This restaurant is closed.
Still no alcohol license, still no menu on the website, but I finally gave in — whether it was ready or not, I had to try the Big Easy. The chef/co-owner is Frankie “the Bull” Terzoli, Top Chef semifinalist and former chef/co-owner of Bull’s Barbecue, where the gumbo gave convincing evidence of a palate that knows New Orleans.
Terzoli is a local guy made good who cooked his way around the world and finally came home. He went to University of San Diego and to the CIA culinary school at Hyde Park, New York, then traveled through 27 countries, working in restaurants. (He’s also got a ship captain’s license.) “My background is Sicilian, and at the age of 7, I asked my mother for a cookbook. I still have it — Betty Crocker’s Cooking For Kids. By the time I was 7 1/2, I’d cooked through it. At age 10, I went to work at my uncle’s restaurant, the Venetian in Point Loma. Working there, with all that give and take in the kitchen, the fun of making diners happy, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Afterward, I always stayed with my own style — big, bold dishes. I utilize that in all my cooking.”
The Big Easy occupies the difficult site on University that previously housed the late, lamented Better Half (and before that, the less-lamented Talus, the Abbey, etc.). Ironically, the Better Half’s chef-owner was planning to convert to a New Orleans menu before he ran out of funds. The architecture of the historic building evokes the French Quarter, with its odd cul-de-sac open-air alley between the kitchen area and the dining room, which makes a great dining patio in warm weather.
With the help of a host of friends and well-wishers who volunteered labor, Terzoli completed the physical transformation, repainting the exterior an eye-catching light yellow with purple trim, a version of Mardi Gras colors; the interior is creamy tan with dark-brown trim and café curtains, hinting at Napoleon House in the Quarter. Although the chairs, along with a couple of held-over banquettes, are the same old Better Half unpadded wooden numbers dating from the Spanish Inquisition. Terzoli’s first blessed act was to build a ramp up to the dining-room entrance, which used to be a challenging tall step and hell on wheelchairs and aging knees. During our dinner, music played softly — an eclectic blend of blues, jazz, and what I’d call serious pop, for want of a more precise term.
The major NOLA classics are available mainly as appetizers, in somewhat eccentric versions of varying success. For better or worse, the traditional dishes have been subjected to the chef’s creativity, and for the most part, they emerge with the flavors of Louisiana intact. Red beans and rice, for instance, are served in a deconstructed version, the elements striped along the plate. The beans were too firm that night but flavorful from a rich cooking liquid, with a sneak-up-and-bite-you spiciness, plated next to Jasmine rice. The third, vital element was a heap of sliced spicy andouille sausage. Mix it all together and you’ve got your Crescent City washday miracle. (This dish is traditionally made on Monday laundry days.)
Oysters Bienville, always subject to creative interpretations, swings wide of the original mushroom-and-heavy-cream-sauce topping. Here, the oysters are baked and served in their shells, topped with Louisiana’s holy trinity (minced onions, green peppers, celery), plus chopped shrimp, crisped breadcrumbs, and melted mild cheese — a radical but delicious revision that Terzoli’s mentor, Louis Belchak of Maitre D’ in La Jolla (who also reopened Arnaud’s in the Quarter), came up with a few years back at a New Orleans “Anything but Rockefeller” oyster-cooking contest. They’re scarcely traditional but delicious. “I don’t usually like oysters much,” said tablemate Scottish Sue, “but I could eat quite a lot of these.”
The gumbo is lighter than the deep, dark voodoo version at Bull’s; it’s based on a chestnut roux instead of a mahogany roux, with a light hand on the filé gumbo (ground sassafras). “Wouldn’t you love this if you had a cold?” asked Lynne. “Eat a bowl and cuddle back in bed, all warm inside.” The lightly spicy, flavorful liquid is thick with shreds of chicken, small shrimp, and chopped andouille, along with diced green peppers and bits of cooked-down tomato. It has a few kernels of rice mixed in (in place of the usual mound of steamed rice served on the side, to be added at will). “Don’t they eat bread in Louisiana?” asked Mark. “I wish I had some to sop up this gumbo.” It would indeed be nice if Big Easy served some sort of table bread, as most restaurants do. At Bull’s BBQ, the gumbo comes with divine cornbread muffins. Why not here?
The one traditional dish that slides way too far from tradition is the jambalaya. Jambalaya is a Louisiana version of paella — rice cooked with tomato, oil, full-flavored seasonings, and varied proteins (shrimp, poultry, sausage, etc.). The texture can range from soupy-loose to tomato-heavy to a moist pilaf texture (as at Magnolia Restaurant, and in my own kitchen). But this was the driest ever, devoid of tomato, served in a round, flat-topped heap tapped out from a mold. The top is red from a dusting of paprika and cayenne. Without tomato, it’s not really jambalaya, nor even marginally good. Tastes like something dire from Popeyes.
The most exciting appetizer isn’t from Louisiana but the chef’s own fevered imagination: perfectly seared duck foie gras is hilariously plated over a crêpe Suzette with orange liqueur sauce and a scooplet of butter pecan ice cream. Outrageous! And fabulous, mesmerizing, seductive (pile on those adjectives!), proving that under even the most sophisticated American palates remains a childish yearning for dessert. We all went bonkers for it — duck-liver dessert.
As at most restaurants, entrées were a bit of a comedown. We didn’t try the Continental gourmet dishes (duck à l’orange, steak Diane, rack of lamb) but cleaved to the Louisiana choices that we’d come for.