Crawfish étouffée is a moister, tastier remake of the jambalaya — slightly sweet, middlin’ spicy, enjoyable, but again, revisionist. Typical étouffées include tomatoes as the main sauce ingredient; this one has none. Terzoli claims he eschews tomatoes because he doesn’t like canned tomato sauce, but that’s just silly: The étouffée recipe I copied from my friends in Eunice (on the Cajun prairie) calls for cooked-down canned tomatoes — which, like any Sicilian-American, Frankie grew up eating. (He could also use Pomi purée, which he does like.) The menu claims the étouffée is served on Dirty Rice (ditto the jambalaya). But, no, this isn’t dirty; it’s seasoned rice, not even lightly besmirched. Traditionally, the “dirt” consists of minced browned proteins. The purest version resembles a poultry stuffing, with chopped chicken hearts and gizzards (my preference, and prescribed by Queen Ida Guillory, zydeco accordionist and great cook), but coarser modern versions often substitute ground pork or beef, which cook more quickly and are available at the grocery.
Shrimp Creole also claims Dirty Rice. Of this dish, Scottish Sue declared, “This is the best rice I’ve ever tasted,” but she was surely swayed by the sweet tomato sauce garnished by a host of red and green pepper slices. It was closer to Chinese-American sweet-and-sour shrimp (minus the sour) than to anything Creole.
“What’s alligator like?” Lynne asked, contemplating Alligator Arcadian on the menu. “If it’s from high on the gator — I think the tail qualifies for that,” I said, “it’s a fine-grained lean white meat, something like chicken breast — or maybe pheasant breast crossed with frog legs. From low on the gator, it’s dark and a little slimy, like turtle. But you won’t get that here.” “It does taste like chicken breast,” Lynne said at first bite of one of the pounded, sautéed fillet pieces. (“I call it schnitzel,” says Terzoli, who also learned to make alligator boudin sausage, using the greasy parts of the gator, when he was cooking in bayou country.) It comes in a smooth, rich, pale-coral “Diablo demi-glaze” sauce (which includes Chinese chili sauce, a cayenne blend, and a Cognac burn-off), accompanied by a wedge of mushroom-studded white grits and a heaplet of fine-chopped sautéed collards closer to the Brazilian version of this veggie (couvée de Minas Gerais, a standard side dish to feijoada) than to Southern boiled greens.
Southern meat loaf is the entrée that gets the most blogger praise. Made from a combination of Angus beef, pork, and chorizo, it’s intensely meaty and a little spicy, with not too much bread filler; it comes with a dreamy purée of sweet potatoes and coarsely chopped collards. If you’re into meat loaf, it’s a terrific meat loaf.
Service was excellent, from a waitress who seemed smart and committed to the restaurant and her profession, and Frankie wandered out to schmooze with us when we were partway through our entrées, proving friendly and low-key, less bullish than teddy-bearish.
We concluded with an unconventional rendition of Bananas Foster. The classic has bananas flambéed at the table in banana liqueur, which forms a sauce with whipped-in butter. Frankie’s insouciant version is a parfait of banana slices, ice cream, and whipped cream, with caramel syrup at the bottom of the glass. Though it certainly wasn’t the legendary original from Brennan’s, its lightness was welcome.
If you saw the review of Indigo Café a couple of weeks ago, you may be wondering why I’m easier on the Big Easy’s radical revisions. Simple answer: Before you can riff on a cuisine, you have to understand it and master its traditions. Reminds me of a lecture that then-famous poet and critic John Ciardi gave at my high school, sternly advising a group of crestfallen teenage poetesses that before you can successfully play with free verse, you need to master the classical rhymed verse forms, such as sonnets. In food terms, think of those screamingly harsh curry-mayonnaise chicken salads that ran rampant through sandwich shops in the early ’90s, an execrable attempt to incorporate exotic Indian flavor into a bland mom-dish. Underlying problem: in India, curry powder, when used at all, is always cooked into a dish, never flung raw onto anything.
At Indigo, the problem was that only a couple of dishes (fried oysters and po’ boys) had any recognizable taste of Louisiana, seeming more like a bunch of Louisiana’s signature ingredients assembled by somebody who’d never been there, with no fundamental comprehension of the cuisine. I brought home ample leftovers, reexamined them under bright light, reheated them ever so gently, and retasted them several times each — and still, nothing but the po’ boy tasted like actual Creole or Cajun food.
I’ve got no objection to a talented chef getting creative with traditional recipes. That’s the signature of Susan Spicer, for instance, one of New Orleans’ most revered chefs. Cooking or eating the classics every day could become boring, no matter how delicious they are. But before you can play with free verse, you have to be able to knock out those sonnets.
Frankie Terzoli has cooked professionally in Lafayette and New Iberia. He’s got chops. Even if I don’t like all his revisions, he has sufficient background in the classics to have earned the freedom to play around. His Louisiana cooking may not be traditional, but however tweaked, nearly every dish carries the fundamental, vivid flavors of the City That Care Forgot and its surroundings. The food tastes like southern Louisiana, and mostly, it tastes good.
127 University Avenue, Hillcrest, 619-294-3279, thebigeasyrestaurant.com.
HOURS: Tuesday–Friday 7:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m., 5:00–10:00 p.m. Saturday 8:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m., 5:00–10:00 p.m. Sunday 8:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m. Monday 7:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m. (No dinner Sunday–Monday.)
PRICES: Dinner starters, soups, salads, $7–$17; entrées, $17–$26; desserts, $8–$12 (for two).
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Revisionist New Orleans cuisine, plus French and Southern dishes.
PICK HITS: Foie gras over crêpe Suzette; red beans and rice; gumbo; oysters Bienville; meat loaf. Good bets: Sunday supper live crawfish boil (when available) or shrimp boil; breakfast beignets, especially weekend bacon-stuffed beignets with maple syrup.
NEED TO KNOW: Alcohol license pending, but okay to BYOB (no corkage). No menus on website yet. Street parking. Zydeco Sunday supper with live music, crawfish or shrimp boils (call the day before to see if the live crawfish crawled in).