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Background check Ever since the original Cooking With Jazz in Whitestone opened, I have been a regular, making the trek to Queens with scads of other Long Islanders and squeezing into the tiny, cramped quarters for some of the best Cajun food you are likely to find this side of N'Awlins. Chef/owner Steve Van Gelder studied and cooked with Paul Prudhomme at K-Paul's in the Big Easy and was in the kitchen when Brightsen's opened in that well-fed town as well. Prudhomme has even squeezed his famously large frame into the cramped space of CWJ in a very rare outer-borough appearance. Van Gelder himself strikes quite a figure with his trademark floppy toque and long goatee. He is a big part of the fun at both of his places. He often takes time from overseeing the kitchens to walk the rooms and chat with his diners. Back in Whitestone he would always beg us to come during the week when the place was less crowded. We would tell him we came in from the Island and he promised us that he was looking for both a place out here as well as in Manhattan. Manhattan hasn't happened yet, but he kept his promise to us Long Islanders.
Casing the joint The Malverne spot is big, it isn't easy to find. Located between the railroad station and the police station, it can still be hard to spot for those not familiar with Malverne. This place is everything that Whitestone isn't: one large room with about 20 booths and tables so you don't have to suck in your stomach every time you get up from your seat. Plus, there's actually a bar. With nothing but a service bar in Whitestone I always felt that place should have a closet like the ones opening onto Bourbon Street that just sell Hurricanes. For the first few years in Queens, despite the place's name, the only jazz found was cooked into the wonderful food. Both branches now feature jazz on most nights, but not on Saturdays.
What we ateUsually, the best way to test a Cajun food place is to check out the basics like gumbo. Here, you have two spicy choices: chicken and andouille gumbo ($6) or seafood gumbo ($7). Both are heady concoctions, and each is so satisfying that, when enjoyed with terrific warm mini-corn and bran muffins and soft pan bread, a less-than-voracious eater may decide to stop right there. Another appetizer in the same category is tasso and shrimp ravioli ($7). Tasso, which is Cajun bacon, blends perfectly with shrimp as the delectable filling for four large ravioli casings in a pink, creamy tomato sauce. Special appetizers such as alligator don't taste like the proverbial chicken when enlivened by the spicy mustard sauce. The first time I ordered the chicken jambalaya ($18), I knew Van Gelder had spent time at K-Paul's. The way the jambalaya is presented gives it away. Instead of a bowl of rice with tomatoes and sausage and chicken mixed in like you find in most places, the jambalaya here comes separated. A mound of rice, a whole andouille sausage and a boneless chicken breast sit on the plate. Your mouth combines the dish as you eat it. The chicken etouffé ($14), delicious chicken medallions in gravy with mashed potatoes, is a perfect introduction to Cajun for the food babies in your party. And the chicken Tchopitoulas Street ($15) could become a favoriteit's chicken roulade over chopped roasted potatoes, mushrooms and tasso ham in a béarnaise sauce. Specials often include acorn squash stuffed with seafood and seasonal seafood such as soft shell crabs or a mess of crawfish. Fresh fish ($16) such as red fish, salmon and especially catfish, can be blackened and therefore spiced to order. Or it can be cooked almost any way you like.
Vegetarian alertUntil someone figures out how to make a good blackened portabella or an all-veggie gumbo, try one of the salads or the spaghetti squash primavera ($12) or the roasted vegetable pasta ($13) off the Not So Cajun menu.
Cavity patrolWhen Cooking With Jazz first opened in Whitestone four of us took a shot and stopped by one Saturday night without reservations. The place was jammed and we couldn't be accommodated. Steve suggested we come back later that night to try the bananas Foster. We did and we were forever hooked. A large plate of sliced bananas in an ultra-sweet sauce made from rum, banana liquer and brown sugar surrounds a mound of vanilla ice cream. We have trouble ordering anything else for dessert, although I once forced myself to have the pecan-pumpkin pie ($5) and think about it fondly when I'm ordering the bananas Foster again and again. Chicory coffee completes the trip down South.
Damage If you split an appetizer and the bananas Foster, like we do, and considering that the entrees are in the $15 neighborhood, you can get away for a little over $20 a person before alcohol, tax and tip. But how do you resist a Blackened Voodoo Beer or a bottle of Dixie beer?