Want authentic New Orleans? Let this one get by you.
By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011
Gumbo isn't as everywhere as burgers or pizza, but it sometimes feels that way as I make the rounds of new restaurants. Within the past year or so, the Washington area has witnessed a surge of places aiming to infuse the scene with the spirit of New Orleans. They include Bayou Bakery in Arlington, Bayou in the West End, the Cajun Experience in Adams Morgan and, as of July, TruOrleans Restaurant & Gallery in the Atlas District.
The newcomer seduces you before you've even stepped inside. Its fanciful black iron railing draws eyes up from the street to the restaurant's second-floor balcony, where, even on the hottest days, it's tough to find a free table. "Forty-five minutes for downstairs, 90 minutes for a table upstairs," one of the greeters informs me when two of us stroll into the no-reservations restaurant.
A little miracle: Two bar stools are vacated moments after we ascend to the second level, where we find ourselves sardined at the counter with a couple of New Orleans natives. Summer's hot air is tossed around by slow-circling fans. I order a Sazerac because that's what I'd do if I were in New Orleans; for the moment, TruOrleans puts me there.
The daydream is interrupted by dinner. Blackened red snapper is on the dry side, and its bed of white rice appears not to have been flavored with anything other than water. An order of jambalaya yields a sticky mass of spice-darkened rice that is best for its bites of andouille. A quartet of crawfish pies, flaky on the outside and creamy in the centers, keeps us from leaving hungry.
The snack - okay, and the Sazerac - are enough to sustain some interest. A week later, I'm sitting in the ground-floor dining room, where every other table appears to be sipping Hurricanes and I'm shouting at my companion between spoonfuls of gumbo. Bare tables and a low faux-copper ceiling make TruOrleans, dressed to suggest the Big Easy with Mardi Gras masks and beads, one of the loudest restaurants around.
The gumbo, rich with chicken thigh meat, tickles the back of my throat, but nothing else merits a second bite. Springy grilled shrimp wrapped in bacon are dabbed with what the menu calls a "spicy BBQ sauce"; the accent is so bland, you wouldn't even know it was there if you didn't see it. Again, the blackened fish is dry. Hush puppies go down like raw doughnuts.
True Orleans? Not so much.