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Published: Friday, 1/10/2003

A little bit of Mardi Gras

Fat Tuesday? To hear the cries of alarm from out of Washington, it's not just fat Tuesday, but obese Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday ... And to overdo eating, pick your favorite restaurant, whipping up goodies you'd not often fix at home.

To start early on a Mardi Gras binge, for example, there's now Gumbo's Bayou Grille at the Docks, the near end where Hoster's was until recently. It's not easy to say no to a heap of breaded, deep-fried crawfish or yummy Creole crab fondue in a piquant white sauce swept up on a bite of fresh-baked baguette.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. You pick up the bedsheet menu and, sure enough, there it says appetizers, as clear as you would want. There are 10 on offer, none just ordinary, from the battered and fried bites of alligator sirloin to corn meal, seasoned and fried with just a touch of sweetness, and Cajun shrimp, saut ed in sundried tomato butter, the nearest to a conventional appetizer.

It is a complicated menu, and it demands attention. Should a few of the words need translating, there's a helpful glossary to the left of the soups, gumbos, salads, and appetizers. For instance, when you flip to the back (or front) of the menu, you may want a second look at that glossary. Maybe you can guess “po' boys, “ but how about “muffulettas”? The best I can tell you is that both are sandwiches, though it took me several minutes to figure that out.

As that came clear, I was thinking that I wanted dinner, not a sandwich; bites of 'gator sirloin just weren't going to do the trick.

Fifteen entrees are listed under the heading “French Quarter Specialties,” enough of them to reassure the uncertain guest who wants to take on the unfamiliar slowly. Differences are for the most part the dressings, sauces, and cooking styles.

Having had a crawfish appetizer, I wasn't ready to follow that the same evening with a crawfish entree, so I can't comment on the rich sauce in which they are simmered and then served over rice; but my experience with the kitchen leads me to expect that it's a pretty good dinner.

My choice was jambalaya, with chicken and andouille, a spicy sausage associated with, but not limited to, Acadian cuisine. Jambalaya is an American version of the Spanish rice dish, paella, nicely enriched with seasoning and such, a catch-all dinner that rapidly becomes a favorite.

Seafood, salt and fresh, is as much a part of the New Orleans distinctive culture - a blend of Spanish, French, Native American - as its own special style of jazz, and as I enjoyed a whitefish filet (from the upper end of the Mississippi River, I suppose) it occurred to me that a little bit of Preservation Hall or Pete Fountain's clarinet, soft not strident, would be appropriate dinner music. In any case the fish was fresh and tasty.

Some entrees, like the whitefish, are served with crawfish, others with blue cheese and a variety of sauces. There are, incidentally, five enticing salads listed in a corner all their own.

Decor, a reflection of the Mardi Gras parade, bears no resemblance to Hoster's, though the layout of the dining room, the upstairs, and the bar (off by itself) seem much as they were. Come summer it should be a fun place to celebrate a dinner with friends.

The service is friendly, well informed about the menu, and efficient.

Contact Bill of Fare by e-mail at fare@theblade.com.



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