There is a sound associated with New Orleans. And an attitude. And more than any city in America, there is a flavor associated with it.
Several flavors, actually. Sometimes New Orleans is hot and spicy. Sometimes it is rich and decadent, or sweet and a little messy. At any given time, a bite of any one of a number of classic foods from the city instantly transports you there.
That is, if you could find it outside the city.
For a cuisine so revered, it doesn't seem to travel well. There aren't many New Orleans-themed restaurants outside the bayou. In the past year, at least two that opened in the bay area were gone before the first rent check was due.
It's on its second name, but AnnaStella Cajun Bistro — previously Nola Café — has made it more than a year on Beach Drive in St. Petersburg. If it isn't hitting on every New Orleans cylinder, it is doing well with the flavor. So let's start there.
Soups, gumbos and rice dishes are a big part of the Louisiana menu, and they are here. The deep smokiness of andouille sausage comes across strongly in the chicken and sausage gumbo ($5.95 for a cup, $9.95 for a bowl), the jambalaya ($5.95/$9.95) and the classic red beans and rice ($5.25/$9.95). The gumbo is based on a dark roux — long-cooked oil and flour that does all the thickening work and creates a complex flavor. Jambalaya is the traditional Cajun dish of rice cooked in tomato.
All of those were fine representatives of the cuisine, though the prices, particularly on the cups, felt like they were aimed at a French Quarter tourist.
Those themes were ratcheted up in the crawfish etouffee ($7.95/$14.95). It is a stew of the regionally revered mudbugs that is based on a light roux. For a light roux, the oil and flour are cooked for less time, meaning the mix develops less color and flavor but has increased thickening power. The flavors of the meat and stewed vegetables were good enough that I might argue that an entree-sized bowl is reasonable at $15, but the small cup we tried seemed overpriced at $8.
Same goes for AnnaStella's take on a strictly New Orleans classic, turtle soup ($8.25/$12.99). Seriously thick, it has the overwhelming flavor of tomato. There is a lot of meat in there — turtle is rich and tender and reminiscent of dark meat chicken — but it becomes little more than a texture foil to the tomato. A potential fix: Thin it out with some water and add a traditional splash of sherry. The same sized serving could cost half as much and showcase the turtle better.
Po'boys, the city's take on the sub sandwich, get a big chunk of the menu. The shrimp ($9.95) and catfish ($8.95) versions took you straight to the Crescent City, with fresh fried seafood in crusty French bread. An alligator po'boy ($10.95) is more of an alligator burger, but that's good. The tender ground gator is a better fit on a sandwich.
There are other desserts available, but servers sort of presume you're going to want the beignets ($3.25 for three), and you do. You can't really go wrong with square doughnuts buried under an avalanche of powdered sugar. Especially with a cup of cafe au lait.
Speaking of coffee, let's talk about the atmosphere. The sidewalk seating, with its umbrellas and people watching, nails it. (Well, our sidewalks are cleaner. Probably a good break from authenticity there.) But inside, there is a sterility of a TV-set coffeehouse. New Orleans is gritty. The dining room needs a little attitude. And it doesn't need a souvenir stand with overpriced trinkets. Seriously, the French Quarter tourist traps are not the part of New Orleans you want to emulate.
And the soundtrack. New Orleans is jazz. Zydeco. Something. On our visits, we were listening to new age world music. Not the stuff of Preservation Hall.
Jim Webster can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8746. He dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.