Last November, Simon's Pub, a Butchers Hill hangout that had closed some months before, reopened quietly. It had a new upscale name, Simon's of Butchers Hill, and a new concept: tapas-style small plates and New Orleans food, with live jazz soon to follow.
The jazz hasn't started happening yet, but the menu is filled with etouffees, gumbos and jambalayas. The new co-owner, Eugene Jones, took his inspiration from the now-closed Fat Lulu's on Maryland Avenue, where he was general manager.
Now more restaurant than pub, Simon's is located in a tiny, tavern-like building that exudes historic charm. Inside is a front room with a handsome oak bar, black-and-white tile floor and tables for two. The long, skinny dining room in back has deep red walls, paintings by local artists, and formally set tables. Altogether, there are seats for about 50 diners. The live jazz trio will be playing upstairs and food will be available there -- one of these days.
The chef is Jason Ambrose, who has worked in the kitchens of the Atlantic, John Steven's, Henninger's and, most recently, Soigne. With his background, he's not wedded to the New Orleans concept, so you'll find dishes that speak to other cuisines here and there, especially among the specials.
A cream of mushroom soup is a beguiling version of this classic, with more cream than you could possibly hope for and portobello mushrooms to give it an unexpected heft. Paella, a special the night we were there, was almost without fault, except for slices of white-meat chicken that were a bit overcooked. But the moist rice had plenty of character, and it was jampacked with shellfish.
A braised lamb shank makes a bold flavor statement, and the meat is so tender it drifts from its bone. Polenta studded with porcini mushrooms and just-tender green beans help elevate it to considerably more than comfort food status.
Unlike Fat Lulu's, which simply didn't bother with salads, Simon's has several. One, made with tender baby spinach leaves, successfully balances tart slices of Granny Smith apples with a few spiced candied pecans and blue cheese. It's drizzled with a sherry vinaigrette.
A fried green tomato and goat cheese salad doesn't reach these heights, mainly because winter green tomatoes are almost as different from summer green tomatoes as the ripe ones are from each other. These green tomatoes were flavorless and hard to the point of crunchiness.
Simon's fried oysters will make you forget them. They are slippery soft and briny sweet inside their gilded cornmeal crust. Their spicy mayonnaise dip is maddeningly addictive. If you're sampling the small plates, tender ravioli offer an elegant counterpoint to the oysters. They are fat with shrimp and crawfish meat and bathed in a cream tinged with saffron. For more down-home pleasures, go with the plump grits cake with the typical yin / yang of good fried food: soft inside, crisp outside. A "gravy" made of tomatoes, okra and sweet corn held its own, but it didn't make the most of the individual vegetables.
Chef Ambrose uses cornmeal to coat mild white catfish filets, frying them to a crusty gold. They are paired with a creamy oyster and apple-wood bacon risotto, which raises their snob appeal considerably. Green vegetables are in short supply here, as you may have noticed. For the most part, this is upscale comfort food, not diet food.
That theme carries through to dessert. There's a quivery creme brulee, of course. And a rich bread pudding with enough alcohol in its bourbon sauce to make you light-headed. A cream-filled pastry had a marvelous stew of mixed berries. But best of all was a small tart with explosive apple flavor and a delicate pastry. All four are supreme examples that dessert doesn't have to be chocolate to be decadent.
Simon's name change describes the differences in the old and new places to a T. It's now a restaurant, not a bar. The food is by no stretch of the imagination pub food. About the worst criticism I have of the kitchen is the bread, nondescript rolls that hadn't been heated long enough to give them a crust. This kind of food deserves cornbread for the Creole food or good French bread for the rest of the dishes.
Simon's of Butchers Hill
Where: 2031 E. Fairmount Ave., Butchers Hill
Hours: Open Wednesday through Friday for lunch, Wednesday through Sunday for dinner, brunch Sunday
Prices: Small plates, $4-$13; Big plates, $12-$23
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *