James Street Tavern is part bar, part restaurant, part jazz club and on Wednesday evenings, banjo ground zero, when a couple dozen of Pittsburgh's pickers get together to jam. There's live entertainment here Tuesdays through Saturdays, usually of a jazz or Dixieland nature. And then there's that New Orleans-style menu boasting dishes with such musical names etoufee, jambalaya, lafitte, filet gumbo.
We decided to do a sampling of Southern creatures: turtle, alligator, catfish and pig. We began with the turtle soup. A tomato broth was thick with soft turtle meat, carrots and little dumplings. A splash of dry sherry made a nice complement to the sweet, slightly spicy soup base.
A sausage made from alligator meat was grilled, then served in quarters. The sausage had an excellent crisp skin, and the meat inside was lean but still juicy and flavorful. Creamy mustard was an appropriate dressing, though it's a small peeve of mine that this sauce came in a little lidded plastic take-away container. A proper china bowl makes a much nicer presentation. Also, butter knives are in short supply in restaurants these days. A thin serrated knife is fine if you're cutting meat, but is close to worthless when trying to spread cold butter on a roll.
My companion ordered the catfish, a filet served Cajun-style, i.e., dusted in cayenne pepper, then grilled. It was hot and "dusty" on the outside with flaky white meat inside. The fish lay atop ample servings of "dirty" rice (mixed with chopped onions and celery) and sweet black-eyed peas. Both our entrees came with a large garnish of bell peppers a colorful medley of sauted green, red, yellow and orange peppers mixed with chopped parsley.
I love red beans and rice and debated ordering the beans-and-rice entree but then just how much beans and rice does one get for $15.95' A wiser choice was the two pork chops grilled or Cajun-style served with red beans and rice for a mere dollar more. The pork chops were tender near the bone and close to the fatty edge, and just a trifle chewy in the center. I opted for the simple grill to preserve the always-delectable taste of pork. My companion loved his Cajun fish, but I generally find a totally peppered piece of meat to be a bit overwhelming.
The red beans, like the black-eyed peas, were wonderful. These aren't your hard-sufferin,' teetotalling legumes. Plain peas and beans may be an excellent healthy choice, but when they start fraternizing with fatty pork is when they get mmmm-mmmm tasty. I could smell the bacon in the black-eyed peas even before my fork turned over a meaty little morsel, and the creamy red beans were comfortably co-habiting with small pieces of ham and andouille sausage.
The tables are set with Louisiana condiments salt, pepper and Tabasco sauce but I found the meals well seasoned. Both the beans and the peas were lively with pepper and who-knows-what-else: Doesn't every red beans recipe start with a family secret' One not-so-secret spice either in the beans or the ham is salt. I bet they can sell a lot of cold beer on the back end of a meal; I easily slugged back two 16-ounce glasses of pop.
We ended the meal with a popular down-home staple, bread pudding, and a dessert from another Gulf hot spot, key lime pie. The pie wedge was impressively tall, and had a consistency somewhat like a chewy cheesecake, but was appropriately tart. The warm bread pudding was spiced with cinnamon and raisins. Below it was a puddle of whiskey-spiked crme Anglaise, above it a dollop of whipped cream. All cooked dough should taste so good. At least until the beignets get here.
Location: 422 Foreland St., North Side. 412-323-2222.
Hours: Mon. 11 a.m-9 p.m.; Tue.-Fri. 11 a.m.-1: 30 a.m.; Sat. 4 p.m.-1 a.m.
Prices: Appetizers $3.95-10.95; sandwiches and salads $7.95-12.95;
Fare: Cajun and Creole dishes