Cajun used to mean exotic. Twenty-five years ago, before Chef Paul Prudhomme foisted his blackened redfish on gustatory history--giving lesser cooks license to char stuff to an ebony crisp and call it Southern cuisine--we could find really fine Cajun cooking, and its New Orleans cousin, Creole, only down in the Louisiana swamps where they invented it. Now it's everywhere. Luby's serves a passable Lu Ann platter of shrimp Creole. Popeyes sells "Cajun-inspired" fast food that includes a remarkably decent bowl of red beans and rice (satisfying when you're, say, in the middle of Manhattan and need a quick fix).
Too many joints, however, bill themselves as purveyors of fine Cajun and Creole and seem content to do them without a clue. Throw a greasy slab of fried catfish on a roll and call it a po' boy. Boil a crawfish, drench it in tomato sauce and suddenly it's étouffée. Except it isn't. It's Cajun or Creole the way Campbell's SpaghettiOs are pasta primavera.
The blurring of definitions, the careless assault on traditional Cajun flavors and Creole subtleties (Creole being the more French-influenced version of Louisiana fare) might help explain some of the shortcomings at Crustaceans, a reasonably priced Deep Ellum restaurant opened last December by Katrina-fleeing former New Orleans chef Ronald Honoré. On two recent visits, we found the service lovely and inviting, the atmosphere a little dreary and the food cooked with a disregard for traditional ingredients or aesthetic appeal and with more than a soupçon of grease and salt.
Let's talk salt for a second. Sodium chloride. Lovely little white crystals that over the millennia have inspired folklore, served as currency and kept Egyptian mummies preserved. From the Latin "sal" is derived the words "sausage" and "sauce," two of the staples, as it happens, in good Cajun cooking. Salt is of the earth. And it is 0.9 percent of our bloodstreams--except if you eat a big meal at Crustaceans, when it could threaten to push into the double digits.
The American Medical Association released a statement this month warning Americans not to consume too much "hidden" salt in processed foods and restaurant meals. The AMA links salt to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, the leading killer of adults in this country. According to the AMA's announcement, "Restaurants should be discouraged from adding unhealthy amounts of salt" to food.
You couldn't accuse the cook at Crustaceans of hiding salt in the dishes. It's right up there as a main ingredient. "Who's cooking today? Lot's wife?" cracks my dining pal after his first bite of the corn and crab bisque, whose salty bitterness hits the tongue with a wallop. (Perhaps the salt dissolved whatever chunks of crab might have been in the cooking pot; we couldn't find any in our bowl.)
The fried alligator appetizers--yellow-battered balls whose insides could pass for anything from a frozen oyster to a chicken nugget--seem to have been rolled in salt, breaded, fried and salted again. Only a dunk in the accompanying cold red sauce makes them anywhere close to edible. "These are like something you'd eat on a stick at a carnival," says my fried-food-loving friend. That's not an insult. He keeps eating them.
The slices of stale white bread in the basket are salty. The lettuce on the salad tastes salty.
A thin, watery cup of gumbo lacks the usual dark roux base or any detectable bites of shrimp, sausage, okra or chicken. Instead, in its pale gray-green murkiness float some salt-bloated bits of rice and maybe a slice or two of celery. The étouffée favors salt and not thyme or garlic or onion or anything Cajun-esque or Creole-ian to flavor the thick, red, tomato-y goo that encases chewy thumbnail-sized buttons of crawfish.
Smothered okra, one of the house specialties, according to our congenial waiter, sounds better than it looks or tastes. Boiled in saline and mashed to bland baby-food gumminess, a half-plate of the brownish-green vegetable (served with plain white rice) will remain untouched after a few grimace-making tries. (Oddly, the okra is the same color and consistency as the stuffed crab appetizer.)
The okra dish and the entrée portion of red beans and rice (not bad if you like enough salt cooked into it to cure a whole ham) come with a choice of fried chicken or grilled pork chop. On our two visits, the hot, tender chop is a standout, a real home-cooked wonder and the only thing worth a return trip.
A plate of barbecued shrimp offers four fat ones floating in orange-y grease. Still in their shells and tails, they're too messy to eat with fingers and too hard and slippery to crack with a knife and fork.
Plentiful as the fried shrimp platter is--10 of them coated in the same salty batter as the alligator nibbles--it's not worth risking hypertension for. Next to the shrimp is a generous mound of French fries, which look to be the frozen, out-of-the-bag variety. They're OK--never met a french fry that was truly bad--but they're the only thing besides dessert that hasn't been salted into oblivion.
There's only one dessert on the menu, so we try it. Taste buds iodized into numbness, we have to scoop up many bites of whiskey-soaked bread pudding to begin detecting its sweetness. It's not a pretty thing to look at. A small pyramid of gooey, smushed-together bread slices sits on a saucer surrounded by a gluey sauce. My dining companion, a native of Lake Charles, Lousiana, breaks it down: "Microwaved. Wrong raisins. Too much condensed milk. It's just not right." Also a mistake: handing us soup spoons to eat it with.
The atmosphere at Crustaceans leans a bit toward the gloomy. Facing Elm Street (next door to The Green Room), the restaurant's front windows are draped in funereal black. The tables' purple plastic cloths clash with the cayenne-orange wall and the wildly patterned carpet that my Louisiana-born friend labels "coonass casino."
They expect to fix up the back patio soon, the waiter tells us. And there'll be live jazz on weekends. He drapes green and gold Mardi Gras beads around our necks and tells us to come back soon. If only the food here were as welcoming as the servers.
But we aren't quite ready to go after we pay the check. Tongues swollen from the salt lick, no way can we hit the road without another fill-up of Crustaceans' good iced tea. Between the two of us at lunch, we've already drained more than 20 glasses. 2711 Elm St., 214-747-0900. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
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