Soul meets reggae at Supper Clubb

Restaurant CriticDecember 31, 2004 

The bands don't crank up until 10 most nights at The Supper Clubb, but the vibe of the place can put you in a dance mood regardless of the time of day. Even at lunchtime on a weekday, the gauzy white curtains that separate the art deco dining room from the adjoining lounge glow under black lights, setting a sultry mood that makes it easy to forget it's midday and you have to get back to work.

Early on a Thursday evening, when the dance floor is still empty and the dining room nearly so, tubes of neon hum in anticipation of the impending hip hop-reggae battle, spilling their vibrant light across a retro collage of glass block, black and white tile floors, leather sofas and red velvet club chairs. A little before 8 on a Saturday night, the watercolor portraits of jazz and blues legends on the walls seem to come alive with the growing crowd.

And if the setting doesn't set your feet to tapping, then the split menu of soul food and Caribbean fare will surely get your taste buds dancing. Regardless of which side of the menu you prefer, chances of getting tripped up by an awkward dish are few.

One potential misstep, to get the bad news out of the way, is an appetizer offering of salmon cakes which turn out to be bland and dry. Sidestep these and sashay on over to Bang Bam shrimp, drizzled with a spicy cheese sauce, or to some of the biggest, juiciest, most beautifully crisp-crusted chicken wings you've ever sunk a tooth into.

The bulk of the appetizer list consists of variations on the wing and shrimp themes, most of them Caribbean. Curry wings, their bronze sauce tropically fragrant, are first-rate. Jerk wings are good, too, though they're glazed with a coffee-dark sauce that's thicker and somewhat sweeter than the typical jerk rub. You can have that same sauce on jerk shrimp. Or you can have your shrimp fried in a translucent dusting of breading, or barbecued, or in Calypso pepper shrimp, where they're served up sizzling with onions and bell peppers in a sauce that's so good you'll want to sop it up with the old-fashioned yeast rolls you're served.

If you're in a reggae mood, you should find what you're craving in an entree list that covers the Caribbean spectrum from oxtails slow-cooked in an earthy Jamaican-spiced sauce to whole red snapper escovitch, pan-fried and then simmered with onions, tomatoes, scallions and thyme. Jerk and curry are well-represented, too, with four entree options ranging from jerk chicken to curry goat. If you liked the appetizer riffs on these themes, you'll love the entrees.

But, whatever you do, don't let the generic-sounding name of brown stew chicken steer you away from this toothsome melange of on-the-bone fowl and mushrooms and in a complex, deeply savory sauce.

If your taste runs more to James Brown than to Bob Marley, you'll be happy to know that the soul food entree list is twice as long as the Caribbean list, with options ranging from meatloaf to smothered turkey wings. Fried chicken is every bit as good as the fried wings appetizer might lead you to suspect. If you really want to gild the lily, order your fried chicken smothered in gravy.

You can also get the fried pork chops "smothered," though these are so juicy -- surprisingly so, given that there's nary a trace of pink inside them -- that they don't really need gravy.

Baked chicken can be dry. But fried fish -- whiting or catfish for novices, the bonier and more assertively flavored croaker or porgie for more adventurous palates -- is a winner.

Under the heading of Supper Clubb House Specials, you'll find a couple of dishes long popular in the African-American community, but rarely seen outside the soul food restaurant circuit. One of these serves up fried fish on a bed of spaghetti with a garlicky red sauce; the other, a quartet of those superlative chicken wings around a Belgian waffle, with a carafe of maple syrup on the side. Odd as these combinations sound, once you've tasted them, it isn't hard to understand their enduring popularity.

Same goes for The Supper Clubb's rustic, peppers-and-onions rendition of shrimp and grits -- a dish that had currency in the African-American culture long before it got gussied up and became a signature dish of New Southern cuisine.

With the exception of house specials, soul food entrees are served with your choice of two sides from a list of 16 or so. Don't miss the candied yams or the collards, even if you have to order them a la carte.

Judging by the crowds that have been steadily growing since Cheyenne McDougald opened The Supper Clubb in October last year, the dinner-and-dancing combination fills a much-needed niche in the Triangle night scene. Even for those of us who are charter members of the Two Left Feet Club, it's a welcome addition.

Greg Cox can be reached at ggcox@bellsouth.net

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