Soul Kitchen: Ida B's Table brings done-up soul food and Southern hospitality to downtown

I first visited Ida B's Table (235 Holliday St., [410] 844-0444, idabstable.com) during the soft opening back in September while I was on my one-hour lunch break from my first-ever jury duty. I hadn't been selected, and ultimately would not be, though my entire panel was required to remain at the courthouse from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. By the early afternoon, it was already clear I would not be dismissed for a while. The film shown in the panel waiting room: "Spider-Man 2" (Tobey Maguire, god help us). And on my way to the courthouse earlier that morning, my Lyft driver and I narrowly escaped a major accident on that particularly unruly curve of 83—we were grateful for our luck but nonetheless perturbed. It was not a good day; already I had accrued a couple minor though unnerving traumas. I felt bloodshot all over.

I think this was apparent when I arrived at Ida B's, my "JUROR" sticker haphazardly stuck to my shirt and my eyes half-open from waking up too early though darting anxiously as I tried to process how much of my life would be sucked up by the courthouse—I'm sure I looked insane. The staff could handle insane. Understanding my tight schedule, they quickly seated me by Ernest Shaw Jr.'s high-key portraits of Ida B. Wells and Paul Robeson (Nina Simone greeted me at the door) and brought me much-needed coffee ($2.50) right away. The host primed me on jury duty survival based on her extensive experience, and I soon felt more at ease.

Southern hospitality is to be expected of a restaurant serving up everything from shrimp and grits to fried chicken and catfish to frog legs. Ida B's bills itself as "modern soul food" which seems appropriate given that the menu includes done-up international elements, like the Southern sushi (that's dirty rice with blackened chicken and pickled vegetables packaged in collards, $6), octopus po' boy sliders (served with chipotle slaw and sweet potato remoulade, $9), and Southern Seoul Reuben (kimchi subbed in for kraut, $10). The space reflects that approach too: An ornamental iron gate partitioning one area and polished silver on the windowsills provide distinctly Southern accents to sleek design—glossy countertops, metallic tiles framing the kitchen window, concrete columns, and dark hardwood floors stretching across ample seating.

I had my eye on the fry bread tacos ($6 for one, $11 for two), because despite living in their country, I rarely encounter food rooted in Native American cuisine—you know, unless it's been entirely co-opted and presented without credit to its origins. On his Instagram, Chef David Thomas, who runs Ida B's along with his wife Tonya (both formerly of the now-closed Herb & Soul in Parkville), nods to his Blackfoot grandmother with a photo of the tacos. Now, at risk of sounding hyperbolic and perhaps swayed by my mental state at the time, those tacos were in danger of coming in contact with my tears; after more visits, they're still my favorite item on the menu. Thicker and crispier than a tortilla, the chewy fry bread was nonetheless flexible and strong enough to pocket the juicy chicken (alternative proteins are beef and lamb), sweet curry aioli, grilled veggies, mozzarella, lettuce, and tomato without falling apart. Altogether the package hit the right mix of salty and sweet, and the fillings were light and fresh enough that I could convince myself that this was wholesome eating despite being contained in deep-fried carbs—reason enough to get a side of handcut fries; $3 for one of those cute little deep fryer baskets.

Note that Ida B's could charge more for this stuff if they wanted to, like this city's other stylish, farm-sourced restaurants that stretch the definition of "reasonably priced," but that would be inappropriate for an enterprise named after a Georgist civil rights activist with a menu anchored in cuisine that was borne out of impoverished communities. The entrees on Ida B's dinner menu (which I have yet to try) do skew high, with the most expensive item, the Gulf Coast bouillabaisse, priced at $32. But the breakfast, brunch, and lunch menus are considerably cheaper and all menus offer a range of small to large plates filling enough to fit different budgets. By the way, in a gesture to both their journalist namesake and their location at the Real News Network, menus are divided into "first copy" (muffins and pastries), "op-eds" (soups and salads), "leads" (appetizers), "by-lines" (sandwiches), "headlines" (breakfast sandwiches), "sidebar" (sides, obviously), "features" (mains), and "final edits" (dessert)—a little hokey and pretty convoluted for sure. With the name, the portrait, the location, and the Wells quote "The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them" emblazoned on the wall, the tribute is clear enough.

My second visit was under more leisurely circumstances than the first, with friends in tow to help me sample multiple offerings from the brunch menu. Intent on doing nothing else that Sunday, my partner ordered from the bar a blackjack ($10)—scotch and amaro with cold brew coffee, black walnut, and cloves served over ice; a deep flavor with a slight kick. It was rather sweet, maybe too sweet for most scotch drinkers, but for brunch, it felt right. Since it's on the bar's regular drink menu, I don't think it was intended as primarily a morning beverage, but it should be—and anyway, as the glass made the rounds for us all taste, CP Visual Arts Editor Rebekah Kirkman accurately noted that it smelled like orange juice.

From there we dug into the pastry board ($6), which included sweet corn muffins, buttery biscuits, and slices of some kind of sugary, spiced bread—better yet was the accompanying molasses butter. Also, the yardbird ($5), one of four elegantly presented "breakfast cobblers" (under "exclusives" on the menu) on offer. This one was stuffed with blackened chicken, roasted red peppers, and mozzarella, all cooked into fluffy egg and dense buttermilk biscuit dough.

Though altogether the above made a filling morning meal, we were feeling ambitious, so we moved on to larger plates—features, as it were. Fortunately my order of pain perdu ($9), basically french toast with caramelized apples and little chunks of pork belly, was served in a fairly modest portion. The same can't really be said for my partner's chicken and waffles ($9)—nor should it ever be—which boasted a thick sweet potato waffle topped with a flakey wing and breast (dark meat also available). Both dishes were served with fragrant rosemary maple syrup and satisfied our mutual cravings for combined sugar and salt. But our friend's brisket benedict ($13) was the winner of the table, with its peppery red-eye gravy, tangy kale, and fried egg spilling over tender beef and a buttery biscuit.

Fittingly enough, as I looked out the window while we finished up a meal that we might as well have ordered in Louisiana, I noticed the sign marking the shuttered Bourbon Street nightclub on Guilford, a muted slip of red in an otherwise gray corner of downtown. Especially with the club closed, that sign always felt ironic overlooking an area that couldn't feel further from the boisterous heart of New Orleans. But through the window at Ida B's, where seats were filling up with families and couples and artists and activists I recognized from around, sipping coffee and passing plates of fried chicken, Bourbon Street's suggestion of life felt right.

Ida B's Table is open from 7 a.m.-9 p.m. (closed 3-4 p.m.) on Tuesday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-11 p.m. (closed 3-5 p.m.) on Friday, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. (closed 3-5 p.m.) on Saturday, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. on Sunday. The restaurant is closed on Monday.

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