Bronzeville on the Bayou

Vicki Yang

Sitting before a massive dish of red, steaming Creole-style jambalaya, my mind echoed with Hank Williams’s famous line: “Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou.” However, I did not find myself in a Southern backwater town but at Le Fleur de Lis, Bronzeville’s self-proclaimed “newest and best Creole restaurant,” located a stone’s throw away from the 41st Street Green Line stop.

The jambalaya would make Hank proud. This flagship dish of Creole and Cajun cuisine–and a descendent of Spanish paella–stays faithful to its Southern roots. It’s got no-fuss ingredients that impress the palate without overwhelming it, the “holy trinity” of onion, celery, and bell pepper contrasting with the unholy and unhealthy union of chicken, shrimp and sausage. Slowly simmered in stock and tomato sauce with rice, the result is a smooth, risotto-like wonder laced with complex flavors. Any attempt at savoring this spicy dish will gradually mutate into a greedy shoveling.

One small thing, however, blemishes the experience of Le Fleur de Lis’s jambalaya. Sitting on top of the red mound of flavor are a few mysterious transluscent strings, each about an inch long. At first glance, they appear to be bamboo shoots or futuristic shoelaces. As it turns out, they are nothing more than leathery tidbits of pseudo-parmesan cheese. The effort required to push them aside is minimal, but a hindrance nonetheless.

Le Fleur de Lis, owned by Louisiana native Allen Rochelle, is still fairly new, having just opened in late October. Although it is bursting at the seams with potential, awkward touches like the plastic Parmesan hold the restaurant back–it is on the verge of something special, but just not there yet.

Still in the process of becoming, Le Fleur de Lis is literally rough around the edges: on  the front door a hint of uncovered varnish stands out against the bright red paint. Elsewhere, dim lights and dark, wooden floors create a cozy, if unpolished, atmosphere. The walls are colored with warm, earthy tones, interrupted with bright paintings by local artist Just Flo.

The waiter, too, was slightly off the mark. After being told we had never eaten at Fleur de Lis before, he jovially–and without a hint of irony–replied, “Neither have I, but I hear the food’s pretty good.”  He heard right: the food is generally quite good. Almost every dish, however, has some flaw, preventing it from realizing its full potential. Aggressive salting, for example, overshadows the light and fluffy virtues of the corn muffins.

The po’ boys, popular sub sandwiches and classics of Creole cooking, come with either shrimp, smoked sausage, grilled chicken, or catfish. Accompanied by some fantastic French fries, these “shorties” (as 6-inch po’ boys are known in New Orleans) could quell the direst of hunger pangs and the most intense of grease cravings. The po’ boys’ only flaw are the baguette-like French rolls they come in; although delightfully chewy and fresh, they lack a crispy crunch.

The chicken and sausage gumbo packs a strong pork punch and a marvelous heat, but it tends to leave the kitchen a tad tepid; the crawfish etoufee presents a pleasant duet of seafood and mushrooms, but is creamier than Alfredo sauce. Their menu is, as our waiter says, good–nothing more, nothing less.

The theme of near excellence extends to desserts, where an overcooked crust scars an otherwise delectable sweet potato pie. The bread pudding, praised by Metromix, is indeed tasty: warm, rich, and caramelized at the edges, it is riddled throughout with rich, cream-absorbing raisins and enormous chunks of walnut. But even this gem lacks a certain je ne sais quoi–that the pudding would deteriorate into monotony were it not for a scoop of vanilla ice cream perched on top.

Le Fleur de Lis has all the makings of a very special neighborhood spot. All it needs is some fine-tuning and the one ingredient no chef can provide—time.

301 E 43rd St. Monday-Thursday, 11am-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-10pm. (773)268-8770. lefleurdelischicago.com