AFTER YOU'VE CLIMBED THE FRONT PORCH STEPS at Ethel's Creole Kitchen (1615 Sulgrave Ave., (410) 664-2971, ethelscreolekitchen.com) and admired the freshly planted window boxes, the immaculate picnic tables, and the two stories of French doors that suggest Bourbon Street architecture, the front door opens before you can grasp the doorknob and a blue-blazered gent with a handsome grin ushers you in. The effect is charmingly, momentarily disorienting. Did I walk into someone's home, you wonder? Well, no. But it feels like it here.
Ethel's used to go by Ethel and Ramone's. The ownership and Mt. Washington address are still the same, but in the months between the restaurant's closing for renovations late last year and reopening in early April, the name, physical space, and menu have all been given a shot of restaurant Botox. Structurally, what's most noticeable is the paint, the color of butternut squash soup, which coats both the exterior and the interior. There's also a new outdoor dining area off the second floor, and the staircase, which was once in the center of the downstairs dining room, has migrated seamlessly to just beyond the front entrance. Combined with the Aubrey Bodine prints and the various stringed instruments that grace the walls, the effect is warm, fresh, reinvigorated.
Ethel's menu of "innovative Maryland Creole cuisine" has expanded too, although it's a challenge to order beyond well-loved signature dishes like gumbo and jambalaya. And on a midweek evening, the downstairs is filled with an assemblage of mostly couples who've chosen wine over Sazeracs, their tables crowded with plates of fried oysters and ruddy ribs, with a seashore's worth of empty shellfish shells from the Creole dishes filling up small bowls.
Small gestures make a big impact here. Striped linen tea towels double as napkins. A dab of marmalade garnish on a perfectly smoked bluefish appetizer ($12) lends a touch of sweet to balance the salty-savory of the fish. A server doesn't miss a beat when asked if the bar can make a mocktail to accommodate a non-drinking guest, and when the bartender himself later checks in on the table to gauge said guest's satisfaction with the drink, he playfully challenges her to guess the beverage components. In fact, it's not damning with faint praise to say that while the food is very good at Ethel's, the service alone is worth the trip. Warm without pandering, polite without being mannered, eager to explain without being teacherly ("Jambalaya is like Creole paella," our server tells us. "Gumbo is like stew."), the staff is generous and genuine. If they don't love what they do, they are splendid actors.
So about that food—get the bluefish if you like smoked fish. It is sublime. If the capenade ($10) is on special, be aware that it's most likely different from other any caponata you may have had. Here, the roasted eggplant, pureed to creamy consistency with a well-placed kick of spice, is served under a blanket of cheese, not unlike French onion soup. We mostly avoided the cheese, instead scooping up dollops of dip with crusty bread. More calorie-conscious diners can also choose among several salads as starters.
You can order rockfish and chicken and spring lamb at Ethel's, but when there's gumbo on offer . . . well, I'm not one to resist. Diners can choose their proteins (combinations of Andouille sausage and chicken, shrimp, crab, or a mix of seafood) for both the jambalaya and the gumbo, though I'd go for the seafood every time. In the gumbo ($23 for sausage and seafood), where the roux (a heady potion the color of mole) beguiles, chunks of well-prepared catfish unexpectedly delight even more than the requisite shellfish. Here, the heat creeps up on you. In the jambalaya ($22 for sausage and shrimp), the full burn is on from the start and sneaks into every bite of speckled rice studded with knobs of sausage and fat pink shrimp. Both dishes beg for a side of sour-cream cornbread ($5), light as genoise, to temper the spice. If you order the ribs ($15/half rack), more sweet than spice and on the lean side, you'll also get mashed potatoes, but a side of smoky, bacon-laced collards ($5) is a no-brainer.
Like everything else at Ethel's, desserts are made in house. Three were on offer the night we dined: blueberry bread pudding, cheesecake with Luxardo cherry sauce, and a chocolate silk pie ($6), a ramekin of very rich chocolate cream resting atop a cookie crumb.
Ethel's offers a new menu of retro cocktails with updated ingredients like black walnut bitters, and a decent beer list of mostly microbrews, several of them local. I'd love to see the wine list similarly invigorated, but there's little else I would tweak here. Ethel's offers honest food with honest hospitality. Welcome back. ■
Ethel's Creole Kitchen is open for lunch Tuesday-Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 2p.m.; dinner Tuesday-Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m..