The server at Big Jones opened her eyes wide with surprise. “Oh wow,” she said, shaking her head and laughing nervously. Ten seconds earlier, when we had ordered a mint julep, she was relaxed and jovial. “Oh! That’s fun!” she had said, as if we were the first people to start a meal with a cocktail. But now that we had also ordered a hurricane, she seemed almost scared. “Really?” she asked.
Well, yes, really. This is supposed to be New Orleans, isn’t it? I wouldn’t know, because I’ve never been to the Big Easy. But I can’t say that the dining room here fits my perception of the place. The interior is the opposite of festive: The cream-colored walls are subdued and almost bare, save some out-of-place art (like that slightly abstract triptych of Babs). There’s a touch of Southernness to the curved style of the chairs and the elaborate, old-school logo. But there are no plastic cups full of beer here. And there certainly aren’t throngs of people willing to do anything for a string of beads.
There are those cocktails, though. The julep was sweet and nicely balanced, with an herbal finish—not bad even though it wasn’t served in a julep cup or over crushed ice. That hurricane? I can’t imagine it’s anything like the ones sipped on Bourbon Street. It was certainly boozy but also severely dry and, ultimately, not very fun.
But I don’t really care how true (or not) Big Jones is to the “coastal South” it takes as its inspiration. When a plate of impeccably cooked shrimp doused in a dark, thick barbecue sauce arrives, and it’s so good you consider chewing on the crunchy tails just to make it last, authenticity is the last thing on your mind. The same is true of the tasso ham sandwich, a picture of warm decadence where the house-cured ham provides a salty note, the cakey house-baked “Sally Lunn” bread adds a sweet note, and the gooey pimento cheese and shrimp rémoulade glues it all together. Turns out that chef-owner Paul Fehribach has a way with sandwiches: His gator sausage two-hander gets a great crunch from fried pickles and a long, slow burn from the jalapeño in the sausage. That sausage makes another appearance in the gumbo, which is rich and dark and sports juicy shreds of chicken (though the sausage can be hard to find among all the okra).
However, there were some things at Big Jones that I could have used less of. The crawfish croquettes put me in the mood for that sweet crustacean in a crispy fried shell, but what arrived was drab and muted. And as beautifully cooked as the rabbit in the Brunswick stew is, its mere whisper of flavor is completely forgettable. I also could do without the underseasoned crab salad with deviled eggs. Finally, the desserts: Some restaurants shouldn’t even bother with desserts, and this is one of them. The red velvet cake is too dense, and the peach ice cream is gritty and icy. On the other hand, the bourbon bread pudding is sweet, warm and comforting. And I guess that makes sense. One thing I do know about Southerners is that when it comes to bourbon, they don’t mess around.