Belle Roux Louisiana Kitchen
The Cannery, 2801 Leavenworth (at Beach), 771-5225. Open daily for lunch from noon to 4 p.m. Open daily for dinner from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 11 p.m. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Parking at the Anchorage Shopping Center, at Beach and Jones. Muni via the 19 Polk, 30 Stockton, and 42 Downtown Loop.
Hot weather always fills me with a yen to waft off to some seriously steamy destination to sip silly cocktails and nibble exotic morsels on a distant breezy waterfront. Luckily, two New Orleans-style restaurants have recently opened in that vacation paradise known as the Wharf, fulfilling all my requirements save jet lag. Now, this tale of two eateries turns out to have a good guy and a bad guy, not to mention a good buy and a bad bayou. I'll start with the bad to highlight what defines good, but if you just want to know where to eat, fast forward at will.
Lou's Pier 47 is an airy ground floor cafe with live music piped in from the club upstairs. It was recently acquired by the Fly Trap/Firewood owners. "Not just for tourists anymore," their ads proclaim, in evident hope that the new bayou menu will attract city residents with a cuisine that's locally popular and yet somewhat underrepresented. Actually, old Wharfish standards (clam chowder, Caesar, fried fish, cioppino, etc.) still prevail, with just three appetizers and four entrees claiming Louisiana ancestry. Also emphatically Wharfish was our server's "Hello, sucker!" attitude. As the menu notes in fine print, an automatic 16 percent tip is added to any bill over $50. Unobservant tourists probably leave another full tip on the table. Our waiter, hustling to stash more cash, pushed us to order fast and delivered entrees when we'd barely started on appetizers.
Faced with a bleak choice of wines by the glass, I had a margarita of routine flavor. Our half-dozen oysters ($8.25) were big, tough Tomales Bay types, accompanied by a wimpy, horseradish-deprived cocktail sauce. Each table had a caddy of four hot sauces; ours held only Costa Rican quadruplets, so (bereft of Tabasco) we borrowed a hotter Jamaican number from the next table. A shrimp remoulade ($7.75) had tender shrimps on wilted lettuce wisps, covered by a red, gritty, scallion-lacking mustard-minus parsley-poor travesty of Creole remoulade. Crawfish boil ($9.75) was a soup bowl of big, juicy Sacramento crawfish. Alas, the zesty N'awlins slogan "Suck the heads!" didn't apply -- the timid cooking liquid lent little piquancy to any part of the mudbugs.
The waiter didn't mention the specials so we missed out on crawfish etouffee. Instead, we had "gumbo yaya" ($18.75), jambalaya ($16.25), and a side order of hush puppies ($2.75). The latter were a tough test -- Cajun prairie pups (like those à la zydeco accordionist/cookbook author "Queen" Ida Guillory in her Cooking With Queen Ida) are light, moist, and spicy. Lou's were dry little golf balls hinting of a packaged mix. And Lou's high-priced gumbo? She was blond! Now, gumbo has many variants -- "red roux" or "peanut butter roux," okra or file (ground sassafras). Blond isn't one of them. The creamy, golden, blandly pleasant liquid, served over way too much rice, held tender mussels, shrimp, and fish, and half a dried-out, thoroughly dead Dungeness (boding ill for the house cioppino). But if the gumbo had no file, we sniffed a misplaced waft of it in the jambalaya -- a bowl of dull red rice topped with ordinary, sliced mild sausage (which the menu glorified with the title of "andouille") plus some chicken, seafood, and ham bits. All in all, I'd venture that not one of these "Louisiana" items would even be recognized by any self-respecting Cajun, Creole, or even Yat.
The next night, at Belle Roux, my belle reve of riverfront NOLA dining came closer to reality. The restaurant has an attractive brick-lined dining room adjacent to Cobb's Comedy Club -- reserve at the restaurant, and good seats at the club are yours if you want them. But what we wanted, on that rare near-warm night, was the bliss of eating at an outdoor table (with optional heat lamps) on the Cannery's peaceful patio. The servers seemed delighted with our choice (it probably marked us as locals) and kept a discreet eye out to ensure that we wanted for nothing. Vintage R&B was playing at the bar, delicious little pepper-cheese soft rolls were on the table, and I was blown away by a Hurricane, the Gulf Coast's delirium on the theme of rum punch. (The wine list was short but smart, but you can't get a Hurricane every day.) The menu put me in Crescent City hog heaven. A long, tempting starter list, mostly Cajun/Creole, even included gumbo z'herbes, the green gumbo rarely found outside the homeland. "Whew!" I breathed. "The chef knows this cuisine."
"Bayou barkers" ($5.50) turned out to be hush puppies to pacify even a pampered poodle. Stuffed with crawfish, tasso (spiced ham), and minced hot pepper, the buoyant little fritters were aptly accompanied by a smooth, mustardy coral remoulade dip. A chocolate-hued crab-and-crawfish gumbo ($4.50/$8.50) was distinguished by a beautiful "red roux" -- the great sauce-thickener and first principle of Louisiana cuisine, it's made of flour and oil patiently sauteed to a dark mahogany. The bowl included shelled seafood, bits of chicken, and mild tasso, with just enough rice for balance and just enough spice for kicks.
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.