Telling Tales

Storyville
1751 Fulton (at Masonic), 441-1751. Open daily from 6 to 10 p.m., until 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Reservations recommended on weekends. You can park in the supermarket lot across the street. Muni via the 5 Fulton, 21 Hayes, and 43 Masonic. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible.

I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say
"It's funky boy, funky, take it away ...."

Storyville's The original Storyville, birthplace of jazz, was a red-light district in New Orleans' French Quarter, where Buddy Bolden (the inventor of jazz, they say), Jelly Roll Morton, and a teen-age Louis Armstrong laid down the background beat in the bordellos. (Do not shoot the piano player.) They say that when Bolden ferried over to Algiers to practice on the riverbank, you could hear the scarlet high-notes of his cornet resounding all the way across the Mississippi to the whorehouses of Storyville -- that land of legend, land of stories told in and about Storyville.

In San Francisco, Storyville is a jazz club and restaurant across the street from the supermarket formerly known as Petrini Plaza. When the club's owners (including the house bandleader, multi-instrumentalist Don Pender) decided to get serious about serving food, they snapped up Glenn "Gator" Thompson, formerly executive chef of Jessie's (the much-acclaimed Creole/Caribbean restaurant on Folsom Street) to cook Louisiana-style dinners appropriate to the club's illustrious name. Once Gator had settled into his new lair, we decided to track him from Folsom to Fulton Street, arriving on an uncrowded weeknight. (Currently, the restaurant is fairly full on Fridays and Saturdays, when the big names play, but very sparsely populated Tuesday through Thursday. If y'all insist on rushing over there to eat all at once, do yourselves a favor and do your rushing on a weeknight, when there's no cover and no crowding.)

Storyville's interior is red and black and jazzy all over, a film noir boite in color. Under the window is a vast, deep black-leather couch, but we ate at a normal table -- TJ and I, and Mary Ann, who spent her teens in New Orleans, and Nick, who oughta be from there too, since he loves all forms of pleasure sweet and bitter, including table pleasure. Four of us could try all but one of the appetizers and all but one of the entrees from the short menu. The wine list is nightclubish -- rather brief and shallow, albeit reasonable ($17-30 for most bottles). Cocktails (about $6.50 each) may be more tempting, given the atmosphere.

The appetizer selection is appropriately seafood-rich. We began with "Bar-B-Que Shrimp Cajun Style" ($8.95), which are never actually barbecued in Louisiana; they're sauteed with their shells on in a sea of powerfully spiced butter or oil. Storyville's version bore just a faint resemblance to the cayenne-red renditions you meet in the better dives around the Crescent City -- but Gator's were good in a different vein, partly shelled and gently sauced with a subtle touch of hot pepper and a scattering of fresh herbs. Like many of his dishes, it was a rendition you might find at one of New Orleans' newer, California-influenced restaurants -- more like Bayona, say, than Mosca's. The "21st Century Crawfish Cakes" ($7.95) with what the menu describes as "lemon thyme pecan pesto" blessedly bore very little resemblance to the ubiquitous crab cakes at every other restaurant in town. The sauce was clean and quiet, and the mud bugs had a succulent light texture and an evocative, sweet-spicy maritime flavor that took Mary Ann back to her youth in un-chic Arabi, the Daly City of New Orleans.

The Medical Transcriber's "Grandpa would take us kids around in summer in his old woodie that always stank of crab," she remembered. "We'd go to Lake Pontchartrain and Grandpa would net crabs. He'd put 'em in baskets to bring them home, and stick them on the back seat of the woodie between us kids. They'd stick their blue claws out and we'd tease them, until sooner or later one of the crabs would get one of the kids. Other times, Grandpa and Uncle Bazile would go out in the swamp and bring back big baskets of shrimp and crawdads. When the seafood got there, Grandma would already have a big pot going, full of spicy Zaterain's Crab Boil and Crystal hot sauce.

"Uncle Nunzio, Grandma's brother, always showed up hungry. Although he hadn't a single tooth left, he could suck in more food than anybody. He just sort of inhaled it. And Grandpa would always get mad because, no matter how fast Grandpa could eat, Nunzio always ate faster, and always ate more than his share."

Continuing with the appetizers, we all ate our share of stuffed mushrooms Lafayette ($6.25), big baked cremini mushrooms with a succulent stuffing based on Gorgonzola cheese, onions, and a reduction of balsamic vinegar. Skewered blackened chicken was an OK, vaguely Creole twist on satay, with the chicken blackened on the grill, not (more authentically) in the pan, accompanied by a dollop of "Creole" risotto and a little buttery sauce. We enjoyed the clean-flavored Caesar salad ($7.95) with its anchovy-touched citrusy dressing, coating crisp romaine hearts that had been freshly chopped into easily forked dice, instead of the customary big unwieldy leaves.

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