SOME OF the French Quarter Cafe's most prominent traits are negative -- and I mean that in a really positive way.
The food is not too salty, not too greasy, not too (indiscriminately) spicy. The decor is not too Carnival cutesy. And the music, though cheery and New Orleans-oriented, is neither too loud nor too obvious.
The food, which hardly brushes the envelope of "blackened" trendiness, tastes more of main ingredients than of seasonings; the walls are white and hung with relatively restrained posters; the tables are topped with classic checked tablecloths (most of the requisite beads and hot sauces are forgivably grouped around the carryout counter); and the music swings companionably from Connick-style cocktail lounge trumpet to jazz to rollicking Cajun piano. In fact, FQC (as an identically named music bar in New Orleans is known for short) is much like the real French Quarter hangouts before Bourbon Street became a "Bam!"-and-bare-it simulacrum of itself.
Which is hardly surprising, given its bloodlines. The French Quarter Cafe is owned by Peter and Rosemary Finkhauser, son and daughter-in-law of the founder of Bethesda's Louisiana Express, which has always known the difference between gumbo -- even with "the works" -- and the kitchen sink. And with the increasingly disappointing devolution of New Orleans-style cuisine (for it is now nearly pointless to try to distinguish between Creole and Cajun dishes), it's even more impressive to find the Finkhausers holding the line against culinary cliche.
In the pre-Prudhomme era, the most traditional Cajun flavoring was "the holy trinity" of sauteed celery, onions and green bell peppers. In flagrant pursuit of the tourist trade, however, both Cajun and Creole restaurants have turned to an unholy trinity of butter or fat, cream and salt, pumping up the volume first of one and then, unavoidably, of the others. Happily, the French Quarter Cafe's kitchen staff goes a long way toward restoring the recipes' original character (and, consequently, is probably hearing complaints from spice-addicted habituees of the Food Network). Etouffees are properly dressed but not drenched in a dark, layered reduction; jambalayas openly acknowledge their relationship to classic red rice; and even blackened rib-eye and blackened tuna (a frequent special) are dusted with black and green spices rather than crusted with scorched peppercorns. (The steak was cooked beyond request, but unlike at many kitchens, it had been largely trimmed of fat, and the light touch of salt kept it tender.)
Possibly most impressive is the frying. One night's fried catfish was the best in years and hundreds of miles -- tender, crunchy and greaseless. Catfish beignets are more like hush puppies than like doughnuts and a good freeform version. Both the boudin blanc and andouille sausages (ground to order by a company in Virginia, the only dishes not made on-site) are fine and relatively lean, and the crawfish quesadilla, which may be the closest FQC comes to cute bar food, is a guilty indulgence, although once the filling was marred by not having had the cheese oil poured off, a failing that stuck out for its rarity.
The crab cakes are a little bready, but only a very little, and although they could be sauteed at a slightly higher temperature for a bit of crisping, they have a satisfying high percentage of lumps. Even nicer, the appetizer portion alone is a prize light meal: two patties at least three inches across for $7.95.
Gumbo comes not only with the works but, at your option, with okra alone, andouille, chicken or seafood (fish, shrimp and crawfish), and once again is blessedly flavored with the ingredients, not with salt or bacon grease. Jambalaya and etouffee come in similar varieties, and "small" is the equivalent of a hearty bowl, so the smallest "works," at $8.25, is another light meal. Even lighter versions are available as stir-fries, Cajun-seasoned and served over white rice.
Po' boys here are pretty good as is the round-loaf muffuletta, though the traditional pickle-like veggie relish was a little scant. The Cajun-seasoned steak and cheese is one of the less successful sandwiches, more like a pulled-beef barbecue sub, choppy and sloppy and not very flavorful; the addition of a few scraps of chicken on the deluxe version has no meliorating effect. Biscuits are unusually good, though the cornbread is of the sweet and airy type rather than the dense and crusted variety (no cast-iron here).
The restaurant also offers seasoned or plain rotisserie chicken, meatloaf and mash, burgers, grilled chicken Caesar and classic desserts. It also makes traditional beignets, but as it doesn't open until 11 (or stay open all night), you can't fall victim to wee-hours temptation. That may be another positive negative, at least at this dangerous time of year.