The cuisine in and around New Orleans has a Maritime connection; it was in the bayous of Southern Louisiana that many exiled Acadians resettled. “Acadian” became “Cajun,” and Cajun cooking is the rustic, country cooking found in those parts. “Creole” is a mix of French, Spanish and African cuisines; considered to be more refined, it’s the city cousin of Cajun. I love Cajun-Creole cuisine, and I step into The French Quarter, in the former home of the Velvet Olive, with anticipation and high expectations. Chef Sam Jaggi of Taj Mahal/Thai Chin is set to bring Louisianan cuisine to Metro.
Inside, though, there’s nothing to get across the New Orleans theme other than strings of Mardi Gras beads hanging from overhead pipes. It’s a cavernous room, dark, low-ceilinged and a tad oppressive; we’re seated in a window seat, right below a speaker piping out very loud music.
As it’s very early in the evening and we’re the only table in the restaurant, our server tells us that it will be no problem to have the music turned down, but it turns out to be a major problem. She asks at the bar to have the volume reduced and it is—for about five minutes. Over the course of the evening, she repeatedly requests, on our behalf, that the blaring blend of James Taylor and hip-hop (odd choices—where’s the jazz?) be turned down, and each time, someone cranks the volume back up. At one point, the guy behind the bar smirks at us as he turns up the music once again.
Even without the music, there are several food missteps that necessitate a return visit, in order to to give the restaurant a fair chance. Over several visits, we sample a variety of items. Interestingly, there is a section of the menu dedicated to “world cuisine,” including a large selection of Indian and Thai foods. I don’t agree with this; if you go with a particular cuisine, don’t go half-way—commit!
For starters, we try chicken gumbo ($5.95), a large bowl of the rice and vegetable Creole classic. It’s so salty as to be inedible, and the server, unasked, brings us another bowl after she realizes that we find it salty. The second bowl is less salty, but more watery, which is worse than her bringing nothing at all; it’s evident it’s the original soup with water added. We are brought a portion of house wings to compensate for the soup, a nice gesture, and they are quite good. Fire oysters ($10.95) are spicy, breaded oysters with a dipping sauce and quite delicious, a great alternative to raw oysters. The crab cakes ($10.95) are barely passable, with little crab flavour. Coconut shrimp ($11.95), jumbo shrimp coated in coconut, are completely forgettable. The blackened halibut ($21.95), on the first visit, is bad—literally. The taste of spoiled fish forces the first bite into my napkin and the rest is left uneaten. To add insult to injury, it’s not blackened. “Blackening” refers to cooking something that has been dredged in blackening spice over high heat, charring the crust and leaving a tender, juicy inside. This fish has been sprinkled with something and cooked to death. I do love blackened halibut and try it again on my second visit. It’s cooked far better, but the blackening seasoning is lacking. The bourbon ribs ($16.95), though fatty, are tender and tasty.
I come away disappointed—this concept deserves better. Sam Jaggi makes great Indian food and very good Thai food, but he’s lost in The French Quarter.
The French Quarter1770 Market Street 425-2988 Sun 5pm-10pm Mon-Thurs 11:30am-10pm Fri 11:30am-1am Sat 5pm-1am
All of Liz Feltham’s hot and spicy reviews can be found on the web: www.foodcritic.ca