Open: For lunch Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., for dinner 5:30-11 p.m., until midnight Friday and Saturday. Brunch served Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Closed Tuesday. Reservations recommended. AE, V, MC, D. Parking in Citadel lot next door reimbursed for two hours. Prices: brunch $10-$14, including appetizer and dessert; lunch entrees $8-$10; dinner entrees $10-$16. Full dinner with drinks or wine, tax and tip about $30 a person.
n New Orleans a tourist needs to know not just where to go to eat but what to order. Galatoire's has supernal trout meuni,ere but atrocious trout marguery. Mosca's barbecued shrimp and oyster pan bake are marvelous, but steer clear of the rest of the menu. Even K-Paul's has its misses, and anybody who goes there without ordering the blackened redfish has missed the point of going to New Orleans. So Washington's New Orleans Emporium is authentic, right down to the dishes-to-miss among the dazzlers. But the kitchen has sufficient character that even after a disappointing dish, you vow to return.
That is the real secret of New Orleans food: It makes you want more. After a plateful of New Orleans barbecued shrimp -- fat, sweet fresh shrimp in the shell with their heads, an utter mess to peel and eat in their fiery tomato-thickened, garlic- and herb-infused sauce -- what you want is another plate of shrimp, no later than tomorrow. Furthermore, the New Orleans Emporium (and this is a statement that could get a critic lynched, but truth is truth) makes a better barbecued shrimp than anybody now in New Orleans.
The menu here is nearly all seafood, and in New Orleans style the categories are simple (oysters, crawfish, shrimp, crab, fish, etc.) and the descriptions unelaborate (,etouff,e, creole, boil, remoulade and such). The blackboard lists daily specials, but there is no rhyme or reason to which are best.
Oysters on the half-shell are brought in from the Gulf. Or you can drink your oyster in a shot glass, submerged in peppered vodka or gin. If you like them cooked, try the Oysters Commander, buried under a thick onion-spiked stuffing. As for other oyster appetizers, the Rockefellers are bland, the shrimp-enriched Bienville pretty good and the brochette noth
For other appetizers look into the Cajun Popcorn (crawfish tails fried in a light batter) or try redfish or catfish beignets (cubes of the juiciest fish in a light crunchy cornmeal breading). Naturally there are gumbo, crawfish bisque and turtle soup, fortunately available as a trio of demitasse cupfuls. But if you insist on tasting only one, make it either the gumbo -- thin in texture and darkly mysterious in flavor, studded with crawfish, crab and fish -- or the delicious turtle soup.
After such appetizers and the basket of crunchy hush puppies and hot biscuits -- flavored with jalapenos, peppered cured meat or blueberries -- main dishes might seem superfluous. And indeed those starters with a Cajun martini (the vodka or gin marinated with hot peppers, olives and pickled onions), or a bloody mary so thick it would make a super gazpacho, could make for a grand and giddy evening.
But then you would miss the blackened redfish. This is the dish that Paul Prudhomme of K-Paul's restaurant made a classic, and the New Orleans Emporium does Prudhomme proud. It takes a lot of guts and a good ventilation system, for first you heat a heavy iron skillet white hot, then you thickly coat a slab of redfish with Cajun spices, dip it in butter, then slap it on that skillet to immediately blacken it. Turn it to form a crust on the other side, and there it is, a sensation of a fish -- crusty, spicy, juicy, fluffy, white on black. If the skillet is timidly less than white-hot, the cook has missed the point. It took very few misses in the early days for the Emporium to get this dish routinely right, even at Sunday brunch.
In all, the New Orleans Emporium buys excellent seafood -- crawfish are not at their best this season, but they are good; the shrimp are a revelation for anyone used to frozen ones; the crab is in snowy lumps; the fish have been impeccably fresh. Some preparations fall short, though I have tried nothing disastrous here. Still, crawfish ,etouff,e has lacked zest in its thick and clinging sauce; mako shark was overcooked and its breading tasted burned; fish served with meuniere sauce have been boring under their pallid butter-and-scallion topping. Other dishes that have been good but insignificant next to the house's zestiest: fish stuffed with crab in a creamy but unexciting crawfish sauce; an ordinary crawfish pie; an oyster-artichoke pie, cunningly served in a biscuit bowl but with little flavor to its soupy cream sauce. Crab cakes as a base for poached eggs and mushroom-wine sauce at brunch were heavy, though the eggs and sauce were excellently prepared.
Brunch offers several poached-egg surprises -- with sausage and leek sauce, with fried redfish and oyster hollandaise -- several fish dishes plus stuffed fried squash (mirliton) filled with seafood creole, a very rich dish that is good, mildly seasoned and not memorable.
Main dishes are served with little potatoes in their jackets, topped with a faintly sweet remoulade. There are also refreshing little salads tossed with a tingling mustard vinaigrette. The wine list -- a changing array on the blackboard -- concentrates on American wines, several by the glass, chosen with obvious knowledge on the wine steward's part.
Dessert is not to be ignored here. The bread and pecan pudding is thick, dense, sweet, rich, brandied and marvelous. Sweet potato-pecan pie has a crunchy crust and fine rich filling, but then there are equivalent choices such as apple cobbler with a very good crusty topping, lemon cr.epes with a faint glaze of sugar and a lovely, soft lemony cream filling, a decent but oversweet almond praline chocolate mousse and good, heavy cheesecake. The chicory coffee -- regular and decaffeinated -- is served traditionally, with plenty of milk.
I have skipped the environment -- it is not the important part. The Emporium is cute, all tiles and plain wood, clattery and busy. It is not the place to go for a romantic evening, but certainly for good fun. And the waiters are enthusiastic and good natured, missionaries in the cause of Cajun cooking.
New Orleans Emporium is part of a projected restaurant complex that next is to include a southern family-style restaurant. If it is as good an addition to Washington dining as this first effort, we'll be standing in line to try it.