (the Hollywood way to eat the lowly freshwater fish; it looked like strips of calamari) and collard-green dip, a warm, cheesy concoction made with fragrant stewed greens instead of traditional, boring spinach. There wasn't a lot of the dip to share, but it was tasty.
While skinny Keith tried to decide between the fried seafood platter and a blackened shrimp entrée, Bonita ordered the fried-chicken-and-catfish combo plate. I already knew I wanted the barbecued pork chop and my two favorite side dishes, collard greens and macaroni and cheese. By the time Keith had settled on the shrimp, Bonita was buttering her second sweet-potato muffin. "They're fabulous," she said, "really fabulous."
My Caesar salad was too salty to be fabulous, but Bonita's soup du jour, a rich seafood bisque, also won raves.
A gal after my own heart, Bonita shouldn't eat fried foods but does it anyway. She gave high marks to the crispy fried chicken, the sweet catfish and the steamed okra. Keith ate a whole plate of spicy, pan-blackened shrimp so fast that I thought I was imagining things. I didn't offer to share a bite of my plump chop, thickly glazed with a barbecue sauce as sweet as molasses and balanced by the slightly vinegary, flavorful collard greens.
You get a lot of food here, and the reasonable prices make it tempting to order even more. But I stopped before dessert, though I'm a devoted fan of the Peachtree's creamy and seductively seasoned vanilla-frosted bread pudding — and Keith liked it even more. I suspect that Bonita wished that she'd ordered the bread pudding instead of the sweet-potato pie. "It's good," she said with a smile, "but not as good as mine."
On another night, my dining companion Patrick couldn't believe that the restaurant served soul food. "It's so fancy," he said, "so upscale." Feeling flush, he ordered braised oxtails ("You rarely see that on menus anymore," he whispered) and I chose the braised short ribs. Both are slow-cooked with caramelized onions and a rich beef gravy, and the meat on the short ribs fell of the bone with just the touch of a fork. They were sensual and divine.
Patrick was equally enamored of his meaty oxtail. "My mother used to make this when I was a kid," he said. "But it was never this good."
The Peachtree's short ribs, meanwhile, made me think once again of my grandmother — but they were much better than hers. Now who am I supposed to channel to make them that way at home?