At Livingston's, Don't Presume

To live and diet: Executive chef Christopher Williams creates almost healthful soul food at Livingston's.
Erik Guzowski

I've heard of a disturbing movement toward making soul food healthful. There are recipes circulating from a group of Phoenix cooks who are adapting traditional recipes to make them lower in fat and less sweet. These people are crafting mustard greens and black-eyed peas with smoked turkey instead of salt pork. They're replacing the sour cream in pound cake with egg whites and yogurt. Coleslaw is tossed with low-fat mayonnaise, and baked yams have been stripped of their classic butter-and-brown-sugar crust, relying strictly on the natural sweetness of the starch.

Aagh! What's the point? Common sense tells us we can't eat traditional soul food every day, unless we want our bodies to become quivering Jell-O molds of gravy, pork fat, butter and greasy batter. Reality, though, reminds us that our bodies are programmed to crave beautiful, delicious, glorious fat. Besides, the very essence of soul food is its over-the-top indulgence -- without it, we're eating nothing more than ordinary chicken, catfish, pork chops and ribs.

Healthful eating is a great thing, of course, and often very tasty, but leave soul food alone -- please. This African-American cuisine is special-occasion dining, to be savored, swooned over, then followed by a week of strict dieting.

People who don't agree are the ones snacking on entire pints of sugar-free (ugh) ice cream, instead of allowing just one toe-trembling spoonful of what they really want: ultra-premium, high-butterfat French vanilla. They're also the ones who will go to Livingston's, a new soul food restaurant in Scottsdale that strives to maintain the classic cuisine while stripping it of the sinful stuff. Though Livingston's serves up plenty of satisfying, well-prepared Southern-style meals, frankly, I'd rather eat smaller portions, and eat less often, in order to enjoy the real thing.

At Livingston's, it's possible to eat a full dinner, including appetizer, entree, two sides and dessert, then walk out feeling comfortable. A caption on the menu suggests that portions are small, but they're not. The we're-not-stuffed effect comes from thinner gravies, beer (rather than fat) to give batters flavor, and vegetables cooked with poultry instead of pork. There's no lard to be found, and very little butter, just 100 percent canola oil.

The low-fat attack was bound to happen, given the increasing popularity of soul food in the Valley. Once limited to a handful of tiny shops, mostly concentrated in downtown and south Phoenix, the cuisine has spread from M&G Soul Food at 43rd Avenue and Olive in Glendale to Di & Ty's Cafe, which also opened a few months ago at Fourth Street and Roosevelt, featuring specialties like chitterlings, jerk chicken, spiced lemonade and red velvet cake.

Livingston's owner, Rory Grimes, says he considers Scottsdale the perfect place for the latest soul food invasion. The area is trendy, he notes, and the people are willing to try food from every ethnic background. Most downtown Phoenix soul food shops also close for dinner, leaving a void his place is happy to fill (Livingston's is open until 11 nightly, and serves a limited menu until 2:30 a.m. on weekends). Finally, Scottsdale is notably upscale, drawn to his higher-class setting with white tablecloth service and live music, he says.

Is he right? In some instances, yes. Offering soul food in Scottsdale is a great idea, and Livingston's plays to a fairly full house of aficionados. The menu is higher class than most other soul food shops, with a fine selection of grilled shrimp, seafood gumbo (stocked with whole crab legs, shrimp and Cajun sausage), plus an enticing chicken-and-waffles combo of fried drummettes over Belgian pastry. There's probably even a strong market here for Livingston's lower-calorie cooking.

But Livingston's still has fine-tuning to do. Servers clearly aren't ready for an upscale operation, shrugging their shoulders when asked specifics about the menu, bringing appetizers at the same time as entrees, resting large plastic tubs of dirty dishes on neighboring tables while they bus. Decor is schizophrenic -- part stylish African art; part weird grotto with rock walls painted in orange and glittery gold, including a cove ceiling plastered with the same funky stone. A manager wanders the room handsomely costumed in a smashing tailored suit, but table centerpieces are beverage glasses stuck with a solitary plastic rose.

The food doesn't reach high-level expectations, either. Quality careens from wretched to wonderful, a surprising dichotomy considering executive chef Christopher Williams holds a degree from the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, and has more than two decades of restaurant experience -- including a recent gig at Kincaid's in Phoenix. Part of the problem comes from varying standards of ingredients, and part from sometimes careless cooking.

Until it all balances out, Livingston's would do well to bring on the fat. With original soul food as it appeared in America, fat could fix anything, and it still pretty much can. Remember that slaves were tossed only the leftover cuts of meat and the throwaway vegetables, like the tops of turnips and beets. They also learned to make do with dandelions and the weedlike collards, kale, cress, mustard and poke greens. Salvation came from burying dishes in buckets of hog lard and skin cracklings.  

Certainly Livingston's isn't using leftover food; the point is that a lackluster piece of poultry could be redeemed pretty well by judicious applications of thick, creamy, rich gravy instead of the whispery brown liquid we get here. Presented in virtually naked glory, Livingston's fare could be much better.

Sometimes, the light touch works beautifully, as it does with an appetizer of catfish nuggets. Six long strips of moist fish are crisp-edged in peppery cornmeal. The menu says the nuggets come with ranch dressing, but fortunately we get tartar sauce, a spectacular from-scratch concoction that's chunky with bits of chopped vegetables. Served as an entree, the fish is even better -- larger parceling as a fillet helps it retain more juices.

Beer-battered fried shrimp are admirably meaty and greaseless, while Southern fried chicken is a dieter's dream. A half-bird is marinated, seasoned, floured and deep-fried to a beautiful golden brown. It leans to dry, but there's no faulting the lack of guilt I feel after polishing off a plate. Beer-battered chicken breast arrives more juicy and tinged with sin.

Meat loaf survives any recipe tinkering, the hearty slabs stuffed with chopped onion and green pepper, ladled in spicy tomato sauce. The texture is perfect. And the brisket is welcome on my table any time, though it's priced a bit dear at $10.95. The meat has obviously spent lots of time blossoming from cow to cuisine, the thick ribbons tender and edged with just enough crispy marbling to sparkle. (Skip the side of barbecue sauce, though; this recipe is more of a fruity thick marmalade.)

Some dishes have potential, but without oceans of gravy, there's no way to hide their faults. I'm really wanting to love the smothered pork chops, lightly breaded and piled high. I'm encouraged by the first taste of golden, exquisitely salty gravy stocked with fresh mushrooms. The meat, though, falls apart to the point of being squishy. The same fate befalls smothered chicken, a watery and exhausted mess of tasteless poultry swaddled in a bland coverlet of onion-flecked brown gravy.

The Southern fried steak hints of taste had it not been so mercilessly overcooked. The thin strip of meat is barely chewable, slopped with onion gravy instead of the promised country-style cream sauce.

Some sides are truly fetching, such as collard greens, cooked with smoked turkey instead of my favorite pork, but able to hold their own thanks to expert handling (the tart, macho leaves are taken from the stove at just the right moment of al dente and broth). Dirty rice mixed with shards of chicken announces its arrival with gusts of torrid black pepper, and okra casserole basks in a graceful blend of fresh tomato, onion and corn. Fried cabbage remains healthful in that it appears to be sautéed, the humble green leaves plush with their own seasoned liquor. Yams, while missing the tasty sidekicks of butter and brown sugar, do get energy from sprinkles of pumpkin pie seasoning.

But other sides -- mashed potatoes, and macaroni and cheese -- aren't what they should be. Sometimes the potatoes are creamy white, studded with lots of black pepper. Sometimes they're chunkier, tasting of puréed potato jacket. Never are they the rich, butter-bloated luxury I expect from soul food. Macaroni and cheese simply needs more, much more, cheese.

Beer-battered corn isn't something on everyday menus, and I'm not sure what to expect. The cobbette gets oddly chewy under an oily batter, the kernels absorbing so much beer there's little other flavor. Black-eyed peas show up severely mushy, and the potato salad is outright awful, studded with chunks of raw white potato in a pasty pond of light mayo, egg, pickle and peppers.

Even that Southern staple, corn bread, stumbles. Sometimes it's spent too long in a pan, and it's dried and oddly greasy on top. Other times, it's collapsed and, while still fresh, textured like a cross between Melba toast and cake. The only thing that would bring this baby back is butter, and lots of it.

In what's surely a stretch for Scottsdale crowds, Livingston's sparks up its menu with fearless favorites like pig feet, neck bones and ox tail stew (in slave days, every bit of an animal was used, including ears, snouts, tails and intestines). Though ox tail has a livery, goat-meat-like flavor, it's competently crafted here alongside chunks of carrot, onion and celery in a peppery, beefy brown broth.  

Happily, Livingston's doesn't pull any healthful tricks with dessert -- pound cake is plump and buttery, glazed with a sugar-shocked white icing. Peach cobbler, served warm, sings with cinnamon, spice, cling peaches and seductively sweet flaky pastry.

I never thought I'd see the day that someone would try to make soul food as good for the body as it is for the spirit. It seems kind of sacrilegious. It's not for me. But for today's more careful lifestyles, Livingston's lower-fat cuisine definitely has its niche covered.

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