Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Southern accents

Posted By on Wed, Jun 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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I was in Baker's Keyboard Lounge a while ago, preparing to enjoy the opening set in America's oldest jazz club, when I noticed that a large party at an adjacent table had paid their check and had begun departing — before the music started. They had come to the 74-year-old establishment for dinner, not for world-class jazz! Although I would not advocate leaving before a performance, Baker's classic Southern cuisine at rock-bottom prices is certainly an attraction.

In 1996, Juanita Jackson and John Colbert took over the legendary club on Livernois Avenue just south of Eight Mile Road from Clarence Baker, who had personally hosted the likes of George Shearing, Art Tatum, Errol Garner, Dave Brubeck and John Coltrane over an incredible 57 years. The new owners did little to change the cozy interior, with its keyboard-shaped bar (which allegedly inspired Liberace to construct his piano-shaped pool) and intimate 110-seat room.

Intimate indeed. The tables and booths are so close together that you soon find yourself dining with a bunch of new friends. And since Baker's accepts reservations only for large parties, you will have limited freedom to select your own seat if you arrive too close to showtime.

When the show begins at 8 p.m. on weekdays and at 9:30 p.m. on the weekends, the lights are dimmed to a point where menu-reading becomes difficult. You might think about taking a look at the menu on the website in advance to prepare for this eventuality. Here, the servers deserve kudos for gracefully making their way in the dark through the impossibly narrow aisles to unerringly deliver the correct platters to the correct tables.

"Juanita's Staff" is the group that turns out the traditional Southern cuisine. On a recent occasion, two former Mississippians, whom we brought along to evaluate its authenticity, compared it favorably to that of the renowned Beacon in Oxford, Miss.

Most of the dinners, which include two substantial sides, range in price from $9 to $12. Baker's fried chicken is unusually light and crisp on the outside and moist and juicy on the inside. The same holds true for the signature catfish dinner, although I wish I had as much catfish on my plate as my partner had chicken on hers. But that is a minor quibble.

Fried pork chops, which sometimes tend to dry out, is another test for a Southern kitchen. Again, the jazz club's chops were remarkably succulent beneath another light batter. Moving away from fried fare, the old-fashioned turkey dinner may a bit healthier, although the accompanying rich stuffing is calorie-laden.

Other avian options, all of which come with a corn muffin, are four or six chicken wings, baked chicken, chicken strip salad and, for the few who might desire them, chicken livers and gizzards. Aside from the aforementioned pork chops, meat entrées begin with a lowly cheeseburger and fries, and move on to meatloaf, barbecued ribs and a T-bone steak. Among the marine life are pickerel, perch, whiting and salmon patties.

One of the best parts of a meal at Baker's is trying to determine what two sides to order among a host of winners. The coleslaw is crunchy and creamy, the yams especially sweet and the corn niblets are subtly seasoned. If you are looking for vegetables al dente, you will be better off with the pinto beans or the black-eyed peas than the overcooked green beans. Of course, the green beans are purposefully prepared in that fashion in the Southern kitchen.

That does not exhaust the comes-with choices. Recommended as well are the collard greens, the creamy mac and cheese, and the potato salad. Dressing, rice, cabbage, and mashed or baked potatoes round out the array of sides. And in the unlikely event that two are not enough, you can order an additional one for $3. But don't make that one the undistinguished tossed salad.

The homey Baker's is not Seldom Blues. The vague wine list is very brief and inexpensive with, for example, a Kendall Jackson merlot marked up to a quite-reasonable-for-a-nightclub $25. Ditto the $4 beer. If you aren't eating dinner, there is a two-drink minimum for the show.

For dessert, go for the huge goblet of warm peach cobbler smothered with a mound of vanilla ice cream ($5). Without our asking for them, our prescient server brought spoons for every member of our foursome, even though three had begged off dessert.

The same menu is available for lunch at prices $1 to $2 lower than at dinner and with specials such as six wings and two sides for only $7. Needless to say, there is no live lunchtime concert when Baker's becomes just a restaurant. It is closed only on Mondays. Sunday is a special day devoted to "jazz for kids" from 2 to 5 p.m. along with a regular concert at 7 p.m.

Considering that American jazz is of Southern origin, it makes a good deal of sense for the kitchen at Baker's Keyboard Lounge to present the perfect accompaniment to help transport patrons to the Delta. And even without the music, its well-prepared dishes can accomplish that task on their own.

Mel Small teaches history at Wayne State University. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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