Pizza is not the first thing that pops into your mind when you think about the food of New Orleans. Oysters, sure. Crawfish, you bet. But pizza?
Like most cities, of course, New Orleans has some decent pizza places (my favorite is Mama Rosa's on Rampart Street), but few people who live outside Louisiana know about them--or care. Which is why it seemed an odd choice that Laura and Michael Brody went with a New Orleans theme when they opened Bourbon Street Original Pizza Bar a few months ago. Laura's explanation: "Because we don't serve Italian food, we wanted to come up with a theme, any theme, that distanced us as much from Italian food as possible. Michael was brainstorming one day and all of a sudden asked me, `What do you think of when you think of Bourbon Street?' I said, `New Orleans, good food, good times. Mainly fun.' And at that moment it was a done deal."
Although the New Orleans influence is apparent in the decor, the Brodys stopped short of evoking the real Bourbon Street: This place is too clean and trendy to be located in the heart of the French Quarter. And given their no-smoking policy, no hazy, bluesy cloud hangs over the dining room (you won't hear me complain). But as for good food and good times, well, they've got something there. Not only are the pizzas noteworthy, but live jazz on the weekends adds just the right spice.
When the bands aren't around, zydeco bounces from the speakers. You can run with it by trying the Cajun Alligator pizza ($7.50 for an individual-size pie), made not with alligator meat but a potent, spicy turkey sausage. Fighting fire with fire, the meat sits on a pool of hot sauce; it's buried beneath a comfortable layer of mozzarella (your choice of regular or part-skim), and a sprinkling of roasted garlic cloves, red and green bell peppers and sliced onions. The key ingredient, though, is the ranch dressing drizzled across the top: cooling, but with flavor that adds rather than detracts from the overall effect. (We'd been so unnecessarily fearful that we'd ordered the ranch on the side.) True heat-misers can make matters even more dangerous by ordering the pie on Cajun jalapeno dough. As thick and chewy as Bourbon Street's regular shell, the Cajun is flecked with green-chile flakes and rife with cayenne.
The Bourbonschnitzel ($7.50) offers an even more unusual combo. What made anyone think that a pizza covered with bratwurst, smoked Gouda, mozzarella, sauerkraut, mustard and onions would be tasty, I don't know, but I'll be damned if the result isn't great. Gouda, an Amsterdam cheese that sounds a bit far afield for a German-inspired dish, has a tendency to be too smoky and overwhelming, but here adds only a welcome hint of flavor. The bratwurst is a high-quality, spicy pork sausage that's cooked until the edges are slightly crunchy and the inside still juicy and a tad greasy; it's offset by just enough of the well-drained sauerkraut. And the mustard, Dijon-style but champagne-based, is the icing on the pie.
Bourbon Street's tomato sauce is on the sweet side and heavy on the basil, which nicely complements the kitchen's more piquant ingredients, particularly the garlic on Dracula's Nightmare ($7.50). The Count himself would be kept at bay by this one: Garlic, garlic and more garlic is roasted and placed alongside either thick-sliced, highly seasoned pepperoni or the aforementioned turkey sausage. Dracula's mozzarella is paired with a Muenster so mild we couldn't tell it was there, but the other components meshed so well that we didn't miss it. The ingredients in Cheese to the Fourth Power ($6.95) make a less successful match: Here the smoked Gouda waves a big flag while the other three cheeses--mozzarella, cheddar and Asiago--melt into the background. Still, at least the pie has the proper ratio of cheese to sauce, and by baking it in a regular pizza oven (the Brodys say they resisted the temptation of a wood-burning model because of environmental concerns), the kitchen kept the Asiago from overcooking.
The only pizza that failed to please was the Manhattan Mardi Gras ($5.95), which set itself up by proclaiming to be "an honest-to-goodness New York-style gooey cheeze pizza," the sort that requires each slice to be folded in order to keep the sauce and mozzarella from "running down your chin." But the only resemblance our pie had to New York pizza was that it involved cheese, tomato sauce and dough--and at that, Bourbon Street's crust stands about three times as thick as that of the traditional New York model. Ironically, Bourbon Street's "Manhattan" model has way too little sauce, even for a non-New York pizza; the cheese is fine but not in the least bit gooey; and it's covered with a layer of oregano that rivals our worst snowfall this winter (fortunately, I was with close friends who let me know every five seconds that I had the herb stuck in my teeth). Then again, I've never felt full after eating New York 'za--definitely not a problem here.
In fact, the individual-size pizzas were all we needed at lunch. We were hungrier at dinner, though, and decided to add to our meal by trying a few sides. The house specialty soup is carrot ($1.50/cup, $2.50/bowl); Laura, who makes all of the desserts and created the pizza combinations, laughed when I later asked about her carrot soup recipe. "It's hard to get people to try it," she said. "It hasn't been selling well. I think everyone's had some carrots-from-hell experience in their childhood, and they don't want to relive it. So one day we decided to call it `smooth and spicy Southwest vegetable soup,' and we sold out of it in the middle of dinner. So from now on, that's what it's called."
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Whatever they call it, it's fantastic. Smooth and spicy only partially describes the taste; it has a faint curry flavor and reminded me more of a light, creamy squash soup than carrots. The other soup we sampled, a standard cream of asparagus (same prices), was less intense but got the job done.
The mixed-green dinner salad (95 cents with a pizza, $2.50 alone) brings a fresh pile of romaine lettuce with a few field greens thrown in; it came with the ripest roma tomatoes I've seen in a long time (even though many chefs consider roma only a cooking tomato, I thoroughly enjoy them raw), shredded carrots and crisp croutons. Even better was the accompanying warm, puffy breadstick made from regular pizza dough, and a side of fresh, vinaigrette-style Italian dressing that actually benefited from the overdose of oregano, as well as a healthy helping of black pepper.
And the meal got even better when dessert time came around. The Bourbon Street Pecan Pie ($2.95) is unquestionably the best I've ever had. Heavier on the corn-syrup-and-egg part, the pie contains a generous helping of well-aged, smooth bourbon and just the right number of sticky pecans. Laura's Frozen Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Dream ($3.75) is a kid's (okay, an adult's, too) fantasy: A thin slab of frozen cookie dough sits beneath a scoop each of chocolate chip and mint chocolate chip ice creams with a chocolate chip cookie sandwiched between.
When I think of New Orleans food, it's of a cuisine that prides itself on melding diverse ethnic ingredients and a lighthearted approach to cooking. Bourbon Street Original Pizza Bar is certainly in the neighborhood.