The golden light of a humid summer afternoon filters through the French doors off the balcony. As the sounds of trumpet, trombone and sousaphone mingle with chatter wafting through the balcony, condensation breaks on my chilled glass. I stare down over the railing at the steadily growing crowd and sip the Sazerac's strong amber liquid fragranced with absinthe.
It's an average New Orleans day, scooped up and placed in the middle of Tremont.
Snuggled up next to Fahrenheit on Professor Avenue, Bourbon Street Barrel Room opened in October as owner Justin Clemens' first full-service restaurant. Perhaps because of that, he spared no effort to re-create the food, atmosphere and attitude of his favorite place outside of Ohio.
"Do you ever get someplace, and there's something about it that just feels like home to you?" he asks. "I thought the people were so friendly, the food was amazing, and [there was] just this vibe down there that's really hard to put your finger on."
Yet after nearly two years of planning and a 15-month renovation of a dilapidated and abandoned former art gallery, Clemens has managed to do just that.
During four separate New Orleans scouting trips, not including the dozen or so visits Clemens has made over the years, he took 900 pictures of the architecture in the famous Louisiana city.
"In the late 1790s, they had these great fires that burned up about 85 percent of the French Quarter. Then all that Spanish influence came in with all the color," he says, spouting New Orleans history as if from a textbook.
The visits allowed Clemens and designer Mary Carlson to duplicate the real thing, including the railings along the second-story overlook. An integral feature of French Quarter architecture, the delicately scrolled barriers were custom-built by a Cleveland steelmaker. Real natural gas-fired lanterns from Bevolo, the oldest lantern maker in NOLA, line the upstairs and first-floor walls.
It's not just decor, though. The drink recipes were culled from the best bartenders in the nation's oldest bars — New Orleans being recognized as the birthplace of the cocktail. Even this Tremont block was carefully chosen for its busy, foot-trafficked neighborhood feel that most closely approximates its progenitor.
But best of all, the chef is a New Orleans native. "None of it works if you don't have a guy that's really from there cooking the food," Clemens says.
Executive chef Johnny Schulze, who also owns Zydeco Bistro food truck, one of Cleveland's first mobile eateries and still the city's only Cajun and Creole offering on four wheels, is Louisiana born and raised.
"In Louisiana, everybody learns how to cook," says Schulze, who joined the military out of high school and traveled throughout the Low Country, experiencing parts of Louisiana he otherwise wouldn't have encountered.
"People get Creole and Cajun mixed up a little bit," he says. "Creole is a more refined type of cooking that's got European and other influences, but Cajun is more of that Low Country, people living off the land, cooking with game."
In fact, Schulze got his first taste of squirrel sauce piquant during a visit with a service mate's family in Ville Platte. He met his wife, who is Cajun, in college. "I'd go to her house, and they'd have turtle soup cooking on the stove," he says.
Which is to say that Schulze has Bourbon Street cred.
The menu reads like you'd expect: bayou classics such as shrimp or chicken po'boys, crispy golden baskets of hush puppies, red beans and rice, jambalaya and real Cafe du Monde beignets. Add a side of perfectly sized bites of fried corn bread ($2.50) to the hot-pressed muffaletta ($9.50) for a lunch-meets-dinner option with surprising balance — crispy, fluffy hush puppies pair well with the briny, savory flavors of mortadella, ham and pickled olive and vegetables.
Yet, the food feels at casual odds with the opulent surroundings, which were rebuilt with rich wood, hand-painted wall patterns, reclaimed brick and glittering chandeliers.
"In New Orleans the ambiance is always a little over the top, and the food's a little more down to earth," says Schulze.
To skeptical Midwesterners, however, toeing the line of Low Country authenticity without tipping into a Bubba Gump theme can be more difficult than walking a straight line on a Saturday night in the Big Easy.
"If Mexican or Asian or Italian food is a theme, then fine, I guess we are," Clemens laughs. "We worked our ass off to try and really do something legit."
For instance, any Louisiana cook worth his salt knows the art of a black roux — the essential ingredient for rich, savory gumbo. It's all about technique, as the only ingredients are butter, flour and time.
"You can't just write a recipe for roux," says Schulze, who has practiced his for gumbo for 30 years.
Johnny's Famous Gumbo ($5) really is award-winning: Schulze picked up the recipe from a chef in New Orleans who in 1991 took home the top prize in a citywide competition among 30 other versions. A little sweet and earthy, his version offers lots of varying textures among the bits of chicken, sausage and okra.
Likewise, the New Orleans BBQ Shrimp and Grits ($17.50) features tiny, just-cooked tails of shrimp over creamy, buttery grits and a sauce made with beer from New Orleans' Abita brewery.
Of course there are options for the more adventurous staycationer, including frog legs, crawfish and alligator. It's worth the foray, with a note of caution. Like most game, these proteins have a tougher bite and stronger flavor.
"Maybe the food isn't for everybody," says Clemens. But Bourbon Street Barrel Room is committed to delivering a Cajun and Creole experience that's found in the French Quarter. "We're not going to deviate from it. I'll let Johnny do what Johnny does best."
When You Go
Bourbon Street Barrel Room 2393 Professor Ave., Cleveland, 216-298-4400, bourbonstreetbarrelroom.com, Mon and Tue 4 p.m.-2 a.m., Wed-Sat 11 a.m.-2 a.m., Sun brunch 10 a.m.-3 p.m. and dinner 3 p.m.-1 a.m.
try this: Johnny Schulze ate his first oyster off a boat on the Gulf of Mexico at age 5. And while you could stick with the classic half-dozen raw half shells, we recommend the charbroiled oysters with herb-garlic Parmesan butter (market price). They're perfectly tender and go down easy with a mix of briny, buttery, smoky, herby flavors.
good to know: The kitchen switches to a limited menu featuring a handful of appetizers, po'boys and desserts at 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Get your fill before it's gone completely at midnight (1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday).
Chef Johnny Schulze's Shrimp Creole
Gluten-free. Serves 6-8.
- 2 cups Spanish onion, diced
- 1 cup celery, diced
- 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 cup red or green bell pepper
- ¼ cups Worcestershire sauce
- ¼ cup white wine
- ½ cup shrimp stock (optional)
- ¼ cup lemon juice
- 5 cups stewed tomato
- Cajun seasoning, salt and hot sauce (to taste)
- 1 ounce minced parsley, reserved
- 2 ounces fresh basil
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 ounce fresh oregano
- 3 diced green onions, reserved
- 2 pounds gulf shrimp, peeled, deveined and tail removed
- Long-grain white rice
Saute diced onion and celery in oil until soft and translucent. Add minced garlic and cook until soft, then add peppers and white wine, lemon, Worcestershire sauce and shrimp stock. Bring to a simmer and add stewed tomato. Return to a simmer and season to taste with Cajun seasoning, salt and hot sauce. Add half the parsley, remaining fresh herbs and half the green onions. Cook for about 10 minutes, then add shrimp. Cook the shrimp until they are just done or about 10 minutes. The meat should be firm but not chewy and opaque in the center. Serve with steamed long-grain white rice and garnish with parsley and green onions.