Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Jacque-Imo's

Time flies when you are having fun. When you are waiting to be seated at Jacque-Imo's, time crawls at speeds which would make a sloth impatient. Jacque-Imo's serves, as the sign says jokingly, "Warm beer, lousy food, poor service."

That about sums it up, but the service is adept considering how busy the place is.

Having a no reservations policy means you will attract people who come for the scene of it all. (See also, Galatoire's). This is not bad so long as you have a bar which can dispense booze at a rapid fire pace. Jacque-Imo's does, and the bartenders make it a point to get you a drink in a hurry. But as a testament to their success, you constantly see bar backs loading in new Abita Ambers and Bud Lights into the low boys. Expect luke cold beers. Better to stick with the mojitos, especially the watermelon versions. They do help to soften the mood and temper the wait.

You walk into this frenzied scene and give your name to a hostess. Regardless of the time, day, weather, color of your shirt, or occupancy of the restaurant, she will tell you "Shouldn't be more than one hour." She is lying. You know it, and she does also.

So you wait. Stay inside the bar and you become a pin ball constantly shuffling between customers, waiters, and the owner, Jack Leonardi, as he shuffles outside to take a shot with some Tulane undergrads. Waiting outside allows you to acquaint yourself with the resident Tarot card reader. For $20 he will read your fortune.

Or you can wait next door at the Maple Leaf. Eventually, management will ask for a cover and you will likely be back out on the street. You go to the hostess to make sure your name hasn't come up. "Its only been 27 minutes," she says before hollering, "Gibson, party of five!"

An hour and half later, you are seated, strike that, wedged into a four top table in the front of a bar. Since you spent the last hour outside the window cradling that table, you know this table has been empty nearly all night. Or maybe the hostess brings you to a table in the back room, or the side building, or you eat on the tailgate of a truck. Mapping the premises would require the imaginative hand of MC Escher.

The first food impression at Jacque-Imos is very good. A garlic and parsley topped cornbread muffin arrives nearly as soon as you sit down, piping hot and with a garlic butter drizzled on top. You inhale it, and hell, you deserve it after waiting two hours to eat. The cornbread has soul and punch - things are looking up.

This may be part of the strategy of Jacque-Imo's and how Leonardi has developed legions of fans worldwide, including Monsieur Bourdain. By the time you are seated, you have been held hostage for hours. You become Patty Hearst, inflicted by Stockholm Syndrome, you will love any piece of food they give you. Any attention from staff will be met with applause from you and your dining companions. A cold beer would cause you to rob a bank.

Jacque-Imo's menu takes bits and pieces from the New Orleans cannon to create a hybrid mix of New Orleans favorites, soul food, and late-night concoctions. Shrimp remoulade on fried green tomatoes, barbecue shrimp on white rice, fried chicken, carpetbagger steak, stuffed pork chops, a deep fried roast beef po boy. Order whatever you like, it will all taste vaguely similar.

A few months ago, the potatoes on a chicken pontalba dish were on the just barely cooked side of raw. Which works for fish, but not starches. As for the chicken, just putting Chef Paul Prudhomme's Magic Seasoning on a breast does little to justify the price tag. You could have made this at home, much better.

The portions coming from the kitchen are substantial. Often the entree of choice arrives covered with a dark, rich gravy fortified by enough sodium to give the Dead Sea a run for its title. Each entree comes with your choice of two sides which run all the familiar stretches of beans, greens, and starches. Potato salad and corn are the way to go. The red beans and rice are best avoided. Not so much for the beans, which are creamy and spicy, but for the rice which is gray and undercooked. Eating it is much like biting down on a Navy Cruiser, good practice should you ever be transformed into a ship eating sea monster.

In between the cornbread and the entrees, a spinach salad arrives topped with a fried oyster. Emphasis on the word "a". Or not, as mine on one visit was a clump of batter fried to golden brown. Not that it tasted bad, but the oyster had slipped out at some point. The fried roast beef po-boy has yet to pass these lips. Not sure if that is a good or bad thing.

All the dishes have one or two things that are done very well, and one or two that fall flat. For instance, a recent visit presented a pork chop cooked perfectly. The meat, juicy and well seasoned had just turned from pink to white allowing the inside to stay tender. Inside a slit, the cooks had stuffed an intense mixture of ground shrimp and beef, the texture of which hovered somewhere between gruel and oatmeal. Surrounding and topping the hunk of pork was a mahogany colored gravy which created the impression that the dish wanted to be a soup. Not certain, but Kitchen Bouquet may have been prominently involved.

Fried chicken, a leftover from Chef Austin Leslie's tenure, is still very good. Its crust is pale gold and shatters like fine china on a marble floor. The chicken is hot and well-seasoned and each bite sends juice running down your arm and alerting the pleasure sensors in your brain. If you love fried chicken, you would do better going to Jacque-Imo's sibling, Crabby Jacks and ordering it there.

The wait staff does hustle. Drinks are fetched quickly, dishes come in a rapid fire sequence, and the bill is dropped when you ask for it. Working in such a busy, crowded environment must create all sorts of problems. Judging from the professionalism of the wait staff, you would never know it.

Many people will tell you that you go to Jacque-Imo's for the ambiance or atmosphere. While I love a good scene, the vibe reminds me of being trapped in a nightclub scene in "Treme". It is dimly light, you can barely hear what anyone is saying, a sense of nervousness fills the air, and there is a shady, Scandinavian musician at the bar. On one recent night it was Anders Osborne.

The best thing about this blog has been exploring the restaurants in New Orleans. By doing so, you learn which places you really like. Sorry to say, Jacque-Imo's is not one of those places for me. But that shouldn't stop you from enjoying it. Based on the near constant crowds, my opinion is that of the minority.

As far as I am concerned, the sign tells you everything you need to know. Almost.

Jacque-Imo's - Bogey

9 comments:

Christy said...

I've never understood the hype behind Jacque-Imos. I think people equate a "fun" restaurant with good food but I agree that the "atmosphere" is just a cover for a lousy dinner. Last time I ate there my husband and I were wedged so close to another couple we were basically sitting at their table with only a roof support beam separating us. Awkward.

Celeste said...

Whenever I drive down Oak and see people sitting in the back of that silly pickup truck, I am seized by an (almost) irresistible urge to hurl a large frozen daquiri out the car window at 'em. Something red & fruity...

Anonymous said...

In the words of a very busy restaurateur I know in the quarter who runs a fine business, but with lousy food "14 million people a year come through New Orleans, I need each of them to eat at my place once. I don't care if they come back."

Personally for me March 2005 was the last time I darkened JI's door. Will never go back. If I want his slop I'll just go to Crabby Jacks, which is rarely.

NOJuju said...

I've never been to Jacque-Imo's in all the years I've lived in NOLA (11 and counting), despite many people's recommendations, because the scene you describe would INFURIATE me. A two hour wait would drop my blood sugar straight into rage territory and the last thing in the world I want to spend my money on is warm beer and food I could make better and faster at home. Forget it.

Anonymous said...

You give it a bogey, and talk about how the atmosphere and food aren't for you, yet in the same paragraph you speak of multiple visits. If it's so terrible, why do you keep going back?

Anonymous said...

I think the thing that bothers me most about Jacque-Imos is the fact that there are like 25 entrees to choose from. If I wanted to go a place that offered that many choices, I could go to a Copeland's establishment. Where the food all taste eerily similar.....social city, brah?

Rene said...

Anon,

When we write reviews we oftentimes try to visit multiple times. I've gone to Jacque Imo's twice since the Saints won the Super Bowl. I had enough material for an article and was ready to write it.

Anonymous said...

when my roomate was in college he bartended there. I saw them make the cornbread once. If you want the recipe it goes something like this. Take a muffin tray, ladle each impression approximately 1/2 full with melted garlic butter. then add your cornbread mix as normal and bake. they are good.

Anonymous said...

Stumbled across your website, Blackened, from the Chowhound one, and after reading the review on J-I's, have to chime in and say that it was the only dismal meal (on many different levels) that we've experienced on our last two trips to NOLA. It's one place that I will never want to return, and would never recommend to anyone, including tourists, I being one myself. IMO, it's a trap. After a 2 1/2 hour wait, the food better be sublime, and it definitely was not. Hell, the drinks weren't even strong. But as one poster stated, if you can get each and every tourist that comes to NOLA to darken the doors at J-I's, it'll continue to thrive....