Longtime restaurateur and local music impresario Tom Dittus had some lessons for his young staff when he recently opened the Swamp House across the street from Church Studio.
“We have a strong team of kids,” Dittus said. “They have been schooled about the area with Church Studio, and when we tell them about Leon Russell, (Eric) Clapton, George Harrison and all the rest who recorded there, they say, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’ They’ve heard of them.
“There’s a band called The Shelter People, young people who know the history of Leon’s Shelter Records, and they came in and wanted to work here.”
We didn’t ask our youthful server, Hayley, how much she knew about the history of the neighborhood when we dined at the Swamp House recently, but she obviously had been schooled in waiting tables. Or maybe she was a natural. Anyway, she did a terrific job, engaging but not over the top.
We also didn’t go on a live-music night, but it was a pleasant evening on the covered patio — cool breeze, no rain with tunes from the 1950s to ‘70s playing in the background.
Dittus always has been known for serving approachable food at his former restaurants, including the original Blue Rose Café in Brookside and Steamroller Blues & BBQ. Swamp House is no different, though, as one might infer, it has a Cajun slant to much of the menu, with blackened meats, spicy gumbo and sauces.
The signature dish, however, is a drip beef sandwich ($12) that Tom’s wife, Dawn, adapted from one of her grandmother’s recipes. It has a mound of savory, tender beef with big-eye Swiss cheese on a hoagie with a side of au jus. It is delicious.
“When Dawn first served it to me, I told her I could build a restaurant around that sandwich,” Tom Dittus said.
My wife was in one of those healthful moods and ordered the JJ Cale Salad (hold the Kale), a nod to the Tulsa-native singer and musician and to Dittus’ dislike of kale.
“I hate kale,” he said. “We might be the only restaurant in town without a kale salad.”
The salad ($12) included fresh spinach, tomatoes, bacon, cheese, red peppers and a choice of blackened or grilled chicken, or “sub grilled shrimp for a million dollars,” according to the menu. We went big, Boss, so where do we stand on our dining-out budget?
The salad had five plump, fresh-tasting shrimp, and the whole mix went well with a house-made ranch dressing. All salads come with a “surprise” slice of fried green tomato, and ours was a good one.
Gator bites ($11) are tastier and more tender than ones we’ve had at the fair. The ones at Swamp House are brined, then battered and deep-fried. A spicy “swamp” sauce was the perfect dipper.
Another tasty appetizer was the deep-fried “swamp spores” ($9), nicely breaded, juicy mushrooms that paired well with the house ranch and swamp sauce. The basket included another “surprise,” a serving of fries.
An entrée of fried catfish ($14) included a large catfish fillet that had been lightly breaded and served with red beans and rice topped with chopped green onion, two hush puppies, lemon, cucumbers and a slice of watermelon. The fish had a clean taste, and the red beans and rice had a mild flavor. Some who like it more spicy might want to grab the bottle of Louisiana Hot Sauce on the table.
I seldom notice much about hush puppies, but these were crunchy on the outside and moist inside, a cut above most.
The chicken and sausage gumbo ($4 cup, $8 bowl) had some zip to it, and I was told some of the other dishes, such as the Cajun steak bites, bring plenty of heat.
The menu also features items such as burgers, chili, po’ boys, desserts and entrees such as shrimp and grits, Pig Tails (skewered shrimp and Cajun sausage), Southern meat pie and blackened chicken.
The swamp fries ($3) are not to be missed, either. They are topped with green onion, bacon, cheese and cream-and-white wine gravy.
I meant to order one of the side dishes, fried okra, which features whole pods. I will have to go back for that.
Dawn’s son and daughter-in-law, Fernando and Kortnie Martinez, developed the bar program, which includes wines, local beers and a variety of specialty cocktails.
The building has a Louisiana look, especially the patio, with slanted wood shutters, corrugated metal and thick wood beams.
The live music schedule is posted on the restaurant’s Facebook page. Acts perform roughly from 7-10:30 p.m., so it is not a late-night venue.
“When I opened Blue Rose in Brookside, about the only things there were S&J Oyster and the Brookside Bar in its original spot,” Tom Dittus said. “Brookside by Day opened right after we did.
“It turned out lucky; it was the right time to be there. I feel the same way here. We are thrilled to be part of the renaissance down here.”
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