First Bite: Tupelo

Considering we live in one of the country’s northernmost cities, Bostonians have been noticeably obsessed with Southern cuisine lately. Between Hungry Mother (opened in March 2008), Highland Kitchen (opened in January 2008), Roadhouse (opened in September 2008), and Trina’s Starlite Lounge (set to open this summer), there’s been no shortage of grits, ribs, and gumbo around town. (Whether any of it is authentic is up for debate; truth be told, we’re partial to Hungry Mother, as is Food & Wine.)

Now Tupelo joins the club. Taking over the former Magnolia’s space in Inman Square, this just-opened neighborhood boite focuses on creole-inflected, New Orleans-inspired “comfort food with a Southern drawl.” Chef Rembs Layman’s family hails from NoLa, and his C.V. includes stints at Chez Henri, La Morra, and Pomodoro, so all signs point to yum.

(Except the décor, which was of the unfancy-corner-resto-in-Cambridge-with-restricted-budget-furniture ilk, but who cares when you’re staring down a plate of jambalaya?)

Popping in for dinner on Sunday night, we started with fried oysters and green tomatoes. It’s a tasty presentation of three monstrous oysters that balanced crispy, fatty, and brightly acidic flavors nicely, though the giant-sized bivalves made eating them a bit awkward—they’re too big to pop whole, but impossible to bite in half without ending up with oyster juice running down your chin.

The night’s étouffée, on the other hand—tangy, saucy, red pepper-spiked shrimp over creamy cheddar grits—was a slam dunk. It’s a “small plate” that, paired with a glass of wine, would make a perfect at-the-bar meal. And at $7, it’s a mighty affordable one, too.

While some have balked at Tupelo’s decision to serve barbecue chicken instead of fried, the tender, smoky meat’s tomatoey, not-too-sugary glaze proved satisfying. (The accompaniments—sweet pickled onions and more grits—helped its case.) Also worth a return trip: Layman’s subtly spicy fried catfish topped with creamy, pickled jalapeno aioli and served atop pleasantly lumpy mashed potatoes.

Desserts, all $7, come courtesy of Rachael Cummings, with a little help from Toscanini’s and Petsi Pies, and they’re wonderfully unfussy: banana pudding with vanilla wafers, pecan pie with tupelo honey ice cream and blackberry syrup, and the like. Strawberry-rhubarb cobbler was just as comforting as it sounds—the kind of dish that makes you think of picnics or the 4th of July.

Admittedly, we didn’t get to the braised daube of beef, New Orleans gumbo, or beer-batter crepes, but given Tupelo’s almost unnervingly attentive service and superlow price point—entrees are just $12 to $15—we’ll get to them soon enough.

Tupelo, 1193 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-868-0004.