Sloooow Soul

The Wellington's food is worth the wait.

In the burgeoning dining scene of Columbia City, the Wellington holds a special place. Before La Medusa, Tutta Bella, and the Columbia City Ale House, there was the Wellington Tea Room, serving proper high tea in a room whose Victorian furniture and heavy draperies shut out a still dicey neighborhood. It had too much cultural dissonance with its surroundings to pack in the crowds. But, run by an effervescent African-American woman, it was a place middle-class blacks liked to take their daughters, or hold functions, attracting a different clientele than the upscale eateries that opened around it. It was sad to see the Wellington close a couple years ago but intriguing to hear sometime later that, under a new owner, it was soon to turn into a soul-food restaurant. Would the establishment surpass its standing as a neighborhood institution and become a destination restaurant for the dinner trade? A visit to the Wellington, now a year into its new incarnation, convinces that the answer is a resounding yes. Except at Capitol Hill's Kingfish Cafe, you can't get this range of Southern cooking, this well prepared, anywhere else in town. But it takes some time and patience to figure that out. My companions and I arrived promptly for our 6:30 p.m. reservation and glanced around. The Wellington had been transformed. Gone were the fussy furniture and drapes. Casual elegance now prevailed, enhanced by exposed brick, walls painted earth-tone red, dim lighting from dangling globe lamps, and bold paintings of swirling design. The place was nearly full, with a gratifyingly mixed crowd of African Americans and whites. It was a crowd that apparently taxed the restaurant's capabilities. Nobody came to seat us, so after a few minutes we sat ourselves. We waited for menus. Co-owner and chef Cynthia Hobbs, a first-time restaurateur who formerly ran a part-time catering business, bustled by; I managed to tell her that we had found our table ourselves. She smiled and said that was just fine. But still we waited. Fifteen minutes later, with increasingly impatient kids in tow, we were all getting crabby from the lack of attention, food, and water. We caught Hobbs again and asked for menus. After yet more time, they finally arrived in the hands of a friendly but harried waitress, who let us know she was new on the job and promptly disappeared, leaving us still bereft even of water. I eventually asked for some. We perused the menu. It had expanded since last I saw it, with the addition of corn chowder, blackened catfish, and meat loaf and cabbage to a lineup that included fried catfish, chicken and sausage gumbo, shrimp and grits, and pork chops and gravy. The wine list stood out by offering a few South African vintages, popular abroad but sparsely distributed here. They were out of the pinotage we wanted, so we opted for a South African merlot ($5 a glass) and an array of dishes and settled in for what we expected to be a long wait. At least the kids' dishes arrived first, as requested, along with our drinks and appetizers. As soon as I stirred a cup of gumbo ($5.95), my crabbiness melted away: It was a rich combination of andouille sausage, chicken, and rice, flavorful and slightly spicy to the taste. The Caesar salad ($6.95) held its own with a generous amount of Parmesan. And the kids' dishes— buttermilk-marinated fried chicken ($12.95) and sides of macaroni and cheese ($4)—were just right, crispy and cheesy comfort food, with none of the heaviness or greasiness that can weigh down a soul-food meal. My satisfaction increased immeasurably with the arrival of our entrées. The star of the show was the Low Country shrimp and grits ($14.95), a corn-based Southern staple I approached with some wariness, as in the past the grits had struck me as—well, gritty. I sampled a spoonful of the grits first. They were as smooth as the creamiest mashed potatoes, like polenta that had been softened until it melted in your mouth, and also cheesy, with the amount of cheddar it takes to warm your insides. The topping of plump shrimp, spicy andouille, peppers, and onions in a sweet-and-sour vermouth-vinegar sauce was a perfect complement. My companion's tender pork chop ($14.95) was fine, but overshadowed by the big hunks of yam beside it: What was that seasoning that upped the flavor a notch? Nutmeg? (Yes, Hobbs later told me, along with cinnamon, vanilla, and sugar.) We ended our meal with a similarly seasoned sweet-potato puree topped with crunchy pecans and ice cream ($5), and a moist, syrupy chocolate cake ($5). Satisfied with our warmly nourishing food, everybody was in a good mood by the time we left, our brood giggling and dancing to the tunes of a jazz pianist booked for the evening. A place this good deserves a wide audience—but the Wellington isn't doing itself or its customers any favors by having them wait so long for satisfaction. The Wellington, 4869 Rainier Ave. S., 206-722-8571, COLUMBIA CITY. Dinner 5–9 p.m. Tues.–Thurs., 5–10 p.m. Fri.–Sat; lunch 11 a.m.–3 p.m. Tues.–Fri; brunch 11 a.m.– 4 p.m. Sunday. Jazz and blues music Friday and Saturday nights.

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