Quaint and Busy, Ethel and Ramone’s Turns Out Impressive Cajun Fare
Ethel and Ramone’s is one of the cottage-style restaurants that operate along a prettily painted row of shops and cafés on Sulgrave Avenue in Mount Washington Village. It’s quiet in the village, and cool. Tables spill out onto front porches and sidewalks, and a summer evening can feel full of possibility and promise.
Ethel and Ramone’s has been around for a while. There have been a few changes—the current chef/owner, Ed Bloom, bought out his old bosses a few years back; those bosses have more recently bought back in. And earlier this year, the restaurant took over the space vacated by a neighboring jewelry store and expanded its dining room. (Good thing: The original rooms, which the restaurant understandably avoids using, suggest a two-level Levitz liquidation sale.)
While a server was preparing our table, the friendly chef invited us to have our dinner at the curvy counter that separates the new dining room from the open kitchen, which seemed hard-working but cheerful. Within minutes, Bloom had us choosing CDs from his mammoth collection and enjoying ramekins full of sweet sautéed crabmeat that had been mistakenly prepared for another table. It was an accurate augur for a meal that, after a slightly uneven start, turned out to be fully satisfying.
The menu tempted us. (That it’s still labeled “Winter ’03” can be seen as either lax or easygoing.) Nothing came across as contrived. Instead, respectfulness for simple ingredients, heightened by complicated fundamental stocks, roux, and glazes came through. For a hot wilted field greens salad ($9), balsamic vinegar and red wine dressing was heated, reduced, and poured over a light sautée of red peppers, carrots, garlic, pine nuts, and basil. Expressive and colorful, the greens suffered from too much crunch, not enough wilt; the dressing,barely penetrated them at all. Meanwhile, a homemade remoulade provided the zip for an appetizer of pan-fried oysters bayou ($10). The plump, briny oysters themselves had been treated considerately, barely dusted with “Chef Ed’s secret Creole seasonings.” Next came the pepperettes ($6), broad fire-roasted red pepper strips, stuffed thick with aged farmer’s Gouda and andouille sausage. There was a nice play of sour and sweet flavors here, the cheese plenty pungent. Had it been grilled, or sliced into smaller bits, the sausage would have added even more interest to an already arousing appetizer.
Fresh soups are a specialty at Ethel and Ramone’s, and the menu offers a mini-sampler ($7) of four soups, in two-ounce portions. We tried cups ($3) of potato and Thai carrot. The potato soup, undersalted, made more sense after we were told it had been made from yesterday’s mashed potatoes. A liberal hand with coconut milk and basil made the Thai soup aromatic and scrumptious, each spoonful dense and piquant.
If we found a few things to nag about among the appetizers, we had nothing but praise for our entrées. The fish of the day, a specimen rockfish ($21), was pan-fried perfectly, giving it crispy and peppery skin, with all of its delicate white interior flavor intact. The gingersnap gravy served with crispy fried chicken breast ($19) and the roasted-garlic bell pepper velvet sauce that dressed the tender pan-fried chicken ($18) were superbly crafted creations. Each taste was as interesting and enjoyable as the first. It was a pleasure to take slow bites and think about good spices and slow cooking. All of these dishes were accompanied by fresh and vivid, pepper-and-garlic-sautéed summer vegetables.
The triumphant moment here, though, belongs to the Chef Ed’s Award Winning Authentic Gumbo ($18 with andouille sausage, $19 with blackened chicken, $22 with shrimp, $23 with steak). Constructed, according to the menu, with a slow-cooked dark roux and three stocks, the dark and dusky brew will make you curse anything else you may have eaten that dared call itself gumbo. A bowl of gumbo can be a world of pleasure, and you’ll do some sweating working your way through the stuff here, although I’d describe it more as intense than dangerously spicy.
Sitting so close to the kitchen may have been, for a reviewer, a tactical error—it’s hard to dissect a meal with the chef so close by; it’s harder not to get co-opted into the kitchen’s culture. Service at the counter was goofily haphazard, too, as though we were friends who happened to stop by. We managed, however, and the staff refreshingly didn’t put on airs for us—it’s a clean kitchen but not an immaculate one. They made good food for us, and I’m sure they’d do the same for you. Absolutely, go for the gumbo.