Before I even say a peep about the food or the drinks or the decor at Alba Ray’s, let me say this: It’s one of two Cajun-Creole restaurants to have opened in the Mission in 2017, and it’s got check presenters in the shape of voodoo dolls. Like stranded aliens from the Planet of Misfit Toys, they’re goofier and more asymmetrical than they are malevolent. But if I were working at Bayou Creole Kitchen — the neighborhood’s other new New Orleanian restaurant — I’d be vigilant about any sudden abdominal pains, just sayin’.
Mardi Gras is two weeks behind us, which means we’re in the thick of Lent, traditionally a season of abstinence, temperance, and a wholesale rejection of everything that makes life worth living. But there are still gold, green, and purple strands of beads at Alba Ray’s host stand, which I take as a dispensation from the ordinary rules. This is good, because when you come here, you’re going to want to eat and drink a lot.
Kick it off with any one of the well-known NOLA classics like a chicken-and-andouille gumbo that carries a beautiful, slow-burning heat ($9.75) or maybe a blue crab salad ($17.75). Or get a tad more adventurous and jump into rabbit sausage over grits ($13.75). They’re as buttery and fluffy as outstanding mashed potatoes, in spite of the fundamental differences in texture. Crispy boudin balls with pickled okra and Creole mustard aioli ($8) were even better, like deep-fried liver with a pickle.
With a few shakes of Cristal, the smoked eggplant and carrot jambalaya ($15.50 per person) is good enough to make even a meat lover feel good about refraining from the chicken-and-pork version of the same dish ($17 per person). The toasted rice keeps things from edging toward a stew, and while you can pick out each component of the holy trinity — onions, bell peppers, and celery — the crispy onions are the dominant flavor, with judiciously cooked carrots a close second. However, I did get the other jambalaya on a subsequent visit and to my surprise, I liked the veg version better on grounds of texture and creativity. (Alba Ray’s is from the team behind Causwell’s and Popson’s, and I really like Popson’s veggie burger, so go figure.)
Stepping back from the food for a moment, there’s a nice balance of classicism and whimsy at work in the overall atmosphere. The plates are plain-white china, the better to let the food shine (albeit in dim lighting). But the wall-mounted plants have a proto-jungle look, as if they’ll one day be as luxuriant as Katharine Hepburn’s garden in Suddenly, Last Summer. For the time being, there are two wrought-iron doorframes hung with potted ferns that do good work as room separators.
It sounds serious, but there’s a Hurricane machine behind the bar that looks like an evil weather-manipulation device or something you might get to play with at the Exploratorium. If you’re less into drinks that come in glassware shaped like kerosene lamps and more into haute boozing, there’s also a French 75 that nailed the sweet-tart balance. (The Champagne that goes into it is not Cristal, but the proximity with Cristal the hot sauce makes a nice visual pun, anyway.)
Based on the French 75, I thought the bar had a heavy hand with the absinthe, and then I drank a Sazerac that, grandpappy-style, looked like little more than a hefty pour of bourbon with a strong absinthe nose. I like absinthe a lot, but I drew the line at the seafood linguini ($23.50). Drowning oysters and shrimp in an absinthe cream sauce is gimmicky and, more importantly, it was impossible to pair wine with it well. That’s a shame, because Alba Ray’s wines by the glass are quite excellent. I was especially excited by a Tempranillo and the rabbit sausage, but also with an entree portion of stewed black-eyed peas ($16.50), another surprise vegetarian winner.
Its fried green tomatoes were all right, but the lightly caramelized leeks were a wonder. If you’re of the opinion that black-eyed peas belong on the side, there’s a differently prepared bowl of them for $7.25. Don’t forget the mirliton slaw, though, which is surely one of the obscurer Creole specialties. (A mirliton is the same thing as a chayote squash.) Fresh, mild, and light on vinegar, it’s essentially a distillation of early spring — and at $5.75 for a bowl, it’s a must because it cuts through all the fat without even having to put its shoulders to the wheel. And as fat goes, I’ve seldom had a richer piece of poultry than the chicken confit ($24.75), which was accompanied by a dirty rice and cane-syrup gastrique that tasted of cinnamon and wintry spices, like a variation on stuffing. For dessert, don’t mess around: Beignets with powdered sugar and a dipping chocolate ($6.75) are the way to proceed.
One thing about New Orleans that might feel alien to San Franciscans is how formal the city is, and how much locals like getting dressed up despite the at-times crushing humidity. You can wear jeans to Benu, but if you want to eat at Broussard’s, you’d better have slacks and a collared shirt on. That wouldn’t fly here, of course — can you imagine guys in hoodies being asked to put on a tie in order to eat? — but Alba Ray’s does a good job of importing the vibe of an upscale restaurant in the Faubourg Marigny without every last trapping. From Brenda’s Soul Food to The Elite Cafe to The Front Porch to Swamp, it’s not as if San Francisco wants for Cajun cuisine, but nothing about Alba Ray’s feels redundant. I’m really excited for whenever they roll out brunch, too. Maybe I swiped a stuffed-felt voodoo doll to hasten that day by any means necessary, and maybe I didn’t.
Alba Ray’s, 2293 Mission St., 415-872-9409 or albarays.com