Peddling authentic southern cooking to New Yorkers is a little like peddling authentic deli products to the fine citizens of, say, Amarillo, Texas. It’s a proposition fraught with all sorts of diplomatic peril. To begin with, the best southern cooking (like the best deli) tends to be local in nature, so chances are most sophisticated New Yorkers wouldn’t know an authentic chicken-and-dumpling recipe if it hit them in the head. So then the question becomes, how do you translate this authentic regional dish for local consumption? If you’re Kenneth Collins, the executive chef and co-proprietor of Ida Mae Kitchen-n-Lounge, you slice your chicken breast sideways in the accepted gourmet manner, and reduce the dumplings to jellybean size. You banish the old-fashioned gizzard-based gravy and substitute a chanterelle jus. You season your dumplings and gravy with lots of tarragon, lard them with softly cooked pearl onions and slices of artichoke, and slap on an exorbitant though locally acceptable price tag ($24), just for good measure.
Collins calls this risqué fusion dish “chicken and mini dumplings,” and there are lots more like it on the menu at Ida Mae, which opened a couple of months ago on a bland strip of 38th Street, in the garment district. The chef grew up in Dallas, and the restaurant is named for his grandmother, who, presumably, had her own delicious, gizzard-friendly recipe for chicken and dumplings. Chances are, though, she never tasted anything quite as strange as the Southern Belle, one of eight lively, excessively sweet martini specialties available in the restaurant’s pashalike lounge. The lounge is decorated with low-slung ottomans and gauzy white curtains and sits between a long, curving bar and a somewhat haphazardly appointed dining area. The room’s chairs are colored a deep Scandinavian-airport blue. There are pieces of African tapestry on the walls, and odd round objects made of red boa feathers, and if you come on party evenings, you’ll find a velvet rope placed discreetly out front, in the manner of Jimmy Rodriguez’s popular nightclub spots farther uptown.
“Chef Kenneth Collins calls one risqué fusion dish ‘chicken and mini dumplings,’ and there are lots more like it on the menu.”
But the food at Ida Mae is more precise and refined than anything you’ll find at the numerous Jimmy’s outlets. My first meal there began with a little bowl of classic Italian ravioli brushed with chive butter, instead of olive oil, and stuffed with a pleasing orange mash of sweet potatoes. One of my guests (a South Carolinian, as it happened) spent some time puzzling over the house “low country” vegetable roll, which, upon closer inspection, looked (and tasted) like a standard Vietnamese fried vegetable roll, except that you dipped it in a dish of ketchup flavored with plums. The appetizer salads we sampled were generally limp, and so was the promising-looking Louisiana crab cake, which tasted fishy and bland even by non-Louisiana standards. But I liked the wild-mushroom napoleon, which contained two layers of grade-A, truffle-infused, New York–foodie–approved mushrooms (shiitake, cremini, chanterelle, etc.), and also the foie gras, which is presented in eccentric antebellum style with an apple fritter, a twirl of cucumber, and a cleansing little salad made with black-eyed peas.
Similar down-home touches show up among the entrées, many of which are carefully arranged, in the locally fashionable manner, in aesthetically pleasing little towers. My quite delicious barbecued short ribs came to the table de-boned, in the shape of a little cupola, on top of a pedestal of crispy pommes au gratin. The barbecue sauce was a sweet, tomato-based mesquite glaze, and the greens were classic French haricots verts, salted with bits of cured bacon. Likewise, the pork tostada at Ida Mae isn’t really a pork tostada at all. It’s a pork loin of the highest quality, grilled to a kind of professional, gourmet pinkness, cut in precious medallions, and served over black beans, an ancho-chili purée, and corn pudding baked in the shape of a tart. I also detected an odd tart-shaped object buried in another deconstructionist dish called “lamb chop style gumbo.” It turned out to be a rice cake, which was no substitute for real, rib-sticking gumbo rice, although the dish was rescued by the baby lamb chops, which were perfectly cooked and spiced with sassafras.
Although true Southerners may find this kind of cooking a little fey (Mr. South Carolina didn’t), the service at Ida Mae should make them feel right at home. On the evenings I was there, cocktails failed to materialize on time, bread baskets got waylaid, glasses of wine were amiably misplaced. But none of these little disasters seemed to detract from the quality of Collins’s poached lobster, which is constructed in ascending layers of buttery, orange crayfish sauce, creamy leeks flavored with apples, and a strangely tasty medallion of grilled grits. The Cajun-style tuna tasted like every other forgettable tuna dish you’ve ever had in Manhattan, and so did the scallops, which seemed to have been rolled in a coat of wet Rice Krispies. But the fancy New York rendition of chicken and mini-dumplings suited all the New Yorkers at our table just fine, as did the Chilean sea bass, which is neatly cured in brown sugar, garnished with a kind of melting tomato-and-eggplant Creole sauce, and served over a bed of nice, sticky-sweet, Southeast Asian–style dirty rice.
Ida Mae may morph, one day, into a glitzy club destination, but that day hasn’t quite arrived. The slow pace of the place is genially southern, which meant we had plenty of time at our table to enjoy pastry chef Anthony Smith’s clever, genially southern deserts. The first one I tried was another fashionable tower construction, made this time with mini fresh-baked wheels of Valrhona chocolate cake, interspersed with spoonfuls of thick coconut frosting. Mr. South Carolina eagerly demolished his smooth, exceptionally creamy chocolate pie encased in a graham-cracker-and-pecan crust. There’s a fine pecan torte, also (garnished with rum ice cream and a sprig of mint), a spongy golden almond cake, and a more or less faithful version of piping-hot apple pan dowdy, topped with vanilla ice cream. Devour them separately, or together, like we eventually did, in the kind of piggy, down-home display common to sophisticated gourmet communities in Amarillo and, of course, New York.