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Last fall, eager to clear my brain and spirit after a visit to anxious New York, I boarded Amtrak's southbound Crescent City and headed for New Orleans. It was Halloween when I arrived, and the juju was rampant. Swarms of people in every sort of getup roamed the streets, Hurricanes in hand. Blues, jazz, and zydeco poured out of the saloons, dance halls, and alleyways. The mighty Mississippi churned against the Riverwalk; the autumn air was thick and sultry. And at Galatoire's, Bayona, the Acme, and other temples to Cajun-Creole cookery, I reacquainted myself with America's outstanding contribution to the culinary arts, in which France, Spain, Africa, the Caribbean, and the encompassing bayous mingle and ferment in the same fecund atmosphere that produced our other great art form, jazz. The rich, earthy flavors of this multifaceted cuisine can be astonishing and memorable: There's nothing like turtle soup, pompano en papillote, an icy Sazerac, and sugary beignets hot from the fryer to soothe the soul and make the trip home all the more difficult.
Sweet potato catfish$14
Chocolate bread pudding$7
Renwood 2000 Viognier$6.50/glass
Open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., for brunch Saturday and Sunday (beginning March 30) from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and for dinner nightly from 5:30 to 10 p.m.
Muni: 24, 48
Noise level: rollicking
Over the years my search for a good Cajun-Creole restaurant in the Bay Area has been extensive and largely fruitless. (The difference between Cajun and Creole cooking is the difference between cocktails and moonshine: They share the same basic ingredients, and the difference is in the interpretation.) While it's impossible to transport New Orleans' soft, sweet oxygen and incomparably relaxed attitude to our foggy little microclimate, its gastronomy is equally elusive. There've been attempts hereabouts to tart up the real thing with canola oil, soy milk, and other West Coast niceties, but in most instances "California-Creole" is just a catch phrase for "New Orleans without the fun." Alcatraces, a 2-month-old Louisiana restaurant in Noe Valley, reverses the process by taking Creole food and adding rather than subtracting. Chef Glenn "Gator" Thompson, a Prudhomme-size Storyville veteran bursting with bonhomie and lagniappe, knows that there's more to New Orleans cookery than red beans and Tabasco sauce. His creations honor the exuberance and subtlety of Louisiana cooking while adding a light, imaginative touch appropriate to Bay Area sensibilities.
An example of his handiwork is the Grand Isle crawfish bisque, named for the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast island where wealthy Creole planters once held court and wild orchids grew in profusion. The crawfish that makes its home there and throughout Louisiana stars in several regional dishes, most memorably the bisque, which when properly prepared evokes the mudbug's earthy milieu. Alcatraces' rendition is as thick, soulful, spicy, and intense as any bowl I've had in New Orleans, but there's a lightness to it that inspires the appetite. Another starter, Alligator Under the Bush, features a different bayou denizen in sausage form. My previous encounters with alligator sausage have been tough, dry, and too heavily spiced, but Gator's gator saucisse is tender yet lusty, with a lemony afterbite and a texture as light as the bisque's. (The "bush" is a topping of wild greens tossed with a zinfandel vinaigrette.) The Creole ratatouille is a far cry from the tomato-heavy vegetable stew found along the Mediterranean; this one is as crisp and clean as a summer salad, with roasted, marinated okra, eggplant, and zucchini served in a mold over spring greens with a light basil vinaigrette. The batter-fried buffalo frog legs are nondescript, like a helping of bland chicken wings, but the piquant jicama-carrot slaw that shares the platter makes it worthwhile. If you want a true New Orleans experience, order the barbecued shrimp -- tasty, plump critters (complete with antennae) that you shell yourself and dip in a bowl of peppery melted butter.
Crawfish returns in the form of étouffée, the glory of Cajun cooking. Literally translated, the name means "smothered," and in Thompson's version the meat of the crawfish is submerged in a hearty stew of rice, spice, and the holy trinity of onion, celery, and peppers. The result is an apparently simple yet deliciously complex combination of flavors and textures. Another Louisiana classic, gumbo, is the best I've had west of the Atchafalaya. Here the roux (the heart and soul of any good gumbo) is savory and smoky, and the stuff the kitchen adds to the pot -- robust andouille sausage, a handful of juicy shrimp, chunks of stewed chicken, a crab leg or two -- interacts with the onions, peppers, and spices to create a marvelous bowl. The jambalaya isn't as successful: a hillock of dry rice with some stringy shrimp and a few overcooked vegetables, not unlike chow mein with a dash of Tabasco. The Cypress Bayou Chicken is also dried out and unimpressive, at least on its own, but in combination with moist crawfish stuffing and tangy peppercorn-studded coleslaw it's not bad.
The best entree on the menu, though, is the sweet potato catfish. It's a dish of spectacular contrasts. First there's the bed of pungent, deep green spinach dripping with butter. Atop that is a succulent, steamy fillet of mildly salty catfish. Crowning the whole is a layer of puréed sweet potato that's crunchy at the edges. A surprisingly light, greaseless, hot-link gravy provides the rich finale to this memorable platter.
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