Restaurant review: Da Levee excels at quality Louisiana-influenced grub

From the March 28, 2013 edition
  • Photos by Tim Johnson

The first thing I looked for was Purple Jesus. Fortunately, he was still hanging out, wearing a red mardi gras mask and digging the revamped digs. I’m referring to the smartly renovated — and now liquor-serving — Louisiana-influenced Da Levee, and anyone wondering whether a makeover would bring about drastic changes here can think again.

This wacky joint is still as goofy and irreverent as it always was; and, as before, what the personality-driven place’s food lacks in nuance and finesse, it makes up for in pricing and convenience — which rival those of character-crippled fast fooders.

Joining Purple Jesus and Da Levee’s retro tunes (which can enjoyably swerve through the Rat Pack to Coleman Hawkins) is the expected thrift store junk, such as a big, old drum, a huge chess piece bishop, an unusually twisted and feline-looking picture of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and Heath Ledger’s Joker-defaced bills. New to the upgraded, purple-walled and attractively dark stained wooden scene are brick-like partitions, nifty windows-onto-High-Street seating, and a neat little metal-topped, distinct wooden-stool-equipped bar. Naturally, most of this is dripping with Mardi Gras beads that kinda remind me of melting clocks in a Dali painting.

Let’s belly-up back to that bar, because that’s where we’ll find cocktails tasting better than they have any reason to. For instance, the freshly squeezed and carefully measured citrus in both a gin gimlet ($5) and a why-can’t-other-places-do-it balanced Bulleit-fueled Sazerac ($6) had them outpacing versions I’ve had in far fancier places. There’s also a modest beer selection starring bottles from Southern Tier, Bell’s and NOLA-representing Abita Turbodog ($4).

Da Levee’s daily changing chalkboard menu is usually Facebook-posted and always includes a handful of thick-soupy Cajun- and Creole-inspired “roux and stews” eaten over lotsa rice with garlicky “magic bread”— or the stuff can be ladled onto sandwiches. Prices are $5 per small bowl, $7 for a large; $8 buys a recommended “two-fer” half bowl of two stews. Hand-held models are ($7-$9) for Po’ Boys and Po’ Burritos for $7-$8.

You might expect to see these at Da Levee (listed more or less in order of my preference): Chikin’ Creole — bright, zesty and herby (thyme, oregano) stewed tomatoes with plenty of pulled chicken and green pepper-derived flavor, and certainly the leanest option; Gumbo — thick, rich, peppery and dark silky base populated with okra, plus a bit of shrimp and soft, smoky sausage slices; Lucky Seven — a sweet, rich and spicy chowder that’s chunky with corn, black beans, carrot and nice-enough little shrimp; Red Beans and Sausage — slices of soft and smoky pig-tube perk-up a New Orleans Monday favorite that takes well to hot sauce, several of which are available tableside; and B&B — an oddly sweet blend of corn, black beans and pimentos with an appreciated undercurrent of peppery heat.

What I probably enjoyed ripping into most was a towering, sorta junk-food deluxe sandwich called the Mt. Po ($9). Onto a crusty hoagie roll dressed with lettuce, tomato and “Dat Sauce” (spicy housemade, oil-based condiment) was bacon, chorizo and that pleasing Chikin’ Creole. Huge, salty, saucy, sloppy and stinging with chili pepper, it’s exactly the kind of silly, meaty thing you’d like to have in your back pocket when stumbling home from a night of overindulgence. You know, as in ravenously buzzsaw through that mountain of sensory-overloading messiness and then pray to Purple Jesus you won’t have a hangover when morning comes around.