Dinner jazz. Tasty thought. Yet it never seems to take hold. Sure, there are the pianos in the steakhouses, the crooners in the bars gone smokeless, the odd guy on Wednesdays with the keyboard and the microchip section that spools out drum and bass emulations like so much warm Velveeta. But rarely do you get a tenor sax in the dining room. Too much risk of raising hairs and tone deafness over blackened mudcat.
On the patio, before the tenor blows, the clouds get darker. A guy a few tables over yells, "Rain in the forecast?" He operates a dump truck. The weather has flogged his pocketbook. "Like today, everybody thought it was going to rain so they canceled their loads," he says. So rain, damn it. Make it worth my loss. It starts to rain. The tenor starts to blow. He heads in.
Jazz draws all kinds, but it never seems to draw enough of them. Other than 2900 and maybe Sambuca, jazz just ain't as tasty as it sounds. Will it be different this time?
Owner Jason McCoy says he started Greenville Avenue Seafood & Jazz because the Lower Greenville strip was moving upscale. Yuppified is what we called it in the '80s. Luxury town homes popping up around this piss (the patrons) and moan (the residents) neighborhood are going for $300,000-plus, word is. The scraped tract that once held the cinders and buckled steel of Syn Bar and the Arcadia Theater are now fenced off. A nursery merchant squats there. Developers are trying to build luxury housing there too, word is. Older affluence calls for different notes.
Coupled to this music, which went live for seven nights before being lopped back to six, is a menu bubbling with Creole and Cajun zest. McCoy is trying to seed this frayed-but-refining neighborhood with French Quarter essence. Red beans, étouffée, jambalaya, gumbo—the words roll off the menu just as you would expect. Plus some that you wouldn't. Alligator cheesecake for instance: alligator bits, crab meat and onions blended with cream cheese coated with pecan cracker crumbs, baked in the oven and topped with bright green scallion bands and bright orange roasted red pepper coulis ribbons. Sadly, the alligator disappears in the clutter. Boudin sausage wontons, meanwhile, are crispy wontons stuffed with boudin sausage and cream cheese served with a peak of dirty rice and Creole soy that tastes of soy and Dijon. Crispy, greaseless, moist and tasty, these work.
McCoy is not your typical restaurateur, weaned in the kitchen or at the bar or trained in the corporate chain-gang trenches or reared on the hospitality rungs of a hotel. McCoy is a Southern Methodist University MBA who dabbled in software and other things before he jumped at the chance to pick up a nightclub for little more than spare change: Zephyrs on Sears Street. It was a goldmine. McCoy may be eyeing an empire.
He picked up Nero's, which had been serving Greenville Italian for some two decades, for about the same amount of change. He ripped out the arch dividers, added glossy black tiles, built a wood and glass back bar, painted the walls bordello red, hung a crystal chandelier and mostly made do with the aging kitchen equipment. He added a stage. He added a chef. The chef cut his teeth at Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen. A couple of French Quarter transplants were added to keep things honest.
And honest they are at times. Red beans are cooked from dry beans and blended with slices of Andouille sausage and fluffy separate white rice (Uncle Ben's converted). They're cooked down until the slurry perfectly blends with the seasonings. That red bean blood comes to life, animating the nostrils and the throat and the belly beyond that.
And they are dishonest at times. Shrimp are served two ways: boiled for peeling and fried for crunching, with a fried green tomato. Only it isn't a fried green tomato. The tomato is red. There's a reason green tomatoes are the ones that get fried. They're tough bastards. Red tomatoes droop under fire. They turn to mush.
But why is the crawfish étouffée so ridiculously good? Is it the perfect cook-down of onions and celery and peppers blended into roux? Is it the serrations of cayenne left on the tongue as the silken stew rolls down the throat? Is it the plump tight curls of crawdad that "pop" when bitten? This étouffée has terrific balance that leaves the mouth pulsing and then quickly, somehow, lets it reset, readying for the next spoonful.
For contrast, there's the pinkish orange crawfish bisque. It doesn't have the voluptuous body of the étouffée. It lacks its deftness. Patches of dark skin rest on the surface like tattered lily pads. The cream-based soup is soothing but hollow. You get the promise of richness and perforating jabs of spice, but little else.
On this night there is a trio: drums, piano and bass. They play "Saturday in the Park" by Chicago. The pianist is so deft you don't even miss the horn section—a good thing in a dining room. The bass player sings like Sting, if Sting were to have some of his rasp curtailed. A silent movie plays on the big screen high-def behind the bar, Charlie Chaplin without intertitles. Ambience upon ambience. Paintings of jazz musicians hang on the walls. They look like Picasso distortions rendered with spray paint. It's strange that all of this coalesces in smokeless air.
Yet its the perfect atmosphere for asparagus; long, bright green shriveled spears marinated in garlic, lemon juice and olive oil and cooked until the spears give and don't take.
We order a lettuce wedge. We sample the crab cakes, useless things that are all gummy filler: a crab hushpuppy with the crab perfectly hushed. Creole fries are soft and mealy. Halved crab legs were once frozen but are rich and good. We sample the fillet Oscar with the requisite stuff: the crab meat, the asparagus spears, the hollandaise. Add mushroom ragout. It's all cool, as if it had been sitting for a while, somewhere. The beef is flaccid with a slight livery edge, not serious enough to elicit a wince but...
Pacing is a problem. The timing is off. Cues should be taken from the stage: clean four-four, steady on the ride cymbal, crash on the upbeats here and there. The wedge lagged. A man in a crisp pinstripe comes to our table and offers his condolences. Bacon must be crisped. Did we still want it? We did. All of it: the dressing, the tomatoes, the blue cheese crumbles, the bacon bits from freshly crisped strips.
We had this for dessert. It was warm. As they say in the trade: "Crazy Rhythm." Dig? 2104 Greenville Ave., 214-826-6376. Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$.
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