Cafe Reviews

At Livingston's, Don't Presume

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.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet