- Walter Novak
- Junior Battiste: Your host, server, and everything else.
Owner, host, chef, server, bartender, busser, DJ, and resident philosopher: Like a one-man band at the town street fair, Junior Battiste really does do it all, operating his modest southern comfort stop, Battiste & Dupree Cajun Grill, on a wing, a prayer, and with the support of some really cool suspenders.
That level of involvement makes a meal here more than a mere refueling. Make a reservation (a grand idea, given that the spot has only five tables), and Battiste will pull out your chair when you arrive, address you by name, and maybe even give you a hug. Mention the jazz playing in the background, and he'll deliver a handful of CDs for your perusal. Or compliment his vibrant Cajun cooking, and he'll bounce back on his heels. "Everything's better with Scotch bonnet on it!" he admonishes, and you can't help but believe him.
The upshot is that eating here is more akin to eating at a friend's home than to dining on the town. Of course, that prompts a question: While your friend may be cool, could he really run a restaurant? That's what we found ourselves wondering after two promising visits that were ultimately marred by painfully but predictably slow pacing and uneven preparations.
A native Clevelander with roots that run deep into the Mississippi Delta, Battiste learned all about culinary magic as a child, when he used to sneak cookie-making ingredients from his grandma's pantry to bake for his sibs. He later attended a culinary institute in New Orleans, but he had never run a restaurant until two years ago, when he stumbled upon space in an unprepossessing strip plaza in South Euclid and decided to launch his grill.
As befitting its minuscule square footage, carryout is a popular option. It's also by far the smartest move for anyone with a schedule to adhere to, since sit-down dining can be infuriatingly slow.
Cooking to order is a good thing; doing it without a staff considerably less so. Take a recent Saturday night, when Battiste was faced, almost single-handedly, with eight diners and a steady stream of carryout customers. Our intended "starter" came out long after our entrées were gone, and a side of sweet-and-spicy corn maque choux showed up around the time we were ready to split. But at least we got to eat -- unlike the guy at the next table. After more than an hour, he was still waiting for his po' boy to arrive. In the meantime, his companion had scarfed down some irresistibly moist yet crunchy chicken wings, slathered with an eye-popping "Cajun barbecue sauce," and a serving of profoundly rich, roundly seasoned shrimp étouffée, and was now itching to go home. "I know you're busy, man," the would-be diner sighed as he followed her out the door. "But next time, please make sure I get that po' boy, 'cause it really looked good!"
Maybe we should have told him he didn't miss much. The sandwich looked impressive, with plenty of lettuce, onions, cucumbers, tartar sauce, and American cheese piled up on fresh, crusty French bread; but the main ingredient -- breaded and deep-fried chicken "tenders" -- had been vastly overcooked. We'd encountered the same problem on an earlier visit with the fried seafood platter. Of course, when the chef is busy waiting tables, he's bound to have a hard time monitoring the fryer.
Nonetheless, the owner's inherent graciousness makes up for a lot. If time allows, for instance, Battiste may bring out a complimentary lagniappe or two, a little extra something from his kitchen to help round out a meal. On a not-too-busy weeknight, that meant a duo of plush, peppery fried turkey necks, which we daintily nibbled right down to the bones, and toasty slabs of honey-spiked "bruschetta."
Next up was our gumbo -- not as thick as some, but still bristling with dark, mysterious flavors, along with bits of chicken, smoked sausage, shrimp, and a crawdad or two. Then came the homemade sides: sweet coleslaw, juicy red beans and rice, and a tidy mound of peppery -- but not punishing -- jambalaya, spiked with bits of chicken and shrimp, but with no sign of the traditional tasso or smoked sausage. (Speaking of sausage, Battiste uses good-quality smoked beef sausage in place of pork andouille; the same sausage also shows up in the snappy Polish Boy sandwich, where it's smothered in that spicy-sweet barbecue sauce and buried beneath coleslaw. Yowza!)
After all that high-octane goodness, the subsequent entrées -- that overcooked seafood and a duo of slim, slightly salty, but otherwise sort of bland crab cakes -- paled in comparison. But when it came to dessert, tedium evaporated, replaced by appreciative awe. The cause? A dinner-plate-sized edifice of pound cake, caramelized banana slices, warm rum sauce, whipped cream, strawberries, candied pecans, and chocolate syrup. Hilariously excessive, it tasted every bit as yummy as it looked.
To drink, Battiste stocks domestic and imported beers, or he can pour an honest cocktail, including his signature drink: the multilayered Houma Houma ($5.50). He uses the analogy of a house collapsing to describe it, calling the bottom layer of pineapple juice "the basement," the melon liqueur "the first floor," the white Bacardi rum "the second floor," and the brandy on top "the attic." Sip, don't stir, he advises, and remember: "Sooner or later, the attic's gonna go crashing into the basement!"
By that point, chances are you'll hardly even notice.