Review: Clara B’s Kitchen Table Is a Stunning Homage to Scratch Cooking

Chef-owner Jodie Ferguson's restaurant lights up downtown Belleville

Nov 3, 2022 at 7:07 am
click to enlarge Some Clara B’s Kitchen Table favorites including the breakfast sandwich, French toast, quiche, autumn cobb salad, and biscuits and gravy.
Mabel Suen
Some Clara B’s Kitchen Table favorites include the breakfast sandwich, French toast, quiche, autumn cobb salad, and biscuits and gravy.

Jodie Ferguson was only six years old when she lost her grandmother, Clara Bloodworth, but their brief relationship was enough to have a lasting impact on her. A farmer's wife from Louisiana, Bloodworth moved to rural Pennsylvania after she got married and spent her days cooking for the farm hands and day laborers who would help her family work their land. Even after she got older and joined her daughter's family in Texas, Bloodworth could not help herself from taking over the kitchen, and when she did, little Ferguson was either on her hip or set up on the counter watching her grandma prepare okra and make what she referred to as doughnuts but were beignets. Bloodworth's cooking was such a major part of her life that when she passed away, the first question Ferguson asked was who was going to cook for her.

Those formative culinary experiences are what inform Clara B's Kitchen Table (106 East Main Street, Belleville, Illinois; 618-416-1812), Ferguson's brick-and-mortar that opened in the charming business district of downtown Belleville, Illinois, this past February. However, anyone who has tasted Ferguson's outstanding biscuits will remember her from her food truck of the same name, which she launched in October of 2020. It was a concept born of necessity; after being furloughed from her culinary job with the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Clayton, Ferguson was forced to figure out a way to support herself. She'd always dreamed of having a small, 10- or 20-seat daytime spot when she retired — something nowhere close to being on the horizon — but when she learned her job was being permanently eliminated, she decided to move up that timeline and launch her idea as a food truck as proof of concept for an eventual brick-and-mortar.

Though it's hard to imagine a time when Clara B's success was in question, Ferguson describes the beginning days of the truck as soul-crushingly hard. For the first three months, she barely made any money and would regularly cry when she pulled the truck back into its parking spot and counted her take-home for the day. Over time, though, she began to get some buzz in the local food scene and became one of the must-visit trucks out and about the area and at the 9 Mile Garden food-truck park. She became so popular that she outgrew her commissary space and figured that if she needed to get a new kitchen, she might as well see if she could find one with a small restaurant space attached. The downtown Belleville storefront, not far from where she and her husband live, made perfect sense.

click to enlarge Chef-owner Jodie Ferguson
Mabel Suen
Chef-owner Jodie Ferguson named her restaurant for her grandmother. |

At least at first. Already, the Clara B's storefront has become so popular that Ferguson has yet again outgrown her digs. When you understand the layout of the kitchen space, you understand why. With only two convection ovens, two induction burners and a small griddle she bought at Walmart, Ferguson and her team put out a full, scratch-cooked menu, prep for the truck and handle catering events, which will make you think that she's not simply a great cook; she's a miracle worker that is unintentionally paying homage to her grandma who prepared food for an army of workers out of a small farmhouse kitchen.

It's not only the small kitchen setup that evokes Grandma Clara. Ferguson's food has that sort of warm-your-soul feeling that transports you back in time to a vintage, scratch kitchen, and no offering better captures this than her biscuits. Square shaped and baked until they take on a subtle golden hue, the biscuits have a flaky exterior that yields to a fluffy, cloud-like middle. It's the kind of breakfast bread where you feel as if you can taste Ferguson cutting in the butter — a decadent masterpiece of the form that you would be satisfied enjoying on its own, but it also serves as a magnificent base for her outstanding biscuit sandwich. Piled high with peppery-flecked local bacon, egg, cheese and an apricot, red onion jam that is both rich and bright, it's the quintessential breakfast sandwich, even if it's so large you are better served eating it with a knife and fork.

click to enlarge A biscuit topped with an egg and surrounded by gravy.
Mabel Suen
The biscuits are impossibly flakey on the outside and fluffy on the inside.

Ferguson's excellent biscuits serve as the canvas for another impressive sandwich: the spicy honey chicken. Though the bread itself is a stunning display, the chicken gets equal billing; plump, juicy and coated in a delicate, perfectly seasoned crust, the meat is drizzled with local honey that provides a sweet reprieve from Ferguson's fiery hot sauce. Unlike a typical Louisiana pepper sauce, this concoction has vinegar and searing pepper heat but also a deep funk that evokes doenjang, a Korean fermented soybean paste. The flavor is so complex that even though the sauce burns up front, you keep coming back for more.

You could eat nothing but biscuits and call Clara B's a success, but those flaky wonders are not the only tricks Ferguson has up her sleeve. Born and raised outside of Austin, Ferguson is serious about her brisket, which she serves in a taco that's garnished with seasoned potatoes, pickled red onion, cotija cheese and just enough of a bourbon barbecue glaze to coat the components together in smoky sweetness without covering up the taste of the delectable meat. That same oak-and-mesquite smoked brisket also appears in her chili alongside veal and ground chuck; habanero peppers infuse the rich concoction, cutting through the meat's decadence just enough but not overwhelming with their heat. It's the sort of hearty Texas chili that makes you understand why it's considered the pinnacle of the form.

Ferguson does West Texas proud yet again with her loaded breakfast burrito. Overstuffed with warm-spiced chorizo, fluffy scrambled eggs, seasoned potatoes and what seems like an entire smashed avocado, this is the sort of thing you long for if you've lived anywhere near the U.S. Southwest and find yourself regularly saddened by what's passed off as a breakfast burrito. Ferguson says the key to the dish is her ranchero sauce, a charred, tomato-based condiment she describes as a Mexican marinara that fills every bite with savory warmth. This, mingled with the chorizo drippings and cooled by guacamole-like avocado mash, produces one of the best bites you will put in your mouth in the bi-state area.

click to enlarge Clara B’s Kitchen Table’s French toast
Mabel Suen
Clara B’s Kitchen Table’s French toast is made from the restaurant’s biscuits.

I say "one of" the best bites because another contender is Ferguson's French toast, a name about as revealing as calling Michelangelo's David a rock carving. This massive slab — think ridiculously thick six-by-six cake pan — is a beautiful marriage between caramel bread pudding and cinnamon crumb coffee cake that is topped with a generous scoop of fresh whipped cream that melts into every crevice. The secret is that Ferguson uses her biscuits to make the concoction, a move so brilliant you wonder if there is any other way to prepare French toast.

When you bite into that dish — or the burrito or that hot chicken biscuit — you do not simply taste delicious food; you feel something. Whether that's Ferguson's undeniable talent, her ability to evoke an old-fashioned way of eating or, most notably, her love for her grandmother, it doesn't matter. You taste something real and from the heart, which is the most delicious and soul-filling flavor she could hope to produce.