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June 15, 2006

Heading: Talk of the Table, the New Jam, by Bob Doran. Photo of Ricardo and Rose Contreras of the Jambalaya

There's so much to say about the new Jambalaya, I'm not sure where to start. A good place would probably be dinner — the first time my wife and I ate there after the Jam's new owners, Ricardo and Rose Contreras, took over. But even before that there was a little mystery.

Writing in this column in early May I noted the names posted in the Jam's window on the beer and wine license application. Amy had been talking with our next-door neighbor Diane about her new tenants, Ricardo and Rose. Amy wondered, could they be the new Jambalaya owners? We confirmed her guess when we met our next-door neighbors at dinner about 10 days ago.

And a wonderful dinner it was. We started with a couple of appetizers, then Amy had a fine spinach salad, watercress and slivers of sweet red onion supplementing the spinach, tossed with an avocado vinaigrette, sprinkled with roasted pumpkin seeds and garnished with slices of peeled orange. What with the appetizers, a bowl of seafood chowder was all she needed further — although she did share a bit of my pasta dish, a special that night: crab fettuccine made using fresh local noodles, with a marvelously creamy sauce turned pink by just a little bit of fresh tomato puree. Excellent.

In between courses we talked with Ricardo, a most genial host. To say that he's excited about this new undertaking is a major understatement. He pointed out changes, some already in place, some still to come. First thing he did when he and Rose took over was remove the blinds from the front windows as part of a general plan to make the place more open and inviting and create more of a community atmosphere.

He had been talking with Chef Alex Begovic about expanding hours to include lunch on weekdays and brunch on weekends. And he wanted to bring music back to the Jam, a fact that was of great interest to me. I told him about some of the shows I'd seen at the place over the years and promised I'd search for a roll of old monthly showbills I have somewhere in storage. (Haven't found them yet.)

I can't help inserting a bit of personal history here: The Jambalaya was one of my first hangouts back in the days when I was 20-something. I actually started coming to the club when it was still called Dan and Jerry's to see my favorite local band of the early '70s: Freddy and the Starliners. I didn't think of it until later, but the table where my wife and I were sitting when we talked with Ricardo, toward the back of the room, was where the dance floor used to be. That's where I first danced with Amy, and we had the first of many deep conversations at the Jambalaya's old bar.

Those who remember their Arcata nightclub history know that Freddy (Neighbor) and his wife, Joyce Hough, bought the bar and renamed it Jambalaya. (Hank Williams' song was in their repertoire.) Fred, Joyce and others turned the place into a thriving cultural center with music most nights — jazz, blues, country, funk, rock, whatever — along with poetry reading and theater performances. Sunnyland Slim, Etta James, The Meters, Robert Cray, Kate Wolf, Elizabeth Cotton, even The Foo Fighters, I saw all of them play at the Jam. Food was not exactly part of the picture, although you could buy a couple of slices of good bread and a hunk of cheese at the bar and, for a short time before she started Larrupin', Dixie Gorrell turned the place into an amazing place to get dinner on special nights.

The Jam went through several owners over the years, then in 1999 Deborah Lazio and her husband, Jim Crawford, bought the place and transformed it. Little of the old Jam remained: The façade was replaced, the funky interior gutted, the smelly bar removed and replaced with a granite topped affair on the other side of the room. The place was brighter, more open, looked great, and, sad to say, the folks who used to hang out there hated it. They wondered how Deborah, who they mostly knew as a music promoter par excellence, could dare turn their funky old haunt into an upscale restaurant. To this day I meet old friends who refuse to set foot in the place.

Meal No. 2: My friend Gregg and I went into the Jam last Wednesday to sit at the bar, drink a bottle of wine and sample an array of tapas: grilled pork skewers with a mint/cilantro pesto, skewered prawns marinated in rum and served with a tangy tomatillo salsa, a grilled veggie cheese stack with feta melting over all, and my favorite (Gregg's too) — a trio of grilled portabella stacks, circles of semi-creamy polenta topped with a piece of roasted red bell pepper and a bit of chevre mixed with green onion melting under a smoky grilled baby portabella cap, all of it resting in a pool of sauce redolent of Balsamic vinegar. The interplay of flavors and textures was exquisite.

Partway through our repast, Donald Bremm and Sharon Hanks, owners/operators of Moonstone Crossing Wines, showed up to offer samples of a few wines they'd like to see Ricardo add to his wine list. It was good timing since he's selling off the old stock, moving more toward local wines. Good timing for us too, since we got in on tasting three fine reds. We decided that their Oakville Sangiovese was the perfect wine to stand up to the rich flavors of our tapas.

So, you want to check this place out, right? Stop by during the Oyster Festival this Saturday. Ricardo decided to forgo the booth rental (after all, he's just off the Plaza) and invite people in to see what the new Jam is all about. "We'll have tapas and appetizers and oysters all day," Ricardo told us. "We'll have the broiled oysters with chipotle aioli that won first prize [at the festival] a few years ago, and broiled [oysters] with chimichurri sauce, a flavorful Brazilian pesto with parsley, cilantro and vinegar. Then we'll have chilled raw oysters with Cuban-style sangrita, a tomato, orange, lime and chili sauce."

They'll also offer shooters with Jambalaya's fresh cocktail sauce, made from pureed fresh tomatoes spiked with horseradish. I had some as a dipping sauce for fried calamari the other night and it was great. They'll have all of the tapas items mentioned above, "plus a couple of other specials, surprises that Alex is working on," said Ricardo.

Sunday, Father's Day, marks their first stab at Alex's new brunch menu, which includes classics like Eggs Benedict, buttermilk pancakes, omelets, frittatas and French toast (did I mention that Alex is French?), along with innovations like crab hash and yam hash. This coming Monday they start the lunch menu with soups, salads and Cuban-style pressed sandwiches (akin to panini).

They have good beer and great wines as accompaniment and another surprise: cocktails. This is unusual since, as you might recall, they did not buy Deborah's liquor license. So how can they serve margaritas, cosmopolitans, mojitos and martinis? The key is a loophole in California liquor laws that allows those with a beer and wine license to sell something called soju, a 25 percent alcohol beverage also known as "Korean vodka."

The soju was flowing last Friday night when I stopped by the Jambalaya for the third time. Bump Foundation was laying down a funky groove and the place was jumping, filled with a young crowd, many of whom were not even born when I started hanging out there. Ricardo and Rose were beaming. Rose introduced me to her mom and dad who apparently helped them get the place.

Toward the end of the last set, Bump's lead vocalist Liah Crenshaw made a pronouncement between songs. She loves the new Jam. "This is the beginning of more music, more art, more possibilities for Arcata," she declared.

Turning around I saw Chef Alex behind me, done cooking for the night, but enjoying the music and dancing, not yet ready to go home. Smiling broadly, he said, simply, "The Jambalaya is back."



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