New Orleans has a reputation. It's famous and it's infamous. And whether you've been there or not, you've got some associations. Everybody connects this cosmopolitan town with jazz, with the historic French Quarter and the notorious Bourbon Street. Then there's the late-winter party of Mardi Gras, when decadent fun is part of the South's kinkiest parade. And then there's the food. Certainly, in the past couple of decades, Cajun food has been as trendy as an SUV with an OBX sticker. We've blackened about everything edible, and every aspiring chef has blackened at least one temperamental roux for an étoufée or the gumbo. Yes, we've learned a little about an old tradition. And we've got a notion of what New Orleans is like.
, in a space that has been in the recent past an Italian Oven and a Jewish Mother, has taken these notions and developed the themes in the restaurant. There's jazz on the sound system, those ubiquitous Mardi Gras beads on the tables, a bar to help the good times roll, and a menu with popular Cajun and Creole dishes. It's hard to capture that slightly down-at-the-heels-but-on-top-of-the-world ambience of New Orleans in a suburban West End shopping-center restaurant. And it's equally difficult to recreate the earthy essence of Cajun cooking.
Once you've settled in with your drink of choice, you may want a selection from the raw bar (market priced) you can look over the offerings when you enter the restaurant or with menu in hand, you'll find that the appetizers ($4.95 - $7.95) are old standbys with a bit of Cajun or Creole finishing. Potato skins are topped with fried oysters along with bacon. Chicken wings get their sauce from a "Voodoo" bourbon concoction. The classic shrimp rémoulade is served in an onion basket and sprinkled with roasted pecans. "Cajun Popcorn" is crisp-fried crawfish tails with a tangy "secret" sauce, neither of which has great distinction. There are also onion rings, stuffed mushrooms and a lobster-artichoke dip that's great for several around a table.
[image-1](Hilary Benas / Richmond.com) In addition to the usual house and Caesar salads ($2.25-$2.50), a couple of hearty salads ($7.95-$8.95) can serve as light entrees. "Fat Tuesday" salad with marinated crabmeat and Tasso ham over greens was flavorful, but we had to request dressing to lubricate the otherwise dry greens. The crabmeat topping, however, was generous and good. For soup fanciers there is gumbo or a soup du jour ($3.25/$4.50).
Grilled steaks continue their popularity at home and in restaurants. The Big Easy offers four types of Angus beef ($14.95-$20.95). Grilled pork chops, duck breast and baby back ribs ($13.95 - $15.95) with tantalizing sauces are also available from the grill.
The dinner "specialties" ($11.95 - $15.95) get more inspiration from bayou country. Jambalaya, available as a full or half order ($11.95/6.95) was good with a fresh-tasting tomato sauce redolent with the holy trinity of Cajun and Creole cooking onion, green pepper and celery along with sausage, chicken and shrimp, and the other fundamental, rice. The full serving was a generous dinner for a hearty eater. An anomaly, redfish Wellington, was, well, an anomaly. I suspect it won't make the next menu, and in this execution it shouldn't. Obviously named for the luxuriant preparation of beef tenderloin with foie gras in puff pastry, two smallish redfish filets were topped with an abbreviated lattice of puff pastry and covered with a sauce. If it had not been for the "lagniappe" (a little extra), a platter of squash and red beans and rice, this would have been a meager and inadequate offering, indeed. I would like to try the crawfish étouffée, but beyond that, the low-country influence mostly disappears into the trendy and popular.
Desserts were in short supply when we visited - only Bananas Foster and root-beer floats.
The Big Easy gives us a hint of New Orleans, titillating rather than exploring, but truth be known, we'll get the real experience only in the real Big Easy.
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