Thursday, November 6, 2008

Second Time Around--15 Years Later

During our first trip to Lafayette-Acadiana Louisiana (six parishes, including towns and cities from New Iberia to Abbeville to Crowley to Lafayette to Opelousas), we were told that Prejean’s restaurant was a “must go to” place. Well, we went, were not impressed, and did not return on subsequent trips to this area. So I was surprised to find a restaurant review web site that contained numerous reviews praising the restaurant’s food. As a result, 15 years after our first visit, we decided to give Prejean’s another chance. We have been back twice. (Greeted by this gator both times.) Either we were there on an off night on the initial trip or the food has improved immeasurably, but the two meals we had in the past two weeks were excellent.

The first trip was for a Saturday lunch. We discovered that having the dinner menu in effect for the entire post-breakfast day is the norm for Saturdays. Both our meals began with salads with the house dressing, parmesan vinaigrette with a hint of Cajun seasoning that lent a faint orange/pink color and a touch of spice. The greens were iceberg lettuce, and after having too many limp field greens in recent months, crisp iceberg was just fine.

Chuck’s meal (Shrimp Louella, below, right) and mine (Crab Cakes Covington) both came with a side of rice dressing and a side of Corn Macqué Choux (pronounced “mok shoo”). Rice dressing, also known as “dirty rice,” is white rice mixed with a form of ground cooked meat and seasoned. The ground meat can be beef, pork, sausage, or ground gizzards and livers. My past experiences with rice dressing have not been positive but this was delicious. The meat and rice combination was moist and seasoned with a fair amount of black pepper.

The Corn Macqué Choux (think of a fancy creamed corn) was served in a tart-like shell that seemed to be a cross between corn bread and shortbread. The corn was mixed with chopped onion and sweet red peppers and seasoned with a Cajun spice of some type.

Both entrees were excellent. The crab cakes were a mixture of seasoned claw, back fin, and lump blue crab meat, covered with bread crumbs, and lightly fried. Then the crab cakes were covered with crawfish Sauce Louis – a combination of mayonnaise, heavy cream, green pepper, and chopped green onion. Normally, Sauce Louis contains chili sauce but I didn’t detect any in this preparation. While the crab cakes were delicious, I was hoping to find more jumbo lump than these contained.

The Shrimp Louella were four jumbo shrimp topped with a crabmeat stuffing that tasted faintly of crawfish boil and then topped with a crab butter cream sauce. I could have eaten a dish of the crabmeat stuffing alone – it was that good. (Had this been dinner, we would have heard a Cajun band during the meal.)

We returned for a weekday lunch and began with two cups of chicken and sausage gumbo. Now gumbo (African for okra) is a traditional Cajun staple that begins with cooking flour and fat until the mixture reaches a chocolate color. At this point, the roux serves less as a thickening agent and more as a seasoning. For thickening, okra is frequently added along with a tableside application of filé powder. The trinity of Cajun cooking (chopped onion, green pepper, and celery) is cooked with the finished roux, meat and sausage or seafood, and stock. Gumbo is served with white rice (preferably on the side) that helps soak up all of the flavors. When done well, gumbo is a symphony of flavors. When done badly – well, we won’t get into that. This was one of the best gumbos I have eaten in any of my trips to Louisiana.

My lunch entrée was the crawfish po’ boy (left, photo below). As someone who has suffered from too much soft fluffy bread the past four months, to have a sandwich on a roll that had some chew, some tooth resistance, was a real treat. The roll was stuffed with good-sized battered and fried crawfish that were seasoned with Cajun spice, and the sandwich was “dressed” – as they say here – with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise. This might not sound exciting to you – but it tasted wonderful to me.

Chuck chose the Blackened Shrimp Skillet Creole – six large and blackened shrimp on a bed of red beans and rice with discs of spicy sausage. When I saw this placed on the table, I was concerned that the shrimp had been overcooked – and we all know how painful that can be. Not to worry – somehow the kitchen managed to blacken the seafood while retaining the crisp shrimp texture. The blackening seasoning was highly seasoned (I say highly seasoned as opposed to SPICY!) did not overwhelm the sweet shrimp taste.

Now I will throw my customary modesty aside and admit that I make a killer red beans and rice. The basic recipe comes from one of Emeril Lagasse’s cookbooks, but I have tweaked it somewhat. On the two other times Chuck has ordered red beans and rice during the past two weeks, his first comment is that mine is better. So imagine my distress when he took one bite of Prejean’s, raised his eyes to the heavens, and told me that I had to take a taste. Fortunately, he had the wisdom not to answer my query as to whether he thought these better than mine. I have to admit if not better, these come very close. With just enough liquid to surround the rice without being “soupy”, with just enough seasoning to be interesting, and just enough sausage to impart flavor to the beans – this was a masterful serving of this Cajun classic.
I am certainly glad we decided to give Prejean’s a second (and third) chance.

My only complaint – and this will be reflected in the rating – is that a restaurant of this caliber, whose kitchen executes complicated entrees like the Shrimp Louella and seasons foods to complement and not overwhelm, has no business serving those tablespoon size tubs of “churned spread” instead of real butter with very good French bread. So I am going to deduct one-half an Addie and rate Prejean’s as a 4.5 Addie restaurant.

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