The finale of our appetizer ordeal was a seasonal special (Thursdays and Fridays) of boiled crawfish. I could pontificate about it for pages. Numero uno, the boil sucks. I don’t even want to guess what’s in there; it’s unspeakable. The boil, not the crawfish, is the secret of boiled crawfish, and bringing a bottle of Crystal hot sauce to the table is too late! The Crystal should go in the boil. At Frankie and Johnny’s in NOLA, they buy it in bottles big enough to fill a Hummer’s tank. Numero dos: They overcooked it to mush, or left it in the hot water until somebody ordered it. We couldn’t “suck the heads” because the stuff in the heads was black and desiccated. Worse yet, overboiled crawfish is hard to peel because you can’t just crisply snap the soggy backs to start the thin belly-shell opening — you gotta peel ’em slowly with your fingernails like ignorant Yankees.
After a happy, healthy interlude of free dinner salads, we moved on to the main course. (I suspect that the salad entrées are probably a good, fairly healthy way to go here, topped with your choice of fried chicken, eggplant, crawfish, etc.)
Many of the entrées are “combos” that give you more tastes for your bucks — bad tastes. Whatever you do, don’t order the unholy “Holy Trinity” of south Louisiana’s three top dishes, all brutally abused. It’s got gumbo — served not in a bowl or cup but splattered on the plate. It’s a decent gumbo, with a dark brown, smoky roux base, a good flavor, loads of andouille and chicken (and also, weirdly, pork meat). The jambalaya was an evil joke, a mound of dried-out brown-colored rice, no fixin’s except the goodies from the gumbo. (I’d tried a “little taste” of the jambalaya seven years ago, and it was bad then too.) The recipe (the menu proudly announces) comes from the Court of Two Sisters, a once-renowned French Quarter tourist trap that locals have shunned for at least 30 years. (Somebody send the Chateau’s chef to Magnolias in Encanto for a jambalaya refresher course!) The crawfish étouffée is from an “award-winning recipe in Breaux Bridge.” What award — the booby prize? It’s nothing like what I tasted at Pat’s in nearby Henderson, crawfish capital of the planet. Even the color is wrong (greenish, not pinkish), and it’s nothing at all like the heavier, more tomatoey rendition my friends Marc and Ann Savoy cooked up when I visited them in Eunice. Blindfolded, I’d never guess its identity. “The only thing I can stand to eat on this plate is the gumbo,” said the Lynnester, and we all agreed with her.
Another combo called “Oh, My, You Got Crabs!” pairs a crab cake with a fried soft-shell. The cake is tall, thick, heavily battered, and loaded with filler — Marty thought it might be cornmeal. The buster crab tasted of nothing but its surrounding batter. Along with a mustard remoulade sauce, there’s an all-starch veggie array: sugar-glazed potato cubes, yam fingers, and some kind of corn sludge trying to be a pudding.
The same starches came with “Fire in the Hole,” blackened catfish with tasso and andouille cream sauce (the sauce motivating my order). The menu warns you, “You best have a (sic) ice-cold Dixie beer close by.” It’s a lie — no need to get yourself Dixie-fried at this spice level. Like the scallops, this must have been inspired by Paul Prudhomme, long ago — red-hot seasonings coating fish rapidly cooked in a red-hot cast-iron skillet — but since then Orleans’ kitchen has forgotten how to blacken. Instead, you get mushy, mediocre-quality fish mild enough for a Midwestern grade-schooler and a nothin’ special sauce.
Our best entrée was pork chops Bienville, basically pasta Bienville (angel hair in seafood cream sauce) with added pork chop (which proved tender). Again, I was flung back to happy memories of friends: chef Stanley Jackson had been working in an Oakland Creole restaurant (owned by Rudy Lombard, a civil rights–era Louisiana hero) when Popeye’s lured him home with an executive chef gig to help them expand their side-dish menu. His version of Pasta Bienville was fiery with black, white, and red pepper. At Chateau Orleans it’s mild, soothing, and amiable. The pasta is a bit too soft, and I surely did miss the heat. But it’s easy eating.
What Chateau Orleans needs is not yet another owner, but for the current owner to grapple with the problems and bring in a fresh dose of authentic Louisiana cooking spirit. (I know from the lagniappe his heart’s in the right place!) The City that Care Forgot is not just some lewd, antic version of Disneyland but a unique American cultural hub, and it pains me to see its inimitable cuisine dissed this way, even inadvertently. Surely somewhere in San Diego there’s a displaced chef from the Lower Ninth working way below his or her skill level, starved for a more interesting job. Or maybe the owner could hire Marvin Johnson of Batter Up (formerly of Juke Joint) for a short-term consultancy. The restaurant is such an enjoyable place to eat, I surely do wish it would regain its raison d’être and serve the real and fabulous food that inspired its name.
WHAT THE CAJUN EATS
CRAWFISH (OR SHRIMP) ÉTOUFFÉE
Marc and Ann Savoy (pronounced Sah-VWAH) are Louisiana folklorists, devoted to preserving Cajun music and folkways. Accordionist Marc’s ancestors settled in Eunice (on the “Cajun prairie”) well before the Acadians (Cajuns) arrived from Canada. “I don’t understand why anybody needs a cookbook, or any written recipes,” says Marc. “Around here, you learn to cook by helping your parents in the kitchen.” This recipe, he says, is “a lot like Cajun music — really simple, but with a very special quality. And I’ve never succeeded in putting in too much garlic.” You can do a quick version of this without roux, or a slower, thicker version (which Marc calls “court bouillon”) with a roux. If two cooks will fit at your stove, you can have one make the roux and the other cook the crawfish at the same time. Serves 4–6.