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Dining Out: Cooking with Jazz: Cajun sensation returns to Queens

Steve Van Gelder’s Cooking With Jazz, when it was in Whitestone, was one of the more celebrated Queens eateries of the ’90s. We deeply regretted never having made it there when we had the chance. Now, after a five-year hiatus, he has reopened CWJ on Union Turnpike in Jamaica Estates, hoping to recapture its former glory.

Cooking With Jazz is not only a restaurant, but, as the name implies, a jazz venue. Regularly on Thursday nights, and from time to time on other nights, you can chew to a syncopated beat. The space is small, and still mostly retains the décor of its Italian predecessor with a casual overlay of Cajun adornments. The vibe is a lot more staid than the food or the music would seem to imply, and it would help if they turned down the lights and added some candles.

Van Gelder earned his Cajun chops in the Louisiana kitchen of Saint Paul Prudhomme, the patron of all foods Cajun. This native New Yorker channels his inner good ol’ boy and keeps the traditions going.

The menu here is really two menus — one Cajun, one not so Cajun. We stuck with the Cajun because the chance to glut ourselves on this glorious cuisine doesn’t come every day, and we weren’t willing to allocate any of our inner real estate to anything else. The one exception to that was the bread. The bread basket is irresistible. The most elastic artisanal rolls snuggle with creamy-crumbed muffins, some with nuts, others with bits of jalapeno. Swoon-making.

The list of apps is short, comprised of well-chosen Louisiana classics, always augmented by a special or two.

Heaven arrived in the form of stuffed eggplant. Thick slices of crisp breaded and fried eggplant are not so much stuffed as layered with seafood and cornbread dressing and topped with a truly decadent shrimp buttercream sauce. Calories be damned!

Crab fingers were another worthy starter, this one from the specials recitation. I didn’t know crabs had thumbs, but if you visualize their claws as hands, these were more like the thumbs. Whatever they were, there were plenty of them, and they contained plenty of succulent crab meat. They came with a savory dipping sauce and a small portion of dirty rice.

When it came to the entrees, we went straight for a quintessentially Louisiana dish — chicken jambalaya. This is a piquant rice dish laced with chunks of andouille sausage, tasso bacon, tomatoes and peppers and topped with a juicy, perfectly blackened boneless chicken breast, adding a touch of elegance to what is essentially a homey dish.

Our one disappointment was a special entrée that unfortunately diverted from more of the wonderfulness on the regular menu. Seafood Diane was a great-looking dish. We’ll give it that. But the half a roasted acorn squash, overfilled with assorted seafood, gets low marks for flavor. The seafood that stayed in the squash had no noticeable sauce, and the flavor of the naked seafood was less than stellar. The squash, normally one of our favorite veggies, lacked sweetness. Somewhere underneath all this was a bit of sauce, which, if you worked at smooshing the seafood around in it, enhanced the dish considerably. But in this cuisine, normally characterized by its penchant for excess, the bowl of the squash should have been a fish bowl of sauce.

Bananas foster, CWJ’s signature dessert, is a boozy delight of flambéed bananas, but we opted again for a special — a very classic key lime pie. Van Gelder obviously shares the South’s enthusiasm for rich desserts, as there are more dessert options on the menu than appetizers. Make sure you wash down that indulgence with a community coffee with chicory, the hot beverage of choice of the Big Easy.

The Bottom Line

What we love about this restaurant is its priorities: great food, service and music. Many so-called Cajun restaurants try to get by on shtick. Here they forget the plastic beads, and remember what is important. Laissez les bon temps roulez!

Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.”She can be reached by e-mail at qnsfoodie@aol.com.

Cooking With Jazz

179-22 Union Turnpike

Jamaica Estates, NY 11366

718 380-0896

cookingwithjazz.com

Price Range: Appetizers: $8-12, Entrees: $16-32

Cuisine: Cajun/Creole

Setting: Small, basic restaurant décor overlaid with New Orleanean tchotckes

Service: Friendly, professional

Hours: Wednesday thru Sundays from 5 p.m.

Reservations: Recommended, especially on weekends

Alcohol: Full license

Parking: Street

Dress: Casual

Children: Welcome, crayons to draw on the paper tablecloths

Music: Thursdays. Other nights as posted online

Takeout: Yes

Credit Cards: Yes

Noise Level: Quiet without the jazz, louder with.

Handicap Accessible: Yes

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