Dining Out: Maple Tree Inn in Blue Island
By Michael Nagrant Dining Outemail@example.com Twitter: @michaelnagrant February 27, 2013 11:45AM
Crabe avec crabe at Maple Tree Inn in Blue Island features fried soft-shell crabs, delicate lump crabmeat and spiced smoked pecans topped with meuniere butter and served with hand-cut Cajun fries. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times Media
MAPLE TREE INN ★★
13301 S. Old Western Ave., Blue Island
(708) 388-3461; mapletreeinnrestaurant.com
Hours: 5-11 p.m.
Prices: starters, $5.50-$13; entrees, $15-$26
Try: Voodoo Nuts, crabe avec crabe, hickory-smoked ribs
In a bite: great beer, and Cajun and Creole eats interpreted Chicago-style
★★★ Excellent; ★★ Very Good;
Zero stars: Poor
Updated: April 2, 2013 6:07AM
As a regular Louisiana visitor and a Cajun and Creole aficionado, it’s difficult not to compare Maple Tree Inn, which bills itself as a Louisiana brasserie, to New Orleans restaurants.
Against that standard, the Blue Island restaurant doesn’t always stack up.
That doesn’t really matter for the Maple Tree Inn is its own very beautiful and unique thing.
The visit to downtown Blue Island is worth the trip alone.
It’s a slice of nearly extinct Americana that includes turreted storefronts, vinyl awnings and a smattering of mom-and-pop businesses such as Gayla’s Irish Saloon and Jebens Hardware (with windows filled with an assortment of vintage bicycles and hurricane lanterns).
New America has infiltrated Blue Island, too, in the form of Mario’s Tacos and Taqueria Durango.
And there at the end of Old Western Avenue is the Maple Tree Inn, a warm red-brick facade trimmed in emerald green (built in 1890) that was once a forbidden Prohibition speakeasy.
The tiny front barroom is all honey-colored woods and outfitted with a generous selection of beer taps.
The beer list is good as any in the Chicago area with such offerings as Abita from Louisiana and some of America’s finest craft brews from Lagunitas, Mikkeller and Allagash.
As for those Louisiana standards I referenced, the barbecue shrimp is not full of head-on shrimp soaked in butter and Worcestershire sauce as it is at Mr. B’s Bistro in New Orleans’ French Quarter.
The shrimp at Maple Tree Inn is butterflied, peeled and doused instead in a tomato sauce that is too tangy but not nearly as comforting.
Fried green tomato wheels are blanketed in a traditional cornmeal, drizzled with tangy remoulade and cut with a nice, sharply acidic peanut slaw. But they’re also kind of soggy.
The crawfish etouffee, though, has a nice swampy and velvety gravy much like the one served in NOLA.
That’s pretty much where the comparisons end.
I’ve never seen Maple Tree’s Voodoo Nuts in Louisiana. These smoked balls of sweet, roasted garlic cloves are wrapped in spicy andouille sausage that I bet would capture Baton Rouge, La.’s hearts and minds.
Maple Tree has a way with smoke.
The ribs are dry-rubbed and slow-cooked over hickory until a deep pink ring sets into the flesh.
The skin transfigures into a dark, caramelized, lacquered bark. The interior meat is tender but still firm. It is one of the finest ribs in the Chicago area.
The crabe avec crabe — crunchy, briny, soft-shell crabs doused in peppery lemon-butter sauce fortified with additional pulled crab and topped with sweet candied nuts — could only be better if someone laid an arm of fresh king crab over the top.
Then again crabe avec crabe avec crabe is probably too cumbersome to order.The dessert specials rotate regularly, but a recent bananas Foster bread pudding — glazed in buttery brown sugar, custardy bananas and splashed with rum — is the thing to have.
Plenty of New Orleans spots serve that dessert, but few let you wash it down with a Three Floyds beer from nearby Munster, Ind.
Michael Nagrant is a local freelance writer.