When Fat Fish Blue — the Louisiana-style restaurant and nightclub — opened a couple of months ago, I met the congenial general manager, Bon-die Fortner. "It's pronounced Bon-day," he explained. He's from Louisiana and has a real affection for that region's cuisine and music.
The next time I went in, the following week, Bon-die had apparently taken a streetcar named Desire right out of town. He was gone for good.
"They fired him. You know how new restaurants are," our waitress whispered. "Everything sort of shakes out in the first few weeks."
Ah, how true. I worked in more than a few brand-new restaurants in my checkered serving career. Things really do shake down: Menus are tweaked, weak waitstaff fired, and mechanical kinks worked out in the kitchen and computer systems. Still, it's unusual for a general manager to get the ax so early in the game (not that I didn't see plenty of incompetent GMs, back in my waiter days, who should have been fired right away).
But that's life in a more perfect world. And in that more perfect world — say, Cleveland, where the first Fat Fish Blue opened in that city's downtown — a lively restaurant like this would have sought out a more urban location. Perhaps near 18th Street and Vine or in one of those warehouse-sized Power & Light District venues.
I don't know if restaurant companies pay for demographic studies to find out where to locate their culinary concepts, but it's interesting to note that restaurants serving Cajun and Creole cuisine have not had good track records in the Kansas City suburbs. Shall I name a few? Johnson County's failures include the Big Easy Café, Copeland's Famous New Orleans Restaurant, and the recently shuttered Boudreaux's Louisiana Seafood & Steaks.
Fat Fish Blue, which is located in the Zona Rosa shopping center in the Northland, shares a kitchen and staff members with the Improv Comedy Club. Both are really entertainment spots that also serve food.
The musical acts play on a big stage at the back of Fat Fish Blue, which is nearly the size of a high school gymnasium, so the sound bounces all over the restaurant's hard surfaces: a painted concrete floor, artfully stuccoed walls, bare tabletops. The music doesn't usually start until well after the dinner hours, but the recorded tunes — a lot of good vintage blues — come across pretty loud, too.
There's been a halfhearted attempt to give the dining area a theatrical "roadhouse" motif, but that silly idea doesn't work in the center of a neatly manicured shopping district in a suburb. It's a roadhouse only in a Walt Disney version of reality; the servers are all young and pretty — women and men — and couldn't be more chipper and friendly.
"This is what the old Grand Emporium would have been like," my friend Bob said, "if it had been a set on All My Children."
The food, accordingly, isn't too spicy or too bland. It's just right for this restaurant's demographic: white people with adventurous but not crazy palates. The étouffée, for example was very good — loaded with tender chicken and beautifully seasoned. It had a mildly spicy kick. If you want it really fiery, you need to ask for the bottle of hot sauce. Ditto the good, peppery Mumbo Jambalaya, which could have used more okra.
Fat Fish Blue, as you'd expect, isn't a particularly vegetarian-friendly joint. And what's meatless isn't exactly light: the likable deep-fried dill pickles, the fried green-tomato slices (which also are pretty fine). But the kitchen crew is very accommodating. In addition to offering several gluten-free dishes, they'll leave the shrimp and andouille sausage off Sister Mofo's Mac 'n Cheese. That dish is a neat variation on an old standby, though I don't think the chunky, nuggety radiatore pasta is a good choice. (And though the grilled andouille can be left off the red beans and rice, the beans are cooked with meat.)
The Delta dip doesn't sound meaty, either, but it's an unmemorable starter regardless: a square black-iron pan with a bubbling brew of black beans, cheddar cheese, chopped tomatoes and black olives, dappled with red onion and sided with a basket of blue-corn tortilla chips.
The less complicated choices are the real winners here. I loved the tender, slow-roasted pulled-pork sandwich, served with a sweet-and-hot (ass-kicking hot) blueberry habanero sauce. Bob gave high marks to a burger topped with bacon, frizzled onions and house-made blue-cheese sauce. The barbecued ribs that I tasted were terrific, and the crab cakes — made with lots of lump crabmeat — were excellent.
The restaurant's menu announces that the Alabama shrimp & grits was "voted 'Best Entrée' at Taste of Cleveland." I never crave grits unless I'm actually south of the Mason-Dixon line, but these andouille cheddar grits were damn tasty. This restaurant prides itself on its corn bread, which comes in big slabs. It was way too crumbly but thankfully not too sweet.
For sweetness, there are the desserts. I was a little taken aback by all the little party-colored sugar flakes sprinkled gratuitously over an already lovely bowl of peach cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream — what's meant as a trashy touch of Mardi Gras ends up looking like cellophane confetti. The frozen peanut-butter mousse pie sounded better than it tasted; it could have used a little thawing.
The service is first-rate if the waiter or waitress is in your immediate vicinity, but this dining room can feel like Sprint Center when you need a fork and your server is at the other end of the room, practically a block away. The blue paper napkins are tied with festive colored beads, but may I suggest another Mardi Gras decorative touch? A tiny plastic horn. When you get frustrated trying to flag down a server, just put yourself in a Pete Fountain frame of mind and blow.