There is a jambalaya entree at Ethel's Creole Kitchen that you have to have. By that, I mean pick up the phone and make a reservation.
As prepared in Ed Bloom's Mount Washington kitchen, the jambalaya is the kind of dish that makes you realize that just about everyone else gets it wrong. Jambalaya isn't a quick-fix dish, where you dump a bunch of seafood and sausage over yellow rice. It's a slow-baked affair, made aromatic by the addition of a mirepoix — the Cajun's combination of chopped celery, onion and carrots — and made delicious by the confident application of first-rate seafood, tender chicken and pan-seared sausage.
Ethel's jambalaya is one of the best single-dish meals in Baltimore; Ethel's gumbo is another.
Bloom bolsters his gumbo with a serious roux, the combination of flour and fat that every great gumbo must have, and he elevates it to a dream dish with a combination of meat and seafood stocks. That's the hard part of gumbo-making. From there, the addition of quality chicken, shrimp, sausage or crab meat is child's play.
The jambalaya and the gumbo are the highlights, but we loved everything we had at Ethel's Creole Kitchen, which is the new name for the recently remodeled Mount Washington restaurant formerly known as Ethel and Ramone's.
We had a fun time, too, at Ethel's Creole Kitchen, which has more breathing room than did Ethel and Ramone's. The restaurant closed for renovations last fall, a few months after Bloom and his business partner, Jeff Berkow, purchased the Sulgrave Avenue building that they had been leasing.
Decorated with photographs of New Orleans and the owners' personal artifacts, including a collection of vintage guitars, the dining rooms remain as cozy and warm as they had been. There are two major improvements — a new upstairs dining porch and a much-enlarged kitchen — that make the restaurant feel more comfortable.
There was a quartet of fine appetizers — savory smoked bluefish served on crisp ciabatta crostini; plump oysters, dusted with Old Bay-seasoned flour and fried to a delicate crisp; a tender red pepper, fire-roasted and stuffed with a warm and mellow mixture of andouille sausage, peppers and onions; and a trio of miniature crab cakes, which are more like purses of lump meat, held together with culinary science, broiled to a golden brown and served with a pickle-y remoulade.
We can recommend the other two entrees we tried — the succulent NOLA (as in New Orleans), a pan-roasted (or "pan-bronzed" to use the menu's evocative phrase) chicken breast in a roasted red bell pepper sauce, and the cast-iron rack of spring lamb, served with a blackberry demi glace that you'd gladly eat out of a jar.
This food sounds filling, but it's not. Good food seldom is. So don't be surprised if you hear yourself saying "yes" to dessert. You won't be sorry. The bread pudding is simple — basically a hard sauce over day-old challah — and the cheesecake, with Luxardo cherry sauce, is simply to die for.
Liquor helps the good mood. Ethel's now has a full liquor license — the old incarnation only served beer and wine. Now you can relax with a Sazerac, the wonderful New Orleans elixir of rye, absinthe and bitters, or a Vieux Carre, a lip-tingling concoction made with rye, cognac, sweet vermouth, Benedictine and bitters.
The beer list is short and to the point — bottles of regional brews from Heavy Seas and Dogfish and from New Orleans' Dixie Brewing Co. The wine list is designed for people who don't like to pay a lot for decent wine. There's a Rhone blend from Le Coc Rouge for $6 a glass that's all you need.
The new Ethel's has a proper bar, which doubles as a dining counter, with a view right into the kitchen. This setup helps to build an instant rapport, even affection, between the staff and the patrons. And this good feeling permeates the dining room. The wait staff is patient and sweet-natured. Diners smile at each other and recommend dishes.
"Make sure you get the collard greens," the folks at the next table might tell you. "Really, get them." Now I'm telling you: Get a side of collard greens. Maybe get two sides, one to eat at Ethel's and another to take home.
What's the secret to great collard greens?
As always, in cases like this, when something tastes like you've died and gone to heaven, we suspect bacon fat. And that's just what it was.
Ethel's Creole Kitchen
Rating: 4 stars
Where: 1615 Sulgrave Ave., Mount Washington
Contact: 410-664-2971, ethelscreolekitchen.com
Open: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Prices: Appetizers: $9-$14; Entrees: $15-$25
Food: New Orleans-inspired Creole and Cajun cuisine, by way of the Chesapeake
Service: Friendly and enthusiastic
Parking/accessibility: $5 valet parking Thursday through Saturday night; street parking at other times. Steps in front, ramp on side.
Children: There is no children's menu, but the staff can accommodate children's tastes.
Special diets: The staff is informed about gluten and tree-nut allergens on menu items.
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is mostly fine in the main dining room downstairs but can get harder when the room is full. There are two televisions at the bar, which typically have their volume turned off.
[Star key: Superlative: 5; Excellent: 4; Very Good: 3; Good: 2; Promising: 1]