Cajun food and culture are often misunderstood in Denver, more than 1,000 miles from the heart of Cajun country in Louisiana. But Eric McDaniel, chef/co-owner of Magnolia Cajun Dining, which he just opened at 1446 South Broadway with his wife, Katie O’Loughlin, grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana, where gumbo, boudin and crawfish were as common as green chile, burritos and buffalo burgers are in Colorado.
McDaniel and O'Loughlin are bringing a taste of Louisiana to the mansion/restaurant that was most recently Acero Urban Cantina but has also been Crown Social, Cafe Cero and the Courtyard Restaurant, many years ago.
"There's a lot of culture on the plate, so it's personal to me," McDaniel explains of his new restaurant, which opened just before Thanksgiving. "Some of these are my grandmother's recipes."
This is the couple's first restaurant, but the chef ran a catering company in his home state and has also worked in a variety of other restaurants. Most Coloradans familiar with Louisiana cooking know it from trips to New Orleans, but McDaniel points out that there's a difference between the Creole cuisine of New Orleans and the food he grew up with. "Lafayette is the Cajun city," he states. "To me, restaurant food is Creole and home cooking is Cajun."
But with Magnolia, he's translating Cajun home cooking into elevated restaurant dishes. Part of that is insisting on Gulf Coast seafood for his menu, including Louisiana-sourced crawfish. While some chefs use crawfish from China, McDaniel points out that even frozen crawfish tails from Louisiana are better because they come packed "fat-on" (which isn't really fat, but the flavorful portion of the crustacean close to the head), which is what makes étouffée and other dishes taste better.
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You'll find crawfish étouffée and Acadiana crawfish pasta on the menu, along with catfish, shrimp and crab from Louisiana. McDaniel also makes three different kinds of gumbo, which he says evolved for different times of the year. The gumbo z'herbes is vegetarian because it was traditionally cheaper to make on a regular basis and also filled bellies during the meatless days of Lent and Good Friday. Magnolia's meatless gumbo is made with collard, turnip and mustard greens and is served with long-grain white rice. The seafood gumbo is made with crab, shrimp and oysters; McDaniel explains that it was made for meatless special occasions like Christmas Eve. And the celebratory andouille and chicken gumbo comes loaded with smoky, housemade sausage. One thing you won't find is a mixed meat and seafood gumbo, which the chef says isn't really part of the Cajun tradition.
"My parents had a small specialty meat market," he recalls, "so I learned how to make sausage when I was just a kid." In addition to the andouille, McDaniel makes his own boudin, served cased and poached or in deep-fried boudin balls. Another house specialty is the blue crab cakes made with bechamel as a binder; cormeal-crusted fried green tomatoes with remoulade; and the Swamp Witch po'boy, made with fried catfish nuggets and crawfish étouffée. At the bar, Sazeracs, Hurricanes and daiquiris are part of the Southern-themed cocktail roster.
The restaurant itself is situated in a Victorian house originally built in 1894. Fans of piano bars and antique shopping may remember when the place was Crown Social, offering a dark and intimate, if cluttered, bar experience, where nearly every antique on the floor or walls was for sale. McDaniel and O’Loughlin have brightened the place up with a new butter-yellow paint job, adding a more open, airy atmosphere that will feel even breezier once the doors open to the secluded back patio next spring. They've also hired a few fellow Southerners on the staff to add to the level of hospitality and expertise they're aiming for.
Magnolia Cajun Dining is now open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner from 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with Sunday brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Call 720-476-5518 or visit the restaurant's website for more details.