Zydeco"s New Orleans Grill creates a mood

Now in its fifth year of operations, and with a second restaurant having recently opened in nearby Mooresville, Zydeco"s New Orleans Grill has become something of a local institution, popular with natives and travelers alike. There aren"t too many Cajun-style restaurants in Indiana - Yat"s and Michaels Uptown CafÈ in Bloomington spring to mind - and certainly no others located in small country towns.

To say that the location is adventurous and incongruous would be an understatement, yet on my first visit to Zydeco"s recently, I was struck by a certain sense of adventure, largely because as I had yet to meet a single person who had eaten there, and had absolutely no idea what to expect. Would there be loud music, nudity and singing, as one might expect from an establishment that has been praised for its authentic Mardi Gras atmosphere? OK, so skip the nudity. Would les bons temps roule? How does one recreate a Crescent City eatery in what is about as close to being in the middle of nowhere as nowhere itself?

Monrovia (or Monreauxvia, as the restaurant so amusingly lists the place on the menu) is a small, probably not even one-horse town southwest of Indianapolis. Heading south on State Route 39 from I-70, you zip past signs that make absurd and grandiose statements that only places of very little consequence would dare to make, such as "Garden Capital of the World" (I thought that was Eden, my friend Dame Edith observed). You then cross over streets named "Pray" or "Genuflect" and, my favorite, "Atonement Avenue." I made that one up, but you get the picture. Monrovia is like the land that time forgot. And, were it not for the presence of this studiously eccentric little restaurant at its heart, would probably remain forgotten for the rest of time, to boot.

Zydeco"s occupies a long, old brick building that was formerly home to Monrovia"s tavern and inn. It"s a fine building, as are most on the town"s three-block Main Street. Unassuming from the outside, the faÁade does little to betray what lies within. Festooned with bric-a-brac, beads, paper lanterns, street signs and all manner of beer paraphernalia from Louisiana, Zydeco"s makes a pretty good stab at bringing a bit of the swamp to rural Indiana. If you"re into such things, it"s a feast for the eyes. Bare, unfinished wood floors and a room-length bar lend further credibility. The drop ceiling, stained mustard yellow from decades of cigarette smoke, enhances that lived-in feel. The tables are well-stocked with hot sauces, and the cutlery is wrapped in brightly colored necklaces which are yours to wear and take home. The music, appropriately authentic Cajun and Zydeco selections, completes the ambiance. Surprisingly enough, it all works rather well, and whatever mood one may be in upon entering the place is quickly forgotten amid the sights, sounds and bustle of this unusual interior.

Of course, in order for the effect to be completely convincing, the diners have to participate in the illusion, and be willing to check their inhibitions at the door. Although much of the atmosphere is ready-made in a rather self-conscious and heavy-handed fashion, it"s the people who make this place hum along. On the evening of our visit, most of the customers had allowed themselves to get sucked in, and even I, usually a somewhat reserved and unwilling participant in such activities as singing happy birthday or reciting the pledge of allegiance, found myself getting into the swing of things well before the third beer was served.

Our server, who clearly had more customers to deal with than she would have liked, had trouble throughout the evening dealing with the routine maintenance of our table. For instance, by the time we had finished our dessert, the plates containing the remains of our appetizers had yet to be cleared away. Throughout the course of our substantial but somewhat rushed meal, we found ourselves fighting for space on the increasingly cluttered tabletop. I am still unable to decide whether this was an intentional oversight - perhaps it"s traditional in the Big Easy not to clear tables between courses - or whether our server was merely suffering from the kind of tunnel vision that affects busy waiters with too many tables to attend. Whatever the case may be, this was an irritation, but one that probably bugged my companion more than it did me.

Beginning with a couple of excellent New Orleans beers, we took our server"s recommendations and ordered the Pirogue bread and the Crescent City boiled shrimp to start with. The former, priced at $10, was quite delicious, consisting simply of sliced French bread, topped with crawfish cooked in butter and garlic, accented with piles of chopped olives. The combination of these key ingredients is pretty heavenly, especially when the crawfish meat is seemingly fresh and is served in generous quantities. The boiled shrimp ($9 for quite a few - I wasn"t counting) were wonderfully firm and spicy without being hot. So far, so good.

At Zydeco"s, most main courses are served with a salad from the salad bar, which is fine but not terribly inspiring. We skipped this part, and moved straight on to the main courses: the Cajun sampler platter ($14) and the crawfish ÈtouffÈe ($14). The former offers a bit of everything: red beans and rice, "Creole" and a mixture of gumbo and jambalaya called half-and-half. This dish is an incredible mishmash of flavors and textures, and is moderately successful. We were particularly taken by the red beans and rice, which in this case was a bit like a loose bean stew, but was very well-seasoned and not at all hot. The half-and-half was a bit on the sloppy side, and lacked any focus, while the Creole dish was wonderfully spiced and garlicky. Far more successful, I think, was the crawfish ÈtouffÈe, a very substantial dish, laden with sweet crawfish tails and finished with a sauce of fabulous depth and complexity. So good was this dish that I was reluctant to share, but eventually gave in to my friend"s veiled threats of physical violence.

If the one entrÈe was a mite disappointing, we were still quite impressed by dinner overall, even if it did have a rushed feel to it, no doubt accentuated by the line of salivating diners-to-be waiting patiently at the door. Ordering the restaurant"s signature dessert, the beignets, a sort of crispy elephant ear liberally sprinkled with confectioner"s sugar, we wrapped up what had been an enjoyable, but slightly erratic meal.

I wouldn"t recommend Zydeco"s as a destination restaurant, but if you find yourself in the wilds of Ö wherever it is, then a quick meal is certainly in order. The dÈcor alone is worth the visit.

Zydeco"s New Orleans Grill #1

220 W. Main St., Monrovia

(317) 996-3900

www.zydecos.net

TuesdayñFriday 5-9 p.m.

Saturday 2-10 p.m.

Food : 3 stars

Atmosphere : 3 1/2 stars

Service : 2 1/2 stars

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