ATLANTIC CITY - We had the feeling we had been here before. We had, in fact, dined at the same table near the window, in another incarnation when it was still Corbin's on Melrose Avenue, one of our very first review restaurants. There was something familiar about the artwork, three squiggly mirrors and some candle sconces on the wall that evoked the memories. A quick survey out the window revealed an empty lot, an empty Boardwalk and a glimpse of ocean waves. Not much seemed to have changed at this end of the island, other than new ownership of the property, now called Kelsey and Kim's Southern Cafe.
The dinner menu was different than the one posted on the website; less of a take-out menu and more upscale, printed on finer paper.
A plate of sliced cornbread was served with butter. We thought we had taken a bite or two when we realized we had finished most of the plate.
Mini crab cakes ($10.99) were more like mini crab balls, with five small ones served to a portion. Inside the meat were specks of chopped parsley and red bell pepper. Served with a lemony tartar sauce and a cocktail sauce with a bite, we loved them but thought the price expensive for the portion size and serving an odd number made it more difficult to divvy up between two hungry diners.
A cup of gumbo soup was so chunky with diced celery, carrots, okra and chicken chunks it formed a pyramid jutting over top of the broth. Not too spicy, we had the option of adding our own hot sauce from a bottle on the table. Served as a prelude to a plate of chicken and waffles ($12.99), a house salad was a pedestrian mixed green, grape tomato, crouton and cucumber affair, barely chilled, with a workable creamy ranch dressing on the side.
We had asked lots of questions about the chicken and waffles, a dish we had never tried before. Our server was obviously just learning the ropes. A senior server hovered nearby like a helicopter parent offering direction from time to time, and jumped in to explain the finer points of the dish. The dish arrived with a large Belgian waffle base, powdered sugar and four large fried chicken tenders on top. We asked for some syrup to go with the dish. While our server tried to engage us in discussion over whether or not the syrup could be used in conjunction with the waffle and the chicken at the same time, the senior server simply reached for a bottle and delivered it to the table. Like grits, we didn't really appreciate how the combination had come to be so popular, but enjoyed the waffle and chicken on their own terms, but with syrup.
Southern fried chicken ($12.99) like chicken and waffles, can be ordered as chicken tenders, wings, dark meat or breasts. We chose dark meat and received one thigh and two legs fried crisp and seasoned perfectly, but again thought the portion small even for an average-sized diner.
We made two good choices of sides with tender collard greens and flavorful black-eyed peas and rice. We believe both dishes used smoked turkey for flavor, rather than any pork products. A glass of sweet tea seemed like the perfect beverage match for our choices.
Our server told us all of the desserts were homemade, but the ones we saw in the refrigerated case looked like familiar industrial models. Coconut cake did look homemade so we ordered a slice and found a basic white cake with a slightly too sweet vanilla icing, sided with coconut flakes.
We didn't remember the pretty wooden floors and the two-toned tables or the comfortably padded chairs. John Legend wasn't on the horizon yet during our original dinner, but sang several soulful tunes at just the right sound level for the room. Though there were a few mistakes in service, all of the staff presented a friendly front, including the chefs and the bus person when they approached our table.
Atlantic City has enough steak houses, so it is great culinary news that there are now several soul food restaurants offering their cooking styles. Kelsey and Kim's is a work in progress, but already offering some of that longed for southern hospitality and good food.
C.C. Hoyt is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Hoyt c/o Features Editor Steve Cronin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Restaurant-ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.
Kelsey and Kim's
201 Melrose Ave.
Hours: 7 a.m.
to 10 p.m. daily
Liquor license: No
Credit cards: Cash only
Disabled access: Yes
Price range: Appetizers $7.99 to $10.99, entrees $9.99 to $17.99
Our bill for two: $52 plus tip