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Fish Out of Water (or Northern Comfort) 

JACQUES-IMO'S CAFE owner Jack Leonardi returns to New York City to show the Big Apple how it's done in the Big Easy.

I hear someone's having a 60th birthday over here!" Jacques Leonardi pronounces as he swoops down on a table. Two minutes later he is slinging his arms around grandma and the grandkids, posing for a photo. It is a familiar scene for anyone acquainted with Jacques-Imo's Cafe on Oak Street, where Leonardi regularly makes the rounds among favorite customers and new friends wearing his trademark Hawaiian shorts. However, the scene this evening is different: Outside the doors, the Manhattan nightlife is rushing by.

This brand new Jacques-Imo's is nestled in New York City's Upper West Side, right behind the American Museum of Natural History. On Mardi Gras Day, Leonardi flung open its doors for the first time and gave New Yorkers a reason to celebrate on an otherwise non-descript February day. Curious people wandered in from Columbus Avenue and found themselves virtually transported to a lively restaurant near the Mississippi River, so alike are the two restaurants in both atmosphere and cuisine. The wall behind the bar is covered with a mural of a cypress swamp done by the same artist, Rain Webb, who painted the truck that's eternally parked outside the Oak Street restaurant. The lamps that hang over the bar in New York match the ones that decorate the New Orleans restaurant, made of fused Mardi Gras beads.

But while a displaced New Orleanian might slip into one of these seats like a fish released back into the Gulf, the New York restaurant critics haven't taken to Jacques-Imo's so easily. They've quibbled over the exceedingly generous portion sizes, the richness of the food, the noise level, and the decor. The New York Times' temporary restaurant critic Amanda Hesser wrote, rather snottily, "Diners do not need Spanish moss and swamp murals in Gauguin colors to know that they are being fed authentic Southern cooking. Design themes died in the 1980's."

"They just didn't get the point, The New York Times especially," says Leonardi. "Ragging on the decor -- there's no way it's a theme restaurant, there's just a lot of work by local New Orleans artists." Indeed, the walls are bedecked with paintings from the likes of Dr. Bob and Frenchie, including one of Dr. Bob's signature "Be nice or leave!" signs that swings above the front door. A casual vibe is established with a TV over the bar and plastic floral tablecloths on tables topped with prayer candles and bottles of Tabasco sauce.

Regardless of what the critics might prefer, Leonardi says he has no intention of changing the restaurant's look. "I like it, and I can't worry about that," he says. "That's how the New Orleans Jacques-Imo's is, and that's the way we're gonna keep it. And the portions, that's what you get in a New Orleans restaurant, the food's going to be more plentiful and richer. (The reviewer) was comparing us to a five-star New York fancy place, instead of taking Jacques-Imo's for what it is, with its atmosphere and fresh ingredients."

The restaurant keeps it fresh with daily shipments of seafood from down South. Every morning, refrigerated boxes are packed with Gulf fish, oysters, crawfish, crabs and shrimp, which catch a 10 a.m. flight to New York and arrive in time for dinner. Leonardi states adamantly that you can't have a New Orleans restaurant without Gulf Coast seafood. While some New York diners might expect the pedigreed oysters from the Pacific Northwest that have dominated the trendiest restaurant menus of late, Leonardi swears his allegiance to the Gulf. "I'm a big fan of Gulf oysters," he says. "They're not as big but they have a lot of salt and a lot of flavor. I love them."

All the menu favorites from Jacques-Imo's Cafe are here, including the legendary alligator sausage and shrimp cheesecake and the fried chicken with corn macque choux. There are south Louisiana basics such as gumbo, jambalaya and fried green tomatoes for those diners just beginning to dabble in the culinary genre. Leonardi did make a slight concession to health-conscious New Yorkers by adding a few lighter items to the menu, including a Cobb salad and an acorn squash stuffed with curried seafood.

The restaurant's February opening took place in the middle of a whirlwind; although Leonardi found the site on Columbus Avenue last August, the deal wasn't finalized until half a year later. "We got ownership of the place on Jan. 9, which was about a month and a half before opening," explains Leonardi. After a flurry of painting came the opening night festivities, during which there was only one minor hitch: Chef Steve Manning's opening night was also his last. "We had a falling out on the first night," says Leonardi. "So the whole staff, I trained them all. And now the inmates are running the asylum!"

Manning is a Southerner who found acclaim in New York at the Bayou Restaurant on Lenox Avenue in Harlem. Leonardi insists that in searching for a replacement, he didn't get hung up on looking for Southern roots. "I think as long as you have the right taste buds I can teach the rest," he says. "I needed someone who could follow the recipes. I didn't necessarily want someone with a brand new take on Creole cooking." The new chef, Derrick Styczek, apparently has plenty of the requisite taste buds, and also brought ample experience in the New York restaurant world.

Leonardi has spent the past seven months hopping back and forth between cities and restaurants, and plans to continue to go where his attentions are needed. Lately he's found time to enjoy New York's dining and music scenes, and has also taken trips to see his family in Syracuse, N.Y., where he was raised. It's a nice change from the early days, he says. "The first two months we were open I didn't get one day off except for me and my wife's anniversary."

Most of that time was taken up with training the kitchen staff to fry and blacken properly, to match the high bar set by Jacques-Imo's Cafe's fry chef, Austin Leslie, who has stayed in New Orleans throughout the New York experiment. But there are other challenges to making a success of the New York restaurant, Leonardi concedes. "It's just a different scale," he says. "What I pay for a year's rent in New Orleans is what I pay for a month here. The labor costs are higher, and we've got so many other costs. You have a lot more ways to goof up here." The odds against succeeding may be higher, but so far Jacques-Imo's seems to be coming out on top. By 6 p.m. on a recent evening, a lively crowd already lined the bar, and the dining area was half full. A separate visit at 8 p.m. on a weekday night found the tables packed. The staff says the clientele is varied: some customers remember Jacques-Imo's Cafe from a Jazz Fest in years past, others live nearby and come to scope out the new addition to the neighborhood. Of course everyone is welcome, but some staff members admit to having a favorite type of customer. "We love it when New Orleans people come in," says one waitress. "They know what to do -- they know how to have a good time."

click to enlarge "Diners do not need Spanish moss and swamp murals in - Gauguin colors to know that they are being fed authentic - Southern cooking," sniffed New York Times restaurant critic Amanda Hesser in her review of the - Big Apple version of JACQUES-IMO'S CAFE. - AMY DICKERSON
  • Amy Dickerson
  • "Diners do not need Spanish moss and swamp murals in Gauguin colors to know that they are being fed authentic Southern cooking," sniffed New York Times restaurant critic Amanda Hesser in her review of the Big Apple version of JACQUES-IMO'S CAFE.


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