My first impression of Dick & Jenny’s Bake and Brew was a tsunami of sound. A crowd packed into an old house that was converted into a tavern long ago was singing along with a ragtime piano whiz, really belting it out, with a side of banjo. The racket blotted out our server’s exposition on the three kinds of oysters on offer, leaving me exasperated – but only temporarily. Thursdays are ragtime night at the Grand Island restaurant. By the end of our meal, the cheerful clamor seemed a fitting backdrop at a joint whose hearty fare with a New Orleans accent brimmed with joyful gusto.
It’s been almost a decade since Hurricane Katrina blew Richard and Jennifer Benz out of their Tchoupitoulas Street restaurant in New Orleans. The restaurateurs made themselves at home in a Grand Island building that for generations has been a place for locals to gather.
Comfy, well-lit booths and dining tables topped with paper are arrayed around a central bar. The side opposite the entrance holds live music on Thursdays and a few other nights each month. It’s easy enough to avoid if noise ruins your digestion.
Once we were able to hear him, our server did a solid job with explanations and attentiveness.
The menu has New Orleans touches, but ranges further than gumbo and jambalaya. There’s a vegetarian Thai red curry noodle bowl ($16), pomodoro and meatballs ($12.50), and penne pasta with steak tips, bacon and Gorgonzola cream ($18).
Besides swordfish, we ordered a chicken and rib platter ($19.50), stuffed pork tenderloin ($19) and pasta jambalaya ($21).
Atop a clump of cheesy grits fortified with bacon and sweet potato, pork belly arrived boasting a crispiness so often promised, yet rarely delivered. “Like pork candy,” Cat said. Tricked out with arugula and sweet-spicy pepper sauce, it successfully whetted our appetites.
The appetizer platter was an excellent way to test Dick & Jenny’s chops – and it delivered tasty riffs. Jambalaya was firm, well-seasoned rice topped with smoky sausage, familiar kielbasa instead of some spicy andouille, and two perfectly fried hand-cut onion rings.
Lobster cheesecake was an impossibly cloud-light quiche, with chunks of tender lobster. Two shrimp atop it were given a quick sauté in clarified butter and peppery spice. A crispy crumb coat hid lump crab in a first-class crab cake dressed with remoulade. The fried green tomatoes underneath it were the only element that didn’t thrill, soft in their floury coating.
Cool carrot ginger bisque was a rough, homey puree, with a squiggle of coriander yogurt and diced cucumber for crunch. It was tasty, but I wished it was colder.
Crispy eggplant fritters arrived on whipped goat cheese, topped with fresh, chunky caponata with eggplant, bell peppers and briny olives, surrounded by a circle of pesto. It was as delicious as it was pretty.
My grilled swordfish was moist and flavorful, with a subtle tangy richness from the lemon butter. The plate included well-executed vegetable notes, fried potato cubes, green beans sautéed with fennel and a fresh salsa of red onion, mango, red bell pepper and watermelon.
Ribs and fried chicken were a disappointment, the ribs more so for superficial smoke flavor that was wan, for barbecue, even though the pork was acceptably tender and lacquered with sauce. The fried chicken leg and thigh boasted a fantastic crackling crust over well-cooked chicken that I thought underseasoned.
Jambalaya pasta was sauced with a kind of roux-bolstered cream, and plenty of chicken, sausage and crawfish mixed in with firm tomato fettuccine. But dry chicken and a meek sauce undermined its effect.
Cat’s pork tenderloin was stuffed with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, atop more of those sweet potato bacon grits. The meat was tender, the filling ample, and while the grits were clumpy, their flavor meant all was forgiven. Grilled broccolini added some welcome greenery.
Dessert was worth saving room for. The buttery caramel flavor of the sticky toffee pudding ($5.50) tickled my brain’s pleasure center despite its schlumpy appearance, inspiring Scotty to cite “Planet of the Apes”: “If only it wasn’t so damned ugly.”
Lemon meringue pie with a soaring meringue toque ($5.50) was fresh but lacked citrus zip. Beignets with ice cream and chocolate syrup ($7.50) were chewy fritters, not fluffy, but that didn’t stop us.
The cheesecake did. The New York-style gem was baked so there’s a caramel-ish crust on the top of fluffy cheese strata. It was so good that conversation at the table turned to all the sins against cheesecake we’d witnessed in recent months. That was my chance to sneak another bite.
This is a place that feels like a joint where you can relax, then feeds you like a white-tablecloth culinary emporium. If you’ve never been to Dick & Jenny’s before, you may find yourself considering that even a hurricane can have its upside.
Dick & Jenny’s Bake and Brew - 8 plates (out of 10)
WHERE: 1270 Baseline Road, Grand Island (775-5047, www.dickandjennysny.com)
HOURS: 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
PRICE RANGE: Breakfasts, $5.50-$12; sandwiches and po-boys, $5.99-$12; appetizers, $7.50-$28; entrees $12.50-$26.
PARKING: Lot. WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No.