Justin Simoneaux, chef of the 2-month-old Boxing Room in Hayes Valley, which serves Louisiana food for California diners, has a doubly vexing challenge before him. Expat Louisianans are far from lax critics, and the chef has to prove that he can stir up a proper dark roux for his gumbo and get right with his greens. And for those of us diners born after 1980, he has a different task: Can he revive our interest in upscaled Louisiana cuisine? Because we've been here before.
Outside Louisiana, Cajun and Creole cuisines went through a bubble and crash a couple of decades ago. In the 1980s, Paul Prudhomme, inventor of the blackened redfish, helped bring Louisiana food into fashion, and from San Francisco to Chicago to Boston, every known species of sea-dwelling animal was being blackened or étoufféed, and andouille sausage showed up to dinner in the worst sort of company. By the time Cajun shrimp made it onto the Red Lobster menu in the 1990s, America's most distinctive regional cuisine seemed to have wilted into a few peppery clichés.
But the twentysomething Simoneaux, a Coco500 veteran and the former Moss Room chef, is too young to have witnessed what Cajun food had become outside his home state. He comes at the subject fresh. Though Boxing Room's food doesn't always make that leap from good to Jesus-that's-good, Simoneaux cooks without cliché. No blackened redfish! No Cajun spice-dusted fries! He sticks to the palate he grew up with, but plays down the butter and cream, plays up the vegetables, and references butcher-chic with boudin, head cheese, and “boucherie” (butcher's plate) of the day. Better yet, he respects the quality that makes Cajun and Creole food so good: time.
It takes time, and not a little attention, to make Boxing Room's chicken and andouille gumbo ($9 small, $15 large) — to stir flour and fat over a low heat until the roux turns the color of a single-estate Guatemalan from Four Barrel and hints at smokiness without tasting bitter or burned. It takes time to simmer that roux with aromatics and spices, make your own spicy sausage, and simmer chicken and okra until they're tender.
It also takes time to layer flavors into rice dishes like his fantastic dirty rice ($6 as a side, and don't skip it) and duck and sausage jambalaya: sweating onions, green peppers, and celery until they're caramelized and rich. Adding in bay leaves, cumin, or thyme until the vegetables and herbs alloy and the black and red peppers spark and flash over top. The flavors come at you all at once, spiky and deep, shifting so quickly it's hard to tire of them.
They do the same even in a more California-centric dish like his summer vegetable salad ($11) tossed in a vinaigrette chunky with olives and pimientos. The vinaigrette turns sweet baby vegetables, fresh pinto beans, and celery leaves into something simultaneously robust and frail, like dressing a willowy 23-year-old in hunting plaids and work boots. As a walk down Valencia proves, it works.
So does the renovation. Boxing Room's owner — Bill Russell-Shapiro of Absinthe and Arlequin on the other side of the block — has stripped the old Citizen Cake space of any taint of the Dot-Com Loft era that birthed Elizabeth Falkner's old restaurant. Now the space evokes a barn, with walls covered in wood planking and round wood tables spotting the center of the broad, open room. A sinuous bar curves first around a bartender, then juts far into the room and finally curls around an oyster-shucking station. The soundtrack of blues, brass bands, and zydeco absorbs the crowd buzz.
The waiters, matching the tone of the room, are enthusiastic in their suggestions — the Lioco Chardonnay from the barrel or a pint of Abita amber from the 18-tap list: Yes! The boudin balls and jambalaya: Oh, man, yes! Their busers, in fact, could stand to be a little less enthusiastic. The frequency with which they check for empty plates crosses the line into stalking behavior.
Both of my meals started off fantastic and drifted downward toward dessert. So, working backward, a custardy bananas foster cake ($7) and an ice cream sundae ($7) with blondie squares and candied pecans tasted flat, each left unfinished. The beignets with espresso crème anglaise ($7) evaporated into a cloud of powdered sugar, though not quite as readily as the ones at New Orleans' Cafe du Monde.
A listless tomato sauce couldn't animate the vegetarian entrée ($17), mirliton (chayote to most of us Californians) stuffed with enough cheese to taste like a squash popper and paired with an equally dull stuffed eggplant. The lemon zest-scented coating on Boxing Room's fried chicken ($18) was more of a hard-crack shell than a crisp alloy of flour and skin, though the meat underneath had all the glisten and juice I'd hoped for. And one night's boucherie special, a spiral-shaped disk of porchetta rolled around muffuletta stuffing, tasted more like a lightly seasoned pork chop than fat-basted, slow-roasted meat. But it came with that fantastic dirty rice, an electric zucchini relish that shocked everything it touched, and greens that were at least one-third smoked pork, and all for the good.
That brings us back to the beginning, to an arugula and celery-leaf salad surrounded by cornmeal-dusted fried oysters ($11), the shock of the bitter greens mollified by each rich, custardy bivalve. To hush puppies ($5), their centers barely more solid than sponge cake and sweetened with fresh kernels. And finally, to the boudin balls ($5), the fried chunks of ground pork and rice loose but not mushy and seasoned so densely with aromatics and herbs that the flavor had all the force of Thai green curry or Oaxacan mole negro. That first bite, swabbed through a Creole mustard sauce, put a hundred culinary clichés to rest. At last.