Cajun quest

Good cuisine--even if it involves bathtubs of boiling oil-- never goes out of style

Many years ago, after a lovely wedding in an old chapel in Baton Rouge, we were given a Cajun feast of crawfish and wedding cake. The favorite drink of the day? The liquid refreshment with which the bride's father fortified himself (and disabled his guests)? He called his concoction a "Tankerator"--a frightening mix of Tanqueray gin and Gatorade.

As Jane and Michael Stern, who understand American food better than almost anyone, have so accurately pointed out, what makes eating in Louisiana so fascinating and seductive is the "mixture of its culture's subtleties with appalling crudeness." In Cajun country, which in so many ways lacks any evidence of civilization as we know it, an irreverent, in-your-face amiability is combined with the most innately sophisticated palates in the country.

In Louisiana, there's a distinct line between Cajun and New Orleans, or Creole, culture and cuisine; they're as different as New York City and New York state. But the deep appreciation of really good food, which traces back to the French roots of Cajun and Creole cooking, links Baton Rouge and New Orleans with a bond that Albany and the Big Apple can't even imagine. So when Cajun and Creole are lumped together and exported, it doesn't matter that much that etouffee and muffulettas, gumbo, shrimp, Creole, jambalaya, red beans and rice, and oyster po' boys are all on the same menu. It doesn't really matter that New Orleans, Louisiana, is the kind of culture that could produce Trout Meuniere Galatoire, a fish fried in a crust so fragile it melts, sauced with pure butter, touched with lemon, and served on white linen, and that Cajun, the Louisiana version of country French, is the kind of culture that would produce the fried turkey, boiled whole in hot oil in a pot the size of a bathtub out in the yard with the pigs and chickens. Because the point is, both things taste better than most food you eat anywhere else in the United States.

A decade ago, when the whole country was trying to adopt Louisiana cuisine and Chef Paul was out of his element, cooking in places like New York and D.C., Cajun food developed a bad name among many food lovers. It too often served as an excuse for white trash-style menus featuring badly fried, overseasoned, grease-soaked seafood served in a raucous, half-drunk style. When I told one friend I was eating Cajun food this week, he said, "I thought Cajun food was over." That's a little like saying I thought French food was over or Indian food was over. There should always be room for imported food if it's done well.

Unfortunately, most of it isn't.
Not until I walked in the door did I remember that the last time I was in the place now called Cajun Blue's, it was a Persian restaurant. That flashy Middle Eastern style--all mirrors and brass--still lingers, now slightly seedy and totally inappropriate. Not that seediness itself is a bad feature for a Cajun restaurant, but that '80s, mirror-ball glamour is.

The chef told us he used to work at Nate's, a dependable Cajun-style seafood spot, and that early on he was breakfast chef at the Crescent--a promising resume. It was nice that he came out of the kitchen to greet the diners, but maybe we would have been happier in the long run if he'd been back there tending the pots.

There's a bandstand next to the bar and a blues band started playing midway through our meal. The band wasn't that hot, but then, blues can get away with mediocrity. Face it--it's a very simple musical formula, and though it takes talent and hardship to be a master bluesman, a mediocre bluesman just doesn't sound that bad. Anyway, the music is a nice touch and made me less critical of the food at Cajun Blue's than I otherwise might have been.

Because the food just wasn't very good. The menu lists po' boys, fried and grilled seafood, gumbo, barbecue shrimp, etouffee, mostly described with too much punctuation. (The garlic crab entry reads, "OOH, baby, let the garlic flow!"; the shrimp etouffee, "mama knows best, mmm, mmm, mmm!) A cup of gumbo ordered as an appetizer arrived lukewarm--an unforgivable lapse, making something disgusting out of something palatable. Any soup (and I'm of the opinion that gumbo is a glorified soup, not a watered-down stew) should be served very hot. Or cold. A lukewarm soup is a leftover. So the chocolate-brown color of the roux and the nice toasty flavor of the sauce (there wasn't much seafood to speak of) couldn't make up for the tepid temperature. The fried platter (the Wee-Z-Ana Platter--sigh) held a couple of rubbery catfish filets, with a soft, crumbly breading that could have been frozen; some tough, half-breaded shrimp; a few nicely fried oysters, crunchy outside and jiggly within; some oil-soaked hush puppies; and a handful of Cajun popcorn, those little fried crawfish tails that have the consistency of wadded-up rubber bands. etouffee was better, the thick sauce spiced to the burning point with cayenne, and the rib platter was a mess of sticky-sweet bones, shiny with melted fat and sugary sauce.

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