Friday, March 11, 2011

Dinner and A Mix

It was Wednesday night and in nearby Breaux Bridge (LA) one of our favorite spots for music, Café Des Amis, had entertainment scheduled for dinner.

The main street was decorated for Mardi Gras, which seemed to set the mood for a fun evening.

We did not know The Nouveau String Band, based in Lafayette, but their web page stated that they "play a mix of blues, cajun, honkytonk and swing tunes that will get you stompin’ your feet and wigglin’, well, you know."

Always up for wigglin our "you-knows," we headed past the window where the band was setting up and a small line that was beginning to form and entered the café, grateful that we had made reservations for dinner.

As the group members finished preparing for their perfor-mance, we wondered what portion of their repertoire we would hear. Very early in the evening, the vocals of Dave Trainer (center, photo on the left) gave us an idea. With his animated rendition of "In the Jailhouse Now," we knew this was going to be a true "mix" of tunes.

Interestingly enough, later, while he was singing:

"In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
There's a land that's fair and bright,
Where the handouts grow on bushes
And you sleep out every night.
Where the boxcars all are empty
And the sun shines every day
And the birds and the bees
And the cigarette trees
The lemonade springs
Where the bluebird sings
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,"

we were singing the chorus of "Old Joe's Place" to ourselves:

"Well... there's... a...
puppy in the parlor,
And skillet on the stove,
And a smelly old blanket,
That a Navajo wove,
There's a chicken on the table,
But you got to say grace,
There's always something cooking at,
Old Joe's Place."*

We wrote about Café Des Amis as part of our November 2008 travels to the Lafayette area. At that time we told you about the history of the building and some of its unique furnishings. But, in case you don’t remember that blog (and I don’t know why you would), a brief recap follows.

“Café Des Amis has a rich history, starting with the construction of the building it calls home, circa 1890. Originally, it was a one story structure that served as a general merchandise store. Four years later, a fire broke out causing the need for reconstruction and the second story was added.... Caskets were manu-factured in the upstairs space, and they were moved from floor to floor by a hand operated Otis elevator.... It was the first elevator in Breaux Bridge, and one of the only in a rural area.... The hand crank mechanism which resides at the front of the restaurant was styled into a unique hostess stand... You can still find the original model and serial numbers on the gears.... The beautiful black walnut and marble 1920’s style stand-up bar came from the Evangeline Hotel in Lafa-yette... and had to be moved from a barn and heavily restored before it could be used in the restaurant” (from the restaurant’s web site).

All of the café’s white painted window trim is covered with the autographs of visiting celebrities and the musicians who have performed there.

Like the French Press in Lafayette, Café Des Amis menu is solidly rooted in Cajun culture. Soups include seafood corn bisque, turtle soup, shrimp and okra gumbo, and chicken and sausage gumbo. Café Des Amis is one of the few restaurants that we’ve found that serves their gumbo with a scoop of potato salad rather than rice.

Entrees include crawfish or shrimp etouffee, crawfish pie, catfish, and oven roasted rabbit.

But, to us, it was the list of appetizers that we found the most interesting, and we elected to share a mélange of four small plates. As you will see from the photos, none of these proved to be small.

As our first course, we ordered the BBQ Shrimp Pont Breaux Style and the Eggplant Wheels. These two represented the high and low points of the meal. When ordering what a menu calls “BBQ Shrimp” in Louisiana, you need to make sure how the restaurant defines “BBQ.” For the BBQ Shrimp as invented at Pascal’s Manale in New Orleans, you want large or jumbo whole (head-on) shrimp that have been cooked in a sauce containing some form of fat or oil, Worcestershire sauce, and various seasonings. You don’t want something slathered with red sweet and vinegary BBQ sauce. Fortunately, the BBQ shrimp at Café Des Amis were based on the Pascal’s Manale “mother” recipe.

The four shrimp came sitting on a large pool of rich and savory sauce with French bread toasts to help mop up all of the sauce. The downside was that they were very hard to peel which is usually a sign that the shrimp had been frozen and thawed or had been overcooked or had been harvested at the wrong time in their molting period. I don’t know what caused the problem here, but the shellfish were less than ideal.

On the other hand, there were the Eggplant Wheels which came with our choice of crawfish etouffee, shrimp etouffee, or crawfish au gratin. We chose the latter which was a rich, creamy, cheesy mélange flecked with pimento and studded with small crawfish tails. Three quarter-inch disks of eggplant had been coated with seasoned bread crumbs that texturally contrasted with the softness of the eggplant. I usually don’t like eggplant, but somehow the good folks of Louisiana can make me enjoy it. Along with the eggplant at Olivier’s in New Orleans and Chef Roy’s Frog City Café in Rayne, this was a dish that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Our second course included the lump crab cakes and the Shrimp Kidder. Now if you think that these look like the Prawns with Honey Walnuts that we enjoyed at Hunan Home’s in San Francisco, you’d be right. In this case, crispy shrimp were tossed with a honey-aioli and spiced pecans. The shrimp were cooked perfectly (Cajuns, along with the Chinese, know how to cook a shrimp.), but the sauce may have been both a bit too sweet and a bit too lemony.

We could have ordered the lump crab cakes either grilled or fried, and in the interest of our waistlines, we chose the grilled. The two good-sized cakes, which contained a mix of crab lumps and crab shreds, sat on a pool of smoked Vidalia onion cream sauce that was brightened with the addition of red pepper. To me, this was the second best dish of the night.

Too much food. Too much rich food. "Did you save room for dessert?” our server asked. We groaned in response.

This was a very good sampling of Café Des Amis’ food, but what, to me, were a couple of missteps kept it from being a 5.0 Addie meal. So, 4.5 Addies it was.

The evening ended with the band singing a song with a melody very similar to that used to sell the fictitious product, Powdermilk Biscuits made popular by Garrison Keillor of "A Prairie Home Companion" fame.

A "mix" indeed.

*From the 2003 "mockumentary,""A Mighty Wind," about a folk music reunion concert in which three folk bands must reunite for a television performance for the first time in decades. The Folksmen trio (Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean) sang "Old Joe's Place."

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