In the past few years, a growing number of black chefs from around the country have brought more attention to the culinary history of the African diaspora. This summer, Gee Smalls and his partner, Juan Smalls, embarked on a similar project when they opened Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen and Bar in downtown College Park. The restaurant pays homage to the foodways and culture of the Gullah Geechee people, descendants of Africans enslaved on plantations in the lower Atlantic coast.
Gee Smalls grew up in Charleston, with Gullah roots in nearby James Island. Virgil’s, named in honor of his deceased father, features small plates, many of them using family recipes.
Diners get a bit of education upon reading a menu playfully written in Gullah, an amalgamation of English and African dialects.
From the “Fuh Stawtuhs” category, you’ll find Bussin’ Cornmiffins, a pair of moist corn muffins with sweet potato puree stirred into the batter and drizzled with runny, warm honey butter. Try the Shawk Bites, nubby nuggets of lightly battered and fried shark meat, as well as fried okra and the fried oysters, both of which get the same treatment as the fish and the same remoulade for dipping. They’re all tasty, just a bit repetitive.
Fried Gullah Eggrolls with sweet chile sauce can be a change-up, but also a head-scratcher since the filling is made with vegan red rice, vegan fried cabbage — and not quite so vegan white shrimp.
Definitely not vegan but absolutely delicious is the she-crab soup, a creamy, filling bisque filled with seafood. The bracing tang of sherry vinegar offers a nice counterbalance to the rich seafood soup.
The West African ancestors of Gullah people were rice experts whose knowledge enabled plantation owners to grow it along the Southeastern coast. The “From Da Rice Field” category gives nods to this staple Gullah grain.
Red rice at Virgil’s is a mound of long-grain white rice cooked in tomato sauce with onions and peppers. Considering that bacon and smoked sausage are also ingredients, yet their flavors barely register, the red rice and vegan red rice might as well be identical. Unfortunately, neither was that interesting after more than a few bites. The crab fried rice was a disappointment for the measly portion of crabmeat set on top, while the minuscule couple of tablespoons of lukewarm brown gravy that accompanied Jazmin Rice was laughable.
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Ordered from the “From Da Yard and Watuh” section, the 6-ounce, bone-in Fried Poke Chop arrived overcooked and dry, served with yet another ramekin holding a couple of tablespoons of gelatinous brown gravy. Other items, like a trio of fried chicken wings (Jam Up Wings) wanting for seasoning and average fried whiting (Fush), make repeat appearances as entrees (Afta Church Plate and Friday Night Dinna, respectively). But accompaniments didn’t help things, such as a mac and cheese that looked and tasted as if it had been baked hours earlier, and collards with tiny turkey bones hiding in the greens.
Far more impressive was the Slammin’ Sammen that brings a nicely blackened Atlantic salmon on a bed of white rice covered in a rich seafood cream sauce. A large order of thick, chunky tomato-based okra soup flavored with smoked turkey circling a mound of jasmine rice can also serve as a satisfying, hearty main.
The staff is affable and attentive in making your visit comfortable whether you have to wait up to 45 minutes for one of only 40 seats in the dining room on a busy Saturday night (Virgil’s does not take reservations; it does offer online waitlisting and a kitchen that moves quickly) or need another round of drinks such as the fruity, punch-like Royal Flush featuring Crown Royal whisky or want hemp CBD-infused agave added to your cocktail for a $10 upcharge.
Restaurants and bars should be places to relax and unwind, but considering that the premise at Virgil’s is to give credence to the oldest black culture in America, its food could benefit from deeper thought. Where are the red peas? Where are the peanuts, the sorghum, the benne seeds — all crops now considered Southern staples that were brought here from Africa during the slave trade?
When you walk into Virgil’s and look to the right, you’ll find a striking mural of Virgil Smalls painted by local artist C. Flux Sing. The artwork is more than a representation of Smalls. A palmetto tree and a crescent moon, both symbols of Charleston, the port city through which 40% of enslaved Africans were brought into this country, are meant to honor Gullah Geechee culture.
“It was important for me to be deliberate in the story we were telling visually,” Gee Smalls said about the mural that he commissioned.
For Virgil’s to distinguish itself among soul food restaurants, its kitchen needs to be more deliberate about the culinary story it is telling.
VIRGIL’S GULLAH KITCHEN AND BAR
11 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 11 a.m.-midnight Sundays. 3721 Main St., College Park. 404-228-4897, Virgilsgullahkitchen.com.
Recommended: She-crab Soup. Shawk Bites. Fried Oysters. Fried Okra Mix. Okra Stew. Slammin’ Sammen.
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