When Night of the Cookers opened early last year, the positive buzz had people flocking to the Howard Street restaurant for its upscale Southern cuisine. A few months later, when the chef left, the kitchen went into a tailspin, evidently unable to dazzle diners in the same manner. Then a new chef, Danielle Kposowa, came on board in July with talk of "sexy Southern cuisine," and we knew we had to go back.
Night of the Cookers—in Antique Row near West Read Street—is a fun, lively place to visit. The brasserie-style setting with its handsome bar and chic black-and-white tile and wood floors just resonates hipness. There's a sister restaurant in Brooklyn, New York, that shares the same owner and crazy name. Somehow, the moniker doesn't seem so odd when you find out it comes from a '60s jazz album that so perfectly fits the vibe.
We like the intimacy of the small dining room set away from the bar. Our personable server, who said he was from Georgia, was only too happy to recommend various dishes. Surprisingly, the menu is almost identical to the one we viewed last year.
We started with prettily arranged Low Country egg rolls–an interesting East-meets-South fusion. The Asian wrappers were nicely crisped, though a tad greasy, but were filled with smoky chicken and collard greens and complemented by a sweet chili dipping sauce. We also savored the comforting Southern grits with fat, sassy shrimp. Purists will like that the creamy grits come unadorned by extras. But if we had to choose, the fried, plump oysters over a mound of fries (served in a trendy wire cone) satisfied our craving for something hot, crispy, and down-home.
Of course, we couldn't resist the open-pit barbecue options. You get to choose your meat, sauce, and three sides. No portion control here! But this is where we felt let down. We ordered slow-smoked pulled pork with the "specialty BBQ" sauce, which our server advised us was spicy. Great, we're all about zinginess. But this stuff wouldn't even bring on a nose tickle. Instead, it was cloyingly sweet and masked the tender pork.
We were also confounded by the sides. Ordering them was like a shell game. We asked for braised collard greens, fried green tomatoes, and sweet potato fries. We were told there were no fries. Okay, we're fine with mashed sweet potatoes, we said. But later our waiter reappeared and relayed that the kitchen was also out of fried green tomatoes. Now, we were disappointed. All right, how about green beans? When our dish finally came, we somehow ended up with sweet potato fries after all. But it didn't matter. Our mountain of food had grown unappetizingly tepid and lifeless.
We were much better served by the deliciously delicate, pan-seared rockfish with two grilled Cajun shrimp, crab-and-wild mushroom risotto, and soothing wilted spinach—all properly hot. The Southern fried chicken—a tender half bird—also was succulent and meaty with old-fashioned mac and cheese with good cheddar and piquant collard greens. But, oops, where was the promised milk gravy?
By now, our server was being stretched thin as the crowd in the bar grew and more tables filled up in the dining room. But we're glad we hung around for dessert. If there's one area where the chef really excels, it's with the sweet side of the menu. We were appeased with an intoxicating brandy bread pudding, lush Grand Marnier cheesecake, and bananas Foster (though this doesn't get the customary flambé) with big ball of vanilla ice cream.
Everyone is so pleasant here that you want the restaurant to succeed. With a few tweaks and attention to the pantry stock and food temperature, we think Night of the Cookers could soon be the talk of the town again.
Night of the Cookers, 885 N. Howard St., 410-383-2095. Hours: 5-11 p.m. Wed.-Thurs., 5 p.m.-midnight Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday brunch.