Published January 20. 2011 4:00AM Updated February 28. 2012 1:51PM
The slogan on the staff T-shirts at the Voodoo Grill say, "A little bit of New Orleans in Downtown Mystic." And while their menu - and certainly the décor - reflects a strong Crescent City presence, the scope of the cuisine actually extends throughout the aromatic kitchens of the South.
We are all better for this.
For a decade, the Voodoo has enjoyed a loyal following not just among folks who've been introduced to gumbo, jambalaya, pulled pork and country fried steak within the small, colorfully fun confines of the restaurant - but also with a community of Dixie expatriates desperate for a flavorful linchpin to Home.
There are two distinct impressions that take hold as soon as you enter the Voodoo Grill. First, the place, with its angled, ski lodge-style high ceiling, is absolutely stuffed with New Orleans-y gewgaws including a huge golden, float-sized Mardi Gras mask on one wall and, suspended over the middle of the dining area, a giant, riverboat-motifed neon bar sign.
The second thing is the amazing scent that wafts through the room. It's a subtle but swampy aroma that betokens the constant presence of a simmering roux. If you're of type, that's a smell that can send you floating through space like Wimpy from "Popeye," who levitated when detecting the odor of a frying hamburger.
Having been teased in this fashion, the diner settles in the dining room or at the tiny, full-service bar and begins to ruminate over the possibilities. The New Orleans stuff is very nicely represented with chicken gumbo, catfish, alligator, po'boys, two jambalayas, étouffée and Creole (the latter available in shrimp, chicken and veggie versions).
But also worth noting are the inclusions of country fried chicken or steak (which I associate with Texas); pulled pork (Tennessee and the Carolinas); St. Louis ribs (uh, St. Louis); as well as plenty of Deep South sides, and lots of trad pub food-happy fare. It's a sprawling and ambitious menu, wonderfully pulled off by Chef Tom Watts, a Florida native who clearly knows the nuances of Southern cooking.
To start, an enormous order of golf ball-sized hushpuppies ($5.75) were delicious: flash-crisped with a jalapeno flecked crust and spongy interiors like buoyant cornbread. The Cajun popcorn shrimp appetizer ($7.95) was a nice dovetail dish - plenty of lightly, piquantly battered crustaceans of sufficient size to actually taste them. A creamy Remoulade sauce with sneaky heat accompanied both.
A cup of chicken gumbo ($4.95) had roux the color of scorched butterscotch, slammed with rice, stewed chicken, okra, celery and onion. It rang a lot of hometown bells.
One of the coolest things in this hemisphere is the Bear Boy ($9.95). It starts with a New Orleans construct, which is a mound of French fries covered in cheddar and roast beef gravy. That's sufficiently beautiful right there. But the Voodoo-ers top it with a huge hunk of sweet and tangy pulled pork - and it's all capped with even more melted cheddar.
The healthier among us could consider a very nice veggie wrap ($8.95): black beans and rice, along with onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers and melty cheese. It provided layers of rich flavor and a side choice of fantastic onion rings. The surface was tastily brittle and, inside, the onions had an astonishing, creamy quality.
Entree options expand even further on the Southern palate. On the occasions up here where I've found country-fried steak ($10.95 lunch, $12.95 dinner), I've met disappointment. Not at Voodoo. They take a huge cut of lean roundsteak, tenderized and flattened by a mallet, coated in a crunchy batter, and submerged in a savory gravy the texture of library paste. Served with house-carved fries and a molasses-kissed dish of baked beans, it was a stunning dish.
As with gumbo, jambalaya is a dish that, historically, was an amalgam of whatever might be available. A rice-based quasi-casserole confetti'd with diced peppers, celery, onions, tomato and dusky slow-burn seasonings, Voodoo offers two of the more popular variations: seafood ($17.95, dinner only) and a star-spangled version with tender chicken, snappy Andouille sausage and smoked pork ($9.95 lunch, $13.95 dinner).
The only problem at Voodoo Grill is whether to re-visit your original meal choices time and again - or branch out and explore the other tantalizing possibilities.