What a strange trip this was. We found Ciara's on iDine (discount dining web site that has been mentioned in previous threads), a place I fall back on when there is really no place I want to eat. My bride had nuked Bhartmela, Capri was booked solid, Raffi's (want to try once more and post) was booked for a private party, so we found this place. Cajun/Creole the site said, but I knew it was soul food when I saw the menu.
The place belongs to 2 ladies from the city (originally) who have developed a catering biz in the west suburbs. So they bought a building in downtown Aurora and use the kitchen for the restaurant, too. The food is pretty straightforward soul food, including fried fish in multiple flavors, ribs, pulled pork, etc. Plus Jamabalaya and a few other southern dishes, but they did not distract me. And the sides were all there, greens, beans, mac 'n cheese, etc.
Nice little place around the corner from the Casino. We arrived and were looking to seat ourselves at the nearest clean table, when the waitress (who later turned out to be one of the partners, and the cook) told us she would seat us in a minute. Then there ensued a brief negotiation about the bottle of wine we brought which only ended after I had looked at the wine list, considered the possibilities (grim, if one has aspirations beyond white zin and equal) and offered a corkage fee. None of which was bad, but it was also clear we were more in someone's house, than a professional restaurant. You know the feeling.
As posted in the rib-a-thon thread, I was enticed into ordering ribs, and my bride got the fried perch. A complimentary plate of carrots, cukes, Ritz crackers (nice touch, that, homey) and ranch dressing came, and was devoured. Then our soups, Cream of Broccoli for my bride and Jambalaya (traditional chicken and sausage) for me. Both were excellent. When the cook spied me adding hot sauce, she told me she could have made it hotter if I had asked. Along with this came a Johnny cake, which they apologized about and said they just had not had time to make a new batch of corn bread. I ate the Johnny Cake with honey and enjoyed it just fine. She called it something fancy like a water corn cake, and I was so proud when I said, is that like a Johnny cake, cause I had never had one before. (Sorry, had to share that, so nice to realize I am eating something I have read about for years, but never actually seen).
We then got into a discussion with the lady bussing tables about life, barbecue and the Chicago city limits, and it turned out she is the other partner. They have been open for 2 1/2 years and I got the sense it still is a struggle on the restaurant side (my bride actually asked if they were making money, or something like that, and I cringed as she did later, but the wine had been good for her). We were the only table occupied at 830 on a Friday night, though there was another table that turned over once while we were there, and one carry out order. Looked to me like they filled all 7 or 8 tables once that night.
Sadly, the meal only went down from there. The ribs had been ill-treated, at a minimum held for some time and become soggy, but more likely smoked, then frozen (!) and reheated. They still had some taste and even texture in some bones, but others were just sogggy (sob). The sauce was okay, though I doubt it was made from scratch. The bride's perch was crispy, with a corn meal coating with decent flavor, might be a little salty for some though we both liked it, but had been fried a bit too long and was somewhat dried out. The sides were excellent, good greens with peppery vinegar on the table, nice bacon/green beans, good cabbage with a touch of brown sugar.
Dessert was Peach Cobbler which the Bride called over-sugared and sweet potato/pecan pie which I only ate 2 days later, and it seemed okay. Might have been very good the same day, but I can't know.
The wine, BTW, was a 2000 Anselmi Capitel Foscarino, which is really a garganega-based wine, like Soave (and from Soave), that refuses to follow the AOC regs. Anyway, that vintage is a little sweeter than subsequent years, and is a bright and lovely wine that went very well with the meal. Sad to say, it was the last bottle. The Anselmi Capitel whites are inexpensive and worth exploring, but there has been a lot of variation from vintage to vintage. 2000 was almost like a New Zealand SB, while 2001 is drier and heavier, almost like a Viognier.
Verdict on Ciara's - if you are in the 'hood and have a hankering for soul food, it can work. You need to focus on dishes that can be made, held and reheated successfully, or that must be made and used that night, because the cook is doing too many other things to really do it right in the kitchen while you are waiting, and the volume does not appear to be high enough to make a bunch of ribs, for example, every night. But the real down side is the cost, and it is not cheap. Entrees in the $10+ range, soup is extra at $2-$4, so with desert, corkage and soup, we spent $60 ($30 each!) on dinner. Ouch.
I want to like and support them, but I really feel like I need to go back and give them a good talking-to. You know, they could be successful, because they are not that far from being quite good, but they need to focus on quality, cut prices a little, and just do things right. Can't imagine they do the same things to their catering clients, but who knows - they seemed to imply their ribs were one of their most popular entrees.
31 N Broadway
Aurora, IL 60505