I've expressed loudly and often my general distast and ill-will toward Cajun food outside Cajun country.
If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times - I don't think it works, and I resent people continuing to try. Let Muhammad go to the mountain, I say.
Most Cajun restaurants seem like a stray section of Riverboatland or whatever that part of Disneyland is called with the big paddlewheel boats and fake iron-fronted buildings by the side of the fake Mississippi River with the robotic alligators and fake bales of cotton. Completely unbelievable. Depressing. Pale shadows; all they do is make you want to go to the source and eat as much gumbo as you can.
And I don't care if I'm part of the problem - I blame the whole Cajun food craze that tried to sweep the country a few years ago on the media. I can only assume it was part of a plot to defer tourists from going to New Orleans, thereby shortening the line at Galatoire's. Thank God it never really caught on, even in Texas, and we certainly have more of a claim to Cajun than New York City - it's a blurred boundary between southeast Texas and Louisiana, anyway.
But for every rule, there's an exception. I've always reserved a special bend in my general rule for Crescent City, which somehow avoids being cute, kitschy, or tricky, and manages to be a real Louisians-style restaurant in the Lone Star state.
Crescent Ciy has been around the block a few times, so to speak. It started as a tiny little destination place in Garland; your familiarity with it marked you as a true connoisseur. Now it's in the old McKinney Avenue Dixie House location, a space perfectly suited to the New Orleans mood - older, more evolved than designed, comfortable. Really, the place still looks basically the same with the addition of some white paint, red booths, chrome chairs, and great jazz playing low in the background. (After all, it wasn't such a big change from Deep-South, fried-green-tomatoes ambience to The Big Easy.)
Our waiter, Dean, recounted the years of exodus with machine-gun speed: "Yeah, we've moved a lot. Catch us if you can! When we first moved to Deep Ellum from Garland, some of our customers followed us, but they'd come clumping in dressed in their workshirts and so on, looking around at the Deep Ellum crowd with their pierced noses and navels and saying, 'Who are these people?' Then we moved out to Mesquite, and about half of our Deep Ellum customers followed us back out there and they were looking around at that crowd, thinking, 'Who are those guys?' Then we came back to Deep Ellum again."
The moral to the story is, the food has universal appeal.
We started with appealing beer in the frostiest mugs I've ever seen, and oyster brochettes, little bivalves bacon-wrapped and broiled till the bacon crisped and the oyster curled. Surely the kitchen has to cook the bacon first to keep the little oyster from turning into rubber...right? I suspect this is the old canape called angels on horseback, the kind of cocktail party food we never see anymore.
Big Lou's crabcakes reminded you that crabcakes, the darling of New American chefs (there's hardly an expensive menu in town without them), were originally devised as a stretching dish - a way to make that protein go a little further. These reflected a mother's genius more than a chef's ego - the little patties were mostly crumbs, highly seasoned with onions and spices with shreds of crabmeat.
The last time I was in New Orleans I bought a muffaletta on Decatur street in the middle of the afternoon. I'd had lunch, we were planning on a major-league dinner (every trip to New Orleans is actually an exercise in menu-planning), so there was no reason for me to buy a sandwich, yet I had to have one. "Just in case" is a popular reason at our house. It's what my daughter used when I wondered why she felt it necessary to take a pair of my high heels with her whenever we left the house. And a muffaletta is so much more practical than high heels.
So I bought it, and even the next day on the drive home, it tasted great - leaky and lovely, garlicky chopped olives oozing out all over the completely inadequate waxed paper. The car may never be the same.
Crescent City is one of the few places that even attempts the muffaletta, a sandwich of indefinable glory, difficult to duplicate. Theirs is a disk of crisped bread - order a quarter or a half, a whole if you want leftovers. It's filled with thinly sliced salami, ham, and cheese and lightly toasted so the cheese melts, but it's the olive salad that makes a muffaletta. At Crescent City, it seems to have been made in the processor, making it less messy; there's something soulful about those drips of oil and juice, but I like Crescent City's sandwich just the same.
Then we had two little cups - one of the seafood gumbo, made with a properly dark roux but too thick to my taste, one of stewlike crawfish etouffee. And an oyster po'-boy, filled with tiny things, fried golden on the outside, barely cooked within, and a cup of oyster artichoke soup, the name of which brings back visions of the heyday of LeRuth's in Gretna, just over the bridge from New Orleans. This was a sturdier brew - thicker, more textured - but the marriage of the two ingredients still seems made in heaven.
Dean, a pro, took all our orders without pencil or paper, only shorting us one cup of soup. We finished with beignets - not really a dessert in New Orleans, of course - but you have to try them. Here they're almost always like sopapillas, suited more to honey than a shower of sugar.
--Mary Brown Malouf
Crescent City Cafe, 2822 McKinney Ave., 969-1885, fax: 969-1003. Open Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m.-midnight.
Crescent City Cafe:
Half Mufaletta $5.95
Crawfish Etouffee $6.95
Fried Oyster Po-Boy $7.50
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