I was a great fan of Herb & Soul restaurant in Parkville before it closed two years ago, where chef David Thomas was serving creative Southern soul food sourced from local farms.
Now he's doing the same thing at Ida B's Table, his newest endeavor, which opened in late August. He is partnering with the Real News Network, a nonprofit news service, in its downtown building.
The restaurant's name honors Ida B. Wells, a 19th-century African-American journalist and activist. Her portrait, by Baltimore artist Ernest Shaw Jr., hangs prominently in the dining room, along with powerful images of actor Paul Robeson and chanteuse Nina Simone.
The space projects warmth and modernity with brick walls, wood tables, gleaming metallic tiles and hanging lights with beige drum shades. It's a stylish setting that's suited to Thomas' contemporary take on a cuisine he champions.
He's passionate about paying homage to the influence of Native, African- and Asian-Americans with his cooking.
"I want to, at least, usher in this new look at Southern food," Thomas said.
But you can certainly peruse the menu without contemplating the region's diaspora. In a nod to Wells' career, it is divided into sections by journalistic terms, like leads (appetizers), features (entrees) and final edits (desserts). Several of the dishes are tucked into bowls lined with pseudo newspaper pages, continuing the theme.
The beverage list is more prosaic, with a lineup of wine, beer and libations. The sophisticated cocktails include creations like "the seventh son" with gin, berries and lavender, and "I hear a symphony" with vodka, fruit juice, Campari and sparkling wine.
We're not sure how the kitchen calculates the breadbasket, but we ended up with one biscuit and two rolls for four people. We didn't mind sharing, but what if someone doesn't want to split one?
Our waitress was a charmer with her wit and diligence. She was a highlight of a meal that started with some bumps.
We knew we had to have the Herb & Soul rolls, a popular dish at the shuttered restaurant. Similar to egg rolls, these overcooked wraps weren't as wonderful as we remembered. They were filled mostly with Liberian greens (a cooked savory mix) with little evidence of the promised pulled jerk chicken or candied yams.
We were also disappointed with the fried green tomatoes. The coating on the tomato slices fell off into chunks, along with the sprinkling of bacon bits, before a forkful could even reach the terrific comeback sauce (a classic Southern dip similar to remoulade).
We were ready to order the Southern sushi (dirty rice and blackened chicken wrapped in collard greens) as a starter, only to find out the kitchen was out of it. But our substitute turned out to be one of our favorite dishes.
The sustainably sourced buttermilk-fried frog legs were huge, mouthwatering delicacies. And, yes, they tasted like chicken. They were even better dunked into comeback sauce.
The deviled egg trio delivered dynamic, creamy yolks in their white orbs. Each was garnished with a different topper — crispy chicken skin, pork belly or pickled vegetables — giving it a flavor boost.
The kitchen really showed its prowess with our entrees, but we had to make another switch when we found out it didn't have trout that night.
The grilled Carolina pork chop was a marvelous replacement. The 10-ounce whopper was thick and juicy with grill marks tattooed on its exterior.
Its sidekicks — roasted heirloom carrots and Carolina Gold rice perloo (an indigenous long-grain rice cooked with aromatic vegetables) — complemented the dish.
The Old Bay fried chicken was another surviving recipe from Herb & Soul. It was crispy and delicious. (We messed up by ordering two pieces, which were small. Next time, we'll go for a half chicken. ) The platter came with a buttermilk biscuit as big as a baby's head, enticing molasses butter and two sides. Our choices were Liberian greens and dirty rice. Both were satisfying, generous portions.
The pan-seared blue catfish, with a sweet curry sauce glazing the fish and the plate, paired well with a hoppin' John (black-eyed peas) succotash.
A beef short rib, draped over a root-vegetable mash, was an engaging comfort-food meal. The slow-braised hunk of tender meat was painted with bourbon-peppercorn cream gravy and dotted with fried shallots.
The Mississippi mud pot de creme almost caused a scuffle at our table as we fought each other to dig our spoons into a jar layered with a lush chocolate cookie crust, chocolate cream, pecans, pretzel bits and whipped cream.
The lemon chess hand pie was reminiscent of a deluxe Pop-Tart, but this house-made version boasted a delicate, flaky crust and a tart custard filling that was far removed from anything store-bought.
A scoop of local butter-pecan Taharka Brothers ice cream was a soothing ending to our meal.
Chef Thomas and his crew are bringing an exciting interpretation of Southern cooking to Ida B's Table, which also serves breakfast (do try the dirty South frittata) and lunch. I like its new soul.
Ida B’s Table
Rating: 3 stars
Where: 235 Holliday St., downtown
Contact: 410-844-0444, idabstable.com
Open: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers, $5-$9; entrees, $12-$45 (the latter for a whole chicken that serves two to four).
Food: Modern soul food
Noise/TVs: The mild chatter among diners suits the room; two TVs in the bar area, one in a private dining room.
Service: Our waitress was pleasant and helpful.
Parking: Street and garage
Special diets: Can accommodate.
Reservation policy: Accepts reservations.
Handicap accessible: Yes
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]