Aiming low

How many clues do you need?
I'm not saying you can always judge a book by its cover or a restaurant by its appearance: I've said many times that the most unassuming little places in the world can turn out world-class cuisine, and the great food writers have turned out books of such stories.
M.F.K. Fisher's overstuffed saga of her solitary trek through France when she chanced on a master chef and his fanatical servant is a famous example. In any profession, you learn the signposts, and I've found that it's not the unassuming places that should give you a wary feeling--it's the ones that assume too much.

If a restaurant's P.R. is overwhelming, watch out for the food. If its T-shirt design is too contrived, if its name is too cute, if its theme is what stands out, I get that foreboding feeling (of course, in the pit of my stomach) that the place is interested in selling me, not serving me.

I was therefore suspicious of Lulu's Bait Shack from the beginning. Its name is contrived, a clanking warning of chains to come, indicating a corporate-run, rather than a chef-run, kitchen. Then, too, it's a Cajun restaurant, founded in Atlanta: The restaurant on McKinney Avenue is the second Lulu, so far, and its authenticity is dubious. Finally--call me narrow-minded--any place whose menu includes three or more dishes made with alligator meat is questionable in my book. This is gimmick food.

Lulu's has the further misfortune of holding the lease on a jinxed location. Rodizio's, Del Mar, Bravo--I can't even remember the name of all the restaurants that have moved in and out of the old house on McKinney. There are places like that, you know--seemingly fine restaurants that can't seem to click, locations haunted by their pasts, places still called by their original names after venture after venture have failed to stick. So this house is still "where Crackers used to be." The bad spell isn't broken yet and I predict Lulu's won't be the one to break it.

The building has always seemed to inspire garish decoration; during one period, it was entirely purple. This is a restaurant that would be right at home in Frontierland. It's strung with a Beverly Drive's worth of colored Christmas lights and the front gate of the patio is plastered with hubcaps--not exactly a classy look, but it is eye-catching and it conveys the backwater, anything-goes atmosphere for which Lulu's is aiming (low).

The same crowd which thinks the place looks appealing will like Lulu's featured drinks. I once went to a wedding in Lafayette, Louisiana, where the favored beverage was something called a "Tanquerator"--Tanqueray gin and Gatorade--so it's entirely believable that the cutely named drinks on Lulu's menu are also authentic Louisiana favorites, though I can't imagine that anyone old enough to would want to order a drink like these.

These house specialties are named for and served in something like fish bowls. You can, if you dare, choose a blend of vodka and blue lemonade (a "Gator Bite"), fruit punch and grain alcohol, colored green (a "Crock-Bite"), or rum and lemon-lime, colored red (a "Craw Daddy"). Better, drink beer.

Well, maybe the drinks are the best prelude to the food, unless our dinner was a bad example. I went to Lulu's with a one-time resident of New Orleans and she grilled our friendly waiter before ordering that Cajun classic, crawfish etoufee. Etoufee is one of those seemingly simple dishes that are seldom if ever prepared decently outside Louisiana. Maybe it's the water. Sure enough, though this plate of food had a promising color--mud brown untinged by tomato--the little shellfish had an off flavor. Perhaps not enough people had wanted etoufee that day. Because of how fat they are, crawfish spoil even more quickly than other highly perishable shellfish.

We sent this stew back to the kitchen in exchange for shrimp Creole, overcooked shrimp in a gluey, tomato-pastey sauce that coated our mouths like Mylanta and was just as cloying.

Our basket of fried catfish fingers had been cooked at too low a temperature--well-fried food doesn't absorb this much oil except on the very outer layer. This stuff was greasy and thick-crusted, soggy instead of crisp, and the catfish was mush within its fish-sticklike blankets. Even the fried potatoes were limp and greasy.

Cajun popcorn--fried crawfish tails--was chewy and stale-tasting, as though it had been fried long before we arrived. "Rasta pasta" was a sticky mess of overcooked pasta mixed with jambalaya.

The best thing we ordered was the hamburger po' boy, a thick beef patty served on French bread.

My father was living in New York when he was told by a panhandler from Houma, Louisiana, that the problem with the Big Apple is simple: "They don't know how to make a roux," confided this gentleman as he carried Dad's suitcases for a consideration. Giuliani would no doubt welcome that simple an answer, although I suspect that somehow New York will be able to stumble along without a proper roux. The same problem is more essential to the success of Lulu's. If you can't make a roux and you can't fry, choose another cuisine because you can't cook Cajun.

On the other hand, it's nice to know that some places are exactly what they seem.

Lulu's Bait Shack, 2621 McKinney Ave., 969-1927. Open for lunch Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. For dinner daily, 5 p.m.-11 p.m.

Lulu's Bait Shack:
Cajun Popcorn $5.50
Crawfish Etoufee $10.95
Rasta Pasta $8.95
Hamburger Po' Boy $6.95
Craw Daddy Punch $15.00

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