Music has always been the thing at Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus. Long before Northern Liberties became a haven for the hipsterati — and, later, Old City’s weekend runover — this Philly institution was holding it down night after night, its patrons drawn to the legendary live jazz and the sweet potato fries.
But even institutions like Ortlieb’s have to evolve with the times. For its 20th birthday, the Jazzhaus got itself new ownership and closed down for a makeover. Most notably, they installed a new chef, Michael Suminski, who trained at the Four Seasons in Montecito, Calif., under redheaded wonder Mario Batali before coming to Philly and cooking in Manayunk, Skippack and at NoLibs’ own Azure.
Suminski has kept the general Cajun-American gist of the menu intact, but his talents are obvious at every flip of the spatula. Creamy, cayenne-spiked Louisiana crab bisque floats with chunks of lump crabmeat, corn and a clever swirl of bourbon syrup. The teasing spice of blackened catfish fingers encased in peppery coating is both augmented and tempered by a creamy lime-chipotle aioli. Light-as-lattice calamari are golden rings of seafood perfection that defy gravity, and also reason.
Two large crabcakes — a deal at $20 — are tightly bound and pan-seared to a thin, crispy crust. The Jambalaya’s generous mix of garlicky shrimp, clams, chicken off the bone, chunks of andouille sausage in saffron rice yields sublime heat — the hearty dish’s only flaw was a few overly pungent mussels. Thickly lacquered chipotle-sauced spareribs are so tender they can be eaten with a fork, thus saving you from looking like a lustful caveman. (You’ll likely want to suck the bones, anyway.) Equally delicious are the sides: a wedge of jalapeño cornbread, a half-cob of lime-spritzed grilled corn and a pile of braised, citrusy collard greens. And the sweet potato fries? Still fabulous.
The meal, like the music, comes to a sweeping finish. In addition to fixed items like New York-style cheesecake, the kitchen turns out daily-changing crème brülées and bread puddings. On a recent night, a Chambord crème brülée stunned my table with its subtle raspberry sweetness. Even more stunning was the strawberry mojito bread pudding, which sounded too ambitious to have any chance of being tasty. But the toasty chunks of egg-soaked bread layered with thinly sliced berries and mint, topped with a Myers rum crème anglaise, were sweetly complex and utterly compelling — so much so that we polished off what must have been a loaf’s worth.
Two decades in, Ortlieb’s is still a wonderful jazz destination, but next time I return, it won’t be for the organ solos.