I’ve had some good meals in New Orleans, and certainly several dishes whose novelty reminded me of why the city is such a culinary treasure. Not until last night, however, did I find a place that grasped so comprehensively the city’s spirit, or what an outsider might expect the city’s spirit to be - eccentric, mysterious, chaotic, joyous.
They all came together under the roof of the Uptown neighborhood restaurant Jacques-Imo’s, which from the outside is a deceptively small and wobbly Victorian house. Inside, beyond a chaos that suggests no one is in control, is a tightly run ship, with proud and smart personnel, a gregarious and unassuming hands-on proprietor (Jacques Leonardi), and a style of cooking that defies classification, though it does include many of the staples of New Orleans cuisine - fried green tomatoes, crawfish etouffee, fried chicken, jambalaya, gumbo.
“It’s a little bit of everything,” said one of our servers when I asked him about the style of the food. Beyond that, it takes those familiar staples of the South and transforms them into imaginative new interpretations, some as bold and bizarre as Mardi Gras costumes we saw earlier in the day at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. We proceeded through an appetizer “cheesecake” of shrimp and alligator sausage, unusually light by Southern standards but with, yes, plenty of bite from its spicy meat; eggplant Jacques-Imo with oyster dressing and a wild-mushroom sauce, which seized precisely the essence of eggplant; tangy fried-green tomatoes topped with heads-on shrimp in a deep and refined remoulade; fried mirliton - a kind of squash, our server explained - topped with fried oysters and a silken hollandaise of oysters and tasso; a robust chicken pontalba with roasted potatoes, mushrooms, Bearnaise and a sweet glaze; and grilled mahi adroitly handled and evocatively smoky. I haven’t had many fresh greens while in New Orleans, but Jacques-Imo’s helps correct that by including a large salad dressed with a lively plum vinaigrette with each entree. Of course, it’s topped with a single perfectly fried oyster.
Jacques-Imo’s is loud and it’s popular. We showed up about 9 p.m., and people still were standing on Oak Street out front. A steady procession of taxis dropped off and picked up customers, a sign that the restaurant’s reputation stretches beyond the immediate neighborhood - and that people recognize they’d likely be drinking a couple of the local splendid Abita beers during their hour or so wait.
Inside, Jacques-Imo’s has the feel of a remodeling job that got out of control and couldn’t be corrected - the garage as voodoo den. It’s all afterthought and “why not” tack on. Guests must pass directly through the kitchen to get to the dining areas. “Watch your step” cautions the hostess as we head through the kitchen, down a slight slope, down a flight of stairs, and to a table in the midst of all the action. I’m facing another dining room that looks as if it was a narrow alley between the restaurant and the house next door not too long ago. There’s just one unisex restroom in the whole joint, and to get to it you have to retrace your steps back through the kitchen; it’s so small the washbasin is in the hallway by the bar. And it’s so noisy you can barely hear Bruce Springsteen and the Beatles on the sound system.
Some 30,000 real-estate agents are in town for a convention. You can spot many of them by their bright blue T-shirts with a stylized hurricane and the word “Rebuild” on the front, which is exactly what they are doing, working with Habitat for Humanity to provide housing between convention sessions. If Jacques-Imo’s were to go on the market, I wonder how they’d list it, as fixer-upper or historic landmark?
Leonardi has had the place just shy of 11 years. That’s Leonardi next to the paint-splattered truck parked permanently in front of the restaurant. He doesn’t look like he’s going anyplace, and for anyone heading to this balmy and once again vigorous city that’s more good news.