Finally, we set our course for Louisiana -- specifically, New Orleans, because the flavors at Monroe's are generally more Creole than Cajun. (They do have some fake-Cajun "blackened" stuff, but as the Caribbean saying goes, "I ent eatin' dat.") An appetizer of Southern-fried chicken wings resembles a spicier, less greasy version of KFC's. Crab balls are an eccentric deep-fried marriage of hush puppies and crab cakes, mingling lump crab with an equal amount of assertively seasoned bread filler.
Co-owner Teresa Randall makes gumbo from a recipe handed down by her Louisiana-based family. It includes an intense seafood broth with a multiplicity of chopped-fine ocean critters. "It's got all the seas in it," she says. "Some you see, some you don't see." Mixed with a dark "mahogany" roux, it's a richly seasoned bath for tender whole shrimps, hunks of in-shell crab, and bits of sausage. Our cupful came with just the right amount of rice added, and the soup was spiced exactly to our specification of "seven out of ten." (Maybe the third visit convinced them we meant it.)
The Louisiana entrées are dominated by water-creatures. The crawfish étouffé is a standout, and it's available three ways: alone, as part of a seafood platter, and as a sauce for fried snapper or catfish. This light and colorful Creole rendition -- its tints mirror the Ethiopian flag so revered by Jamaican Rastas -- sports red crawfish tails and bits of green pepper in a deep-yellow, satiny sauce based on golden roux, garlic, and onions. Served during one lunch as part of the "Atchafalaya Seafood Sampler," its companions were the aforementioned crab balls and a "stuffed shrimp" -- a crabbier crab ball with a shrimp sticking out. Fried snapper and catfish arrived in a light, greaseless batter, and fried oysters sported a puffy batter similar to heavy tempura. The large oysters are bottled, not fresh-shucked, with a strong mineral flavor.
The chicken-and-shrimp jambalaya (eaten at the same dinner where we were served dryish "peas and rice") didn't thrill me at all, possibly because it, too, tasted as if it had been cooked hours earlier and reheated. The rice was clumpy, while the shrimps and chicken breast bits were dried out. It might be better at lunchtime, if you like your jambalaya with lots of tomato.
As with the other two cuisines, the N'awlins side dishes are savory. We loved the buttery candied yams, tasting like fruit in their nutmeg-spiked sauce. Collard and mustard greens are well spiced and cooked tender -- the New World's take on gomen. Vegetarian red beans and rice are pleasant, but since they're made to Halal standards without pork products -- what, no grease? -- they're shy on flavor. Now that Magnolias has opened in Market Creek Square, the city is no longer starved for authentic Creole soul food, but Monroe's makes a very creditable showing in this area.
If you want to sample all three of Monroe's cuisines simultaneously, an appetizer sampler provides a "survey course," with tidbits (all described above) from all three nations, each item also available separately. (The half-sampler, with two pieces of each, is $9; the full-size version, four pieces each, is $13.) The short dessert list seems like an afterthought, offering a canned-peach cobbler and a pair of simple cakes, served warm, that taste like something your mom made from boxed cake mix. If you yearn for a sweet, remember those enchanting cream cheese sambussas.
(Recommended historical fiction for those interested in the "Middle Passage" period of New World history: Charles Johnson's Middle Passage and Barbara Hambly's engrossing "Benjamin January" mystery series, based in early 19th Century Louisiana, especially Sold Down the River for its vivid depiction of life on a sugar cane plantation.)
ABOUT THE OWNERS
Monroe's started out as Aswan Restaurant, a joint project of Somalian chef Maryam Suliman and Louisiana-born activist (and gumbo chef supreme) Vernon Sukumu. Its slogan was "Where the Mississippi meets the Nile," as it served the cuisines of New Orleans and Somalia. After the owners parted ways, Sukumu kept the restaurant, including its Somali staffers. Two years ago, he sold the operation to Teresa Randall, whose roots are also in Louisiana, and Jamaica-born Ransford Samuda (nicknamed "Ran"), who co-owns the charming Jamaican restaurant Island Spice (on Grant Hill). Ran added his homeland's cuisine to Monroe's mix.
There's no Mr. or Ms. Monroe here. "We named it after my father," says Teresa, "for his hometown of Monroe, Louisiana. He raised me here, but of course all of my family's recipes get passed down through the generations." Teresa often cooks in the restaurant. "When I don't make the gumbo," she says, "the customers complain."
Ran arrived from Jamaica 20 years ago. "I came here on an athletic and academic scholarship to Point Loma University, where I got my bachelor's in biochemistry. Then I graduated from law school, but after a couple of months of law practice, I decided I didn't want to do it on a long-term basis. So after that, I did this and that.
"I got into the restaurant business by happenstance -- I had no interest in it. I started with a Jamaican nightclub near where Island Spice is now, and another Jamaican associate of mine had a restaurant. They were providing the food for my nightclub business. He decided to go out of business just months after he opened...At the time, there was no other Jamaican restaurant in the area. I thought it was a tough business, but with the right crew it would be a nice niche, and that's how I got into it. That was 1995, just ten years ago...I took over Island Spice and started running it July 1, 1995, and Teresa Randall and I bought into Monroe's in 2003."
There are three or four cooks in Monroe's kitchen at most meals, some of them local residents with Louisiana roots, and (more intermittently) a Jamaican cook. "I actually brought in a Jamaican lady a couple of weeks ago," said Ran, "and she just started cooking yesterday. But when we don't have an authentic Jamaican in there, I hop up two or three times a week to make the sauces." The African cooks are unchanged since the Aswan days. "When we bought the restaurant from Vernon Sukumu, we kept the Somalian cooks," says Teresa. "They're here every day, and they do all the East African dishes."
Weekend brunches are when Monroe's enjoys its best crowds. "We need to do something to get more people in on Tuesday through Friday. The problem is, 'Location, location, location, says Ran. On Friday evenings, the restaurant often sweetens the deal with live music from a small jazz group called the B3 Four. "Sometimes people think that when we have live jazz, they're going to have to pay for it," says Teresa. "But all they have to do is come and eat."