King Creole

One of our favorite ways to eat at PJ's without killing ourselves is to order just "Cajun Tapas." Doing this a couple of months ago, we decided "Kilbert's Alligator Egg" ($3) is really a killer (this kind of food drives a man insane!): a tender pasta pocket lusciously stuffed with sweet crawfish, crab, and melty goat cheese in a perky andouille cream sauce. The popcorn shrimp and okra ($7.50) had normal popcorn shrimp (not bad but who cares anymore?) and the same okra fritters as the gumbo, minus the great gumbo context. The Caesar salad ($6.95) was normal-good, the clam chowder ($4.50) was creamy-excellent. The "Double Trouble Alligator" ($8.50) had a nice spice and mustard coating but the subtle white meat was tough that night. As our current dinner's entrees demonstrated, sometimes the harried line chefs blow the timing -- or maybe that particular 'gator was a tough guy.

Between courses we looked up to notice four servers dancing in front of the reception desk to "Stayin' Alive." At a nearby table, amid normal-looking colleagues, a mid-40s Elvira type (dead-black hair, mascara, clothing, and aura; dead-white pancake makeup) was tensely cutting up mussels with knife and fork. The first-date couple on the other side, brainy but ill-matched, were smiling and chatting but giving up hope on each other. Ex-rancher TJ's cowboy hat sat atop his parka on the back of an extra chair, and a good-looking woman patted it as she passed. "Whoops," she said, "I thought it was a person." "That's my son," I said.

We had the same entree as the vampire lady, a dish called "Pachi's Shellfish Roast" ($22), with shrimp, mussels, tiny manila clams, calamari (tentacles and scissors-cut rings), and fish cubes flash-roasted in a hot cast iron skillet, with butter, garlic, scallion greens, Italian parsley, and a Cajun seasoning mix similar to Paul Prudhomme's. I've never had this dish in Louisiana; I'd guess it was inspired by the sizzling mussels served at Lulu, probably inspired in turn by Chinese "iron platter" dishes. The skillet was perched on a little dais, and everything was tender and tasty, piquant and lightly smoky from the superheated skillet. It came with some just-OK rice, and a simple but ravishing zucchini and yellow squash melange. The lady who patted TJ's hat was leaving with her friend, and both exulted to see our shellfish roast. "We ate every little speck of it," the hat-patter said. "We'd gladly come from Texas just to eat it again," drawled her friend. But our other entree, "Lobster and Shrimp Saccotino" ($16.95) wouldn't inspire any trips. Topped with a broiled-dry giant prawn, its pasta pouches were supposed to be stuffed with lobster and shrimp; the actual stuffing was a flavorless mousse dominated by bland pink salmon, in a tomato sauce as lifeless as the vampire lady's complexion.

The humongous desserts (made in-house) nearly finished us -- we certainly couldn't finish them. "Devastating Swamp Pie" ($5.75) was devastating only in size: Atop a nice, thin Oreo crust was a huge wedge of ice cream topped with hot fudge, unsweetened whipped cream, and sliced strawberries of suspicious homogeneity (that is, probably frozen). The coffee ice cream tasted like Folgers instant and the vanilla was metaphorical "vanilla." The classic, weighty New Orleans bread pudding ($5.75), though, had a just-crusty bottom and yet no burned bits (a difficult feat). Moistened with apples in the bread mixture and with an apple-caramel sauce, it would do honor to Commander's Palace. It, too, was immense, and bedecked by superfluous whipped cream and strawberries. We took most of it home, and there's still plenty left, if you'd like a bite.

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