The thick Pall Mall haze may be gone, but Eli's Mile High Club is still smokin'. To an early-evening Tuesday audience of fifteen, that is. The blues-jam house band is sending out a tight, rockin' West Coast blues edged with funk. My friends and I can't help but nod to the beat as we squinch up our eyes to read Eli's menu by candlelight.
Since its inception, the Express has been covering shows at Eli's, and reported on the club's demise and subsequent rescue by Biscuits & Blues managing partner Frank Klein, who saved the venue from a fate of renovation to live-work lofts. And now I'm here to measure its transformation to supper club -- without the silverware.
Joining me is Express editor Steve Buel, who has been coming here since the early 1980s, and his wife, Judy. I ask him what's changed. There's the decor, of course, he tells me -- cleaned up and darkened, it's now deep red and black from floor to ceiling, with the poles in the center of the seating area removed to improve the sightlines. The faded blues posters that used to paper the walls have all been carefully "museumified" behind glass at the back. The old Eli's Mile High Club sign came down, too, to be mounted above the bar. You smokers can now move out to the back patio, where a half-dozen tables will let you take in the purple haze of the night sky while you puff away.
It's a respectful renovation, worthy of beery nights and sweat-drenched crowds. And the food has kept pace. In the good old days, Miss Barbara cooked up ribs and greens to help the cocktails go down. But now Aaron Scott Pringle, a Vancouver-trained chef, serves corn and rock shrimp fritters and barbecue turkey sausage plates. The publicity packet I received in the mail calls Pringle's food "rebellious American cuisine" -- really, who thinks up this nonsense? In layman's terms, that translates as West Coast-lightened soul food from a Canadian chef.
You're not going to find the fine-dining supper-club experience you've been craving at Eli's, though. It's just not that kind of place. When you're hunched around a tiny table, scraping the last of your creamed corn off the paper lining in your plastic basket with your plastic fork, you may be thinking, "Why the hell did I wear a tie here?" But I'll tell you this: As bar food, Eli's pub grub is pretty damn fine.
In the grand tradition of plastic-basket bar food, much of it has been deep-fried: spicy fries, lightly dusted with N'Awlins spices, say, or my favorite, crawfish taquitos -- a Cajun egg roll stuffed with peppery, chopped crawdads and a zingy little red-pepper sauce. A basket of glistening, caramelized plantains comes in close second. They all make great companions to bottles of Fat Tire ale or one of the foofy house cocktails.
Pringle's food has a fineness and flair to it that surpasses the jalapeño poppers and onion flowers that most bars foist on uncaring patrons. Sometimes, though, it overflairs, thereby flaring out.
In general, chefs are prone to two kinds of sins: sins of conception and sins of execution. Here Pringle tends toward the former -- and less mortal of the two, so far as I'm concerned. I had warily eyed the yam-and-chickpea hummus on the menu, and when I tasted it found my intuition hadn't failed me. Sure, the thick puree, presented with a stack of just-warmed whole-wheat pitas, had a great texture. And punchy doses of lemon and garlic almost erased the oddly sweet aftertaste, but it shouldn't have been there in the first place. Likewise, the blue-cheese hush puppies almost won me over -- when I stuck to the cornmeal nuggets themselves, which were elegantly moist inside a crisp shell, with a tiny, funky core of melted blue cheese at the center. But dipped in a sauce that tasted like raspberry jam? Ugh.
A few of the entrées migrated over the bay from Biscuits & Blues, which seems to have set the style, if not the menu, for its new sister club, but Pringle largely steers his own course. As at Biscuits & Blues, he coats catfish fillets in cornmeal and fries them; they come out crunchy all the way around, but buttery at the center. But he also molasses-smokes and then sautés the fish, brightening it up with a simple tomato-cilantro salsa on top. Both are good, but underneath their distinguishing characteristics, the catfish had a mild, overfarmed quality that could be compensated for with a little more salt.
The fried chicken, a whole half of a bird, was great as is. The white bits didn't dry out, the dark bits didn't get stringy, and the skin -- probably just dusted in seasoned flour -- crackled from wing to tail. A weekend special of Memphis-smoked pork ribs were rubbed in a thick spice rub that permeated to the bone. Sauceless, the meat looked dry, but all the fat had melted within, leaving the flesh moist and pull-apart-able.
The most flagrant sin of execution occurred with another weekend special, a slightly gummy seafood risotto that tasted like the ocean but had very little seafood inside to show for it. Another rice dish, the jambalaya, lit a fire on my tongue, the chile heat undergirded by a flavorful mix of onions and peppers. Spend an extra buck, and the chef will load up the jambalaya with plump little shrimp, which nicely complement the chunks of smoked ham in the basic version.
All the entrées come with your choice of two sides: crunchy cole slaw tossed in a sweetish vinaigrette, or an ice-cream scoop of mashed potato salad, pleasingly bland. A hint of jalapeño brought a bite to creamed corn, the day's vegetable, and the cream didn't bleed all over the basket but merely coated the still-crisp kernels. Pringle most rebels from tradition with his red beans, adding in a little sugar and cumin instead of smoked ham hocks, so they taste like they're straddling the Mason-Dixon line. "Interesting," Arkansas native Judy commented approvingly. I agreed.
Despite the plastic-basket style of dining, somebody has trained the bartenders and servers to make the effort. I don't know how busy things get when the place is packed, but on my two visits the servers timed our courses so that nothing came too fast or slow, stopped back regularly to check in and replenish drinks, and even showed a little flair, for example, fetching a flashlight when candlelight proved too dim to read the menu.
As we ate, the house band ceded the stage to the blues jammers, a uniformly doughy crew of white guys. It got easier to focus on my meal, until a short Chinese-American woman approached the microphone and unwrapped a breathy, sex-drunk alto that belonged to a body three times its size. I suddenly forgot my pie and turned all my attention to the stage.
Which is how it should be.
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