Dinner Deals: The Cajun Experience brings the bayou to Old Town Leesburg
By Justin Rude
July 16, 2010
At a glance: Opened in April 2009, the Cajun Experience is a 50-seat restaurant nestled into an 18th-century house in historic Leesburg. The building, one of the oldest in the area, sets the stage for Melissa and Bryan Crosswhite's food: classic and simple presentations of native Delta cooking. The dearth of authentic Cajun cuisine in the area inspired the Louisiana natives to open their own restaurant, and historic Leesburg seemed like a good match. "The building reminded me of the places back home," says Melissa Crosswhite. "We didn't know of any good restaurants doing Cajun in the area other than Acadiana [in downtown Washington], which is a fine-dining place. We're just a casual place in an old building built in the 1700s."
On the menu: For lunch, po' boys are the star of the menu. The eight varieties, including shrimp, boudin, blackened fish and fried crawfish and oysters, are served on rolls imported from New Orleans's Leidenheimer Baking Co. The rolls are light and allow the ingredients, which are never over-fried, to stand out.
For appetizers look to the boudin balls, a pork-rice sausage, breaded and fried. They are surprisingly airy, with a nice balance of spices. Gumbo, which is also available as an entree, features either shrimp, crawfish and lump crabmeat or chicken and sausage in a dark roux that is more delicate and soupy than the more typical thick, heavily rouxed gumbos.
Red beans and andouille sausage is one of a handful of entrees that shows off the "trinity," a blend of bell pepper, onion and celery that is a staple of Creole and Cajun cuisine. Another, the crawfish etouffee, uses the trinity in combination with a creamy butter sauce to nice effect.
For dessert there is a lovely pecan pie, but chances are diners will be drawn to the beignets, which are fried in-house using batter from New Orleans's Cafe Du Monde.
At your service: In addition to the 50 seats spread out in four rooms, there is also a 20-seat patio out back. If there is a drawback to the parade of home-style treats, it's that many have to be prepared in advance. That means that if you don't show up early, there is a chance you may not get to try that jambalaya you were looking forward to, something I experienced firsthand. "The etouffee is one of the quickest things we make," said Melissa Crosswhite, "and that takes 45 minutes to an hour. None of that stuff can really be done to order."
What to avoid: I don't know why you would order a salad with so many fine fried, stewed and sandwich options on the menu, but if you do, you deserve the sad green accompaniment to your blackened chicken or tilapia, as well as all the envy you will feel as your companions tuck into their po' boys and crawfish etouffee.
Wet your whistle: Unsurprisingly, there is plenty of Louisiana-brewed Abita on the beer list. More surprisingly: There is only Abita on the beer list, including many seasonals and less-common varieties. The Louisiana loyalty extends to the wine list, where you will find Breaux wines. The vineyard is in Purcellville, but the vintners hail from bayou country, and the wines carry names including Jambalaya and Lafayette (the Crosswhites' home town).
Bottom line: Recent events in the Gulf of Mexico lend a bittersweet quality to dining at the Cajun Experience. And if the impact hasn't been felt fully by the restaurant, which has thus far seen only a couple of price increases on shellfish, the home-style seafood preparations are a perfect example of what is at stake. With that in mind, the Cajun Experience is a good lunch or dinner option while in Leesburg.