The pity was palpable -- and possibly not misplaced. "You're eating at the House of Blues' restaurant?" the colleague repeated, just to be sure she had it right. "Hmm, well . . . you realize, don't you, that that place is all about the music?"
Indeed I did; and as any music lover will tell you, from Blossom to the Rock Hall, when it's all about the music, hungry fans generally resign themselves to making do or simply doing without.
I also worried that I wasn't giving Executive Chef Jeff Uniatowski and his crew (including sous chefs Phil Romano and Julio Castro) an entirely fair shake: Our Wednesday-night reservations were at 6:30 -- exactly half an hour before the doors opened to a sold-out Elvis Costello show.
"Hey, if it's awful, we'll give them a second chance when it's not so slammed," went the rationalization as my doubting companion and I surveyed the scene. "But in any case, this gives us a chance to check out the vibe."
Turns out, the chance to enjoy HOB's spectacular collection of colorful "outsider" art is just about reason enough to book a table at downtown's newest restaurant. Hundreds of pieces of primitive art -- paintings, portraits, collages, and more -- cover nearly every square inch of wall space, done up in media ranging from house paint to mud and molasses, and devoted to subjects as disparate as dogs, snakes, Jesus, John Lennon, and J.F.K. -- sometimes all in one painting! The gallery-like setting adds another twist too: Nearly every piece is illuminated by its own low-voltage picture light; multiplied many times over, those lights infuse the rooms with a bourbon-colored haze that seems to pulsate in time to the blues riffs playing in the background.
In the face of such primal juice, bland white walls would be unthinkable. So fittingly, the space -- ceilings, walls, and emergency-exit doors included -- has been transformed into a dizzy painted carnival of folk-art colors and patterns. Factor in the occasional whiff of incense wafting by from points unknown as well as the effects of boozy concoctions with names like Moonshine, Swamp Water, and Lynchburg Lemonade, and the joint starts to feel like a cross between Mardi Gras, a Jimi Hendrix concert, and a visit to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum (fried chicken not included).
Blues, booze, and a stunning art collection make for some mighty fine hooks, indeed. But where does the food fit in? The surprising answer seems to be "on equal footing."
Of course, as chef-owner of the former Mise, Uniatowski boasts unassailable talent. Still, there's a vast difference between running one's own jazzy little dining joint and laying it down for The Man in a big, corporate kitchen. No surprise, then, that there's nothing about the menu that recalls flashy Mise faves like coffee-crusted scallops on hazelnut spaetzel. (For such refined tidbits, score a membership in the club's recently opened Foundation Room.) Still, within the confines of the southern thang that it has going, the "made-from-scratch" menu is jam-packed with tasty-sounding options ranging from pan-seared shrimp, swiped with a reduction of Dixie Brewing Company's Blackened Voodoo Lager, to white-chocolate-and-banana-bread pudding, finished with a Jack Daniel's-piqued crème Anglaise.
While it's true that Creole and Cajun cookin' have become something of a cliché, wherein misguided chefs abandon nuance for the heavy-handed use of sugar, salt, and raw heat, it's a trap the HOB kitchen gleefully avoids. Instead, a pantry filled with fresh ingredients and complex spice blends, and devotion to preparations à la minute, make the southern standards sing. Dishes like thick, savory N'Awlins-style gumbo, crammed full of chicken, rice, and bits of spicy andouille sausage; and moist, almost buttery jambalaya, supporting a remarkably generous endowment of tasso, chicken, andouille, and shrimp (sans tails -- hallelujah!) arrive at the table fragrant, multifaceted, and zesty, but not heart-stopping. In fact, even a bright orange "scotch bonnet" (habañero) pepper -- the garnish of choice on the jambalaya -- proved no cause for alarm: Our efficient if hurried server knew to warn us to remove it if we weren't jonesing for a major capsaicin fix.
Of course, heat wasn't a factor in such well-prepared house specialties as fragrant, light-textured rosemary cornbread, served in a tiny cast-iron skillet with barely sweetened maple butter; or the delicate nuggets of breaded and deep-fried catfish -- so tender, they melted on the tongue like a Moon Pie in a sunbeam -- coyly served in a carryout-style box atop a tangle of freshly cut sweet-potato fries.
Still, our jaws got an unexpected workout from a rack of slow-smoked baby-back ribs, slathered with a dark, piquant Jim Beam barbecue sauce. While the portion was huge, the bones meaty, and the flavor delightful, we prefer our ribs a little more juicy and moist. A side portion of the homemade sauce would have been a welcome addition, but none was offered; and -- particularly in consideration of our small table and the massive slab of meat set before us -- it would have been enormously helpful if the kitchen had partially scored the ribs, for easier separation, before serving them. However, vibrantly fresh side dishes -- in this case, a fabulously flavorful mound of ephemeral mashed sweet potatoes and well-seasoned florets of tender-crisp cauliflower -- turned out to be bright spots.
After packing away all the food we dared, our happy conclusion was that there was no need to cut the kitchen any slack at all. If Uniatowski and his 45-member crew can do this well with a full house, we figured, they must really rock when the pressure is turned down. As it happens, though, we learned that the kitchen is well versed in handling big crowds: Uniatowski says a typical Saturday will see 800 to 1,000 guests passing through the 176-seat dining room.
The midday menu includes many of the same house specialties, along with a slightly larger assortment of sandwiches, including such enticing stack-ups as tandoor chicken with mango mayonnaise and a grilled turkey burger with Jamaican jerk seasoning.
Many of the same dishes show up again on the Sunday Gospel Brunch buffet, albeit a little less impressively for their time upon the steam table. Buttermilk-battered fried chicken was a case in point: slightly dry, sort of mealy, and with its once-crisp crust now turning soggy and limp. Still, judging by the enthusiastic grunts and groans surrounding us at our crowded community table (one of seven or eight long, narrow banquet tables crammed onto the floor of the venue's Music Hall, in the style of a church-basement chow-down), most diners were more concerned with sheer quantity than subtle degrees of quality. In that regard, there was cause for celebration. Along with the jambalaya, rosemary cornbread, and bread pudding, the dozens of options ranged from homemade waffles, made-to-order omelets, and biscuits with country gravy to jumbo peel-and-eat shrimp, Chinese chicken salad, and panko-topped mac 'n' cheese, as well as roast beef and ham, served up at a separate carving station.
At $32 per person (tax, tip, and the world's most virginal mimosas included), the Gospel Brunch proved to be a great entertainment value too. And for those who loved the music but couldn't quite embrace the message laid down during the sizzling one-hour gospel service, at least there was the fun of watching the predominantly white audience members leap to their feet, shout "Amen!" and begin waving their red napkins in the air, like a roomful of sinners at a Texas tent revival.
"Who knew middle-aged Episcopalians could get so funky?" my companion whispered, as an impromptu dance line snaked its way onto the stage. What could I say? "Praise the Lord, brother -- and pass the rosemary cornbread!"
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