Describing The Heart and Soul Cafe to a friend, I mentioned that the place was owned and operated by two sisters. "Don't tell me," he said. "One's a workhorse, and the other's a glamour puss, right?"
Not right at all. The sisters in question, Wendy and April Cohen, both work very hard, though April, it's true, does wear silver lame tops and admits that she likes to shop. She also enjoys the Andrews Sisters and, what's more, can name them, if you ask. Wendy, who does the cooking and is, in a vital sense, responsible for the Heart and Soul's success, is more low key. If, when you enter this place, you see a bespectacled woman in a baseball cap dash suddenly for the kitchen, that's Wendy Cohen. And no, it's not the case that the smell of burning has reached her exquisitely sensitive nostrils; she's dashing because she's shy and would rather leave the glad-handing to her more gregarious sister. Together, they make a formidable team.
In a perfect world, everyone would cook like Wendy Cohen. Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, but if your breast gets as savage as mine does sometimes, music doesn't always cut it. When crisis strikes, the only real balm is a special kind of food. Wendy Cohen's kind: unpretentious and inherently honest.
The food at the Heart and Soul Cafe exudes authenticity. This is food from the heartland. It hardly matters that Ms. Cohen hails, not from Kansas or Iowa, but from Long Island, New York -- not a place one immediately associates with native traditions. But that's of little consequence. Despite being geographically disadvantaged, hers is a down-home sensibility.
It's hard to say how much credit Ms. Cohen deserves for the effects she achieves. The recipes she uses were a gift from her mother. But I'm not convinced that the younger Cohen is merely following instructions. If she were, her food could never be this poised. Wendy Cohen, I suspect, is as much an alchemist as her mother is. She has made these recipes her own.
Ms. Cohen's acid test came some weeks back when her mother, who continues to live in New York, flew down for lunch. Since, at the time, The Heart and Soul was just a month old, the visit occasioned a lot of stress. But all went well. Mom ordered the pancakes and the pork chops and, when she'd finished, gave her daughter to understand that she was well pleased. Wendy had been given the nod. One generation of Cohens had passed the torch to the next.
The food is a gift. A simple gift. Which is not to diminish it in any way because, for all its minimalism, it's full of heart. I don't like to use the term "comfort food." It's seen altogether too much service, but Ms. Cohen leaves me little choice. This food does provide comfort. And, I would add, that comfort isn't only physical -- a brief sensation on the palate and a full belly -- but spiritual as well.
Too much food has become abstract. It's teased, fiddled with, doctored, manipulated, denatured.... It's getting hard to tell what you're eating. Ms. Cohen has turned this obsession with process on its head, serving not just food that can be identified but is real as well. Because she trusts food, she doesn't disguise it. Give her a sow's ear and, instead of making a silk purse, she'll bread it, fry it and serve it with okra.
Take her pot roast ($9.95). This is cooking of a very high caliber, but for all that, it remains pot roast. There are no Wagnerian excesses here. Instead, she goes to considerable lengths to concentrate her flavors. The meat, after being browned, is braised for several hours in Lipton's onion soup, after which she adds onions and carrots. It's utterly straightforward -- and utterly delicious.
The meat loaf ($8.95) is almost as good. Again, it couldn't be more simple: lean ground beef, green peppers, onions, a little more Lipton's -- and the result is transcendent. I do, though, have a mild reservation about the accompanying tomato-garlic sauce. It struck me as unnecessarily sweet.
I also liked the catfish ($9.95) -- two filets dredged in cornmeal and fried in canola oil. But the grilled pork chops ($9.95) were a letdown, so tough was the struggle just to cut them. The vegetables, though, are almost uniformly first rate. The potatoes are outstanding, closely followed by creamed spinach, sauteed corn and carrots in an orange-ginger glaze.
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Ms. Cohen, unfortunately, can't claim credit for the egg rolls ($2.95). She buys them from an outside supplier. But they are delicious, filled with pork and carrots and garlic. The egg rolls are one of only five appetizers on this menu. The others are gazpacho ($2.95), which needs some punching up; guacamole (a bit steep at $3.50); homemade salsa (an equally steep $2.50); and a mixed green salad.
The Heart and Soul Cafe consists of two small rooms, and the decor is minimal. The tables have black cloths, a floral print covers the chair backs, the floors are made of concrete, and the walls are painted a trauma-center green. Water is served in glasses made of bubbled plastic. (When the light shines through them, they look like lava lamps.) And a nice touch: Each table has its own unique set of salt and pepper shakers: birds, fish, pineapples, ducks, pears, seashells....
Ms. Cohen makes both her guacamole and her tartar sauce from scratch, she says. And her chickens, she boils herself. But she doesn't hesitate, as she puts it, "to cut corners." The tomato juice in her gazpacho is the kind that comes from a can, and both the corn and green beans she uses are frozen. There's really no excuse for that. A cook of Wendy Cohen's ability should not be shopping in the freezer section of her local supermarket.
The Heart and Soul Cafe, 6500 N. Main, 861-8830.