Missing the Big Easy

Oakland Cajun-Creole joints score some points, but can't live up to New Orleans.

I got an e-mail from a reader this week announcing that Pearlie’s Special Recipe had closed. Pearlie’s was famous for its mighty Sunday soul food buffet. Losing a restaurant that’s been on your must-try list for years is like spotting a new ring on the finger of a co-worker you’ve long lusted after from afar.

So as I deleted Pearlie’s from my list, I scoured it for other Deep South-style restaurants. What I found were La. Bayou and the new downtown Oakland Jesso’s.

These two joints don’t just do Southern food — they specialize in Louisiana Cajun-Creole cuisine. The nice thing about both is that they pay no mind to the Paul Prudhomme-inspired wave of Cajun craziness that crashed over the United States in the 1980s. I’ll be the first to admit that as a teenager I used to shout “Oooo-eee” along with Justin Wilson every Saturday. But by the time I started cooking, blackened redfish had made it onto Denny’s menus, a sure sign that the trend had become so watered down that even its days as a cliché were almost over.

But hey, if we can survive pesto, the Cajuns can survive blackening spices. A week eating (and eating) in New Orleans a couple years ago proved to me that the region’s chefs, though jaded by the exposure, are putting out vibrant, ever-evolving food.

Now that the sight of “Creole aioli” or “duck confit jambalaya” on Northern Californian menus sets our eyes rolling, the Cajun-Creole restaurants here that have survived the trend are left in peace to re-create the honest, down-home food that keeps drawing foodies like me to New Orleans.

The problem is, there seems to be a terroir effect: Something’s just not quite right. It’s not necessarily a question of pedigree. As her name attests, Dana Guiette is from New Orleans — the Ninth Ward, to be precise. She has owned La. Bayou for five years, and goes back to Louisiana several times a year to collect the proper meats and spices. Mementos from her homeland are strewn around the room: There are jars of pickled pig’s feet and pralines on the counter, beads from a dozen Krewes hanging off the walls, and tidbits of Louisiana history slipped under the glass tops of every table.

Jesso Smith, meanwhile, cooks the dishes he learned from his mother, who grew up in Monroe, Louisiana. After five years at his space on Telegraph Avenue, he decided to move downtown. Three months ago, he unveiled a cleaner and much bigger space on the corner of 9th and Washington streets. It has a full liquor license, enough televisions to draw the sports-bar crowd and, as the Web site proclaims, the “Same Food, Same Service, Same Staff!”

La. Bayou and Jesso’s could make a top-notch gumbo — if you mixed the two restaurants’ versions together. Granted, gumbo is more of a species of stew than a definitive recipe. Everyone’s got their favorite recipe, usually based on their mother’s or grandmother’s. However, something was missing from both. La. Bayou’s gumbo was all meatiness, with big chunks of moist chicken and slices of fired-up andouille. The roux, that long-fried mix of butter and flour that starts every honest Cajun’s stews, was as dark as they get. But the gumbo had no spark, no shellfish sweetness to lighten it up. By contrast, Jesso’s got all the top notes right — cloves and crab and the slightly piney fragrance of the gumbo filé (ground, dried sassafras leaves, a thickener passed down from the Choctaws to the Creoles). The spices completely perfumed the meat I sucked out of the crab legs. But the broth was thin and had no depth. It was also missing meatier ingredients — such as chicken and andouille. My visiting Creole food expert, Dina, also said the cooks didn’t use enough roux. A final complaint to both restaurants: Where was the okra?

Dina, who had just returned from spending Mardi Gras with her extended family, did approve of Jesso’s oyster po’ boy. The bread wasn’t quite right — a roll, not a soft baguette — and the tartar sauce was positively heretical, but after a thorough dousing with hot sauce the combination of crisp oysters, with their mousselike centers, and cool, crunchy lettuce, won her over. I thought it had better balance than La. Bayou’s shrimp po’ boy, where overfried shrimp peeked tentatively out from a forest of shaved iceberg lettuce, with nothing to moisten the bread.

La. Bayou’s beans and rice had good depth of flavor, and while I couldn’t ferret out any chunks of ham hock or sausage from the bowl, I could taste the pork. (I couldn’t say the same of the bland, canned mix I got at Jesso’s.) And the fragrant sauté of onions, celery, and bell peppers that started off the jambalaya perfumed the most authentically flavored version I’ve tasted up north. But my friends and I ordered enough food to cover the table with plastic baskets, and little of it set me yearning for a trip back to the Big Easy. The clam chowder tasted like the cooks had dumped some Tony Chacherre’s Seasoning into some Campbell’s, the boiled crawfish coated in spices looked right but didn’t taste so fresh, and the cornmeal batter was so thickly applied to chunks of okra that it fried up crisp but utterly tasteless.

La. Bayou’s fried catfish, though, had been dredged in the same batter and came out right — moist inside, with just a little of that musty river-bottom flavor, but not enough to make us feel like we’d dredged the water with our teeth. Jesso’s also scored a real hit with its catfish. Actually, once we gave up on authentic Creole food and focused on the deep-fryer we found everything thoroughly correct, as the French would say. The firmer, milder snapper. The fried oysters. The french fries, cut from fresh potatoes and tossed with spicy Cajun seasoning. The okra, so thinly coated that every nugget shattered in the mouth, releasing bursts of the gooey insides. Conceding to local tastes, Jesso’s also allows you to get just about anything on the menu grilled, from smoked catfish to fresh vegetables. Please. Show some respect for tradition.

The other problem we faced at Jesso’s was that we shouldn’t have started picking at the hush puppies before the food came. But we were hungry and our waitress brought out a basket just as we sat down. We then got a refill. By the time the food arrived, I felt like a foie gras duck fattened on cornmeal.

I e-mailed a friend who had lived in New Orleans about my woes. Where did she go when she was jonesing for gumbo? “I only eat New Orleans food in New Orleans,” came her terse reply. Until someone finally proves me wrong, I’m going to have to agree with her. But all is not lost. There are a couple Fry Daddys out there I still have my eye on.


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