We're headed to the Mardi Gras Lounge & Grill to check out the evening's offerings, and it's hard to work up much enthusiasm. The neighborhood is dead, our destination -- a squat little building on the corner of 21st and Rockwell -- looks as charming as a bunker, and the mood among my posse could be hardly more dyspeptic. Our resident jokester decides to inject us with a dose of foodie humor. "So, why did the Barefoot Contessa marry the guy who played Louie De Palma on Taxi?" he asks, already chuckling at his own wit.
We eye him gravely, and then bite.
"She wanted to be Ina Garten de Vito!" he burbles. "Get it? In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida!"
Predictably, his wife groans and rolls her eyes. But the rest of us -- pathetic food geeks that we are -- can't help ourselves. He cracks us up. And as we glide into a parking spot just outside the Mardi Gras, we're still laughing.
So why does a Greek guy open a Creole joint in old Chinatown? Even 19 years after the fact, Mardi Gras founder Nick Mavrakis remains noncommittal. The spot started out small, he says, as a lunch stop for what was then a bustling industrial neighborhood. Then, as the business took off, he expanded into a full-service restaurant and music joint, adding a weekend retinue of live jazz, blues, and R&B, along with a blended menu of Greek and theme-appropriate N'Awlins standards.
For a backdrop, Mavrakis installed big, arched windows in the dining room, painted the walls in Mardi Gras shades of green and purple, added a French Quarter mural to a rear partition, and dolled up the separate barroom with beads, masks, and shiny ornaments to create a year-round bon temps vibe. In a final shot of eclecticism, he also framed and hung a notable collection of vintage Cleveland photographs and turned over his barroom walls to area artists, for an ever-changing gallery of local talent. The result? Nothing short of the quintessential Cleveland pit stop, mirroring the city's melting-pot heritage with an almost poignant lack of consciousness.
Today, of course, most of the nearby factories and warehouses are empty, and the blue-collar clientele has largely disappeared. Business from another standby, next door's Plain Dealer, has fallen off too since the company launched its own cafeteria. Still, at lunchtime, the airy dining room draws a decent mix of office workers, delivery guys, and students and staffers from nearby Cleveland State, who kick back over gyros, burgers, or bowls of homemade soup.
Although there's not much on the midday menu to tempt a meat-free companion, the ample Athenian salad, garnished with kalamata olives and big crumbs of feta, and sided with Mavrakis' own lemon-oil-and-oregano dressing, turns out to be crisp and refreshing. Nothing wrong with the Grecian kota, either, a plump, reasonably tender grilled chicken breast served with lemon-and-herb-piqued rice.
More problematic is the hot turkey sandwich -- that venerable diner stackup of fluffy white bread, mashed potatoes, sliced turkey, and gravy -- which arrives at the table barely warm. Besides, the turkey looks like lunch meat, the potatoes seem flimsy, and the gravy -- while tasty -- doesn't exactly scream homemade (although Mavrakis says it is). The leftovers, it must be admitted, depart in a carryout box, later to provide a comforting afternoon snack.
But if the noontime Mardi Gras is merely a comfy, quirky little lunch stop, it transforms on a weekend night, when acts like Dewey Jeffries, Ras T. Dubflex, or Black Ice overrun the tiny suggestion of a stage and spill out into the audience. That's when the joint springs to life, and it's almost embarrassingly easy to imagine -- clichés notwithstanding -- that you've stumbled into a private club on some backstreet in an antediluvian Big Easy.
Car parked and giggles still piercing the air, we stroll toward the Mardi Gras door, carefully sidestepping Black Ice band members, who are starting to load in their equipment. The four of us pile into an undersized booth maybe 10 feet from the stage, and within seconds a server materializes with menus.
She's new and a little shy, and doesn't know what brewskis the bar carries, so we wait until a more experienced server comes to her rescue. Unfortunately, this one seems pretty vague about the options too -- perhaps because the selection is small or because it's not interesting enough to bother remembering. In any case, we eventually settle on pints of Guinness ($4, no shamrock, and still streaming bubbles well after reaching the table) and bottles of Dortmunder Gold (also $4). Then we settle in to peruse the Greco-Creole menu.
A flaming portion of saganaki (pale, nutty kasseri cheese, flambéed tableside in rum, then extinguished with a squeeze of fresh lemon) seems like a festive place to start, and our server pulls off the performance like a pro -- even though someone in our midst insists on shouting "Oprah!" rather than the traditional "Opa!" as the cheese goes up in flames. No matter: The dish is delish, with its slightly salty, sort-of-sweet flavor notes and its buttery mouthfeel. Rounded out with a basket of warm pita bread and a companion order of Nikki saganaki (fresh, crisp tiger shrimp, masterfully sautéed with tomatoes and white wine, and finished with a scattering of feta), it makes for a surprisingly sophisticated first course.
The good times roll on with the arrival of our entrées: hefty platters of well-priced fare, ranging from a juicy, hand-cut sirloin, broiled to order and sided by a fluffy baked potato and a bouquet of slightly overdone broccoli, to a "don't-miss" rendition of jambalaya, its mounds of firm rice bristling with toothsome shrimp, spicy Cajun sausage, and generously sized strips of grilled chicken breast, and so rich, fiery, and authentic, it could have come straight out of Paul Prudhomme's kitchen.
Other good bets include the Grecian grill mix, with a mountain of sliced gyro meat, grilled chicken breast, and lush beef tips, along with grilled onions and red pepper, and the shrimp Nikki, featuring more of those deftly sautéed tiger shrimp. Both these main events are accompanied by tangles of "Greek pasta," which turns out to be delightfully al dente fettuccine tossed in a rich but not cloying feta-alfredo sauce. (All these entrées, which include well-appointed salads, stop short of the 20-buck price barrier, incidentally; stick around for the music, and you've got one of the best dinner-and-entertainment values in town.)
As the band warms up, the room swells with a good-looking crowd composed of all ages, several races, and at least one local celebrity, who spends the evening wedged between two sweet young thangs like the fudge filling inside an Oreo. The band's vocalist starts to work the room, tent-revival style, until we're clapping, waving our hands in the air, and -- God help us -- taking turns singing into the microphone she points in our direction.
"I'll-take-you-there!" our funny guy chants into the mic, with all the soul a middle-aged white guy can muster. "I'll-take-you-theeere!"
We're still wiping the laugh-tears from our eyes as we head back out into the night. Somehow, this formerly shabby little corner of Cleveland now looks like a million bucks. And as for our mood? We feel fine.