The first night I stopped in at Jezebel's Southern Bistro and Bar, it was hotter than a bottle of Tabasco. With an overloaded swamp cooler and no ceiling fans in the back room where we were seated, and not a hint of breeze on the patio where we later moved, I spent the whole meal wishing it were fall, because the Southern food dished up in this spot requires an appetite that's hard to muster in the heat.
See also: Photos: A closer look at Jezebel's
A bucket of beer helped to cool us off, as did fanning ourselves with the menu — but they could only do so much. There's just no way to fully enjoy cornmeal-battered okra or pickled peppers oozing with warm pimento goat cheese, much less a bowl of hot gumbo and a plate of fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy, when all you can think of is sitting on an ice sculpture with a frozen margarita nearby. Or something like that.
Fortunately, fall is now here, which means that aside from the stray 90-degree day, the weather should cooperate with executive chef Leo Harvey's intentions. Designed in concert with veteran restaurateurs/spouses Wanda James and Scott Durrah and partner Robert Perry, the menu sweeps across the South, where all four have roots. The result is not so much an accumulation of family recipes as what James called "crafted comfort food," with dishes they grew up loving in South Carolina, Texas, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi, all tweaked as Harvey sees fit.
Take the cornbread, which comes as a side with several soups and entrees or can be ordered by the basket. "There are a lot of different cornbread recipes in my family," said Harvey, a Georgia native who worked at Big Game and TAG prior to helping Durrah as personal chef for several Broncos players, then signed up when Jezebel's took over the former home of Squeaky Bean in Highland last year. "This is a collaboration of what I've liked." I liked it, too: This variation was amped up with baking powder and buttermilk, and served with honey butter melted over the top. I liked it even more when I returned on a cooler night and grabbed a seat in the front room — not on one of the faux purple-alligator bar stools that James and Scott picked out first and then designed the rest of the space around, but on an equally purple banquette.
The cornbread was a solid partner to the gumbo, loaded with shrimp, okra and Andouille (but no tomatoes), and served over jasmine rice. The cooler weather also aided my appreciation of the macaroni and cheese, even though it isn't made with Velveeta, the cheese of choice in many Southern households. At Jezebel's, it's made to order with cream and white cheddar, then topped with cornbread crumbs in a cast-iron skillet for a dish that both kids — and there are many at Jezebel's, especially if you dine early on the patio — and adults will appreciate. One night mine tasted smoky, as if smoked Gouda had found its way into the blend, but Harvey only laughed when I asked about that. "Our kitchen is smoky," he explained.
The smoke he's referring to might come from the smoker, which turns slabs of pork ribs and brisket into two of the restaurant's heartiest dishes. Sliced on the thick side, the brisket was fork-tender, a result of positioning the meat with the fat cap on top so that the juices drip back in. The pork ribs were far better than the heavily rubbed rib tips, which had spent so much time in the heat they reminded me of charcoal. Both meat platters come with a choice of two sides. I could make a meal — a starchy one, but a meal nonetheless — out of the best of them: the cornbread and mac and cheese, as well as coarse-ground cheese grits, yams black from caramelization, and mashed potatoes so smooth, you know they've been put through a ricer. Less compelling are bread-like biscuits; watery, over-peppered gravy; black-eyed peas; and limp, vinegary collard greens, a dish I'm convinced you had to grow up with to love.
A dish none of us grew up with, at least not prepared this way, is the gluten-free buttermilk fried chicken, a generous serving that includes mashed potatoes and collard greens. A breast, drumstick and thigh are dredged in a gluten-free flour blend spiked with cornstarch, which gives the crust plenty of crispy nubs. Since this is the only fried chicken on the menu, Harvey knew it had to appeal to more than those with gluten sensitivities — and it did, beating out a traditional version in a taste test.
I don't know if a taste test was held to determine if the spices on the blackened catfish are jazzy enough (they're not), or if they're adequate for the shrimp and grits, slightly reddish from dark roux and shrimp stock (they are). But it definitely seems like one determined what kind of kale dish should go on the menu — and the result was a tie. The trendy green does double duty as both chips and a salad, with flash-fried leaves over a bed of arugula, beets and goat cheese. While clever, the salad only bolsters the claim (however false) that the best vegetable to a Southern cook is a deep-fried one.
Many Southern chefs are trying hard to change that perception. For example, James Beard semi-finalist Vivian Howard of Chef & the Farmer in North Carolina spends all summer preserving and pickling; her ever-changing menu might include heirloom-tomato pie one week and carrot confit the next. You won't find that level of innovation at Jezebel's, nor will you find Howard's devotion to the seasons. Here the mission is simply to "feed your soul," as the website says, with a repertoire heavy on homestyle dishes that channel, rather than change, perceptions.
But on a perfect fall day, when you dig into a piece of butterscotchy chess pie or well-spiced sweet-potato pie, that's Southern comfort enough.