When a generic Irish sports bar falls in this city, does it make a sound? The ubiquity of the tricolor-flying, flat-screen-blaring, jalapeño-popper-slinging, Gaelic-font-fronting, leprechaun-buggering, all-purpose faux-Irish public house is such that it renders most of them invisible to me. That's why I'm sure I never even noticed West Town's Division Ale House prior to hearing that it'd been shuttered by its owner only to rise up, completely reconcepted, as a Cajun-creole concern called Fifolet, bedecked with sparkly Mardi Gras masks and soundtracked by blaring brass bands for those unfamiliar with the most prominent cliches of the Crescent City. Don't look too close, though—the New Orleans-themed volumes on the lower levels of the dining room bookcase support shelves of leathery-looking law books heavy enough to crack the fragile veneer of authenticity.
Even so, the opening of a Cajun-creole spot in this town is something to notice. The long-running Heaven on Seven notwithstanding, they are few and far between, and the painful absence of a truly legitimate gumbo was only compounded last summer by the death of a truly outstanding one. The late Analogue didn't need glittery gewgaws to assert its presence when it had NOLA native Alfredo Nogueira in the kitchen slinging his "filthy" dirty rice, smoked-mushroom-stuffed mirlitons, and a lavishly fatty fried chicken sandwich.
Well, Nogueira's back cooking in his hometown, so who can blame us for putting all our hopes in chef Kevin Crouse? He previously cooked in this wheelhouse at the ill-fated Nouveau Tavern and a place called Moe Joe's in exotic Plainfield, Illinois, and his menu is more orthodox than Analogue's—but how can you complain about two varieties of gumbo, shrimp creole, chicken jambalaya, and barbecued shrimp po'boys?
Well, you can complain, and maybe you will. A guest of mine at Fifolet was so offended by that jambalaya he nearly stormed out of the dining room in reaction to my less-than-aggrieved shrug. That's the trouble for someone applying the benchmarks of a significant formative memory of a food rooted in a specific time and place. You can never go back. I didn't appreciate the attempt to punch up the acidity of this dish with cherry tomatoes, or the lily-gilding yellow pepper coulis zigzagged across the top, but it seemed a pretty standard, if forgettable, version of the dish. Same goes for a deep-fried half Cornish game hen jacketed in a crispy, earthily sweet cornmeal batter and served atop a pile of subtly iron-rich dirty rice. Braised rabbit daube, piled shredded and stewy in a crater of buttery grits, meets the yardstick for a wintry night's refueling, while that same creamy ground cornmeal provides the bed for some nicely charred venison medallions enriched with mushrooms and battered-and-fried shallots. The fried green tomatoes—while not natively creole, Cajun, or even southern—are a surprise, brittle shells on fruit with a tartness echoed in the house-made giardiniera.
There are some silly gimmicks and poorly rendered snacky bits, their flaws perhaps partially explained by the furious pace at which nearly everything seems to come out of the kitchen. This tendency is embodied in the boudin balls, the beloved Cajun rice sausage, encased here in puff pastry rather than pig guts. Bland, soggy crawfish-tail fritters seem almost electrified next to a dish of "Sunday dumplings." That plate of dull, stomach-busting pan-seared gnocchi nestled amid underseasoned brussels sprouts and canned baby corn coblets, all showered with rapidly softening matchstick potatoes, is a sorry offering for the vegetarians in your company.
On the other hand, cast-iron pans of a sweet, custardy corn-bread casserole pair nicely with the comparably candied collard greens, or even the Parmesan-bread-crumb-showered casserole of green beans and mushrooms in a smoked cream sauce.
Given all the inconsistency at Fifolet, it's almost a wonder that the namesake gumbo is so spot-on. The dark roux imparts the right bitter-coffee notes without tasting rancid or burned. And while it'll hardly hold a spoon upright, it has a thick body that clings to the shrimp, crawfish, okra, and gator sausage that lurk in its depths. The similarly swampy "Mama's Gumbo," for the gluten and shellfish averse, is yet a bit too glutinous due to an overenthusiastic application of filé powder—but thick with duck, chicken, and andouille, it's no slouch either.
Dessert presents a choice of beignets or a disastrous bananas Foster set aflame in a kind of cookielike miniature pie crust that crumbles at the slightest touch. Meanwhile behind the bar, the thematically appropriate cocktails (Sazerac, Vieux Carré, hurricane) and absinthe flights complete the pro forma simulation of a Cajun-creole habitat that, by nature of its near singularity, doesn't need to try too hard. In its workmanlike, inoffensive way, Fifolet may scratch an itch, but it also reminds you that Chicago deserves something better. v