Even before we walked into Ethel & Ramone's on a clear winter night, we wanted to love the place. What could be bad about a cozy restaurant on a pretty little street in Mount Washington, helmed by a man who trained under the legendary Paul Prudhomme? Thoughts of fried oysters and jambalaya had our mouths watering.
Once inside, expectations continued to rise.
From our small table by the door, we could see the open kitchen, where chefs were ladling soups, searing seafood and bopping along to the cheerful zydeco music. As customers walked in, bringing blasts of cold air, they were greeted by chef Ed Bloom, dressed in chef's whites, who seemed to know many by name.
Worn wooden floors, rich yellows and reds on the walls, mismatched chairs and a row of guitars hanging on one wall all seem to promise a place with personality to burn.
For the most part, Ethel & Ramone's lived up to our high expectations. The food was fresh, expertly prepared, creative and beautifully presented. Tables were close enough that we could admire that yummy-looking steak on a nearby plate, yet far enough apart to allow for privacy.
And yet we left with the feeling that Ethel & Ramone's could be even better.
Pan-fried oyster bayou failed to deliver the "wow" we were hoping for. Though the oysters were sweet as the sea and the batter satisfyingly crunchy, the four plump mollusks on our plate were lukewarm and unaccountably bland, and the remoulade sauce was not jazzy enough to add the necessary zing.
The menu at Ethel & Ramone's changes with the seasons, but the theme is always creole, and certain items are mainstays. One is the jambalaya, a gorgeous presentation of mussels in the shell, plump shrimp, rich sausage, vegetables and seasoned rice. I ordered mine topped with the seafood of the day, a blackened tuna coated with that overly salty spice mix that reminded me why blackening fell out of fashion about 15 years ago.
Another mainstay is a salad of field greens topped with a warm vinaigrette that lets the leaves wilt slightly. Red peppers, onions, pine nuts and even slices of sweet apple add crunch and interest, but I would have preferred this salad without its drizzle of tapenade, as the salty olive spread overpowered the other flavors.
Maybe the saltiness in some dishes wouldn't have bothered me if our wine and water glasses were refilled more often. Though the restaurant wasn't crowded, our server neglected us for long stretches of time.
When he was around, though, he was great. He praised our choice of baby back ribs, promising they were the best in town. Bloom later told me he slow-cooks the ribs for more than six hours at low heat to create that melting tenderness. The menu says they're brushed in a spicy demiglace, and we were glad that the menu lied. The sauce wasn't spicy at all, allowing the taste of the pork to shine. Garlicky mashed potatoes and gently sauteed zucchini and carrots rounded out the plate.
Dessert at Ethel & Ramone's is always silk pie -- chocolate, coffee and sometimes banana. We had chocolate, a smooth, cool rich topping over a dense chocolate-crumb crust -- and practically licked the plate clean, it was so good.
These are busy times for Ethel and Ramone's. The 10-year-old restaurant finally got a wine and beer license last spring, and even more recently expanded into the neighboring space, almost doubling its seating capacity. Bloom teaches cooking classes at the restaurant on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and is introducing an afternoon tea with creole appetizers, silk pie and hot tea and coffee.
Clearly, Bloom, who purchased the restaurant six years ago and recently brought back the original owners as partners, is always looking for ways to improve his little corner of Mount Washington. That's good, because even a place as charming as Ethel & Ramone's can be tweaked.
Ethel & Ramone's
Where: 1615 Sulgrave Ave., Mount Washington
Open: Closed Monday, open for lunch and dinner all other days.
Credit cards: All major
Prices: Appetizers $3-$10, entrees $17-$22