Restaurant News & Reviews

That bayou voodoo that Melton does so well

On the title track of "Papa Mojo's Roadhouse," a CD released by Mel Melton & the Wicked Mojos in 2005, Melton sings: "I'm gonna put a little spell on you ... that's what I'm gonna do."

Music critics who praised the CD as "Cajun music at its dirty juke joint best" might well have cited these lyrics. And, as anyone who has heard the band can attest, Melton's sultry, bluesy vocals and harmonica playing can indeed cast a powerful spell.

But I'm not sure Melton is referring to his music with those lines. After tasting his yardbird and sausage gumbo, I'm thinking that's what he's talking about. Dark as voodoo, rich and faintly smoky from the bacon fat in its authentic roux base, and chockablock with chicken (that's the "yardbird") and andouille sausage, it's one bewitching brew.

And you don't need any magic powers to taste it. It's on the menu at Papa Mojo's Roadhouse, the restaurant that the multitalented Melton opened in January. Over his decades-long career, Melton has opened for such music legends as Ray Charles and B.B. King, while simultaneously earning the nickname "the Zydeco chef."

Midway through that cup of gumbo, I was wishing I had ordered a bowl, even if it meant I would be too full to eat anything else.

Not that Melton is a one-hit wonder in the kitchen, mind you. This fall at the State Fair, Food Network celebrity chef Bobby Flay will present him with a first place award in the 2008 Best Dish in North Carolina competition sponsored by the Department of Agriculture.

Melton won in all three categories: appetizer (skillet fried oysters with garlic hot sauce), entree (hickory grilled catfish topped with crawfish étouffée) and dessert (buttermilk pie with blackberry sauce and chantilly cream).

Clearly, I'm not the only one to fall under the spell of the Zydeco chef, and gumbo isn't his only magic potion.

Those oysters in garlic hot sauce are so good, it's tempting to order them again on a po' boy. But then you would miss out of some of the fattest, most crisp-crusted deep-fried oysters ever slapped between two pieces of bread.

The grilled catfish and crawfish étouffée that co-star in the entree prizewinner are available separately, and each is a worthy dish in its own right. The buttermilk pie is enchanting, too, though no more so than Melton's bread pudding or his chocolate pecan tart with homemade caramel.

The chef makes a mean jambalaya, too, a medley of rice, pork, chicken, andouille and hot Italian sausage in a jumble of flavors as ebullient as a Mardi Gras parade. And when he's got his mojo working, Melton's cochon de lait (Cajun-style barbecued pork) can even make a native Tar Heel question -- if only momentarily -- his faith in the Church of Carolina Barbecue.

True, sometimes the spell is broken by a misfire in the kitchen -- undersalted red beans, for instance, or dry breast meat in a barbecued chicken, or a paucity of crawfish in the crawfish pie. And sometimes, a dish such as blackened trout with a cane syrup-citrus glaze may work its magic on some, while others find it too sweet.

Such reality checks are relatively infrequent. Likely as not, you'll encounter nothing to dispel the illusion, reinforced by the funky bayou country vibe, that you've stumbled into one of those great little New Orleans dives that only the locals know about.

The spell is even harder to break on Friday and Saturday nights, when live music (cover charge varies) cranks up the intensity -- not to mention the volume -- in the compact dining room. Every now and then, the featured act is Mel Melton & the Wicked Mojos. On those nights, you might as well surrender yourself to the spell.

Order the yardbird and sausage gumbo. Not a cup, a whole bowl. Go ahead, you know you can't resist.