1303 NE Fremont
published September 19, 2001
I’ve never been to New Orleans. [note: I've been since this was written.] I’ve come close to the Mississippi delta through the writing of James Lee Burke. His books featuring Dave Robicheaux, the Cajun detective, let me wander the back roads of New Iberia Parish looking for the tin-roofed roadhouse where I can eat an oyster po’ boy and drink Jax beer. I might follow Robicheaux down to the French market for chicory cafe au lait and fresh beignets, or sit at a picnic table on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain cracking boiled lake crabs and pink river shrimp from an ice-filled bucket. Reading Burke’s powerful prose I can almost taste the bitter coffee and hot fried dough, or smell the humid, sea-tinged wind off the Gulf. I’ll get there one of these days.
For now, though, I’ll have to settle for Acadia, a comfortable little restaurant on NE Fremont. It doesn’t offer oyster po’ boys, and local microbrews substitute for Jax, but Acadia’s blend of Creole and Cajun dishes provide a glimpse into the richly complex cooking of the bayou country.
Like much of what we call American food, Gulf Coast cuisine blends influences from all over the world. The original French and Spanish colonists, the Creoles, adapted their aristocratic old world recipes to local ingredients and flavors from the West Indies and Africa. When the British expelled French Catholic settlers from Acadie, in what is now Nova Scotia, the diaspora reformed in the swampy bayou lands west and south of New Orleans. The Acadians struggled for survival, along the way losing a little of their identity as the bayou patois shortened their name to Cajun. Their cooking reflects the resourceful approach made necessary by want and hunger.
The Creoles tried to maintain their connection to the elegance they’d left back in Europe with elaborate sauces and subtle flavoring. The Cajuns were country folk who preferred to throw whatever they’d shot or caught into a single pot with some hot peppers and rice. But the differences, at least in the kitchen, have faded in the last hundred years. Rice, seafood, and the flavors of onion, celery, and bell pepper that undergird the ubiquitous sauce piquant run through all the cooking of the delta.
It’s risky to transplant a cuisine that depends so much history, culture, and terroir to another part of the planet. But chef and co-owner Bud Deslatte, who grew up in New Orleans, has done it before and seems to have the process worked out. He’s opened restaurants in Atlanta, San Diego, and San Mateo as well as in his hometown. He and partner Rob Adams, who runs the dining room, fly in Gulf Coast seafood to combine with local ingredients. I can’t tell you if this is just like what you’d eat if you were in southern Louisiana, but it does taste good.
My favorite appetizer is an occasional special of big Gulf shrimp cooked in a little butter, Worcestershire, and Tabasco, with the heads left on for more flavor. If that’s not available, go with the Creole caviar, shrimp and crawfish chopped into a coarse pate, spiced with red pepper, and served with Pearl Bakery bread.
Gumbo derives from an African word for okra, an essential ingredient in the eponymous stew. At least it is for some gumbo cooks. There’s a whole other school that holds out for filé, the ground sassafras leaf introduced to the Louisiana interlopers by the Choctaw Indians. Filé, like okra, thickens the gumbo, but also adds an ethereal herby flavor. It’s finicky, though, and if not added at just the right time, makes the gumbo stringy and unpleasant.
Acadia falls into the okra camp, and the seafood gumbo blends shrimp, crab, and crawfish with the spicy smoked sausage called andouille in a dark roux-based stock, nicely thickened with okra. The seafood bisque is more uptown Creole, combining a slightly sweet, creamy corn base with bits of shrimp, crab, and crawfish, and adding a nice bit of red pepper heat to make it even more interesting.
In New Orleans they call it drum, but Paul Prudhomme’s blackened version made redfish a household word. At Acadia the lean fish is treated more gently. Brushed with Dijon before baking and drizzled with a hint of hollandaise after, it’s a delicious nod to the refined tastes of the Creole planters.
Most of the other entrees reflect the earthy passions of the Cajuns. Crawfish étoufée (literally ‘smothered’) is a big mess of mud bug tails in a dark, peppery sauce served over rice; a fried soft-shell crab shares the plate as well. I liked the jambalaya better when the restaurant served it with rice (it is, after all, an evolved form of paella). But the current version, with the spicy stew of shrimp, andouille, and duck served over linguine, is okay. A nicely browned breast called Sunday chicken, decent but by itself nothing to get excited about, comes atop a too-small portion of incredibly good cornbread dressing studded with crawfish and Tasso ham. Maybe you could ask for seconds on that dressing.
I’m probably in the minority, but the highly touted bread pudding didn’t do it for me. My favorite dessert, .the free mini-praline that came with the check, wasn’t on the menu. I like a more traditional bread pudding, but most everybody else seems to love Acadia’s hybrid with custardy creme brulee, a white chocolate Frangelico sauce, and toasted pecans. And while many also prefer a simple cup of coffee, if you’re going to open a restaurant in Portland without an espresso machine, at least offer a New Orleans style chicory blend. And maybe some of those hot beignets, too.
For more about Dave Robicheaux, here’s an interesting interview with James Lee Burke