As a regular visitor to Louisiana and a stalwart aficionado of all things Cajun and Creole, it is difficult for me not to compare Blue Island’s Maple Tree Inn, which bills itself as a â€œLouisiana Brasserie,â€ to the restaurants of New Orleans. Against that standard, the Maple Tree Inn doesn’t always stack up. That doesn’t really matter, for the Maple Tree Inn is its own very beautiful, unique thing.
The visit to downtown Blue Island is worth the trip alone. It’s a slice of nearly-extinct Americana that includes turreted storefronts, vinyl awnings and a smattering of Mom-and-Pop businesses such as Gayla’s Irish Saloon and Jeben’s Hardware (whose windows are filled with an assortment of vintage bicycles and hurricane lanterns). New America has infiltrated Blue Island, too, in the form of Mario’s Tacos and Taqueria Durango.
And there at the end of Old Western Avenue is the Maple Tree Inn, a warm red-brick facade trimmed in emerald green (built in 1890) that was once a forbidden Prohibition speakeasy. The tiny front bar room is all honey-colored woods and outfitted with a generous selection of beer taps. The beer list is good as any in the Chicago area, with such offerings as Abita from Louisiana and some of America’s finest craft brews from Lagunitas, Mikkeller and Allagash.
As for those Louisiana standards I referenced, the â€œBBQ Shrimpâ€ is not full of head-on-shrimp soaked in butter and Worcestershire sauce as it is at Mr. B’s in New Orleans’ French Quarter. The shrimp at Maple Tree Inn is butterflied, peeled and doused instead in a too tangy, but not nearly as comforting, tomato sauce. Fried green tomato wheels are blanketed in a traditional cornmeal, drizzled with tangy remoulade and cut with a nice, sharply acidic peanut slaw; but they’re also kind of soggy. The crawfish etouffee, though, has a nice, swampy, velvety gravy much like the one served in NOLA. That’s pretty much where the comparisons end. I have never seen Maple Tree’s â€œVoodoo Nutsâ€ in Louisiana, smoked balls of sweet, roasted garlic cloves wrapped in spicy Andouille sausage, but I bet they’d capture the hearts and minds of Baton Rouge.
Maple Tree has a way with smoke. Their ribs are dry-rubbed and slow-cooked over hickory until a deep pink ring sets in to the flesh. The skin transfigures into a dark, caramelized, lacquered bark. The interior meat is tender but still firm. It is one of the finest ribs in the Chicago area.
The crabe avec crabeÂâ€” crunchy, briny, softshell crabs doused in peppery lemon-butter sauce fortified with additional pulled crab and topped with sweet candied nuts â€” could only be better if someone laid an arm of fresh King Crab over the top. The again â€œcrabe avec crabe avec crabeâ€ is probably too cumbersome to order.
The dessert specials rotate regularly, but a recent Bananas Foster bread pudding, glazed in buttery brown sugar, custardy bananas and splashed with rum, is the thing to have. Plenty of spots in New Orleans serve that dessert, but few let you wash it down with a Three Floyd’s beer from nearby Munster, Ind.
MAPLE TREE INN â˜…â˜…
13301 S. Old Western Ave., Blue Island
(708) 388-3461; www.mapletreeinnrestaurant.com
This article first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times in a different form.