An early, wood-paneled Morris car pulled right up to the front door on the same evening two weeks ago when the voice of Lucinda Williams rocked the mirliton-green dining rooms, and one suntanned waitress wearing snug jeans and brunette braids appeared to have come directly from the tire swing. There's more substance to Shady Brady's than a hackneyed prototype of rural Southern eat places, though -- the substantial cochon de lait gumbo, for example. A "cup" of it fills out a mug sized for a double tall latte, and even that's hardly adequate space for the mud-dark stew's payloads of pulled pork, much of it charred and chewy from long smoke exposure.
It's a tough-talking gumbo, one that could bully city folks into crossing Lake Pontchartrain for dinner, regardless of the numerous rustic gumbos served in New Orleans proper. While you're there, try the smoked veal meatloaf, too, a pale version of the American classic that's shot through with herbs and crusted with a black shell from a spell in the barbecue pit. The tomato-garlic sauce mopped over the meatloaf's craggy surface is a conscientious chef's concession to the favorite meatloaf condiment: catsup.
That chef, Christopher Brady, owns and runs the folksy Mandeville restaurant with his wife, Liberty. Before opening it last fall, he left a quieter imprint on the local food scene by helping launch the Voodoo BBQ chain; though Shady Brady's isn't strictly a barbecue restaurant, smoke clearly remains the chef's muse. Tart green tomatoes may get the proper treatment -- battered in golden sandpaper and finished with white shrimp remoulade; likewise, fried oysters on the half-shell thrive in their little pools of blue cheese dressing, and panko-crusted flounder set over mashed potatoes offers a respectable change of pace. In comparison, however, these seafood dishes are to Brady's barbecue as Calvin Trillin's political haikus are to his New Yorker essays; the former distract you momentarily with their competent cleverness, while the latter move you with their brilliance for days.
Among the superb smoked meats are the slivered spare rib tips, scorched black around the gristled edges; the lean, St. Louis-cut ribs, pink meat clinging to the bone if only half-heartedly; and the moist, half Fire Box chicken. All of the barbecued meats are infused with vigorous, sometimes sweet but never cloying, smoke flavor. Brady seems to have a sixth sense for when to put out the fire, taking his ribs to the brink of over-smoking by cooking them for about six hours with mesquite and then finishing them over post oak on a natural wood grill.
"There's no real room for fusion in barbecue. You can't reinvent the wheel, but you can put your own spin on it," Brady said during an interview in early June. The diaspora of American barbecue sauces provides him a major creative outlet. The chef wets rib tips with a thin, Carolina-style cane vinegar sauce, and he treats the Fire Box chicken to a mustard-tart Soggy Bottom tomato sauce, which resembles the slurries made famous in Memphis. Thinly sliced beef brisket was unfortunately unsucculent one evening, but its accompanying housemade barbecue jus struck such a fine balance of sweet, tart and spiced that my dinner date refused to believe it wasn't factory-made.
Conventional barbecue sides also benefit from free thinking, some of its results too understated to pinpoint. Was that cinnamon in the black-eyed peas? Cardamom in the baked beans? Roasted garlic in the smothered cabbage? Maybe, maybe not. The straightforward chopped coleslaw is white, creamy and, thankfully, not over-laden with mayonnaise. The souffle-like sweet corn pudding really could be dessert; too bad the same can't be said for the bland corn muffins. Dinner salads that precede all entrees are basic -- a handful of greens, a light vinaigrette -- and yet their raw materials are usually of farmers' market quality.
You can go low-end or special occasion here, dropping into the front room for Mickey Mouse cartoons and a meatloaf sandwich, or settling into the quieter back spaces with a grilled filet mignon and a flamboyant California Zinfandel. Since the casual service isn't as flexible as the menu, expect the same level of polish whatever your price point.
The kitchen pulls through right down to the desserts, which include a sweet key lime pie and a cinnamon-spiced espresso creme brulee so freshly bruleed it smells like a toasted marshmallow. The blue ribbon dessert is a fudge-filled chess pie, its bottom toffee-chewy and its thin top crust like a salted sugar cookie. With a cup of coffee and chicory, it's not only perfectly Southern but also regionally correct.