The historic downtown strip of Medford, a quaint Victorian village on the fringes of the Pinelands, is about the last place I expected to encounter a "hey y'all!" bowl of Louisiana gumbo.
But there it was the other night, steaming "ya-ya" style around a scoop of rice, with tender morsels of chicken bumping up against smoky moons of andouille sausage in a spice-tingled broth turned chestnut brown by patiently darkened roux.
That it was served in a trendy square bowl is a small soul concession to the striving elegance of Ted's on Main, the year-and-a-half-old bistro where I was eating. But this was the genuine article, lusty and rich, with the fresh crunch of green scallions scattered on top, and I'd happily drive the hour from Center City for a taste when I get a serious Creole craving. With Mardi Gras this week, I feel one coming on.
A legitimate gumbo is that rare around here. But chef-owner Ted Iwachiw (I-watch-you) manages to achieve something even more uncommon: His menu goes beyond the basics to present updated Creole cooking in the way a good contemporary New Orleans chef might, relying on quality local ingredients and deft technique, drawing inspiration from Louisiana flavors without letting them become cliches.
Those are sweet Cape May Salts broiled to within a breath of their oyster life, shined with a garlicky butter that sparkles with Tabasco and lemon. His fried green tomatoes are the best I've tasted in the recent local vogue for fried green tomatoes, their hot cornmeal crusts contrasting the toothsome tang of crawfish tossed in remoulade on top. His succulent pork chop, marinated in garlic and sage, comes with caramelized apples but also a Creole twist: brioche stuffing studded with earthy nuggets of andouille.
Iwachiw, 37, is a native Medfordite - his mom even owns a lighting store nearby on Main Street. But he came by his affinity for Louisiana cooking firsthand, having been opening executive chef at the Loews Hotel in New Orleans, where he worked for two years alongside talented local chefs like Kevin Vizard.
Iwachiw has plenty of other valuable experiences under his toque - a stint at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas, a spot on the Alison Barshak crew that opened Striped Bass - and each influences this menu.
A stellar clam chowder he perfected while at Cape May's Washington Inn, its creamy broth rouged with roasted peppers and bolstered with good bacon, comes with the Bahamian touch of two crispy fritters (clam, though, not conch) bobbing on top. Even more direct from the islands are the surprisingly delicious chicken skewers, tenderized in a gingery homemade jerk and served with pineapple caramelized in rum.
Some of the chef's exotic moves didn't quite work, like the doughy mofongo plantain cake beneath the grilled butterfish (which could have used a little more guava butter sauce). A promising salmon filet glazed in tsatsuma orange butter, dolloped with cucumber raita, and set over pearl couscous tinted crimson with beet juice, was overcooked and dully flavored considering its vibrant colors.
But those were exceptions for a restaurant that consistently delivered entrees worthy of prices in the mid-$20s, making Ted's easily one of South Jersey's best new restaurants. You'd never suspect it from the low-key storefront exterior, the former Cafe Noelle, where Iwachiw hangs a cartoony chef sign that looks more like something for the front of a pizzeria.
The interior is considerably more elegant, the 50-seat room dressed in warm New Orleans gold and purple, linen-draped tables, tile floors, and wrought-iron chandeliers. The addition of cushy black acoustical tiles on the ceiling has been an effective noise damper. The service, meanwhile, was generally courteous and well-prepared.
Our waitress even knew what an etouffee was, describing the "smothered shrimp stew" better than Iwachiw actually cooked it (nice fresh shrimp, but slightly thin flavor). It was one of very few misses.
Among the highlights was a blackened grouper that had just the right dusting of bronzing spice - more aromatic than fiery - and a smoked tomato orzo garnish that brought big Southern flavors with a deft light touch.
The seared scallops over butternut squash risotto were a brief departure from the New Orleans theme, but the beautifully seared Barnegat seafood and orange risotto made a fine warm-weather pairing. A special filet mignon topped with seared foie gras, sided with tender shrimps, topped with creamy crab, was a decadent update of the old Continental surf-and-turf. That sweet crab filling became the centerpiece of some standout crab cakes, rich with a homemade mayonnaise filling, set over crispy potato cakes.
The big rib-eye steak could have been a bit better seasoned, but no matter, I would have devoured an entire entree of the cheddary Yukon Gold gratin spiked with tasso ham.
Iwachiw goes homestyle when it comes to desserts. Some are less inspired, like the mushy apple cobbler. But most would deliver a finish that would satisfy any sweet tooth, including Creole classics like bread pudding soaked in white chocolate custard or rum-flamed Bananas Foster over ice cream. And then there is the chocolate chip cookie "meltdown," which is essentially a muffin-shaped lump of half-baked dough with homemade caramel that tastes far better than I expected.
Really. As if a bowl of Louisiana gumbo in the Victorian Pinelands wasn't already far-fetched enough.
Next week, restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews Las Bugambilias on South Street. Contact him at email@example.com.