Small menu packs big flavor at Modern Southern Table

The standout soul food purveyor is now dishing up eats at Budd Dairy Food Hall

G.A. Benton
Three piece chicken dinner with greens, mac & cheese and yams at Modern Southern Table in the Budd Dairy Hall

Upon reaching the counter of Modern Southern Table in the Budd Dairy Food Hall, my dining companion and I were approached by a server with this upbeat greeting: “Y’all ready to eat?”

Wow, were we. 

It was our first time visiting the Budd Dairy Food Hall, and we’d become ravenous as wolves from perusing the big and buzzy place, run by Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, whose features include a wall-to-wall roster of “chef-partners” offering various delights like tacos, lobster rolls, pizza, poke bowls and Filipino street food. 

An inspired repurposing of a charming old multi-level building (nee 1916) that had long lain dormant in Italian Village, Budd also offers numerous spaces that playfully integrate modern conveniences into the one-time dairy’s vintage, white-tiled character. 

Among the rambling facility’s many assets are a free parking lot, outdoor and abundant indoor seating, game room-like lounges, a live music stage, three TV-equipped bars — one on the rooftop (try the $10 lemon shake-up, a crisp, grapefruit-vodka-spiked, grown-up version of the state fair classic) — and that flock of food vendors.  

The fare at all of those stalls looked pretty tempting, but we were there for the Southern comforts of an operation whose reputation as the winner of the Food Network’s “Food Court Wars” (2014 edition) preceded it. We’d soon discover that Modern Southern Table lives up to its reputation.

Much of the fame could be claimed by the person who won that Food Network competition, Modern Southern Table’s owner Sadaya “Daisy” Lewis. While the current menu Lewis offers at Modern Southern Table is rather small, the flavors delivered by its skillfully executed dishes were big. In fact, I’d give this place strong odds in another competition — one that doesn’t exist yet, but should — to select the top soul food restaurants in Columbus. 

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Two types of fried chicken are featured, and both are addictive. The fairly straightforward but uncommonly good “Alabama” style was a great illustration of how seemingly simple food isn’t always simplistic.

I received a large breast, leg and thigh offering juicy meat beneath delicious crusts that were extra-crispy, flaky and attractively golden-brown ($14.99; served with not-too-sweet cornbread and two of the eatery’s uniformly fine sides). Was the poultry a little salty and oily? Sure, but what good fried chicken isn’t? 

I liked my Lowcountry chicken ($15.99 for a three-piece meal with cornbread and two sides) more even though it was oilier. It’s essentially the Alabama chicken goosed-up with a flavoring blend that tasted of cayenne, cumin and sugar. The killer, red-tinted result was similar to — but milder than — Nashville-style hot chicken, which is traditionally oily, as it’s enriched by a fat-based spice paste.

Mississippi Fried Fish (catfish) -- with blackeyed pea salad and red rice at Modern Southern Table in the Budd Dairy Hall

The fried catfish wasn’t inordinately greasy, and it was fantastic ($16.99, with cornbread and two sides): Two large, flaky, juicy and clean-tasting filets encased in crackly cornmeal shells whose excellent seasoning bore a hint of heat. 

Expert seasoning was a hallmark of the sides ($3.99 a la carte), too, and I was impressed by every one I tried: collard greens — tender, with a zippy broth; black-eyed pea salad — a standout creation that could be retitled “Lowcountry gazpacho” given the refreshing flavors of a chilled broth redolent of tomatoes, cucumber, vinegar and peppers; Geechee red rice — perked up with peppers, paprika, tomato and zesty smoked sausage, this could be retitled “Lowcountry paella”; super-cheesy but not saucy mac-and-cheese with notes of black pepper and garlic.

The only under-seasoned thing I sampled was, somewhat understandably, the white rice that accompanied my chicken and sausage gumbo ($14.99). Since that delicious entree was so flavorful, I suppose the rice (which isn’t sold as a side) was just there to absorb, and not interfere with, the soulful gumbo’s meaty, nuanced and drinkable broth.      

Chicken & sausage gumbo at Modern Southern Table in the Budd Dairy Hall

Modern Southern Table

1086 N. Fourth St., Budd Dairy Food Hall