I've never been to New Orleans. I've come close to the Mississippi Delta through the writing of James Lee Burke, whose books featuring Dave Robicheaux, the Cajun detective, let me wander the back roads of New Iberia Parish looking for the tin-roofed roadhouse where I can eat an oyster po' boy and drink Jax beer. I might follow Robicheaux down to the Café du Monde for chicory café au lait and fresh beignets, or sit at the edge of Lake Pontchartrain cracking boiled lake crabs and pink river shrimp from an ice-filled bucket. Reading Burke's powerful prose, I can almost smell the humid, sea-tinged wind off the Gulf.
I'll get there one of these days. For now, though, I'll have to settle for Acadia, a comfortable little new restaurant on Northeast Fremont Street. It doesn't offer oyster po' boys, and local microbrews substitute for Jax, but Acadia's blend of Creole and Cajun dishes provides a glimpse into the richly complex cooking of the bayou country.
Like much of what we call American food, Gulf Coast cuisine mixes influences from all over the world. The Creoles, the descendants of the original French and Spanish colonists, adapted their aristocratic Old World recipes to local ingredients and flavors from the West Indies and Africa. When the British expelled French Catholic settlers from Acadie, in what is now Nova Scotia, the diaspora reformed in the swampy bayou lands west and south of New Orleans. The Acadians struggled for survival, along the way losing a little of their identity as the bayou patois shortened their name to Cajun. The Creoles tried to maintain their connection to the elegance they'd left back in Europe with elaborate sauces and subtle flavoring. The Cajuns were country folk who preferred to throw whatever they'd shot or caught into a single pot with some hot peppers and rice. But the differences, at least in the kitchen, have faded in the past hundred years.
It's risky to transplant a cuisine to another part of the planet. But chef and co-owner Bud Deslatte, who grew up in New Orleans, has done it before and seems to have the process worked out. He's opened restaurants in Atlanta, San Diego and San Mateo, as well as in his hometown. He and partner Rob Adams, who runs the dining room, fly in Gulf Coast seafood to combine with local ingredients. I can't tell you if this is just like what you'd eat if you were in southern Louisiana, but it does taste good. My favorite appetizer is an occasional special of big Gulf shrimp cooked in a little butter, Worcestershire and Tabasco, with the heads left on for more flavor. If that's not available, go with the Creole caviar ($5.95), shrimp and crawfish chopped into a coarse pâté, spiced with red pepper, and served with Pearl Bakery bread. Gumbo derives from an African word for okra, an essential ingredient in some versions of the eponymous stew. Acadia's seafood gumbo ($8.95) blends shrimp, crab and crawfish with andouille sausage in a dark, roux-based stock, nicely thickened with okra.
In New Orleans they call it drum, but Paul Prudhomme's blackened version made redfish a household word. At Acadia the lean fish is treated more gently in a dish called Big Easy ($17.95). Brushed with Dijon before baking and drizzled with a hint of hollandaise after, it's a delicious nod to the refined tastes of the Creole planters. Most of the other entrees reflect the earthy passions of the Cajuns. Crawfish étoufée--which literally means "smothered"--is a big mess of mud-bug tails in a dark, peppery sauce served over rice; a fried soft-shell crab shares the plate ($19.95). A nicely browned breast called Sunday chicken ($14.50), decent but by itself nothing to get excited about, comes atop a too-small portion of incredibly good cornbread dressing studded with crawfish and Tasso ham. Maybe you could ask for seconds on that dressing.
I'm probably in the minority, but the highly touted bread pudding didn't do it for me. I like a more traditional bread pudding, but most everybody else seems to love Acadia's hybrid with custardy crème brûlée, a white-chocolate Frangelico sauce and toasted pecans. And while many also prefer a simple cup of coffee, if you're going to open a restaurant in Portland without an espresso machine, at least offer a New Orleans-style chicory blend.
And maybe some of those hot beignets, too.
1303 NE Fremont St., 249-5001. 5:30-9:30 pm Tuesday- Saturday. Children welcome but uncommon. Moderate- expensive $$-$$$
picks: gulf shrimp, Creole caviar, seafood gumbo, Big Easy, crawfish étoufée
nice touch: They ship products in from the Gulf Coast.