"Why another Southern place?" That was my first reaction when I heard about Roux, the much-anticipated NoPo restaurant owned by Dwayne Beliakoff—of Bluehour and Zefiro lineage. There are already two Creole- or Cajun-inspired restaurants on Northeast Alberta Street. It seemed to me that another nearby would be overkill.
What I didn't know was how serious Beliakoff and his staff, including former Wildwood, Genoa and ripe chef Josh Blythe and his wife, dining-room manager Allison Blythe, were about making a truly exceptional restaurant, never mind the theme.
Once a curtain factory, the vast space can be ear-ringingly loud when it's busy—and it seems always to be busy. A defunct antique freight elevator, sparse wall decor and thin banquet seating can't absorb all the noise. Fortunately, the racket dissolves in the warmth of the attentive service. The staff here is remarkable; even though they're always slammed, they stop, listen and are themselves fans of the cooking.
Our waitress gushed about the crawfish pie ($8), a pastry shell filled with a creamy crayfish sauté; after one bite my companion dreamily gazed down at her plate and sighed, "It doesn't have to be that perfect, that buttery...but it is." In the same vein, I wished the "Croque Monsieur" salad ($8), with warm hunks of ham hock over partially wilted spinach salad, would never end.
Entrees have moments of similar greatness—not always, but mostly. Shrimp Creole ($16), the most recognizable New Orleans-style dish on the menu, features plump shrimp in a rich tomato and pepper sauce with a pleasant bite of cayenne. Another seafood dish, a crawfish-stuffed trout ($16.50) laying on top of a heap of drab mustard greens, though perfectly cooked, was disappointingly one-note in flavor.
It's easy for me to forgive a so-so fish dish when rabbit is done right, so by the time a crisp roulade of rabbit ($16.50) stuffed with spicy andouille-cornbread dressing paired with a sweet-sour jus conquered my palate, I had forgotten all about that trout. Best of all was a plate of moist, hulking short ribs ($18.50) with a slightly smoky edge and melt-in-your-mouth marbling good enough to prompt plans for my next visit.
And then there are the desserts by pastry chef Melissa Lehmkuhl, to whom I happily surrender my waistline. The dessert menu rotates, but on a recent visit a tower of frozen chocolate soufflé ($7.50) was reminiscent of a creamy chocolate pudding pop à la the '80s, dressed up with a crown of crisp brûléed banana slices. And a witty take on coffee and doughnuts ($6), with crisp homemade chocolate-dipped doughnuts sprinkled with chopped peanuts alongside a tiny mug of robust chicory-laced coffee ice cream, was truly a work of art.
Does Roux bring back nostalgia of the soulful food and atmosphere of pre-Katrina New Orleans? Yes and no. The kitchen uses a lighter hand and relies more on great ingredients than old Creole recipes. Still, I found the same keyed-up rush I've gotten from memorable meals in the Crescent City. For the time being, we'll all have to content ourselves with dining in places as good as Roux, until New Orleans is ready for tourists again.
Roux, 1700 N Killingsworth St., 285-1200. 5-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday, 5-9 pm Sunday. Deli open 11 am-6 pm Monday-Saturday. $$ Moderate.