Lunch review: Visit Ethel & Ramone's for a taste of Louisiana

Any Maryland native familiar with the "Maryland crab cake" served outside the state has likely encountered a substance that doesn't rise even to the level of counterfeit. One wonders: Have they even been flown over the state?

Good regional cooking rarely transplants well beyond its native soil. Worse, the more popular the cuisine, the more the pale comparisons and limping approximations proliferate. And nothing underscores the dearth of authenticity like finding a place that really gets it.

On Sulgrave Avenue in Mount Washington, on a block that at first appears to be all restaurants, above sidewalk signs and menu displays, there hangs a flag — a skull and crossbones on an ominous black field. It's more than merely a clever hint about the nature of the fare inside. Fortunately, there's real piracy here. When Ethel and Ramone's brought Cajun to Mount Washington 17 years ago, it hauled the treasure of the bayou along with it.

12:30 p.m. A restrained hand drops hints of New Orleans throughout the first-floor dining room. A string of beads, tasseled shades of faded burgundy, a line of old electric guitars mounted on a wall: Each touch recalls the festival humor of the Big Easy without copying its famous excess. The dining room could be a tastefully appointed Bourbon Street palm reader's parlor. Most of the tables are set for two and well spaced, leaving enough room for private conversation. Your neighbors are more likely to hear old jazz crooners and occasional clanks and banter from the kitchen than your table talk. There's additional seating for about 20 upstairs.

12:40 p.m. Despite the firm warning from the server that the gumbo here is not a soup but more like a substantial stew, we ordered it with shrimp ($15) as a shared appetizer along with two entrees: a wild-mushroom pasta and a shrimp sandwich (for lack of a more deserving word).

12:55 p.m. The gumbo's shrimp are huge. Etiquette, at minimum, demands you cut them at least in half before popping them in your mouth. Likewise, some of the cuts of andouille sausage were more than 2 inches long.

The shrimp and sausage are so good, you might not notice that even the rice is exceptional. The kitchen presents the rice in a mound in the bowl, not stirred into the soup, giving you the opportunity to check it out before it's bathed in the stock. And in this concoction, it's the stock that proves the kitchen. It has a color that recalls delta silt with a tint of dusky cayenne red and heat that grows like a habit, barely noticed until it's suddenly there, making you smile.

Against less formidable companions, the wild mushrooms in a three-cheese sauce with fresh fettuccine would steal the show. The portobello and shiitake mushrooms are generously cut and succulent. The sauce is creamy and clingy with both sharp and mild cheese notes. It lists for $12 with marinara as a another sauce option. Good stuff, but during this meal, it actually came in third.

The shrimp Marty is a close sibling to Ethel and Ramone's version of the Louisiana po' boy sub sandwich. Huge blackened shrimp share a toasted ciabatta bed with bacon, a creamy remoulade, tomato slices and dark green lettuce. At $13, it actually comes in a buck less than the shrimp po' boy, which swaps out the bacon and adds fried potatoes. The Marty is understated decadence.

Ethel and Ramone's' lunch menu offers a soup du jour, six salads, five entrees and five sandwiches. It's a concise array that — based on the evidence of this meal — suggests concentration on quality over quantity. Commensurately, prices here, at least on paper, are higher than your everyday noon haunt. But if you lean toward laissez les bons temps rouler, put it on the card and worry about it tomorrow.

1:17 p.m. In the end, the experience of good Louisiana cooking at Ethel and Ramone's is more than merely authentic. Mastery is at play here. Confidence is at work. For some, the choices will come down simply to gumbo or jambalaya (dinner menu) when they need a Cajun fix. Those who seek less iconic tastes will find ample room for exploration.

If you need a taste of Louisiana but can't afford the time or ticket, come to Ethel and Ramone's. Within the improvisational spectrum of Cajun cuisine, and small, casually fine restaurants in general, Ethel and Ramone's is as good as it gets.

• You be the critic: Write your own review for Ethel and Ramone's.

Ethel and Ramone's

Where: 615 Sulgrave Ave., Mount Washington

Contact: 410-664-2971

Lunch hours: 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. Tues-Sat

Lunch entrées: $9-$15 (crab and oyster dishes market price)

Food: ✭✭✭✭

Service: ✭✭✭1/2

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭1/2

[Key: ✭✭✭✭: Outstanding; ✭✭✭: Good; ✭✭: Fair or Uneven; ✭: Poor]

Dining time: 47minutes

• You be the critic: Write your own review for Ethel and Ramone's.