Bay Bayou

I remember a similar gumbo in Lafayette (the Lafayette across the water from Baton Rouge, not the one across the bay), but Belle Roux's also had a buttery-mouth feel and mysterious complexity of flavor. The next day, I phoned executive chef David Mahler, who's originally from the Lafayette across the bay. Before opening Belle Roux, he headed the kitchen at the Elite Cafe (on Fillmore) for nearly four years, the sole surviving exemplar of the Creole food explosion that hit the Bay Area in the late '70s. Mahler revealed that his multilayered, long-cooked gumbo recipe begins with cooking okra until it melts entirely into the broth, which includes both chicken and seafood-shell stocks.

We also tried a sampler plate ($6.50) of delightful house-smoked sausages -- a lean but juicy chicken-garlic and a smooth Creole pork -- served with scallion-garnished Zaterain's mustard and a huge hunk of brash, coarse-textured cornbread with red pepper dice and fresh corn baked in. Mahler also treats the house pork chops and ribs to a cool, quick smoking in the restaurant's oven, and makes his own tasso in the winter. (In summer he uses Hobbs'.) "My first job was working for Mark Miller at Fourth Street Grill," he disclosed. "He taught me the basics of making sausages."

The side dishes ($3.50 each) offer a chance to sample "small" (ha!) portions of some entrees. The red beans and rice were sooo down-home, with some beans whole and some mashed, and lots of sausage and tasso bits. (As a full-price entree, you get a whole Creole sausage, too.) The jambalaya proved a classic "Cajun paella" with sausage and shrimp, its texture well-knit (not tomatoey wet) and its seasoning low-salt but delivering a slow-burning final kick. It'd be easy to construct a gorgeous, bargain-priced meal just of starters and sides.

All the main courses were tempting; we settled for griddled catfish with crawfish cream sauce ($13.50) and house-smoked "St. Louis style" pork ribs ($13.50/$18.50). (We overlooked Mahler's own favorite entree, a 14-ounce house-smoked pork chop with sweet potato gratin.) The fish dish was a catty take on "redfish Caroline," garnished with ample-shelled crawfish tails in a light cream sauce. "This cat tastes like wild rather than farm-raised," I observed. TJ agreed it had a faint muddy undertone, which some people like and some don't. "Maybe the chef deliberately sought it out at the Muddy Waters Fish Farm," I suggested.

Alongside was a large edifice of moist, grainy cheddar-chile spoon bread (also available as a side). Our half-size slab of ribs hung over the edge of our plates. Unfortunately, Mahler was off that night, and the meat was slightly overblackened on the griddle, obscuring the rich chilpotle-based barbecue-sauce glaze -- which still left a nice afterglow. Alongside was a heap of "maquechoux," a delicious, elitist version of a dish Cajuns developed to cope with starchy field corn. Belle Roux's sweet corn kernels were only lightly adorned with minced tasso, scallion, and peppers of several colors and heat levels. After all this, we couldn't even think of dessert.

Don't expect the formal, formulaically flawless food of, say, Commander's Palace. Belle Roux is more like some good little cafe in the Faubourg or Uptown -- the parts of New Orleans where locals eat casually and well, and any tourists who show up have local friends. Here at the Wharf, this one really isn't just for tourists.

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