For the past several years, the scent of boiling crawfish has perfumed air near the corner of Banks and South Alexander streets in Mid-City in early spring. Neighbors know those first wafts of citrus and spice mean only one thing: James Clesi is boiling.
Clesi has built a local following among boiled crawfish aficionados, first from bringing his custom rig to bars and later to more fixed spots next to Banks Street Bar and Tulane Avenue cocktail hub Treo. Designs for his standalone shop had been in the works for a while, and late last summer, Clesi and siblings Sonya DiCarlo and Carlo Clesi opened a restaurant and bar on the corner of Bienville and North Alexander streets, blocks from his former spot on Banks Street.
James’ seafood boils are the main focus, which pack in a hefty but not overpowering level of spice. Crawfish arrive glistening and juicy, and add-ons include spicy potatoes and quarter-ears of buttery corn on the cob.
The restaurant is open year-round, so when crawfish season ends the operation focuses on Louisiana blue crabs. Louisiana shrimp are available most of the year.
The rest of the menu is a mix of seafood shack and bar fare and tailgating fodder. Fried broccoli florets are served with tangy remoulade, and fried boudin links are accompanied by Creole mustard. Thick cheeseburgers are served with crinkle-cut fries.
Other hallmarks of Clesi’s cooking are here as well. His jambalaya alone is worth the trip. It’s studded with sausage rounds and available on its own or heaped over fries with a cap of melted cheddar cheese. The whopping fried seafood platter arrives on a half sheet-tray loaded with thick-cut strips of catfish, fried oysters, lightly battered and fried head-on shrimp, remoulade and a light and snappy cocktail sauce.
There is seating indoors and out, and construction continues on the space. A screened-in boiling setup will allow guests to watch Clesi work.
The restaurant is a welcome addition to Mid-City in more ways than one. This is a neighborhood joint that is as welcoming to families with children as it is to bar regulars. On warmer days, a spacious wooden deck with plenty of seating underneath hanging pendant lights creates the illusion of an endless spring — a special time in New Orleans when all diners really need is a pound or two of spicy boiled crawfish, a couple of beers and the company of friends or family.