Review of Jacques-Imo’s (New Orleans Restaurant)

Very popular Jacques-Imo’s is a master of ‘Creole sleazy chic.’

The journey from raffish joint to culinary phenomenon is shorter in New Orleans than it is in most places. Jacques-Imo’s is the current fine example. Jack Leonardi, a former cook at K-Paul’s (the textbook case of this effect), opened about four years ago in an old cafe on Oak Street. He had the help of Austin Leslie, one of the all-time heroes of soul food cooking. He also had a little momentum from the previous tenant, Cafe Savanna.

At the beginning, Jacques-Imo’s served very basic food, interspersed with a few dishes in which the chef showed that he had above-average ability. Jack was sometimes the only one there; he’d come to your table, sit down, and ask you what you felt like eating–on the menu or off. Then he’d go back there and cook it.

In the past year Jacques-Imo’s has done some deep remodeling (mainly in the kitchen) and redefined its position in the dining spectrum. Jack has been joined by a deep staff of cooks (including, amazingly enough, a pastry chef), and the menu has grown in variety, sophistication, and price.

Meanwhile, however, its credentials as an authentic New Orleans joint are secure. The dining room and the small covered courtyard are decorated like a 1930s bar in a Little Woods camp, with a touch of voodoo thrown in. The environment is very convincing, and those with a taste for Creole sleazy chic will be most amused by it. There are enough such people that at times the wait for a table here grows to an hour or more. (They take reservations, but only if there are at least five of you.)

The food shows a few K-Pauls’ roots in that great dishes are built from homely classics. But from there the menu goes on to include quite a few dishes you’ve enjoyed lately somewhere else (every dish on the menu reminds me of the original version, wherever it may be), all prepared very well. The menu starts with Austin Leslie’s fried chicken, as good as ever. And smothered chicken with brown gravy–a dish I never tire of. From there the menu goes to broiled and fried seafood, a blackened dish or two, and a great stuffed pork chop.

But what will make ambitious diners sit up and take notice is the list of specials, which top out the prices but also deliver amazing food. Jacques-Imo’s is currently serving the best Creole bouillabaisse around, with a great broth, lots of fish and shellfish (the fish the day I had it was a slab of tuna, which I’ve never seen in a bouillabaisse before), and a spice level right there at the pleasure precipice.

All the desserts are very rich and made in house. Service is kicky and informal, as is the dining room. This is not a place to go for a quiet dinner, but when you want to cut up and eat lustily.

Jacques-Imo’s menu recommendations
Eggplant with oyster dressing
Fried oysters with spicy garlic sauce
Fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade
Fried chicken
Smothered chicken
Broiled escolar with shrimp
Stuffed pork chop
Cajun bouillabaisse
Blackened tuna
Panneed rabbit with oyster-tasso pasta
Sauteed veal Bienville
Banana cream pie
White chocolate bread pudding