The Creole Thing
If I lived in New Orleans, I'd be fat as a bastard. Old-Southern-colonel fat, in a Borsalino damp around the hatband from sweating in the Delta sun, a white linen jacket with the pockets full of boiled crawfish, and étouffée-stained pants with steel-belted suspenders to keep them up. Every time I walked down the street, small children would point and tell their friends, "There he go. That's the Yankee what ate the bayou."
I'd be that way because damn if them Cajuns didn't invent some of the best food in the world. A little bit Spanish, a whole lot French, and flavored with the heat and humid soul of the American South. No matter what you want to call it -- Cajun, Iberian, Creole, Acadian -- it's a beautiful cuisine, global but grounded, complicated by touches of African and Southern Italian cookery, then juiced with a little gothic bog-water voodoo. There's magic in those kitchens and cook shacks, an alchemy mixing together a half-dozen competing culinary traditions, then drawing out one long, fine thread of historic dishes that American-born gourmands still lust after today. Gumbo, chicken stew, red beans and rice, étouffée, spicy fried chicken and rum-heavy umbrella drinks served in hurricane glasses the size of a 7-Eleven Slurpee: These were the gifts to our melting-pot culture from an unbroken chain of sweaty Louisiana chefs stomping 'round their galleys in bloodstained whites, gone a little crazy from the heat but still working wizardry with the peasant foods they'd grown up with. Bananas Foster from Commander's Palace -- the world would be a poorer place without that flaming, deadly, delicious dessert. Beignets and Café du Monde for breakfast. Po' boys in the Quarter. 'Gator on a stick, charred crunchy and black over open-flame braziers on the streets of Baton Rouge.
Cajun food was a true fusion cuisine long before there was any such word, merging the best tastes of the European canon with a Baptist picnic, throwing in some booze, sweat and sex, then cooking it all the way a jazz piano man plays -- in endless, looping riffs of improvisation and flavor, always returning to a solid center of technique and tradition. It's no wonder that New Orleans produced Lagasse, our first super-celebrity chef, as well as the granddaddy of them all, Paul Prudhomme, who was slinging catchphrases on the idiot box while Emeril was still making nickels turning dough in Fall River. And it's also no wonder that New Orleans spawned the first Girls Gone Wild video, since sex runs through the streets there bare-assed on a Saturday night, with everyone buttoning up again all nice and sweet for church come Sunday morning.
Sex and religion, food, booze and heat. In Louisiana, they realized a long time ago that none of these things are mutually exclusive. And while smarty-pants writers from all over now say things like "food is the new sex" and cooking the new revivalist religion, in New Orleans and Shreveport and Lafayette, in the food towns and downtowns and all those nowheres in between, they've known forever that food is sex, is religion, is everything. Taken all together, it's just life -- and a good one.
But Denver is a long way from the bayou, and Broussard's Creole Cafe is a long way from becoming the kind of Creole restaurant it wants to be.
Late last year, Joel Broussard took over the oversized space on Colfax Avenue that for decades was home to Pierre Wolfe's Quorum, then a string of unsuccessful restaurants ranging from Mexican to Indian and now Creole. Officially, Broussard's has been open for four months -- but it's been doing business much longer. While Broussard was still moving in, fussing with the kitchen and the menu, people from the neighborhood would wander in, demanding gumbo and cold beers. So long before the restaurant was ready -- but as soon as the awning went up and the smell of sautéeing onions and peppers, cumin and sweet sausage and gumbo stink started drifting out onto Colfax -- Broussard's began drawing a lunch crowd, testament to the magnetic pull of Creole cuisine. And the kitchen simply served anyone who came in, trucking out plates of whatever was on the stove that day: shrimp scampi, bayou chicken salads with green onions and strawberries, stewed chicken or jambalaya. That was smart business, a way to build a loyal following.
But now, months later, Broussard's is still doing the same. It's never moved beyond that phase of scrambling disorganization and seems to be locked into a constant soft opening, still working out the kinks. There are palm trees painted on the pillars that break up the left-hand dining room (the only one I've ever seen in use, and never at close to capacity); there's a giant 'gator painted on one wall, and another cut out of green construction paper and stuck over the doors to the kitchen. Above the windows hang party-store decorations -- streamers meant to look like hanging vines or willow moss, and giant paper bougainvilleas -- but at best, this looks like a space hastily dolled up for a rush opening, at worst like a frat house decorated for a tropical-theme kegger.
Broussard's has aspirations of being a fine-dining restaurant; you can see it in the polished glasses and flatware, the simple yet elegant plating, the flowers on every table and the servers in buttoned vests and white-over-black house livery. But those nice glasses are stuffed with paper napkins and the flowers fake and dusty. Kitchen crews and assorted back-of-the-house personnel always seem to be wandering around the floor in shorts and T-shirts, ducking in one door, popping out another a minute later like actors in a bad English farce. No one looks like they know quite what they're doing, and servers have a tendency to wander, slightly dumbstruck, as if every day were their first day and they're not sure what to make of these people sitting around staring at them.
The board of fare remains a guessing game and a gamble as well. Although the photocopied menu lists two entrees available each day -- red beans and rice and St. Martinsville jambalaya on Monday, New Orleans-style spaghetti and shrimp creole on Wednesday -- those offerings are often available on other days, too. There are also salads, a whole spread of po' boys and a variety of shrimp-centric dishes (shrimp scampi, blackened shrimp, grilled shrimp, lemon shrimp and so on, in Forrest Gump-style profusion), as well as real daily specials listed on a board by the door. When I stopped in for lunch one Monday, those specials were mostly salmon -- but since salmon doesn't appear anywhere else on the menu, they screamed "weekend leftovers," and I skipped them. Also, the bar was out of beer. There'd been a party, my server explained, and all that was left were a couple of bottles of MGD -- which was as good as having nothing at all. That wasn't the only shortage. The kitchen didn't have any oysters, and there were no beans or homemade potato salad to go with the chicken. But the kitchen did have Friday's gumbo, Tuesday's étouffée, and how about some shrimp creole? Broussard's always has shrimp creole.
Were Broussard's some Colfax shack with no fine-dining pretensions, you could forgive these lapses. The scattershot menu, the fingerpaint palm trees -- that becomes charming when you're in a place where all that matters is the food. But Broussard's isn't that place. It's an underpopulated, schizophrenic mess of a restaurant, and I'd say skip it and save your pennies for an off-season flight down to the Big Easy, except for one thing: The boys in the kitchen can really cook.
Somehow they manage to rise above their setting and knock out commendable Creole cuisine. An order of Monday's red beans and rice brought a big, shallow bowl of beans cooked in a ham stock with onions, rich and soft and creamy with Cajun spices and chunks of mild smoked sausage that played both bright and earthy at the same time. A sculpted mound of fat-grained white rice stood at the center, and on the side were two thick-cut pieces of crisp, buttery garlic bread carved from a loaf shipped up from a bakery in New Orleans. It was good. Better than good, actually: It was right. Not some cobbled-together simulacrum of Creole flavors made by copycats working from picture books and Food Network reruns, but the real deal. The beans and rice came with a side of fried chicken (okay, chicken wings done in a crunchy Southern-fried batter, but a nice touch nonetheless), and a bowl of thick, starchy brown gumbo rounded out the table. The gumbo was missing its shrimp but was still rich with spicy sausage, chicken and a heat that crawled right up into my sinuses and lit my brain on fire.
I asked for a po' boy to go -- crawfish, if you please, and wrapped for traveling, which is how po' boys are meant to be eaten. The sandwich came folded in waxed paper and closed in a Styrofoam box, with another box of Cajun-spiced, steak-cut fries that smelled great but tasted like spicy paste. Broussard's po' boys are made on that same imported bread, soft and chewy and dense the way it can be made only in a place that, contrary to all laws of physics, actually exists below sea level. I managed one bite before traffic convinced me to put the whole thing down on the passenger seat and just pick away at the fat breaded-and-fried bits of crawfish hanging out the side. Long before I arrived home, the bread was empty save for some limp lettuce and a couple of pickles.
Another day, I suffered through a slow, bumbling dinner service for a payoff of excellent étouffée, built up from a thick crawfish roux and layered with onion, celery and green peppers (the Cajun mirepoix) that had been cooked down slow and dirty until everything dissolved into a spicy-hot mush of intense flavors wrapped around big, tender hunks of pinky-red crawfish meat. It was the kind of good where you clean the plate fast even though you think you're eating slow, then wonder if anyone will notice you licking the china.
I dropped by early on Friday (stewed-chicken day) for shrimp creole (Wednesday's special), a wonderful, everything-in-the-pot sloppy stew of chunky tomatoes, onions, peppers and about a dozen competing spices dressing up lots of whole shrimp and another mound of white rice sprinkled with dried-parsley dandruff. And when I couldn't sit another minute in that doomed dining room, I ordered another couple of po' boys for the road -- grilled chicken this time, and fried shrimp doused with Red Hot. On my way to the car, I ran afoul of a panhandler in front of the Newhouse Hotel. He wanted money; I told him I had none. He said he was hungry; I told him he was talking to the right guy. I gave him the chicken po' boy and all those awful fries.
The other po' boy went on the seat beside me, flavoring every breath of my drive like an Emeril Lagasse-brand rearview-mirror air freshener. I cracked open the box before I was halfway home and started sucking down shrimp parts like a misguided killer whale at an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet. I couldn't help myself. Before I made the highway, I was staring sadly into another empty roll and licking hot sauce off my fingers.
I thought about going back to Broussard's for a second round. I even gave passing consideration to turning my car toward the heat and steamy passions of a Big Easy springtime, but decided that twenty hours on the road for a crawfish sandwich seemed a bit extreme. Instead, I headed for home. I had a can of Café du Monde in my cupboard, some ragtime piano jazz on CD, and for $19.95, I could order my own copy of Girls Gone Wild. Tomorrow, I figured, and for as long as it manages to hang on, the kitchen at Broussard's could take care of the rest.
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