You know the gods are on your side when there's an empty parking space beneath Montrel's draping palms. These shady trees near the entrance share beds of white landscaping rock with flowers that look like birds of paradise in costume for Mardi Gras. As the speakers cut loose with "Copacabana," you almost expect to see a pool boy offering a tray of pina coladas.
Instead, you breeze into the only dining room in the world where cantaloupe-colored walls and red tablecloths look right together. There are tall, potted plants in the corners, framed posters of jazz greats like Harry Connick Jr. and Billie Holiday, and always one jazz-loving diner whose forefinger and kneecap meet in time to John Coltrane's "Blues to Elvin." On Wednesday, no one speaks at several all-male tables until every thread of spaghetti has been slurped; on Friday, women pick delicately through fried seafood platters, careful not to soil their long, pampered fingernails.
Montrel's classy ambience and strong regular following create expectations for food and service that are only sporadically fulfilled. You couldn't ask for suppler stewed chicken than the thighs and legs smothered in full-bodied brown gravy and served with garlicky creamed spinach on Wednesdays. Pork chops thick as paperbacks are crusted with salt and branded with bits of grill char that rub off like little sachets of flavor into already meaty red beans. Fried chicken is a bit thin-skinned, but juicy and smudged with enough herbs and spices to simulate a crisp batter. A dense bread pudding shot through with more raisins than a hippie's trail mix would make a wonderful French toast.
Just when you've forgotten that barbecue shrimp could be anything but head-on shrimp drowning in butter and garlic a la Pascal's Manale -- and just when you thought the dish couldn't get messier -- Montrel's kitchen slathers shrimp in actual barbecue sauce. It's is a honey-sweet blend of tomato, Worcestershire and smoke made by someone called Don the Barbecue Man and so popular that Montrel's sells it by the bottle.
Faced with other dishes, I would trade Montrel's snazzy setting for the warped floors of Lovie Williams' Inn Restaurant or the sparse white backdrop at Willie Mae's for the promise of soul food prepared with more soul. Picking the few shrimp and crawfish from a soupy seafood pasta is like playing Go Fish in a bowl of Parmesan chowder. The kitchen should consider giving the stuffed crab po-boy -- tepid crabmeat stuffing and mayonnaise -- the more textured existence of a crabcake po-boy. Cold French fries, grayish green beans and macaroni that just tastes orange all beg for an overhaul of the side dish selection.
The brothy seafood gumbo is spicy and rich on the uptake, but it dumbs as it washes over your tongue, finishing with the horizontal flavors of roux and a shallow stock. The character of this coffee-dark gumbo reflects the restaurant itself: pleasant -- even strong -- at first glance, with weaker undercurrents rippling beneath the surface.
Sharp-dressed daytime servers take the job of order-taker so literally that, even when a friend and I ate barely 10 bites of a disappointing lunch, no one asked for an explanation before clearing our plates. While Montrel's is primarily a lunch destination -- offering dinner past 7 p.m. only three nights a week -- the forces of service, food and atmosphere seem to meld best at night, when ceiling fans chopping at dimmed lights create the romantic effect of flickering candles.
On a Friday evening one server and her assistant expertly coordinated a full dining room, including a high-spirited family that makes a tradition of celebrating birthdays at Montrel's. Dessert that night could only have been sweeter if it had been my own birthday: a slipper-size rectangle of homemade yellow cake tunneled with air holes and iced with hot-pink strawberry frosting.
You get the feeling at night at Montrel's that everyone in the room has celebrated at least one birthday within its cantaloupe walls -- one graduation, one engagement or one first date. Like all beloved neighborhood restaurants, it's as much meeting grounds as it is a place to eat; food is often the excuse that gets everyone there. There's something to say for a family-oriented place like this that fulfills its culinary purpose without exceeding it. It's a restaurant where the best memories are not necessarily built upon the brilliance of the food, but upon the sureness -- the familiarity -- of the entire package.