It’s a teaching restaurant. That was a little scary for me to hear when Kitchen on George opened a few years ago. As a part of Culinard, the Culinary Institute of Virginia College, I admit I had my mind set that if students were cooking, expediting and waiting tables, then my best bet would be to wait until the end of each semester.
I reviewed them a couple of years ago and had a fantastic meal with few complaints. I’d occasionally drop by for dinner and drinks and as a result, had some of the best meals I’ve had in this city. Then one day it happened. With the kids out of town a few summers ago, I stopped in for what should have been a romantic brunch, but instead turned out to be one of the biggest disasters of any place I’d ever eaten. How could a restaurant go from serving dinners where I shamelessly licked the plates to serving an entire brunch where I could not finish one item? It was so bad I had to stifle the hunger pangs at the movie theater afterward with overpriced candy and a tub of popcorn that in comparison to my meal was a delicacy.
It took the better part of a year for the wounds to heal and some heavy convincing from friends before I agreed to return to Kitchen on George. But ever since, they have certainly gotten their ducks in a row, confit or otherwise. Now the jewel of the Oakleigh Garden District is firing on all cylinders with the hiring of nationally recognized Chef Gillian Clark.
We met with General Manager Craig Parker and Chef Clark just after the hire a few months ago and found the team delightful. Clark is quite the storyteller and hails from the New York area. Her story is less about pedigree or learning at grandma’s side (her “grandma stories” reveal quite the character, but not a stellar cook), but is rather the tale of a self-made chef who studied the French style at the L’Academie de Cuisine, from which she graduated in 1995.
Maybe you’ve seen her restaurants in the greater Washington, D.C., area. Possibly you’ve caught one of her segments on NPR’s Weekend Edition. You might have gotten a dose of her wit and intelligence from her blog on the Huffington Post. Maybe that wit found its way to you via “Out of the Frying Pan,” which is part cookbook and part memoir. However you may have been exposed to Chef Clark, you will instantly recognize a certain charm and humor that is not at all Southern, but welcomed just the same.
“It’s hard to believe a daughter of Panamanian immigrants raised on Long Island knows more about matzo balls and knish than she does about chitterlings and pig’s feet,” Clark writes in her blog.
She claims no ties to soul food, instead relying heavily on her French training. She goes on to confess she never had grits until she was a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University.
Ties to soul food or not, she’s got kung fu. Clark defeated one of the Food Network’s hottest stars for a fried chicken winner-take-all on “Throwdown with Bobby Flay!” That same recipe is being served at KOG Monday through Friday on the lunch menu. I had to try it.
It was a boys’ day out with Rob, Steve Hall, Mr. Bubble and myself rolling up to the corner of George and Savannah. Some kid was dancing down the sidewalk doing an incredible and uninhibited Michael Jackson impersonation sans glove, so I knew this was going to be a good lunch.
We arrived within minutes of each other and I got the party started with appetizers. Tempura fried okra ($7) is a plate full of joy. This simple but must-have appetizer comes with a ponzu soy dipping sauce with a sweet citrus flavor.
The crawfish stuffed mirliton ($11) I admit was ordered for my benefit, but Rob also partook. For those unfamiliar, the mirliton is a little bit like a squash with a decent amount of sweetness. This particular one was stuffed with trinity and tails in a creamy roux base. The vegetable was sturdy and the sauce delicious.
As a couple of us fumbled over which entrée to order, the descriptions eventually won everybody over. Four orders of fried chicken ($15 each) were soon on their way. Each came with nine ounces of chicken (three mixed pieces) with a side of collard greens and a large chunk of yellow cornbread.
The collards were sweet, as was the cornbread. I powered through both, but that wasn’t the reason for the visit. The fried chicken was worth the trip. My particular combination was breast, wing and leg. Truth be known, I’d prefer two-to-one dark over two-to-one white, but I don’t regret being less specific. I started with the breast and worked my way to the leg. Even the white meat was succulent as can be. This batter is more “original recipe” than “extra crispy,” to put it in popular terms, but don’t consider it a bad thing. In the fried chicken world it is definitely a horse of a different color, delicious all the same.
Though Chef Gillian Clark makes no claims to being a soul food expert, she definitely knocks it out of the park with this classic.
With a couple of decades of experience at all levels of the business, this diamond in the rough can be a little more diamond and a little less rough, no matter what week of the semester you visit.
Kitchen on George
351-A George St.
Mobile, Alabama 36604