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Instant Bayou

Jezebel's delivers flavors fresh from Cajun country

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When a restaurant can fill your belly and shift your paradigm, that's a good thing. So kudos to Jezebel's Bayou, a new southern-style restaurant near Shaker Square. The paradigm in question was alligator meat: I nearly busted a jaw the last time I bit into a piece, so I was in no hurry to repeat the process. But Tyrone, our habitually upbeat server, explained that the meat at Jezebel's is flown in fresh — not frozen — from Louisiana, resulting in a wholly different experience.

That alligator appetizer — spicy, only slightly chewy, and tasting nothing like chicken — wasn't the only pleasant surprise we encountered at Jezebel's. Throughout the course of two visits, we enjoyed delicious food, delightful service, and some incredible bargains. Apparently, we aren't the only ones who think so: On a bustling Friday night, the dining room was packed with one of the most diverse restaurant crowds I've seen in ages.

Formerly Boulevard Blue and Menu 6, the attractive space on Larchmere Boulevard is now operated by the Angie's restaurant group, the folks behind Angie's Soul Café and Zanzibar Soul Fusion. With each successive project, the team seems to get better. Jezebel's, for my money, is the best of the bunch.

Unlike the soul food ladled out at Angie's and dished out at Zanzibar, here the focus is on Cajun and Creole dishes inspired by the Big Easy.

"I've had the concept in mind for a while," explains general manager Akin Alafin, who travels frequently to New Orleans. "When Fat Fish Blue closed, I knew it was the right time."

Apart from the very good but largely carry-out Battiste Cajun Grill, there is practically nowhere in town to scratch the itch for authentically prepared gumbo, jambalaya, and étouffée. Lucky for us fans, Jezebel's is doing it right. The seafood is fresh, the sauces vivacious, the portions robust, and the prices right where they should be.

In addition to those breaded-and-fried gator bites — which are paired with a kicky pepper aioli — we munched on starters built around catfish and crawfish. Aptly named "Cajun Popcorn," the cornmeal-dusted fried crawfish tails go down like snack food. Bigger, meatier, and more like a meal, the pecan-crusted catfish tastes better than most.

Now that they've earned my trust, I'll definitely be back to try Jezebel's oysters, flown in from Louisiana and served raw, fried, and Rockefeller style.

What I appreciate most about Jezebel's is that rather than attempt to reinvent the wheel, they merely aim to straighten the rim. Order the gumbo here and it will look, taste, and, yes, feel like the gumbo you remember from Jazz Fest. No clever twists; no chef trying to remake the dish in his or her own image. That gumbo, by the by, is as dark and stormy as a tropical depression, punctuated by nuggets of zesty ham and andouille.

When the étouffée and barbecued shrimp arrived, we blindly requested hot sauce. The cap never came off the bottle. Speckled with spice, with heaps of tender crawfish and redfish in a roux-thickened gravy that's ladled over fluffy white rice, the riotously flavorful étouffée is a joy to eat.

A classically prepared New Orleans-style barbecued shrimp features nearly a dozen fat and freshly cooked crustaceans swimming in a buttery, Worcestershire-spiked sauce. Peeled and butterflied, the shrimp are a breeze to consume. We did not, however, care for the mashed potato pairing or the biscuits, which arrived flat, hard, and dry as dust.

Dessert, too, might have been more tempting if it hadn't been covered in plastic wrap and presented on a dirty tray.

While we did endure some long pauses between courses on that busy weekend night, we never felt ignored. Management works the room like Vegas pit bosses, filling the gaps with plates of warm jalapeño corn muffins.

One of the best ways to sample Jezebel's fare is during happy hour, which comes both early and late. While you sip on strong-winded Hurricanes, you can snack on heavily discounted versions of gumbo, jambalaya, and étouffée. The mood is as celebratory as it gets, with the food often taking a back seat to the conversation — just as it should.

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