Southern Comfort

Biscuits & Blues

430 1st Ave., Mpls.; 333-BLUE

EVERY NOW AND again, I am reminded of a dark smugness that lurks in my heart. One Sunday evening, a couple of friends and I were disappointed to discover that our destination for an evening of eating was closed. We could always go to Biscuits & Blues I joked, thinking that the big club recently built in downtown Minneapolis would be the last place we'd want to be. Grossly huge and crowned with television sets both inside and out, it doesn't advertise itself as a repository for quiet conversation and genuine fare. Here was a place, I imagined, where you would be sure to find Cobb salads in tortilla shells, barbecue ribs sauced over with pineapple gook, and a wait staff knee deep in affected southern drawls. How surprised the snob in me was to find that Biscuits & Blues serves one of the most down to earth (not to mention delicious) dinners in town.

Apparently quite a few others have been snubbing the restaurant too; the place often seems empty when I pass by. As we clattered across the empty floor to a table in the back, I couldn't have felt more conspicuous. The staff seemed to be watching us like nervous parents wondering why more people hadn't shown up to their child's birthday party. The loud urban blues blaring in the background adds to the awkwardness; when there are only three people in an ample room, you don't really need to bring down the house with noise.

If you're looking for an intimate blues experience, Biscuits & Blues may not be what you have in mind. The decor and menus pay homage to the blues to be sure, but scrutinize too carefully and you're bound to find some obvious cracks in the facade. One wonders, for example, if Bessie--Bessy as they would have it--Smith's name and other misspellings are done in deference to some copyright law.

Other aspects of the menu are simple-minded in a more refreshing fashion, as in their concentration on dishes that reverently nod to the south. As for starters, I wasn't quite in the mood for dill pickles fried in a beer batter and served with spicy catsup ($3.75), though if I were, I can't think of any place else off hand where I could find them. We thought long and hard about ordering the spicy boiled shrimp ($7.95 per half pint/$12.95 per pint) served with homemade cocktail sauce and Creole remoulade, but felt we should try something less obviously wonderful. After a long and hard consideration of the mushroom beignet ($5.25), we ordered the crawfish pies ($5.95) and the corn and shrimp fritters ($6.25). Both were quickly devoured, the slightly spicy fritters studded with kernels of sweet corn and fleshy Florida Rock shrimp (not very greasy for all their frying) and four miniature turnovers filled with crawfish cooked in a vinegary sauce piquante. Most impressively, both were obviously prepared on the spot; no microwave magic here, just a fry cook with a delicate sense of timing and a few good recipes. You might try to redeem the health aspect of a large, mostly fried dinner with a bit of salad. We had a simple one of field greens and tomatoes with beet vinaigrette ($4.95), which couldn't have tasted any fresher.

The po' boy sandwich menu is a good value if you don't want to fuss around ordering lots of different dishes, giving you your basic food groups (that's fish fry, sweet potato fries, tomatoes, lettuce, and sauce) all on one plate. We all had a hand snacking on an oyster po' boy ($7.95), and though I usually prefer oysters by their naked, beautiful selves, I must admit that they preserved their integrity while setting on toasted, buttered French bread in a thick coating of seasoned cornmeal, and the homemade jalapeno tartar and cocktail sauces made it that much more marvelous.

We had to try the specialty of the house, of course, a fried chicken dinner with all of the fixings ($9.95). As might be gleaned from the name of the place, it came with buttermilk biscuits that were strictly top-notch. If the dinner had consisted of only biscuits, we would have gone home happy. But then we would have missed the fried chicken (three gigantic pieces of it, two breasts and a full leg), made according to Danny Glover's Grandmother's recipe. Lumpy, garlic-riddled mashed potatoes and pickled black-eyed peas rounded out the meal, not to mention our stomachs.

Desserts you won't want to miss, particularly the beignets, which are New Orleans-style donuts that are deep-fried, airy puffs of dough, strewn with powdered sugar ($3.25). Thinking about them now, I can imagine many cold Minnesota nights that could be leavened by those beignets, with some laced hot chocolate on the side. If you have driven by Biscuits & Blues and thought to yourself that it's not really your scene, banish your complacency to the netherworld and start enjoying one hell of a meal.

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