All Fired Up

Despite some misfires, Phil the Fire delivers on its promise to serve "comfort food for the soul."

Atkins freaks can order the Delmonico steak and - shrimp. - Walter  Novak
Atkins freaks can order the Delmonico steak and shrimp.
If the old saw linking consistency to small minds is indeed true, then Phil "The Fire" Davis's eponymous downtown dining room must have a "mind" as vast as the U.S. budget deficit. No, that's not a good thing in a business, but at least it helps explain how a midday-Thursday visit could leave members of my little posse feeling slightly miffed and greatly unimpressed, while a Saturday-night visit produced companions who can scarcely contain their enthusiasm for the Southern-soul-food restaurant.

The reality probably lies somewhere in between, but the bottom line is that there were too many misses to ignore at that weekday lunch at Phil the Fire's: Our server seemed detached and uninterested, dishes reached the table barely lukewarm, and while Davis says his goal is to have lunch on the table within 20 minutes, the whole ordeal exceeded the standard one-hour lunch allotment by close to 100 percent. In our case, nearly 30 minutes elapsed between the time we placed our orders and the time the first bite of food arrived; then, it was our entrées that showed up first, rather than the starters. (Our unapologetic waitress finally produced the apps about the same time that we finished polishing off the main courses.) A request for butter wasn't filled until the waffle that prompted it was a dim memory, and by the time we got some whipped cream for our warm peach cobbler (which had been ordered à la mode, but certainly wasn't served that way), the dessert was pretty much devoured. And at nearly $100 for lunch for five, tax and tip included, we didn't feel as if we received much value for our money, either; in particular, a veggie platter, with modest portions of three meatless sides and a stale corn muffin, seemed like a raw deal at $10.

Fast-forward a mere 56 hours, though, and both food and service were almost miraculously improved. A warm, enthusiastic waiter made right-on recommendations and filled requests promptly. Food reached the table well-prepared and piping hot (although the kitchen's pacing, under the direction of executive chef Jerron Nickens, was still what could be described as "deliberate"). And a hard-hitting jazz-fusion combo, fronted by wailing saxophonist Eddie Baccus Jr., lit up the rambling dining space (the former Diamondback Brewery) with spirit and style, and made lingering over a mug of strong, fresh coffee a pleasure, not an exercise in tedium.

The downtown dining room is a second location for native Clevelander and businessman Davis, who first introduced northeast Ohioans to Pasadena-style chicken & waffles at his Shaker Square restaurant (also named Phil the Fire) in 2001. Back in the day, when this cavernous, multilevel space was home to the Diamondback, its air of faded opulence and tattered glory made even a walk to the restroom feel like something out of Rod Serling. Under Davis's guidance, though, the joint has lightened up considerably, and the current ambiance falls somewhere between the upscale and the down-home. Worn wooden floors, for instance, add counterpoint to the area around the sleek, stainless-steel-and-black-granite bar. Bare tabletops support trendy black cloth napkins as well as an assortment of bottled hot sauces. Stylish halogen pendent lamps divvy up illumination duties with a row of fluorescent fixtures.

While the restaurant's signature combo of chicken & waffles may sound almost as idiosyncratic as the décor, the truth is that a piece of crisply breaded chicken served atop a fluffy, cinnamon-spiced Belgian waffle -- both of them drizzled with as much or as little hot sauce and maple syrup as one's individual palate requires -- is arrestingly seductive, full of time-honored interweavings that make each bite a tiny tapestry of tastes and textures. (If it helps to put the dish in perspective, think of the more standard but conceptually similar pairing of fried chicken with fritters and honey.)

But while chicken & waffles is clearly Phil's calling card, his 10-page menu is all about options. Not a big chicken fan, you say? Then pair your waffle with catfish, whitefish, shrimp, or salmon. Not so keen on waffles? Then have your chicken (wings, legs, thighs, breasts, or boneless tenders) or fish by their lonesome, in combo platters, or served with one or more of the kitchen's soulful side dishes, including smoky collard greens, fragrant candied yams, or a surprisingly sophisticated version of macaroni and cheese, enriched with a savory, secret blend of three different cheeses. Why, even a 12-ounce, Atkins-diet-friendly Delmonico steak has recently been added to the lineup.

The long list of stand-up sides also includes hoppin' john (tender black-eyed peas, with rice and ham); and rich, creamy "cheesy grits," almost like mac 'n' cheese, but without the mac. Less impressive were the green beans -- fresh, not canned, but boiled within an inch of their lives; and the limp French fries, weighted down with grease. Happily, a big basket of sweet-potato fries, sprinkled with cinnamon-sugar and served as a starter, was a much better bet. Still, we were disappointed when an individual portion, served as a side dish, made it out of the kitchen without the flavor-enhancing seasonings.

Beyond the unpretentious side dishes, Davis's menu also features several homemade soups, including a dense, dark gumbo, bristling with chicken, okra, rice, and veggies, and just cayenne-spicy enough to start to clear the sinuses. Further along, diners will discover a listing of sandwiches, including an assortment of po' boys, with traditional fillings of shrimp, oysters, or catfish; skip the bland vegetarian version, though, with its ho-hum flavor and soggy bun. There's also a burrito-style wrap, with shredded lettuce, shredded cheddar, and a choice of boneless, breaded chicken tenders, catfish nuggets, or fried or sautéed shrimp; the chicken version proved satisfyingly tasty, even if it was a little light on the meat and had no sign of the promised avocado.

Deep-fried "popcorn" shrimp, as a starter, were commendably fresh and juicy inside their frangible, lacy batter. But again, the dish differed considerably from the menu description: There was no reason to believe the shrimp actually had been "tossed in hot sauce," for example, and the accompanying dip was a perky blend of horseradish and ketchup, but definitely not the promised ranch dressing.

For younger guests (and to our pleasant surprise, we spotted plenty of them during our Saturday-night visit), the menu includes several $5 child-sized options, such as grilled cheese sandwiches and half-portions of chicken & waffles. And should Mom and Dad's tastes run more to omelets and turkey sausage, say, than chicken and fish, there is a page devoted to all-day breakfast items.

Last, but certainly not least, the menu includes a lengthy listing of desserts, spotlighting more than a dozen homey favorites from the hands of baker Meredith Woods. In fact, for diners who have grown weary of the endless parade of crème brûlées, tiramisu, and flourless chocolate cakes that comes marching out of area kitchens, Woods's homemade desserts -- everything from Mom's Famous Peach Cobbler to lemon pound cake -- are a breath of pure country air. We can't remember the last time we saw red velvet cake, for example, on a restaurant menu. But Woods's moist, sturdy, multi-layered version, tinted with red food coloring, flavored with cocoa, and slathered with a layer of cream-cheese frosting, was a one-way ticket to a time when Mom was queen of the kitchen, dispensing homemade cakes to her loyal subjects with regal regularity. And don't miss the buttery-crusted pies -- including properly gooey pecan, with a bounty of nuts, and sweet-potato, pumpkin's pumped-up cousin -- served in generous slabs and, for a $1 surcharge, finished with a pouf of real whipped cream.

Almost from the day it opened, Davis's Shaker Square location attracted a charmingly diverse clientele, with young and old, black and white, urbanite and suburbanite alike united in the pursuit of what the owner likes to call his "comfort food for the soul." It's good to see that same spirit of well-integrated fellowship developing in the downtown setting: After all, if chicken & waffles is what it takes to get us all smiling at one another, then we say, "Bring it on!"

And if, in the meantime, Davis can ensure that service and food quality consistently hit the mark, can world peace be far behind?