Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Jean Albert's American Style Soul Food ~ Hallville, ON (Near Ottawa)

[Note: Jean Albert's has moved to 495 Somerset St. W Ottawa]

I've been wanting to go to Jean Albert's for a very long time now. From TV, to newspapers to blogs and websites, I listened to good and bad about this eatery; The good: good food and good service. The bad: decor, portions, prices and supply. I decided to check it out for myself with LJ in tow on a road trip for dinner, and a drive-in movie after. We called to make sure of their hours (open until 8pm) because we tried to come once before, but they were set up at Ottawa's BluesFest vendoring and the establishment was closed. They were open this Saturday night, and we were on our way.

Found about 30 mins South of Ottawa in the hamlet of Hallville Ontario, this place serves "authentic soul food", something when you cross North of the border we are devoid of.

Here's the story: local girl (Jennifer) goes to Toronto to a concert and meets Detroit boy (LeRoy Walden). The two get married, and decide to open a soul food restaurant in Jennifer's hometown. LeRoy uses his great-grandmother's recipes to bring a style of cooking sorely lacking in Ontario.

The outside is not much to look at; in fact, it kinda looks like a feed mill store. Inside is a great cottage/country store feel. Wood panelling, high rafters, brightly coloured picnic tables. The walls are decorated with family/friend photos and Americana. Abe Lincoln sits in a place of significance the same way a portrait of the Queen would. And anything Obama can be found as well.

The place was busy Saturday night (there's about 4 picnic tables and few tables and chairs for seating). At the main counter a hanging sign states "Order - Pay - Pick Up", so LJ and I stood, scanning the giant chalkboard menu. There was only one waitress who was busy with tables and people paying. As we gawked at the menu, Jennifer (co-owner) politely shouted from back in the kitchen, welcome, take a seat and that there were menu's at the tables.

The tables were stalked with caddies of menus, salt & pepper, ketchup and my highlights, Frank's and a roll of paper towel. A roll of paper towel may not be classy, but its a good sign of things to come in terms of the food. I think, anyway.

The menu is full of soul food faves: fried chicken, ribs, homemade mac & cheese, collard greens, blackened catfish, sweet potato pie and more. Jennifer came from the kitchen personally to first apologize; they were busy and it was only her and the waitress on duty that night. She also wanted to let us know that they were short a few menu items (the last take-out patron requested several sides of mashed potatoes wiping out their reserves; the collard greens were gone due to low Ontario supply).

She took our drink orders (we both went for the homemade lemonade) and said when we were ready to come up to the counter to order. When we had decided, I went up to the waitress to order, who looked whipped from a day of service, and she also apologized for being busy. LJ went with the Chicken Breast Fillet with the sides of candied yams and french fries. I was going to get the wings (for a wing review) but LJ convinced me (rightfully so) to go with the fried chicken (beans and coleslaw as sides).

The lemonade, is freshly made (there's a big glass jar on the counter where the lemons are kept before squeezing) and I watched it being made. I really liked it because it was more sweet than tart, but very mild overall. LJ prefers hers tart and felt it was a little watery for her liking.

Both of our meals came with sweet water corn bread. Skillet fried like a pancake, these were truly addictive. From the media and internet, this is clearly their signature item, and I can see why. Crispy, but light, with that great corn bread taste, but the sweetness just makes you want to gobble up one after another. These came out first and were gone very quickly.

LJ's chicken fillet. Fried in a light coating and full of juicy white meat. The candied yams were soft, and just slightly sweet. The fries were, sigh, frozen. Unfortunately. The redeeming quality was that they were crispy and they were tossed in a great seasoning/dusting.

My meal, the Southern Fried Chicken with sides. Great portion, but I had to move the chicken onto my tray because the liquids from the beans and coleslaw overtook the plate. I don't like my food mixing.

The beans, while good, tasted like canned beans from the grocery store with something sweet added. I had read this as a criticism on the Net and had hoped it wasn't true, but it was. The coleslaw was very creamy, loved that, but the cabbage was a little chunkier than I would normally prefer.

The highlight was the fried chicken. 3 big pieces, and boy, was it good. It wasn't greasy at all. Most people expect heavy breaded chicken like the Colonels, but this is light and crispy. The skin was, sooo good. The meat was tasty. I didn't even bother with a knife and fork: it was my hands tearing it up all the way.

With the ribs and chicken you have the options of adding (for $2.50) some homemade sauces (which they sell to take home) baked into the food. When Jennifer was talking to us, I asked what the difference between Buffalo and Hot Sauce was. She said Buffalo was standard chicken wing sauce, but Hot was a special concoction that her husband LeRoy makes, and that he keeps it such a secret that even she didn't know what was in it. So when I ordered, I asked for it on the side (because I wanted to taste the chicken for itself) for $1.50. I was warned by both Jennifer and the waitress that it was hot, but clearly they didn't know who they were dealing with.

It was a great sauce. It reminded me very much of Wing Machine's suicide sauce. It's peppery; it's smokey; it has a great kick. There are a lot of things going on when it hits the mouth. I like it because it has heat, but it also has a lot of flavour. Next time I would definitely order this cooked on the chicken or if I order the wings!

Afterwards, we had no room for dessert, but they seem to be popular with just about everyone.
FINAL THOUGHTS: My fried chicken was excellent. So was the sweet water corn bread. I liked LJ's chicken fillet too. And the lemonade. But many of the sides, while good, were nothing special. Some of the prices are high ($22.99 for a half rack of ribs is more than I am willing to pay, no matter how good they might be), but the service was really good. Jennifer especially was so friendly and made us feel at home.

I thought it was worth the drive. Actually, they said they were looking for a new location to move to in Ottawa, which I think is great. I want to come back and sample the wings, and have some more corn bread. Yum! It just goes to show that you really have to try things for yourself. Critics (my blog included) are good for indications and ideas, but everyone's tastes vary, so always experience something for yourself.

Jean Albert's American Style Soul Food
1759 Reids Mills Rd. Hallville, ON (South of Ottawa)

Click HERE to go to The Wing Bucket for Jean Albert's Take Out Menu & a flyer for a BBQ Contest & Yard Sale September 5th 2009


Teena in Toronto said...

Never heard of them.

Looks like quite a feast!

Lord of the Wing said...

Teena - They are growing in popularity here in Ottawa. It was a feast!

Anonymous said...

Was there last year and going back this year!! Quite the place and food. Nothing fancy, but oh so nice!

Lord of the Wings said...

Anonymous - just a head's up, I've edited their location as they are no longer in Hallville, but in Ottawa now. I haven't been to the new location yet myself.