Tom Sietsema: At Carolina Kitchen, southern-fried sweetness governs cooking, greeting

When I strolled into the new Carolina Kitchen at Brentwood’s Rhode Island Row, my immediate impulse was to spin around and find another fix for whiting. While the Southern-style restaurant, the fourth from owner Lance London, talks a good game about freshness, the sight of a wall of industrial-size Campbell’s Soup cans stacked in front of its open kitchen suggests a factory-to-table approach.

Care to explain, Mr. London? His reply is swift and reassuring: “I love Andy Warhol,” who turned a can of tomato soup into high art with his iconic 1962 painting of a familiar household brand. As if anticipating the next question, the restaurateur says, “All our soups are homemade.” When London reached out to Campbell’s, asking for empty tins for his design, the company wanted him to pay for them; after the food giant discovered how much business he was doing at his establishments of the same name in Largo and Hyattsville, Campbell’s sent the cans for free. London now counts 3,000 in his inventory.

That soup can stockade competes for attention with a lot of other design elements. London, who created the look of his 180-seat, $6 million restaurant, packs the interior with merry-go-round horses here, posters of jazz artists there. “Carolina meets Vegas,” says the owner, a dapper, bow-tied presence. The walls display enough musical instruments to outfit an orchestra, enough clocks to suggest Bulova is a sponsor.

The whimsy throughout the restaurant, which opened in March, is part of the entrepreneur’s strategy for repeat business. “I want customers to see something different every time they come.” And so they do. It wasn’t until my third visit that I looked up at the glowing yellow lights of the curved ceiling, in a dining room called “the tunnel,” and felt as if I were eating in a giant jukebox.

Carolina Kitchen offers both carry-out and sit-down service. Make your wish known, and you’ll be shown to either the queue in front of the kitchen and its spread of comfort food, or a seat in one of four dining rooms.

The owner is also the chef. London was born in Washington but grew up in North Carolina, where he learned how to cook from his grandmother, Ma Pearl, and his father, Otis London. Some of the recipes at his restaurant are his relatives’; others are his own creations. Testing originates in his home kitchen in Timonium, Md., where he came up with the idea for grilled hot dogs lavished with barbecue sauce and melted cheddar cheese and delivered inside a potato roll.

“Welcome, welcome, welcome!” is a phrase you hear over and over and over at Carolina Kitchen, be it on the phone, at the host stand or in line for lunch or dinner to carry out. London says the greeting goes back to the day he opened his first restaurant (now closed) in Silver Spring in 1996. Overwhelmed by the crowds enticed in part by coupons he had distributed ahead of time, he found that all he could do to calm his nerves and contain chaos was to “Welcome ... welcome, welcome!” everybody. His staff picked up on the cry, and the three words stuck. Cheer reigns at Carolina Kitchen.

Some days, however, I’d trade a few smiles for speed, as the night when drinks come out individually and even the corn bread makes it ahead of a friend’s ginger ale. “This is the pace of the Pentagon,” grouses a contractor who would know. We forget about the timing when the jerk wings show up. A flock apart, these plump specimens, sprinkled with diced bell peppers, resonate with allspice and other warm notes.

Green tomatoes are among five vegetable starters that take a dip in a fryer before you see them. The slices are crisp, juicy and freckled with Parmesan on their surface. Another abundant starter could make a light meal: sturdy kale tossed with creamy avocado and dressed with grill-singed shrimp, their bowl rimmed with diced sweet potato. The salad is a song from the South.

Carolina Kitchen’s portions are strapping, as if leftovers are a God-given right. The richest example is Creole salmon, a $35 main course that dresses the signature fish with crab meat and grilled shrimp and a pleasant cream sauce. The construction rises from a base of skin-on garlic mashed potatoes, one of the kitchen’s best side dishes.

Whiting, a staple of Washington soul food menus, emerges from the fryer thin, crisp and with a tease of cayenne. The fish, similar in taste to cod, can barely be contained on its big white plate, which somehow also fits in two sides, tangy collard greens and a soft scoop of macaroni and cheese. Yet another reason to line up here is fried chicken, which, like all the “home-style meals” comes with a choice of two accompaniments. (Don’t bother with the watery mixed vegetables or the bland white rice.) Blackened catfish stays moist beneath its not-too-burning spices, while grilled pork chops demonstrate inconsistency. One thin piece of meat has juice, the second is dry.

“If it’s got passion in it,” says London,“it’s going to come out great every time.” If his theory is true, whoever made some of my meals needs an attitude adjustment. Beef ribs in a thick, coffee-colored barbecue sauce flag a problem in the kitchen: A lot of the food here is too sweet. In the case of the ribs, both the sauce and the baked beans, a side dish option, detract from the pleasure with overdoses of sugar and cinnamon, respectively. Potato salad, a side dish, smacks of having originated in the pastry kitchen, and “firecracker” shrimp, an appetizer, emphasizes crunch over heat. Even the meatloaf is off balance, more sweet than savory.

Desserts are Southern traditions, fancied up with stripes of sauces or, in the case of the banana pudding, presented in a martini glass. The nutmeg-spiced sweet potato gets kudos for tasting more of squash than sugar. Cake comes in multiple flavors — pineapple-coconut, red velvet, carrot — all slick with a ringer for Crisco frosting.

Dinner is put on pause one night as a band of servers forms a line and shimmies over to a table with a birthday celebrant. London says he teaches his staff six different ways to congratulate someone on a special occasion, so if there are multiple honorees, they all feel special.

Abundant enthusiasm can’t smooth over every misfire at Carolina Kitchen, but the feeling goes a long way toward building on a brand and making diners feel welcome, welcome, welcome.

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THE SCOOP

Location: 2350 Washington Pl. NE. 202-733-1216.www.thecarolinakitchen.com.

Open: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday
and Saturday.

Prices: Appetizers $6 to $17, main courses $11 to $39.

Sound check: 76 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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