I visited Lafayette restaurant, the newest child of the Bouchon family, last weekend, during their opening week. Chef Tref Hundertmark brings some of his experience in cooking in New Orleans to bear in the kitchen, and did a fairly good job on his work. However, I recommend this restaurant with some reservations about the dishes and with the hopes that he will take note of some of the items I found lacking.
As I mentioned in Soul Food, an Edible Identity, I grew up in coastal Texas near Louisiana. So near, in fact, that we frequently crossed the border to do fun things in the swamps, hit up nightclubs where the drinking age used to be lower, and gamble in the nearby casinos which are prohibited in Texas. Cajun food was made in people’s homes, not in many restaurants, because there are so many Cajuns who live there. I went to school with more Benoits, Boudreauxs, and Thibodeauxs than Smiths and Joneses. Crawfish boils are the go-to party themes, and gumbo is often served at winter holidays and as a good way to use up leftover turkey. Having been away from this food culture for several years, I have sought to fill that hole with something that reminds me of good times and better food.
One of the best litmus tests for Cajun chefs is the quality of their gumbo, so I was pretty excited to go and have a bowl of gumbo I didn’t have to stand over for three hours to make. So when I heard the restaurant had opened, I talked my husband into taking me. We both miss the food of Southeast Texas and Louisiana and were eager to relive a bit of our honeymoon, and several romantic trips in the intervening years, in New Orleans.
We arrived about a half an hour before opening on a Friday night. I expected to have to compete with opening-week downtown crowds, and the festival nearby was dumping patrons into Lexington Ave, but we got there early enough to have our choice of patio tables. The pathway to the patio was awkward, as we were guided behind the server’s station and into an area that felt too kitchen-like for comfort. I’d like to have seen all of that taking place behind the entrance to the patio.
The courtyard reminded me very much of the courtyard gardens and patio dining areas in the French Quarter. Since Bouchon’s plan is to connect all three restaurants (Bouchon, Bouchon Creperie, and Lafayette) along the back and make it one small version of the French Quarter where you can bring drinks from one locale to another, I judged it a very effective visual impression. In fact, had the weather been hotter and I didn’t notice the angle of the street itself, I could have easily convinced myself I was actually in New Orleans at one of their fabulous little local establishments. The only fly in the ointment was the music, which was a rolling, soothing jazz not at all consistent with the upbeat bluesy New Orleans style jazz or even the foot tappin’ accordian strains of Cajun zydeco. It wasn’t bad music, but it broke the illusion.
The shrimp remoulade appetizer we ordered was nicely done, with the pickled okra and green beans fetching some heat on our tongues and a sweet note I thought might have been anise in the pickling brine. The shrimp were not especially fresh, and a bit overcooked, but the remoulade was spicy and well rounded as both a dip for the shrimp and as a dressing for the base of greens. The tomatoes were obviously heirloom and bore the trademark deep flavors of sun-ripened globes.
After this point, everything I tasted needed salt. I don’t know what was going on in the kitchen, but there was not enough seasoning in any of our dishes. My husband agreed. I was fairly annoyed that I was not given the option of salt on my table if the chef was going to go light on salt for some reason, and when I requested it, what I was given did not look like the salt they’d planned for customers to use. It was clumpy, but it did the trick. After seasoning, the flavors naturally bloomed and were greatly improved. I recommend the chef spend a bit of time adjusting the saltiness to provide optimum flavor translation.
The boudain balls were my favorite part of this meal. The boudain itself was as I expected, with a little more herbs than I’ve seen used before, but with the addition of salt, a fairly tasty rendition of boudain blanc, which is basically dirty rice stuffed into sausage casing, or in this case, scooped into balls, rolled in panko bread crumbs, and deep fried. They were served with the same remoulade from the shrimp appetizer, which was a nice compliment. The order size was good for an appetizer, and the balls were served piping hot and crispy.
I feel the measure of any Cajun or Creole chef is his gumbo, so naturally I selected one I am intimately familiar with: Cajun gumbo, this version with duck and frog. Typical Cajun gumbo is based on the roux style, which is usually dark and rich, and either seafood or chicken and sausage, so I was a little thrown by the ingredients. However, Cajuns will put anything in their gumbo that frequents their swamps, so frog and duck is not that far-fetched. I do not enjoy fried frog legs, as I find the texture which is somewhat between chicken and fish, to be off putting, but the frog in this gumbo was well cooked and had a texture similar to chicken. The duck could have been chicken; it was tasty, but it was not distinguishable. There were small pieces of andouille sausage, a spicy addition to gumbo that adds depth and heat both, but I found myself wishing for more.
I was disappointed in the roux, however. Traditional Cajun roux is used as a thick base to which the chef adds chicken stock. Gumbo filé, or ground sassafrass, is in most circles, used only as a spice added by the patrons, often left on the table to be used like salt or pepper. It can be used to thicken the roux, but because of its heavy sage-like flavor, it is not often used to do so, unless the roux has been burned or thinned too much and there is no time to thicken it before serving. The filé flavor in this gumbo was pervasive, and I did not enjoy having to taste the flavors of gumbo around it. I’d give the gumbo 5 of 10 stars if it were in Louisiana; I’ll be charitable and add a star because of the newness of the restaurant and the relative apparent inexperience of the chef with Cajun cuisine. (Despite the fact that he assured me he’d cooked in New Orleans for about five years total, I’m fairly certain most of those chefs in finer restaurants would have tossed this rather than serve it.)
The rice, served both with my gumbo and my husband’s red beans and rice, was disappointing, too. I would hope that a restaurant with a meal ticket reaching a hundred bucks would not serve me parboiled instant minute rice, but that’s what this tasted like. Not only was it too smooth and loose in texture, lacking the starch and stickiness we all love, but it was abhorrently lacking seasoning. Every element of a meal should stand on its own, but this rice had no flavor and an unpleasant texture.
My husband ordered the red beans and rice, a rather pricy item for the cost of the ingredients, with a side of a smoked pork chop, which I thought was a bit odd, since red beans and rice are usually the side and the pork chop the main dish. The pork chop had a deep smoky flavor, but it was overcooked and dry. The red beans and rice were subpar. They had little flavor, and my husband found several small pork bones. Good thing my husband didn’t eat quickly; he could have easily broken a tooth. Where was the trinity, the bell peppers and the taste of cayenne pepper? No low, warm notes of garlic. The andouille sausage served atop it was the best thing the dish had going for it, and it would have been better served sliced up in the red beans and rice instead of in a whole link on top. The rice, as with the gumbo, was bland and poor quality. As terrible as it may be to compare Lafayette and its price tag to Popeye’s Fried Chicken, I have to say that Popeye’s has far superior red beans and rice and hope Lafayette reworks their recipe.
I was so happy to have any Cajun food at all here in North Carolina that I still found the meal to be very pleasing and continued that with an order of beignets and café au lait, though that didn’t go without a hitch, either. Anyone who’s been to the iconic Café du Monde in the French Quarter knows that beignets, or square-ish French doughnuts, come in their hot pillowy goodness, doused with powdered sugar and served with a steaming cup of espresso with milk, known everywhere as café au lait. This type of coffee drink isn’t a mystery to any of the coffee shops here, and I was surprised to have to explain it a few times to our server, who did seem pretty up to speed on the other items on the menu. Eventually, though, she did return with a hot cup of Community Coffee, a favorite in the Texas and Louisiana coast, and some plastic containers of creamer. Close enough, I guess. I really was hoping for that last authentic little bite: a yeasty, almost too hot to eat, airy beignet washed down with Café du Monde chicory laced café au lait, but the Community served us well, and the beignets, which were a little too heavy to pass as authentic (perhaps due to the elevation), were nonetheless light and second only to Hole doughnuts in their texture.
I will return to Lafayette in a few months, and hope to see that they have made some adjustments and worked out some of their bugs. As with any restaurant new to opening, I give them great latitude and expect that they will take the constructive criticism to heart. For that reason, I will still give them four of five stars and recommend them to someone looking for a good meal… but perhaps wait a bit longer before entrusting them with a really important date.
Note to the chef: Lose the filé! It’s a crutch. If I can make good roux, anyone can!