Like Marcus Samuelsson across the East River, chef Cheryl Smith teases out the inherently global influences of American soul food. At its essence, soul food borrows, mixes, and matches flavors from other places to produce a distinct cuisine. And both restaurants offer the soul food of other countries, the staples that comfort and warm. But unlike Red Rooster in Harlem, Cheryl's Global Soul, in Prospect Heights, probably has a table available at 7 pm on a Friday.
We started with a shareable portion of grilled jerk chicken wings ($8.50). You can learn a lot about a person by watching him or her go to town on a chicken wing. Do they nibble or gnaw? Lick or suck? Use two hands? A fork? We'll propose the questions but leave the conclusions up to you. Here, the spice rub's kick was cumulative, and we didn't realize how peppery it was until we'd eaten the whole plate (for the record: gnawed, sucked, one hand).
Our second appetizer, rock shrimp hush puppies ($9.50), a special of the evening, wasn't really shareable. Seafood lovers might wish the fried balls of cornmeal and shrimp were shrimpier, while hungry folks might be disappointed at the number and perhaps even the airiness. In terms of solidity, this version proved more similar to ping pong balls than golf balls, with the occasionally overdone nubbin furnishing an unwelcome crack.
Portion size wasn't a problem with the Moroccan vegetable tagine ($16), the world's original slow-cooker. Cheryl's take practically overflowed the bowl. Chickpeas plus cubes of zucchini, sweet potatoes, celery, and tofu sank into a pile of super-soft cous cous, itself submerged in a tomato-based broth. In certain types of novels, people are always comforting one another with pots of tea, but a bowl of this stew would work equally well. It's not fancy, and perhaps it's a little blank, yet something about the combo of vegetables and grains makes it hard to feel sad while eating it.
Our pork chop with mango chutney ($19) also fed two, in this case one of us and, later, our cat. Not fully trimmed, the hunk had some fatty parts that had to be set aside, but the fruity chutney brought out the sweetness in the pork and nicely offset the minerality of the char marks on the underside.
Along a white-washed wall, a big party laughed and ordered more stingers, comprised at this restaurant of housemade ginger beer and sugar cane rum, and discounted during happy hour. Along the other wall, made from plywood and strung with softly shining bulbs, couples murmured. The inclusive menu, ranging as it does from the Caribbean to Asia to North Africa, extends to the conscientious service ("I sound like your mother," a server said, after gently teasing us about filling up on bread). Cheryl's emphasizes the connections between cuisines and between people. It's best for: a welcoming date.