Big Easy Moments
At Acadiana, some dishes offer a tantalizing taste of New Orleans; others fall short
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, January 22, 2006
There are moments at Acadiana that whisk me south.
When my Sazerac lands on the table, I'm in New Orleans. Ignited with whiskey and pernod, the amber-colored cocktail is served with a cube of sugar steeped in bitters and threaded on a stir stick. Every sip of the drink tickles my throat.
An order of fried green tomatoes has a similar transporting effect. Lightly breaded and fried to a crackle, the rounds of tomato arrive with a topping of sliced shrimp enriched with a zippy remoulade. The heat and crunch of the base and the chill and creaminess of the cover seesaw appealingly in the mouth.
Lunchtime finds a roast beef po' boy, generously constructed with layers of moist shaved meat and served with homey butter pickles and a bag of Zapp's potato chips -- a little shout out from Louisiana, where they're made. One detail is amiss, however: The sandwich's "debris" gravy tastes like it came from a can. And therein lies the rub. Acadiana can be a tease, promising one thing -- a true taste of the Big Easy -- but sometimes falling short on the delivery.
Located near the new convention center, the glass-and-steel structure is the fourth dining room from Passion Food Hospitality in Washington, which gave the capital a taste of seafood with DC Coast, a hint of Southeast Asia with Ten Penh and suggestions of South America with Ceiba. Hopes ran particularly high for Acadiana. As with their previous projects, the principals of the restaurant company traveled to the source to research the cuisine, and they enjoyed the benefit of one of their own having actually lived in the place whose flavors they wanted to replicate: In another life, executive chef and partner Jeff Tunks cooked at the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans.
Having eaten dozens of meals at this collection of restaurants over the years, I know this much to be true: While the quality of the cooking can vary widely -- right now, Ceiba is probably the best-tasting; Ten Penh the problem child -- the sundry locations do a very good job of making their visitors feel at home. The hospitality starts on the phone, continues at the host stand and follows you to your table, where the servers talk knowingly of the menu, which is executed by former Ceiba chef Chris Clime, and eagerly share their suggestions. As its siblings do, Acadiana injects little niceties into the experience. Biscuits take the place of a bread basket, and they show up with a spread of Creole cream cheese and pepper jelly for slathering. The fillip gives Popeyes a run for its money (and I like Popeyes). With your check comes a sweet surprise of "heavenly hash," a decadent bite of nuts, marshmallow and chocolate.
Some of what you taste between your first and last bites makes a nice impression, too. Deviled eggs, enjoying a moment of adoration by many chefs, come three to an order, and each is graced with a different topping: a pinch of shimmering black roe, a dab of creamy crab and a dollop of shrimp remoulade. The themes of big and rich continue with a platter of oysters lavished with garlic butter, Parmesan and romano cheeses, and a warm loaf of bread to sop up the excess and a fresh-tasting spinach soup, also with oysters and thick with brie. The creaminess of the soup is punctuated with some heat in the form of cayenne. Poured at the table, turtle soup sports beefy flavor but needs more sherry in its seasoning.
Which brings me to the kitchen's central problem: It seems afraid to use its spices. Jambalaya is packed with just about everything a fan would want -- sausage, chicken, red bell pepper -- save for the kick one expects of the rice-based classic. The shell on an appetizer of meat pies is thin, crisp and delicious, but must the ground beef filling be so bland? A side dish of hush puppies has too much in common with golf balls -- the cornmeal dumplings manage to be dense and vapid despite the onions and peppers in their mix.
Acadiana's outsize entrees suggest that a superhero is going to eat them. Plenty of fish for two, blackened tuna is positioned on a cushion of custardy spoonbread spread with luscious creamed spinach; draped with etouffee sauce, the arrangement also fits in some tender shrimp and a tasso-bolstered wine sauce. In another whale of a dish, two fine, fat crab cakes ride atop a bed of sweet corn and okra. Only slightly less Kong-like is the red snapper, showered with almond slices and accompanied by Swiss chard and sweet corn pudding.
You don't have to like fish to eat well here, however. The kitchen knows how to cook a beef filet to a beautiful shade of rose before draping the hunk of meat with melted blue cheese and embedding the beef with a skewer of rosemary supporting perfect, thin fried onion rings. Of course there's more on the plate: a pile of mashed potatoes and a raft of pencil-thin asparagus.
The generously apportioned food may erase any thought of dessert, some selections of which you shouldn't worry about missing. Creme brulee is too thick; the beignets are too tough; and the sorbets are faint of flavor. Should you have room to spare, however, the surprisingly light bread pudding and ultramoist lemon cake with summery crushed blueberries are the best routes.
The music, which alternates from blues to zydeco to jazz, places diners firmly in New Orleans. The same cannot be said of the vast interior. Some tables sit near columns that block diners' views, and other tables look lost, little islands bobbing in a sea of space. Acadiana only vaguely suggests a grand New Orleans dining room, and that with the help of some dangling chandeliers and booths wrapped in flowery fabric. For the most fun, seek out the long bar with its glowing glass counter off the entrance. And if it's privacy you're after, request a seat near the window or close to the exposed kitchen in the back. Oddly, the private rooms (there are several) exude the best style sense.
Acadiana gets a lot of the details right. But it can take some hunting to find them.