(THIS RESTAURANT HAS CLOSED) Karlton Harris, chef-owner of the new Cornbread & Caviar in Baldwin, is a master when it comes to putting an elegant spin on homespun Southern and Caribbean-style dishes. His flavors are bold, his presentations colorful. Some may know of Harris as former head chef at B. Smith in Manhattan or as chef-owner of a larger incarnation of Cornbread & Caviar in Baldwin in the late 1990s. At his cozy new eat-in and takeout spot, the food is as classy and compelling as ever.
But service, gracious though it may be, is amateurish. Utensils and dishes, inexplicably, were not included in place settings, each comprised of a goblet and a napkin. One night, our waiter forgot part of our order and took nearly five minutes to equip us with plates and forks. Nonetheless, I ate exceptionally well.
A meal here begins with warm cornbread accompanied by caviar-laced butter. In a setting where the rest room is located through the kitchen and customers often get their drinks from a refrigerator case, Harris' high-style food stands in marked contrast. A friend looked surprised by the eye-catching appetizer called "my friend Ivan," cool slices of smoked salmon topped with herbed sour cream and salmon roe served over potato pancakes. This was a composition as artful as it was delicious, even if the pancakes could have been served hotter. Caribbean curry wings with "spicy rude boy dip" were meaty and nuanced. So, too, were the soy-glazed "Mr. Wu's wings with Hong Kong dip," named for an early mentor of Harris'. I've never been wild about coconut-crusted fried shrimp, but Harris' were remarkably good, served in a martini glass on wooden skewers. The first time I sampled Harris' curried black-eyed pea soup, I was so taken by its hearty depth that I bought a quart to take home. The next time, though, the soup was thin and underseasoned.
Ribs are first-rate here and are served two ways. Carolina "Q" ribs come burnished with a tangy house-made barbecue sauce. Better yet are the jerk ribs, judiciously coated with a potent sauce tasting of Caribbean curry and jerk spices. Both came with a potato salad I found hard to stop eating. "Hotlanta" fried chicken was lightly crusted, served with a fine Georgia peach chutney. The accompanying mac-and-cheese souffle, however, seemed more starchy and solid than its name would imply.
But the hefty slab of spinach-stuffed meat loaf "en croute" with wild mushroom sauce wore only a whisper of puff pastry cloak. This was a deeply savory and surprisingly light-textured loaf served with a homey mountain of garlic mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach. Barbecued salmon was lovely, burnished with Harris' sweet-tangy barbecue sauce, topped with fried oysters and plated with herbed mashed potatoes and charred succotash. I found solace in the tender and flavorful braised oxtail, a Caribbean classic served over curried raisin-flecked rice.
At lunch, a slightly overdressed but nonetheless appealing grilled salmon and spinach salad featured barbecue sauce-glazed salmon cut into chunks and strewn over bright greens, with julienne peppers and toasted pine nuts. I was impressed, too, with a fried catfish sandwich on a delicate brioche bun that was perhaps too delicate, since it fell apart. Its accompaniment of hand-cut mixed sweet and white potato fries would have been ideal had the potatoes been more thoroughly cooked.
Desserts are all house-made. I thought a strawberry mousse too sweet and rich, but a sweet potato cheesecake -- with a thin layer of sweet potato -- was understated and pleasing. I wished that the slightly dry bread pudding had come with more of its promised "sneaky Pete" sauce. A filo-wrapped peach cobbler, while good, could have been crisper. And in the time it took our waiter to get forks and plates, the ice cream on the plate turned to vanilla soup.
Clearly, Harris needs to get a better-trained staff so that his restaurant might realize its full potential. For now, however, epicures with patience will find Cornbread & Caviar a treasure trove.
Reviewed by Joan Reminick, 9/1/06.