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Restaurant Tours: back to the bayou

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John Moultrie thinks we're ripe for a Cajun comeback. In the mid-80s nothing was hotter--literally and figuratively--than Louisiana cooking. Even your corner diner was serving blackened something. Then the rage for Cajun dissipated. One by one the restaurants folded. Sure, Heaven on Seven, in a downtown office building, is packed at lunchtime, but grand as it is, it's not what they call a destination restaurant.

That's where Moultrie comes in. He's a 34-year-old, Chicago-born food-service pro whose roots go back to the bayous. In midsummer he opened Bazzell's French Quarter Bistro in Old Town with a Cajun-creole menu based on recipes handed down from his great-grandparents, who emigrated from Louisiana around 1910 to open the original Bazzell's in Saint Augustine, Florida.

"The fad may be over, but the cuisine is not dead," he says. "People are still looking for good tastes, for spice, for something different. It isn't just about heat--it's about many different flavors."

Moultrie has worked the urban-corporate end with Hyatt Hotel restaurants and the 95th atop the John Hancock. In 1991 he opened the Jazz Oasis in River North. But finally he decided it was time to go back to his roots. He arranged to take over the space that was once the popular Azteca restaurant and set out to prove that Cajun cuisine was alive and well.

"None of these recipes were ever written down. My great-grandmother taught them to my grandmother. I finally got around to getting them from her, little by little. She'd tell me 'a pinch of this' or 'a little of that,' and I'd work at making her tell it more specifically--a teaspoon or a half teaspoon or whatever. Then I started refining and embellishing them. This place is really a tribute to my grandmother."

The room is comfortably casual, its walls covered with huge paintings of Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday. John Coltrane's recordings played all night long on my most recent visit.

Dinner kicked off with blackened shrimp that were modestly spiced and nicely charred without being overcooked ($6.95). We also had the house specialty, shrimp Bazzell's--tiny salad shrimp simmered in a chunky, savory blend of tomatoes, garlic, and green onion and served on a bed of rice ($6.95)--a real hit with my companion. We both admired the crab cakes, which were crisp and lightly peppery but without too much binder ($7.95).

An earlier visit had started with an unusual breaded baby lobster tail that had been deep-fried just right, so that the sweetness came through ($8.95).

Gumbo ya ya ($4 and $6), a thick potion made with a dark New Orleans roux and studded with chicken and sausage, was pleasant but somewhat underseasoned. One of the hardest things to find around town is good crawfish, because they're highly perishable and hard to work with. But on both visits to Bazzell's they were excellent. As an appetizer, called "Acadienne," they were lightly sauteed and given a garlic and wine sauce ($5.95); as an entree they were smothered in a well-spiced, garlicky roux ($12.95).

Competing for top honors that evening was a terrific fried fillet of red snapper ($14.95). It had a crisp, slightly puffy, finely seasoned crust and was topped with a Cajun tartar sauce that had just the right tang.

Moultrie does his blackened dishes in olive oil instead of butter, which he thinks burns too easily and often has a bitter flavor. He also has perfected a spice mix that emphasizes garlic and black pepper but doesn't overwhelm. We tried the blackened catfish ($13.95) and chicken breast ($11.95), each of which had a dark char but no dense crusting. There was heat, but you could also savor all the flavors--one of the hallmarks of Moultrie's approach.

Other interesting choices include jambalaya made with chicken and smoked sausage ($10.95), red beans and rice with smoked sausage ($9.95), and either shrimp creole ($12.95) or lobster creole ($15.95) with their spicy, tomato-based sauces. The dessert of choice is bread pudding: meltingly soft, filled with raisins, and just sweet enough ($4).

Bazzell's French Quarter Bistro, 215 W. North, is open 5 to 10 Monday through Wednesday, 5 to 11 Thursday, 5 to midnight Friday and Saturday, and 4 to 9 Sunday. There's live jazz Thursday through Saturday beginning at 6 PM; 312-787-1131.

--Don Rose

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.

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