The winter months lend themselves to food that warms the soul. Two of my recent dining experiences are as different as night and day, yet they each offer food from the south that is both hearty and comforting. Gypsy Soul, in Northern Virginia’s Mosaic District, is a chance for Chef RJ Cooper to embrace Southern inspired cooking with a modern twist. Florida Avenue Grill is not only the precursor to Gypsy Soul, but according to their website, to every soul food restaurant in the world.
I am embarrassed to say this is my first visit to Florida Avenue Grill. The restaurant stands much as it did when it opened in 1944, in the U Street Corridor of DC. The stools at the counter are tattered, the autographed celebrity photos that line the walls are decades old. Florida Avenue Grill may be well-worn, but this legendary DC restaurant has withstood the test of time for a reason.
What’s more southern than a heaping plate of fried catfish? The dish couldn’t be more simple, with a crusty exterior giving way to moist pieces of fish. It’s a pleasing antidote to a cold wintry night. The Cajun spices on the fish are subtle, but a healthy dose of hot sauce fixes it right up.
I ponder fried chicken, ribs, or even pork chops but somehow my conscience lands me on “Miss B’s Southern Chicken Salad.” It’s a basic salad with greens and pieces of diced fried chicken. The home-style dinners at Florida Avenue Grill are priced for meat-only, or accompanied by two sides. I supplement my calorie conscious salad with sides of okra and tomatoes, and green beans. The rich sides make up for the lack of flavor in the what-was-I-thinking-when-I-ordered-a-salad.
There is something about vegetables that are stewed or roasted until they are a soft mush, that brings childhood to mind. I would complain about the preparation in a different venue. Here they are exactly what I expect, and I wouldn’t want them any other way.
As we enjoy the last bites of dinner, the lone server is making gestures that clearly signify he’s more than ready to head home. Dessert isn’t really necessary after a few bites of sweet, sweet candied yams. Still, I wish I had the nerve to delay his departure, and ours, by ordering a slice of pie. I hope to return to the historic Florida Avenue Grill soon for pie and some of their famous pancakes.
Gypsy Soul is the antithesis to Florida Avenue Grill. Sleek and modern, loud and suburban, the vast open kitchen showcases a busy team of cooks preparing dishes like chicken fried quail, field raised veal breast, and lamb neck confit. Here the catfish is served with black valentine beans and crawfish butter.
There’s one dish at Gypsy Soul that I am hell-bent on ordering. The chicken skins on the “pantry snacks” portion of the menu have been lovingly photographed and written about, and what has led me here in the first place. What’s not to love about fried chicken cracklins drizzled with honey and sprinkled with cayenne? This dish is sinfully delightful, and nearly as good the next day, if you happen to have any leftovers. (I have to conquer this dish on my own, which is why a few bites remain.)
One of my favorite Southern dishes is shrimp and grits. I’m a fan of the Gypsy Soul version, which is lighter on the grits than other renditions I’ve had. I admire the balance of shrimp, andouille sausage, and pearl onions and just the right level of heat.
A dish that misses the mark is farro verde with roasted pumpkin, sage and mascarpone. The grains are undercooked, and therefore difficult to eat. My husband expresses his dissatisfaction- something he rarely does- and is somewhat placated by the delivery of a complimentary apple tart.
There is something soul-satisfying about patronizing an institution like Florida Avenue Grill. The food and atmosphere represent a culinary history that is important to preserve. Gypsy Soul is the next generation of Southern cuisine, honoring tradition and at the same time forging a new path. Both restaurants offer their own brand of unique Southern comfort.
Florida Avenue Grill, 1100 Florida Avenue, NW, Washington, DC
Washington Post review of Florida Avenue by Tim Carman: “A survivor that’s missing its soul”
Gypsy Soul, 8296 Glass Ally, Fairfax, Virginia
Washingtonian 2015 100 Very Best Restaurants, #35
Washington Post review of Gypsy Soul by Tom Sietsema: “R.J. Cooper brings a wanderer’s touch and Southern flair”
Washingtonian review of Gypsy Soul by Todd Kliman: “Chef/Owner RJ Cooper Puts Down the Tweezers and Gets Back to his Pork-Loving, Deep-Frying Roots”