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In one of the universe's great manifestations, Creole cooking has met with New England character in the wee town of Ivoryton - and it is a winning combination.
Tucked across the street from the historic Ivoryton Plahouse is one of the region's newest restaurants, Bluehound Cookery. Walk in and prepare to be charmed as numerous hound-themed paintings and sculptures bedeck the gaily painted walls. Then, inhale. That, my friends, is what the spice of life - and Southern kitchens - smells like.
Homey charms aside, I confess I wanted to review this restaurant as soon as I read the online menu and saw it serves fried green tomatoes as an appetizer. I hadn't eaten good ones since I'd traveled to Memphis a few years ago, and I'm beyond pleased to report that Bluehound's version ($5.99) are on par with their Southern counterparts. Although at Bluehound, the perfectly crunchified tomatoes get dressed up a bit with a delicious cucumber mint salad, crumbled bacon and a drizzle of buttermilk ranch sauce, and it works beautifully. Highly recommended.
Now, I'm married to a person who frequently campaigns for dinner at Popeye's. (Extra "incentive"? The closest one to us is at the TA truck stop in Stony Creek.) He's in it mostly for the chicken, but the red beans and rice might have a slight edge in the race for his favor. So naturally we were thrilled and prepared to try Bluehound's version of the soul-warming stew ($5.99), with the option of adding a grilled andouille link for another $1.99. While the spice level on Bluehound's rice and beans is far more tame than Popeye's, the texture, smoky flavor and a very delicious sausage link make Bluehound's something I will order again and/or grab as quickie takeout. It's wonderful and a generous portion.
My takeout list is growing, because a sampling of the vegetarian black bean soup revealed a dish that was good to the last drop - which is easy to enjoy because a cup of the stuff ($2.50; $3.50 for a bowl) comes in a coffee mug. I'm not sure how the chefs managed such flavor in a vegetarian recipe, but fans of meatier black bean soups need not fear for flavor and should absolutely try it. It's more broth-y than bisque-like. Black beans, tomatoes, celery and a dollop of sour cream merge into winter's perfect food.
As for dinner, I'll start with the expected and that's the house jambalaya ($14.99), a dish I used to say I didn't quite like. The waiter's recommendation prompted us to give it another shot, and, as it turns out, I do like jambalaya quite a bit when it's prepared properly, as it is at Bluehound. Hardly the dried out, Old Bay spice bombs I'd had before, Bluehound's jambalaya is a moist and nicely spiced mix of chicken, shrimp, andouille sausage, peppers, garlic and tomatoes amid rice pilaf. Some of us might've fought over the last shrimp in the bowl ...
And what's a visit to a Southern-style eatery without a plate of fried chicken ($13.99)? Bluehound prepares its fried chicken with pancetta and white cheddar sauce and a perfect crunchy coating. All dinners offer a choice of rice, baked sweet potato or the starch of the day, which, during two recent visits, was a blend of mashed turnip, sweet potato, and regular potato. Which is wonderful. And who knew fried chicken pairs well with a cheddar sauce?
While the fried chicken didn't disappoint, it did not emerge the standout dish of our samplings, though. That honor goes to the Voodoo Shrimp (a dish our waitress gave us kudos for ordering; $15.99). Voodoo Shrimp are prepared in what the menu describes as an "abita 'brown ale' barbeque sauce" with roasted tomatoes and vegetables (broccoli). We ordered ours with rice pilaf as the starch, which made for the perfect accompaniment to that velvety abita sauce, which starts savory, blossoms into pepper-spicy, then cools out with a touch of Asian spice or some other ingredient characteristic of Asian cuisine. Maybe ginger? Maybe Hoisin? We didn't quite know, and we didn't care. We emphatically recommend this dish.
Now, we did all this tasting across two visits, but if at all possible, try and save room for dessert (some of which come courtesy of the great Dagmar's Desserts in Old Saybrook). We opted for simpler fare, Blueberries Foster ($4.50; Bananas Foster is available, too), and it gained raves from every person at a four-person table. Warm, sauced berries prove the perfect tangy base layer to creamy vanilla ice cream cleverly dusted with powdered sugar (it makes a difference). Points for flavor and style there.
You know where this is going: to those in the farflung towns in the region, consider making the trip out to Ivoryton (make a night of it and see a play across the street, perhaps?). Bluehound has achieved that wonderful culinary trifecta: great ambience; fabulous staff; and wonderful food.
107 Main St., Ivoryton
Cuisine: Creole-inspired cuisine; BYOB ($2 per glass corkage fee; setups gladly provided)
Atmosphere: Charming and cozy, not too big, not too small
Service: Friendly, knowledgeable, refreshing
Prices: Moderate; dinners range from $13.99 to $21.99
Hours: Lunch, Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner, Tuesday-Saturday, 5-9 p.m., and Sunday, 4-8 p.m.
Credit cards: All majors
Reservations: For parties of five or more
Handicapped access: No stairs to enter, fairly roomy dining area