Nothing can ruin a meal quicker than not being afforded the time to enjoy it. Even when all the other stars align — drinks, food, setting, company — if an over-eager server hurries a guest through his or her courses, the entire experience can become tarnished. That was twice the case at Bourbon Street Barrel Room, a destination worth savoring leisurely if ever one existed.
Owner Justin Clemens spent a fortune transforming a gritty old art gallery into a truly impressive representation of a French Quarter restaurant. Inside and out, this new Tremont attraction feels like it was worm-holed through space and time to its present coordinates. The last thing in the world he wants to do when guests finally arrive is to push them back out the door.
"That's a problem that needs constant addressing," he admits after I explain over the phone how during two separate dinners our starters and mains came to the table virtually simultaneously. "That should not happen."
It's clear that Clemens adores New Orleans and wants nothing more than to convince others to feel the same. This ambitious project took two years to complete because Clemens had one unalterable goal: to bring an authentic slice of the Big Easy to Cleveland.
"I've always loved New Orleans," he says. "There's sort of this aura and culture about it — even aside from the food — that's very hard to explain unless you've been there. I felt that if you could really stay true to the look, style and food, you could save people a plane ticket."
Clemens first met chef Johnny Schulze when he pulled his Creole-fueled food truck Zydeco Bistro up to his Kent-based craft beer bar, 101 Bottles of Beer on the Wall. Willing to settle on nothing less than the real deal, Clemens was thrilled to partner with a chef whose roots extend deep into Baton Rouge soil.
Flickering gas lamps and a recessed entryway welcome guests with a warm hug. Inside, dripping chandeliers draw one's eyes up the glimmering copper ceiling, which is visible through the second floor balcony level. Each booth has its own gas lamp, manufactured by a third-generation lamp maker in the French Quarter. Wrought iron, exposed brick and wood paneling combine to create a realistic — not replica — venue. Clemens even flew his management team down to New Orleans to soak up the scene (and steal some authentic cocktail recipes).
Start with a fruity House Hurricane ($8.50), a blend of various types of rum and fruit juices served in the classic curvy vessel. Rye-based Mint Juleps ($8.50), of course, are poured over crushed ice in frosty copper mugs and garnished with fresh mint. And what self-respecting Big Easy bar would ignore the Sazerac ($9), America's first true cocktail, made with rye, cognac, bitters and Absinthe? Clemens, a craft beer bar owner, also maintains a beefy assortment of great brews.
Schulze's lineup of Cajun and Creole dishes unfailingly hit the spot. If we had a recurring complaint, however, it was the consistent lack of heat, if not spice. A few dashes of Tabasco was all it took to elevate a dark, earthy and complex bowl of gumbo ($5) with rice to its proper place in Cajun history. Crispy fried frog legs, while a tad pricey at $5 for one pair and $9 for two, are some of the best around. Doused in hot sauce and easily sucked from the bones, the meat is sweet, mild and tangy. Diners used to Creole-style jambalaya ($6.50) will find a drier, darker, meatier version here as Schulze shuns the tomato sauce.
Most comfort foods pale in comparison to soul-satisfying dishes like crawfish etouffee ($18.50), New Orleans-style BBQ shrimp ($17.50), and garlicky shrimp Creole ($16.50). The crawfish is enveloped in a rich, dark and zesty sauce and served over white rice. The barbecue shrimp is bathed in a buttery, hot sauce-laced gravy and ladled over creamy grits. A spicy tomato sauce distinguishes shrimp Creole and rice from its Cajun brethren. A veggie pasta dish and even a vegan entree round out a sizeable selection of main courses.
A whole host of Po' Boys filled with everything from crispy fried oysters ($11.50) or catfish ($11.50) to long-simmering roast beef "debris" with horseradish are two-fisted creations that offer great value and taste. When given the choice between french fries and hush puppies, always choose the hush puppies. Lighter, sweeter and more satisfying than most, the pups are little balls of deep-fried love.
The wrap-around second-floor mezzanine, which boasts killer views below to the main dining room, is reserved for busy weekend nights when it's most needed. By confining diners to the main floor on other evenings, management can maintain a packed house of festive folks who are eager to laissez les bons temps rouler.To strive for anything else would be so unlike the location he loves.
Bourbon Street Barrel Room
2393 Professor Ave., 216-298-4400, bourbonstreetbarrelroom.com