926 Turquoise Street, Pacific Beach
(No longer in business.)
Since the last time I reviewed Chateau Orleans for Mardi Gras, 2001, it’s been through at least two changes of ownership. I wasn’t crazy about the food, and then the second-to-last owner complained that our capsule review was out of date, so we pulled the capsule and I made a mental note to go back someday.
Now summer’s coming on, and summer brings up a mad craving for Creole food, for sipping hurricanes from plastic go-cups on the street and rocking all night to Cajun two-step or blues at Tip’s, for pulling ice cubes out of my Jack Daniel’s rocks to run over my face and neck. My last visit to New Orleans was a long-ago August. You have to be nuts or have some urgent half-sane reason to go to the Crescent City in summertime, when the livin’ is sweaty. My reason was a free house-sit at a friend’s semi-air-conditioned shotgun in the Faubourg Marigny. Loved living like a native, courtly horse-carriage drivers in the Quarter gently wafting their courting calls while I was snail-pacing along, schlepping home groceries from Schwegmann’s. Once some dumb crew-cut tourist even took me in my skaggy little all-hang-out sundress for a local ho — except that when I had to do laundry, I was the homeliest woman in the washateria, the only biological female among the glamour gals. Yeah, you right — I (heart) N’awlins.
We don’t have much NOLA food left here in San Diego. We’ve lost Bayou Bar and Grill (long ago), and its casual reincarnation Bud’s, and the fabulous Juke Joint Café with its great gumbo and jazz. We’ve still got marvelous Magnolias out in Encanto, Mardi Gras Café, mainly for take-out, and Fix Me a Plate at the easternmost edge of La Mesa. So it was time to return to Chateau Orleans with a full posse, and we deliberately ordered way too much food so as to give it a good shot. There’s got to be a reason for the restaurant’s enduring popularity, I figured. Well, it’s a terrific-looking spot, plenty of space and air, nice rustic feel, with Louisiana folk art on the walls for the eyes to feast on. The music that night was provided by blues singer Tomcat, who looks like a younger B.B. King, plays a lot of Lightnin’ Hopkins riffs, and chooses songs ranging from Delta blues to Jimmy Reed to Howlin’ Wolf to Gershwin (“Summertime” sung as country blues — aces!).
The newest owner, with a neat, gray beard and gentle vibes, understands the NOLA concept of “lagniappe” — “a little something extra.” He offered us a free demi-carafe of his housemade watermelon wine, and free French-press chicory coffee at the end. I liked him. I hate to give his restaurant one and a half stars. I tried to talk myself into two stars, but I just couldn’t do it. Chances are too high for a bad meal unless you order exactly the right stuff.
This could be a great restaurant if only the food were better. And the drinks, too. We went on a Thursday night, with hurricanes only $5 each. Since my friends drove me, I’d planned on a long hurricane season, but the first sip instantly changed the weather. That was no hurricane, only a drizzle — sweet, insipid, mild. Dave took a taste: “Reminds me of Jim Jones in Guyana — Kool-Aid.” We switched to cheap and good Chilean wines.
Among the best sections of the menu is one called “I Just Want a Little Taste,” which offers cup-size portions of four dishes for $7 each. Crawfish bisque is available this way only, and it’s terrific: a heavy, creamy brew studded with corn and crawfish tails. A ramekin of sherry comes on the side, to stir in by spoonfuls (if you’re smart) to your exact taste. We used about 5/8 of it, and it was truly a good soup.
The red beans from this section include a little rice but no sausage (for that, you need to order the entrée portion), but the beans are sound and tasty. You can also get a cup of gumbo, which I’d recommend, and jambalaya, which I’m not sure you should ever order in any form (more details later). These dishes are offered on several entrée combos, but they’re roughed up a bit when the unruly crowds result in them being slopped onto the plates in groups.
Barbecued scallops are available as a starter, an entrée, and on some combos. I’m not mad about Louisiana barbecue sauces, which tend to be simple, sweet, and goopy. The one here certainly fits that bill. The scallops were putatively “blackened” (invisibly) and wrapped in hickory-smoked bacon, but they were tasteless enough to pass for tofu. Did the kitchen buy a lifetime supply of its “blackening spice” when the restaurant first opened years ago and failed to replace it as the taste has faded away with old age? Actually, I don’t know why there are scallops on this menu but no oysters. Or no mirliton (chayote squash), which is so readily available here. Or no grits (as in grillades and grits). Or no redfish (or snapper as a substitute), no trout, no finfish but catfish. No shrimp remoulade. Sigh. You’re not in NOLA, that’s for sure.
Many appetizers are (surprise!) deep-fried things, so typical of the Deep South. When they’re good, they can be great: “purple fries” are brilliant, with battered, skin-on eggplant wedges fried until the flesh explodes into a creamy-soft melted marshmallow texture. Even the Lynnester, who can be picky, fell under their spell. The batter is flecked with herb leaves and bits of carrot and spiked with a discreet touch of cayenne. This isn’t the way Galatoire’s cooks their fried eggplant fingers, but it’s at least as good.
Fried dill pickles, a soul food classic, are fun: Salty, greasy, bad for you in every way, they come with a ranch dip, same as the purple fries. A combo called Granny’s Goodies, however, reminds me of Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch. The catfish nuggets are played by drawling, leering Strother Martin. The alligator bites are unbathed Warren Oates. But you can also order the decent Cajun popcorn (oh, rare Ben Johnson) on its own without the sleazy sidekicks. Those crawfish tails, solo, are a better bet and six bucks cheaper, too.
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.
1/2 cup cooking oil of choice, plus 3 ounces more (3/8 cup) for making optional roux
1/2 cup flour (optional, for roux)
2 pounds peeled, defrosted (if frozen) crawfish tails (or peeled raw shrimp)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 bunch scallions, whites only, chopped
1/2 bell pepper, any color, chopped
2 teaspoons minced parsley
Minced garlic (at least 3 tablespoons or 6 large cloves)
1/2 small can (8-ounce) tomato sauce
1. If you want a thicker version of this dish, pour 3 ounces of oil into a heavy skillet, heat a little, add flour, and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the roux is toast-brown. Set aside, off heat.
2. Pour 4 ounces oil (1/2 cup) into a cast-iron skillet or similar heavy pot, add the crawfish, salt, pepper, and cayenne and cook over high heat until the water is gone, stirring frequently. (If using frozen tails, this may take 25 minutes. If using shrimp, don’t cook longer than 10 minutes.)
3. Add onion, scallions, bell pepper, parsley, and garlic to crawfish (and optional roux, if using). Lower heat to medium-high and cook 7 minutes, stirring frequently.
4. Add tomato sauce and cook 5 minutes, stirring often. Add 1 cup water, lower heat, and simmer 5 minutes. Serve immediately over boiled rice.
WHAT THE CREOLE EATS
STANLEY JACKSON’S SCALLOPS BIENVILLE
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon onion powder
3/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon paprika
1 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 pound dried fettuccine or linguini
1/2 pound scallops (or small oysters, or a combination)
1/2 stick unsalted butter
3 tablespoons minced garlic (about 6 large cloves)
1 cup heavy cream
1. Mix first eight ingredients and set aside. (Recipe calls for 1 1/2 teaspoons of this mixture. Save remainder for next time.) Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of spice mixture over scallops. Toss to distribute.
2. Cook pasta according to package directions. When done, drain, rinse in warm water, and set aside.
3. Melt butter over high heat in 10-inch skillet. Immediately add scallops and sauté one minute, stirring often. Add garlic and 1/2 teaspoon of spice mixture. Add cream and cook over high heat, stirring often, for 5 minutes, until reduced and thickened. Add pasta, toss, and serve.
926 Turquoise Street near Cass Street, Pacific Beach, 858-488-6744, chateauorleans.com.
HOURS: Wednesday–Saturday, 6:00–10:00 p.m., Sunday champagne jazz brunch 11:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m.
PRICES: Appetizers, $7–$16; entrée salads, $10–$17; entrées, $12–$31.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Cajun, Creole, and Southern dishes. Reasonable wine list, enough by the glass; numerous Louisiana and Southern beers; full bar.
PICK HITS: Texas cornbread; crawfish bisque; “purple fries” (fried eggplant appetizer); Cajun popcorn (fried crawfish tail meat); red beans and rice; gumbo.
NEED TO KNOW: Live music Thursday through Saturday. Wednesdays, wines 50 percent off; Thursdays, 50 percent off champagne, discounted hurricanes and margaritas. Four lacto-vegetarian entrées, one vegan.