There are New Orleans-inspired restaurants that claim to have authentic Cajun/Creole cuisine, but rarely do we find one that actually does.
Jezebels Bayou on Larchmere takes all those French, Spanish, Portuguese and African influences and combines them with the best of Southern cooking to create some downright tasty dishes. It seems only natural that it comes from the folks who have been showing all that's good about Southern cooking for years at Angie's Soul Food Cafe in Cleveland and Zanzibar Soul Fusion on Shaker Square.
Jezebels is housed in a modern space with a glass front that looks out onto one of the city's cool up-and-coming neighborhoods. A shiny, stainless steel-paneled open kitchen takes center stage in the middle of the room, while a rustic bare brick wall dominates the dining area. The bar hosts happy hours before and after dinner most nights. It brings in a crowd that's both sophisticated and interestingly diverse.
What made the biggest impression here, though, is the New Orleans-inspired food, which is far from the heavy-handed mishmash that's too common at places with "Cajun" in their name. Cajun/Creole cooking by its nature has an eclectic flavor palate, from the heat of peppers to exotic spices to tangy citrus marinades. In the wrong hands it can be over-spiced, or worse. But the food here is bright and fresh with just the right amount of kick. While the menu has choices besides Cajun/Creole dishes, we stuck with the theme and were glad we did.
The list of appetizers was extensive — fitting, as the menu notes, because the concept was invented in New Orleans. We started with the Alligator Voodoo ($9.95). While we've had 'gator dishes that were as tough as a cheap steak, this alligator was as tender as can be. Thin and not-so-thin pieces were deep-fried for a crunchy crust and served with a creamy jalapeno remoulade.
We've always felt that you can tell the quality of a place by the amount of crab in a crab cake. This very crabby cake ($13.95) scores high points. The abundant lump crab with a hint of sweet peppers was seared delightfully in a broiler. A whole-grain mustard sauce provided a bit of sweetness.
Oysters come several ways. We tried the oysters Rockefeller ($14.95) and Louisiana oysters ($10.95). The Rockefeller were light and creamy. The plump oyster floated in a delicate cream with hints of fennel, onion and Pernod that played off the crisp, salty bits of applewood-smoked bacon.
The second preparation was also satisfying. Crispy, corn-fried oysters were a bit over-breaded, but the whole dish of diced, roasted redskin potatoes on a tangy tasso cream came together once we discovered the sauce under the potatoes.
Before moving on to the main course, it's worth pausing to discuss a few of the cocktails. The Hurricane ($9) conjures warm gulf breezes with rum, grenadine, and orange and pineapple juices, while the Cajun bloody mary ($8) was one of the best around with its pepper vodka and plenty of heat brought by hot sauce, black pepper, horseradish and cayenne. The restaurant also offers Abita Springs beer ($5), a Louisiana favorite with a smooth, malty flavor.
The jambalaya ($15.95) is not as heavy as this dish has a tendency to be. The tomatoes tasted fresh. Nuggets of chicken and pieces of Andouille sausage and smoky ham were simmered with garlic and spices for a balanced blend.
The shrimp and crawfish Creole ($15.95), a classic dish of seafood simmered with spices in a tomato sauce and heaped on a bed of white rice, was fine, but seemed to miss out on some of the strong flavor for which the cuisine is known.
Again, staying with the traditional fare, we also tried the blackened Louisiana redfish ($17.95). Cooked to perfection, the generous portion was crisp on the outside and moist and meaty on the inside. It was served with a decadent, buttery crawfish cream sauce infused with the zing of Creole spices, as well as grilled vegetables.
Jezebels menu is topped off with more than a half-dozen desserts. They're either made in-house or in conjunction with Angie's Soul Food Cafe and Zanzibar Soul Fusion. The warm bread pudding ($5.95) was a great ending to the bold flavors of dinner. Its comforting, down-home essence was topped off nicely with a creamy bourbon sauce.