Zombies from the bayou

By Lawrence Cosentino

Knight Cap chef resurrects Jambalaya´s menu, recalls glory days

When I last talked with larger-than-life Chef Carl Davis, he was in no mood to swap stories about his most storied gig, at the Jambalaya’s on Round Lake in Laingsburg. It was 2006, Jambalaya’s had closed just two years earlier and Davis was busy with a new restaurant. But as we parted, he threw out a teaser: “Remind me some time to tell you about the cardiologists at the cigar dinner.”

Seven years later, this shocking story, and others, can be told. Davis is reviving his old Jambalaya’s menu, lunch and dinner, for a week-long zombie restaurant shamble at downtown’s Knight Cap, where he has worked on and off for eight years.

Davis still has an inch-thick sheaf of recipes from Jambalaya’s and will summon them back from the bayou, alive and dripping, next week. Last week, he sat down, resplendent in white chef smock, artichoke-patterned chef pants and bright orange Crocs (er, Gators) to pore over the sacred Cajun scrolls and reminisce.

In the 1990s, a monthly cigar dinner filled Jambalaya’s Capone Room. Al Capone is said — but never confirmed — to have frequented the joint in the 1930s, back when it was called Club Roma, owing to its quiet lakeside ambiance and distance from Detroit and Chicago law enforcement.

These clambakes grew to 70-plus attendees, “mostly doctors and car salesmen,” Davis said.

“At one time, we had almost the entire cardiology group at Sparrow and Ingham Medical,” Davis said. One night, he noticed a prolonged flurry of beeping and pager checking and asked the doctors what was up.

“We have a patient that´s probably not going to make it through the night,” he was told.

“Do you guys need to leave?” Davis asked incredulously.

“Oh, no.” They lingered through the dinner and beyond, as Davis and his staff kept the Sazeracs, hurricanes and absinthe drips coming.

(All three Louisiana libations will be available at the Knight Cap next week.) “It was slightly disturbing,” Davis marveled. “It still concerns me. They kept drinking, knowing they were gonna go back there. I wonder if anybody died that night.”

Most memories of Jambalaya’s aren’t that fraught. Next week, between bites of basil bread loaf, expect to overhear some great music stories. Canned Heat, Richie Havens, Dave Mason, Leon Russell and many other national acts played Jambalaya’s, along with every regional blues musician you can think of.

“It´s illegal to build a stage without going through a bunch of red tape, but you can build a dock without any permission,” Davis said. “So we built a dock with the same dimensions as a stage.”

It rained in sheets the day Canned Heat played the “dock.”

“Do you guys play anywhere where it doesn´t rain?” Davis asked drummer Fito de la Parra, recalling their muddy gig at Woodstock.

From the start, music was an integral part of the lakeside pavilion that evolved into Jambalaya’s. The place started out in 1912 as a bathhouse and dance hall, the Round Lake Casino. In 1925, a second floor was added and it became Club Roma, a jumping spot for swing bands like Tommy Dorsey’s and Glenn Miller’s in the ‘30s and ‘40s. For a time, it had the biggest dance floor in the state.

In the ‘60s, Club Roma hosted a lot of seminal Michigan bands like the Sunliners, which later evolved into Rare Earth. Johnny Winter and brother Edgar played there. Later in the ‘70s, Club Roma made a turnaround from teen hangout to Dixieland showcase frequented mostly by seniors.

In 1987, Bob Titus, owner of a crane rental company, and his wife, Vita, bought the place and gave it a new life as Sweetwater Wharf. They sunk over $1 million into renovating the building, lifting the 122-ton structure up with a crane and re-mooring it. When Sweetwater Wharf closed in 1996, there was talk of tearing it down, but a Laingsburg couple, Donn Miller and Kathy Ivie, loved the place and bought it. Miller was sensitive to spicy food and “couldn’t eat pepper off the table,” according to Davis, but wanted to see a Cajun restaurant closer to home than Ann Arbor. With a few festive tweaks, they opened Jambalaya’s June 19, 1997. Davis crammed for weeks to get the menu ready.

“I needed to learn everything about Cajun food,” he said.

At the Knight Cap, Davis will revive favorites like jambalaya, blackened redfish, gator puppies (an appetizer filled with alligator meat) and muffuletta sandwich, a foursquare loaf jammed with cochin du lait (milk fed pig) with an “outrageous olive sauce that´s spicier than hell.”

Zydeco music will fill the rooms and Mardi Gras decor, including papier-mâché heads from Jambalaya‘s, will festoon the walls. (The regular Knight Cap menu will still be offered.)

Jambalaya’s closed Jan. 4, 2004, a victim of its remote location, competition from Eastwood Towne Center and ownership battles, but people who gathered there still stay in touch.

Jambalaya’s Mardi Gras Week

Feb. 26-March 4 The Knight Cap 320 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing