A purple Jesus wearing Mardi Gras beads rested in a nook above an empty birdcage and "Sentimental Journey" was playing in the background. So I was getting a pretty good vibe from the new Cajun/Creole place that recently opened in the Short North.
I was certainly enjoying its offbeat ambience more than its off-putting name: Da Levee (as in the levee that broke in New Orleans). Here, edgy contemporary local art hung above a sparkly dark purple floor (purple seems to be Da Levee's theme color), and joining Jesus on the opposite wall was a jumble of nutty stuff like a knockoff old military drum, mirrors and other sundry statuettes.
When my dining companion and I went up to order at the Mardi Gras-beaded counter of the tiny one-roomer, we were offered several samples of the current specials (every day, a handful of handwritten entrees constitutes the entire menu). Liking what we tried, we took advantage of the half-and-half option, whereby for a very fair $7.50, we'd get generous servings of two different items.
But when it came time to pay, we were informed they didn't take credit cards (yet). As we looked at each other dumbfounded, the young, cool-as-a-cucumber, tattooed proprietor (Da Levee seems to be a one-man operation) said, "Don't worry, I'll write you up an I.O.U. and you can get me later."
Wow, I thought, I hope the food lives up to the friendly mood of this funky place. Well guess what, Da Levee's nuanced and not monstrously salty fare mostly did.
I mean, who wouldn't like the simply satisfying Creole Chicken? It was a thick, soupy base strewn with shredded poultry and flavored mostly by stewed tomatoes, thyme and the perfect hint of botanical heat. Like everything here, it was ladled immediately from a warming pot onto a pile of white rice.
Ditto for the cumin-kissed White Bean Chili with Chicken. That one had lots of red pepper flavor, a well-calibrated touch of cayenne and a good blend of shredded chicken and beans.
The Chili Cheese Crawfish Etouffee tasted more like a mudbug mac-and-cheese than a traditional etouffee. Still, I found its viscous cheese-saucy character to be generally pleasurable.
Jambalaya is like the New Orleans answer to paella, and since it is rice-based, it wasn't redundantly served with more rice. I thought Da Levee's version was quite fine - plenty of green pepper presence and shredded chicken, if not enough thin discs of smoky andouille sausage.
Based on the speed, flavor and price of its easy-to-like Big Easy-style cuisine plus its accommodating friendliness and wacky art-gallery appearance, I'd say Da Levee is a great addition to the Short North. Now if only something could be done about that name.