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Sweet Soul plates up yummy comfort food

By Linda Haymes

This article was published January 17, 2013 at 2:24 a.m.

— The heart of the River Market District has some newfound soul.

Sweet Crumbs, a small baked goods shop (originally in a different locale within River Market’s Ottenheimer Market Hall), has expanded into Sweet Soul, a full-fledged blue-plate eatery (minus the actual plates).

The old-fashioned, downhome cookin’ is so authentic you can almost hear the clap of an old wooden screen door slamming shut and feel the warm summer breeze flowing through the kitchen window above the sink. Even though there’s no window. Or a summer breeze.

Nevertheless, the name is most fitting given the culinary history of the friendly husband-and-wife duo who own and operate the restaurant.

As a pastry chef, Andrea Sanders-Hayes focuses on dishing out the sweets while husband Brian Hayes serves up the soul with classic Southern plate lunches like catfish, chicken and sandwiches, and daily specials such as chicken-fried steak or fried chicken.

Before venturing into this urban area, the couple originally operated a place on a more rural route, the similar Hayestack Cafe in Ferndale, which has since closed.

At Sweet Soul, most menu selections are offered fried or grilled.

Sandwiches include pork chops or chicken on a bun ($6.95), catfish on a hoagie roll ($8.95) and the Hayestack burger topped with bacon, barbecue sauce and two onion rings and served on Texas toast ($6.95). They are served with french fries or for an extra dollar, diners can upgrade to onion rings.

Under the menu’s Southern classics section, platters cost $5.95 for a vegetable plate with three sides and roll or cornbread up to $7.95 or $8.95 for an entree, two sides and roll or cornbread. Everyday entrees include chicken-fried steak, catfish (fried or blackened) with tartar sauce, or a pork chop (fried or grilled).

Side dishes include mashedpotatoes, sweet potatoes, collard greens, black-eyed peas, cabbage and great Northern beans.

Fresh-baked desserts tempting diners include cookies, brownies, poundcake, pies, cheesecake and pudding ($1.25-$3.50). The beverage menu features tea and canned soft drinks ($1).

The day of our visit, I ordered the daily soul plate (choice of meat, two sides, roll or cornbread for $7.95, an additional $2 to add a dessert and drink). On this particular day, the special was chicken and dumplings. Rounding it out, I chose sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes and a roll with peach poundcake for dessert.

My dining companion selected the fried catfish platewith collards, cabbage and cornbread, adding a brownie to finish it all off.

With warm, savory food in hand - via Styrofoam boxes - this meal was looking very promising.

Until we started hunting for a place to land. The market hall has a generous amount of seating but on this cold, dreary Saturday afternoon at 1:30, lots of folks were sitting - but not dining - at the tables. One man, laptop set up in front of him, partaking of a beverage but no food, was spread out over two tables surrounded by six chairs and looked to be permanently encamped there. Other couples with bottles of water or soft drinks, lingering at other tables, also appeared not to be going anywhere soon.

It was a struggle to find even one vacant table. Finally spotting a small round one next to a large planter, we climbed atop the tall chairs and perched there. Our cumbersome Styrofoam boxes left us cramped for space before we’d even opened the lids and we finally resorted to balancing our smaller dessert boxes on the edge of the large planter the table was wedged against.

My companion reports that the generous portions of catfish filets were fried just right, flavorful and not greasy. (Word to the wise: If you want tartar sauce with your catfishask for it in advance so it can be included in the box, otherwise expect to have it served on the plastic lid of a container as his was.) His side dishes were right on target, too. The collards were nearly perfect - fresh, good texture and not overcooked while the cabbage was also tasty as was the soft, fresh, golden cornbread. His brownie, rich with flavor, was a chocoholic’s dream, generously topped with large pecan halves.

The chicken and dumplings were everything one expects from comfort food: warm, creamy and flavorful with finely shredded flakes of carrots adding color to the dish. The downside? This particular portion was very light on chicken; a more generous serving of meat would have greatly improved the entree. The side orders of sweet potatoes were creamy and flavorful as were the buttery mashed potatoes. The poundcake was soft and airy with a crisp, crunchy crust.

Overall, the food was excellent with a lot of time, talent and effort obviously invested into serving these dishes. But the dining experience, at least on this visit, was lacking.

The good news is that weekday downtown workers seeking quality, homestyle fare can tote it back to their offices and enjoy their comfort food from the comfort of their desks.

Sweet Soul

Address: Ottenheimer Mar

ket Hall, 400 President

Clinton Ave., Little Rock

Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon

day through Saturday

Cuisine: Soul food

Credit cards: V, MC, D, AE

Alcoholic beverages: No

Wheelchair accessible:

Yes

Carryout: Yes

(501) 291-9996

Weekend, Pages 38 on 01/17/2013

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