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.
The main course choices at Storyville also emphasize Creole seafood specialties, but in lighter, simpler, more delicate, and considerably leaner renditions than the Big Easy's traditional weighty versions. One was bouillabaisse ($13.95), with the usual maritime assortment in a slightly spicy fish broth, tasty and well-priced but somewhat pastel compared to its tablemate, a hallelujah-shouting "Creole Shrimp Diaunte Fettucine" ($12.95). The latter had sauteed shrimp and near-crisp vegetables over pasta in a sumptuous sherry butter sauce that could've come straight from the kitchen of Commander's Palace -- or at least from one of its best alumni. (If anybody remembers Lombard's in Oakland, this dish sure tasted like Stanley Jackson's cooking.) We all wanted to play Uncle Nunzio and just glom it up, but Nick slowed our pace by relating his own dark, crabby tale.
The Claims Adjuster's "In my family," he began, "Thanksgiving goes on for three days. The first night we always have cioppino, Italian crab stew. Cioppino is made from crabs that already have the claws separated and the bodies chopped up. One year we got live crabs, which we'd never had before. My cousin Steve, who was 14, volunteered to kill them. Adulthood is when you kill the crabs.
"The adults knew how to deal with them, but no one told us what to do. Steve dumped them into the sink -- 10 dangerous, angry crabs. Once they were all in there together, you couldn't pull a single one out again to kill it. Steve went on the spinal cord theory -- but crabs have no necks! So he started trying to tear their legs off, and they were fighting back and nipping his fingers, and I heard him yelling, 'Oh god! Oh my god!' I was a few months younger but I went in to help him -- it was just so tragic, these crabs in misery. You'd try to kill one and end its suffering and the others would bite you. Finally, we took a mallet and pounded them one by one in the sink, crushing them where their necks would be. This killed or stunned them so we could dismember them and throw them in the pot. When Steve grew up, he became a criminal. He's in jail now for armed robbery. I guess that's what comes of ripping the arms off crabs when you're young."
Another entree was made with a critter that's crueler than Steve -- alligator jambalaya ($12.95). The sage-laden chopped alligator was similar to the alligator sausage at Jessie's, and was tender and clean-flavored (with no swampy turtle taste). And the jambalaya was fine, too, well-knit but not too heavy or tomatoey. But sage and jambalaya together seemed alien; it was like a duet between Dwight Yoakam and Aaron Neville. We couldn't get used to it. Finally, blackened beef fillet ($13.95) was easy eatin', less fierce and way less butter-drenched than K-Paul's invention, arriving lightly sauced with a not-too-spicy chipotle butter and some gently spiced potatoes.
For dessert we had that classic sweet that every tourist brunches on at Brennan's, Bananas Foster ($5.95), a sort of boozy fried-banana split. Better yet was a superbly moist, fudgy chocolate cake ($5.95). Just as we finished the final crumbs, Gator Thompson himself emerged from the kitchen to chat with the customers. A friendly hulk in chef's whites, he has the looks of a former linebacker who's decided he prefers food to football. He was swiftly captured by Mary Ann, a lapsed restaurant-school grad. "A lot of restaurant-school graduates -- they're not chefs, they're not even sous-chefs," Thompson observed, as Mary Ann nodded vigorous agreement. "I've worked under some of them. The difference is [pointing to his head] up here. I've been cooking for 20 years. I don't make designs on the plate -- I cook."
Thompson told us that his family had come from Louisiana, but that he himself had never been to New Orleans. "I learned this style of cooking by word-of-mouth -- people told me what the food was like, and I made it that way, and they liked it. I use fresh herbs whenever possible, if the dish calls for them. The dried ones, I buy in small quantities and replace every 30 days because they lose their flavor."
Why did he leave Jessie's? we asked. "Well, I went to a cooking conference for a few days, and when I came back my job was gone. But I like working at Storyville. I am a chef, but I'm just a chef. I don't want to run the front, I don't want to own the restaurant, I don't even want sous-chefs -- I can't trust them to cook the way I do. So I'm happy here. I don't have to do anything but cook." That's the chef's story. And cook he does.