Step right up folks, step right up for the ride of your life through the Tunnel of Din! PJ's Oysterbed is more than a restaurant, although it's a very good restaurant. It's also an expensive little fish market, and it's a scene -- not a striving, see-me downtown scene, but a cozy ongoing neighborhood party.
PJ's started out as a so-so fish house, but by now it's fairly won the right to call itself "Bayou by the Bay" -- although, to nitpick, more dishes are Creole (sophisticated French-Spanish-African New Orleans cuisine) than Cajun (French-black-Choctaw country cooking). Some years ago, Michael Reese (a San Franciscan in love with Louisiana food) took over the kitchen for a couple of weeks for a special "crawfish festival." The festival became an annual event; then the Louisiana menu spread to weeknights year-round (because Reese didn't want to work weekends). Now that it's full time, Reese is listed as "guest chef," but executive chef Pachi Calvo y Perez offers fare of both the Left Coast (e.g., soy-glazed ahi) and the Gulf Coast ("Creole tapas," et al.). And the joint jumps day and night.
Peering in from outside, the left window reveals dead fish on ice; the right window frames live people (all ages, genders, local races -- I didn't spot any Ainu or Maori) comfortably crammed in, chatting and chewing. The menu in the door-alcove is only loosely related to the actual bill of fare, which changes each week with the catch. You enter through a sort of tunnel, passing iced oyster beds and then a bar to your left, both fronting a long open kitchen with steel-plated walls, leaping flames, and five (we counted) hot and cold running chefs. The farther you go, the louder the noise, until finally you reach the reception desk, where the right-hand wall ends, opening to the dining room, and the converging sounds of at least five speakers. That cold Monday night, the speakers were playing '70s disco. (TJ figured that half the patrons used to dance to it, and the other half hopped to it in their cribs.) Reserving a few hours ahead, we'd gotten the last open table (at 8:30 p.m.) and were seated after a 15-minute wait in a cozy, crowded room with dark, hardwood floors like an old-time saloon, and various Louisiana artifacts (including a giant pair of wooden comedy-tragedy masks, signifying Mardi Gras) on the wall. Resonating hard surfaces, loud music, waitstaff yelling to each other from bar to dining room, patrons trying to make themselves heard -- that's why it's the tunnel of din. But the waiters are gracious, well-trained, plentiful -- we counted 10 to serve about 30 customers.
The list of "original" cocktails was tempting after a long work day. Against my better judgment I tried a vodka-chambord elixir called "Cotton Candy," but two sips of the kiddie-sweet stuff confirmed my suspicion that the creations cater to novice imbibers. ("Have that destroyed," I said, and the waiter didn't charge us for it.) The good news is that most wines are available by the glass. The bad news is that the (too few) good wines aren't, and markups run 300 percent. (My $6 glass of bumptious chardonnay, $24 per bottle, is $8 a fifth at the supermarket.) The brews are weighty in ales (including Louisiana's Dixie Voodoo), scanty on beers. Why no regular Dixie so we can all get Dixie-fried?
Each Monday night, PJ's offers two half-priced specials on oysters. We started with a half-dozen Washington Squamish (normally $9), tiny but sweet, although weary oyster-opening hands left a little gritty shell in half of them. One of the dips was mainly vinegar and onion; TJ liked it, I found it overstrong. The other was a well-balanced blend of classic New Orleans do-it-yourself fixin's: ketchup, horseradish, lemon, and Tabasco. Although you get lemon wedges on the side and two hot sauces and Creole mustard on the table, I had nothing to add. Of "Shut My Mouth BBQ'd Oysters" (usually $4 for two bivalves), TJ said, "Good oysters, but the sauce is pretty tomatoey." "Actually, this tastes pretty Cajun," I observed. "My friend Marc Savoy, who's an accordion-maker in Eunice and a great cook, makes sauce a lot like this, only he puts in fresh lemon slices and more onions." We also tried Oysters Rockefeller (two at $4.50). "What's this crud on top?" we said almost in unison. "It's called 'Rockefeller' because it's green as in money -- not white as in mozzarella!" I ranted. "Butter, lots -- cheese, no!" Underneath, though, were juicy oysters and a yummy spinach and Pernod mixture, near as good as Galatoire's and better than Antoine's (both claim credit for inventing the dish).
An entremets of "Gumbo Drocco" ($7, named for owner John Drocco) was an enormous portion that the staff split for us into two soup bowls. "Guest chef" Reese must have tasted some homemade African-American fried chicken gumbo, divine but rare in restaurants. Since PJ's makes seafood gumbo (and no purist ever puts chicken in seafood gumbo or vice versa), instead of fried chicken they add terrific little fried okra fritters, adding that smoky hot-oil note, along with the regular okra (crisp, not slimy) and just a touch of file (a Choctaw mixture of sassafras and thyme). There's just the right amount of rice, too, and like the oysters, the spiciness is dead-on -- piquant but not painful.
One of our favorite ways to eat at PJ's without killing ourselves is to order just "Cajun Tapas." Doing this a couple of months ago, we decided "Kilbert's Alligator Egg" ($3) is really a killer (this kind of food drives a man insane!): a tender pasta pocket lusciously stuffed with sweet crawfish, crab, and melty goat cheese in a perky andouille cream sauce. The popcorn shrimp and okra ($7.50) had normal popcorn shrimp (not bad but who cares anymore?) and the same okra fritters as the gumbo, minus the great gumbo context. The Caesar salad ($6.95) was normal-good, the clam chowder ($4.50) was creamy-excellent. The "Double Trouble Alligator" ($8.50) had a nice spice and mustard coating but the subtle white meat was tough that night. As our current dinner's entrees demonstrated, sometimes the harried line chefs blow the timing -- or maybe that particular 'gator was a tough guy.
Between courses we looked up to notice four servers dancing in front of the reception desk to "Stayin' Alive." At a nearby table, amid normal-looking colleagues, a mid-40s Elvira type (dead-black hair, mascara, clothing, and aura; dead-white pancake makeup) was tensely cutting up mussels with knife and fork. The first-date couple on the other side, brainy but ill-matched, were smiling and chatting but giving up hope on each other. Ex-rancher TJ's cowboy hat sat atop his parka on the back of an extra chair, and a good-looking woman patted it as she passed. "Whoops," she said, "I thought it was a person." "That's my son," I said.
We had the same entree as the vampire lady, a dish called "Pachi's Shellfish Roast" ($22), with shrimp, mussels, tiny manila clams, calamari (tentacles and scissors-cut rings), and fish cubes flash-roasted in a hot cast iron skillet, with butter, garlic, scallion greens, Italian parsley, and a Cajun seasoning mix similar to Paul Prudhomme's. I've never had this dish in Louisiana; I'd guess it was inspired by the sizzling mussels served at Lulu, probably inspired in turn by Chinese "iron platter" dishes. The skillet was perched on a little dais, and everything was tender and tasty, piquant and lightly smoky from the superheated skillet. It came with some just-OK rice, and a simple but ravishing zucchini and yellow squash melange. The lady who patted TJ's hat was leaving with her friend, and both exulted to see our shellfish roast. "We ate every little speck of it," the hat-patter said. "We'd gladly come from Texas just to eat it again," drawled her friend. But our other entree, "Lobster and Shrimp Saccotino" ($16.95) wouldn't inspire any trips. Topped with a broiled-dry giant prawn, its pasta pouches were supposed to be stuffed with lobster and shrimp; the actual stuffing was a flavorless mousse dominated by bland pink salmon, in a tomato sauce as lifeless as the vampire lady's complexion.
The humongous desserts (made in-house) nearly finished us -- we certainly couldn't finish them. "Devastating Swamp Pie" ($5.75) was devastating only in size: Atop a nice, thin Oreo crust was a huge wedge of ice cream topped with hot fudge, unsweetened whipped cream, and sliced strawberries of suspicious homogeneity (that is, probably frozen). The coffee ice cream tasted like Folgers instant and the vanilla was metaphorical "vanilla." The classic, weighty New Orleans bread pudding ($5.75), though, had a just-crusty bottom and yet no burned bits (a difficult feat). Moistened with apples in the bread mixture and with an apple-caramel sauce, it would do honor to Commander's Palace. It, too, was immense, and bedecked by superfluous whipped cream and strawberries. We took most of it home, and there's still plenty left, if you'd like a bite.