Mardi Gras eats at Fincastle’s

by Brian Clarey

“Well I went on down/ to da Audubon Zoo/ And dey all axed for you.” The Morphis brothers, Emmett and Jody, bounce behind the counter at Fincastle’s, their downtown Greensboro diner that has been greasing up Elm Street for nearly four years now. Mardi Gras music exclaims from the old-fashioned juke: Dr. John, some Neville Brothers, the Meters. Oysters fry in the vat, a roux is browning in a skillet and somewhere in the back a pot of gumbo bubbles and waits.

The Morphis brothers, of Meridian, Miss., know how to usher in Fat Tuesday. My association with them runs to way back in the day, when I was a college sophomore in New Orleans and Emmett shared a mansion in the Lower Garden District with some friends of mine, including a guy known as All the Way Ray who eventually became my roommate. Emmett slung drinks at Tipitina’s back then, and during Carnival time he’d often see his jukebox heroes playing on the stage, under the portrait of Fess. We pieced this together, Emmett and Jody I, one evening in Greensboro, 15 years after the fact. But all this really means is that I trust their instincts when it comes to Mardi Gras. It’s their heritage, and one which by nature must be shared. That’s the impetus behind their Mardi Gras menu, which runs through Ash Wednesday — for all you neophytes out there, that falls on Feb. 25 this year. And Lord knows, if there’s anything even remotely associated with the Crescent City going on around here, I feel obligated to offer my benediction.

Plus, you know, I really miss this kind of food. Surely by now everybody knows the magnificent touch of Jody Morphis on jambalaya and etouffe — he did work with Chef Duke LoCicero at Giovanni’s off Canal Street (incidentally, he worked alongside my old friend Coach Bill, with whom I once had the pleasure of spending an afternoon in Central Lockup). But come carnival time, the Morphis brothers really whip it out: oysters en brochette, barbecue shrimp, egg rolls stuffed with red beans and rice, po-boys of oyster and shrimp, fil’ gumbo and bread pudding. And I’m here to tuck into it all. I have a history with these foods. Oysters en brochette — that’s corn fried on a stick, y’all — were an afternoon staple of mine when I used to cruise the Fairgrounds during Jazz Fest. Barbecued shrimp, which are not actually barbecued but saut’ed in a savory, garlicky sauce, will always remind me of Pascale’s Manale restaurant, which has been serving the dish on Napoleon Avenue since the 1800s. The red-beans egg roll is a new one on me, but Morphis the younger has laced it with a tasso cream sauce — tasso which comes straight from Louisiana. These guys know no other way than authenticity, from the po-boy bread from Gambino’s to the andouille, which gets flown up from the River Parishes, to the Zatarain’s Creole mustard. I also dig heavily on the gumbo, which may be the best in the Triad. It’s of the chicken-and-sausage variety, roux based (of course) and with a healthy dusting of fil’. Fil’, Jody tells me, is made of nothing more than ground sassafras leaves, which add flavor and act as a thickening agent. The word “fil’” also confuses the hell out of my spellchecker. By the time the bread pudding comes out — made with the butts of Gambino loaves, graced with pecan halves and caramel sauce — another crew of famous Bottom South brothers by the name of Neville bust out the “Mardi Gras Mambo,” the opening strains of which can cause anxious excitement and cold sweats down in New Orleans. But here on Elm Street, it sounds just fine.

Fincastle’s 215 S. Elm St. Greensboro, NC 336.272.8968