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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

New Orleans Dining: Kermit's Treme Speakeasy

Kermit’s Tremé Speakeasy
As befit the environs, Kermit’s dishes up barbecue, soul food and tamales. To put it simply, in terms of food authenticity, it’s the real deal.

“I’m a master chef… and I play a little music on the side.”
            Okay, so the music is better than the joke. For that matter, so is the food. But the truth is, Kermit Ruffins can really cook.
            A fixture in Crescent City jazz clubs for more that a quarter century, Ruffins has become one of New Orleans’ truly iconic musicians. His blazing, big boy trumpet and gravelly voice have led to inevitable comparisons with Louis Armstrong. His small but regular role as himself on HBO’s Tremé series has brought Ruffins to the attention of a national audience. He’s a New Orleans headliner on his way to an international stage.
            That’s all well and good, of course, but Ruffins would much rather talk about the smothered rabbit, sausage and ribs that have built his reputation as the Crescent City’s premier “barbecue swinger.” Twenty years ago, when he left the celebrated Rebirth Brass Band, which he co-founded, to work as a single backed up by his own band (named the Barbecue Swingers, what else), Ruffins became notorious for showing up at gigs with a grill hitched to his back bumper of his red pickup truck. Often serving barbecue between sets, it didn’t take long before New Orleanians were lining up for the chops coming out of his cooker as well as those streaming out of his trumpet.
            These days, the jumbo grilling rig spends most of its time parked in front of his small bar and restaurant on historic Basin Street, four blocks from the French Quarter on the edge of the city’s revitalizing Tremé district. Opened in the spring of 2012, Kermit’s Tremé Speakeasy is a ludicrously small club that allows Ruffins to pursue his two principal passions under one roof he can call his own.
            As clubs go, it’s certainly not a glitzy place, nor do I imagine was it ever meant to be. Seating about sixty at shared tables with standing room for another dozen or so, Kermit’s is not a place for claustrophobics or people who need a lot of elbow room. Décor, such as it is, is minimal. The narrow main room is a deep red, mostly devoid of art, with a small bar in a back corner. A smaller, cream-colored room, dominated by an oversized photo of Ruffins resplendent in his chef togs, is off to the side.
            At the front of the room, a miniscule stage is wedged next to the front door. There’s barely enough room to support the traps, bass and electric piano of the trio that backs up Ruffins on the nights he performs (most Sundays and Mondays). Space is so tight that when the front security door is open, it crowds to the stage to a point it looks like the drummer is in jail.
            Once the music cranks up, conversation becomes virtually impossible, but talk is certainly beside the point when Ruffins and his Barbecue Swingers are cooking on the bandstand. Beyond his virtuosity with his horn, Ruffins is an ebullient performer whose unmistakable joie de vivre is not only obvious, but utterly infectious. As the Cajuns say of their beloved zydeco, “If this music doesn’t make you want to dance, you’re either deaf or dead.”
            Despite Ruffin’s one-liner about being a master chef who plays music on the side, it’s plain to see he takes every bit as much pride in his work in the kitchen he does on stage. In a world where a famous name on a restaurant door is often a virtual guarantee of culinary disappointment, the food coming out of Kermit’s kitchen is not only surprisingly good for a celebrity joint, it’s damned good inn its own right.
            On The Sensible One’s and my first visit, she ordered fried chicken while I ordered smothered rabbit with potato salad, and we decided to split a side of red beans and rice. We had finished and the cleaned plates had been cleared long before Ruffins explained from the stage that his cook had come in two hours late that morning so Ruffiuns himself was forced to tie on an apron, smother the rabbit, make the potato salad and whip up a Monday-sized kettle of red beans.
            The rabbit arrived swimming in a pool of the paprika-tinted sauce in which is it hand been smothered. Since the Louisiana cooking term from smothered is etouffee, I’m guessing that the sauce was traditionally roux-based. It certainly had the richness and depth, if not the brown color, of a traditional roux, and was impeccably balanced with tomatoes, the trinity (onion, celery and bell pepper), a whisper of garlic and fresh aromatics.
            I had considered the potato salad on the plate an after thought, at least until I had my first bite. While there seemed to be nothing terribly unconventional about it and no ingredients appeared to be anything more than ordinary, it was surprisingly rich and vibrant, especially when compared to the potato salads generally offered in restaurants. As superb as the smothered rabbit was, I think the unexpected goodness of the potato salad make it especially noteworthy.
            The Sensible One’s fried chicken was better than most I’ve had in the Crescent City, even though it fell short of equaling the city’s gold standard found at Willie Mae’s Scotch House on the far side of Tremé. This is understandable since Willie Mae’s has substantially fewer items on the menu and is geared toward cooking its chicken to order, while sheer practicality sometimes subjects the chicken at Kermit’s to a spell under warming lights.
            In terms of pure flavor, Kermit’s red beans and rice were, along with those at Willie Mae’s, the best I’ve had in the city, period. Red beans have a tendency to be a little on the bland side, which is why it’s common to see people chopping up jalapenos into them to give them some more life. Those served at Kermit’s may be a little salty for some tastes, certainly not mine, but that’s totally subjective. At any rate, it’s the salt that gives the recipe its lift, which is why it rises so far above the ordinary. About the only drawback to the dish comes from the meat that’s used to season the beans. During our visit, we were both surprised to bite down on small bones that had hidden in the pot, something that had never occurred in all our years of eating red beans. This is a small quibble to be sure, but it’s an area where the kitchen would be well served to pay a little more attention.
            There is no printed menu at Kermit’s Tremé Speakeasy; rather there is a blackboard behind the bar that changes with item availability, seasonal freshness and no doubt the whims of the “master chef” himself. Beyond the board, the day’s menu is recited tableside by one of the affable servers. As befit the environs, Kermit’s dishes up barbecue, soul food and tamales. To put it simply, in terms of food authenticity, it’s the real deal.
            In fact, authenticity may be the watchword of the whole establishment. Despite the large photo of Ruffins in the second room, the place is anything but some kind of shrine to the proprietor. It’s one of the city’s truly solid soul food restaurants and can pass muster on that basis alone. It just happens double as home base for one of New Orleans’ most celebrated jazz masters.
            As the maestro himself is fond of saying when he hoists a cold one, “All aboard!”

Kermit’s Tremé Speakeasy
1535 Basin Street (corner of North Robertson)
Lunch through early dinner daily
No reservations
All major credit cards
Telephone: (504) 309-5828
No website