One of the remarkable things that came out of Hurricane Katrina was Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from the Times-Picayune of New Orleans. People were still digging out, the Lower 9th Ward was a shambles, but folks needed Grandma's etouffee recipe to feel whole again. Recipes can be like that in New Orleans: official as birth certificates, their twists traceable as family trees.
Most NOLA residents I know think there are two ways to make a dish: the right way (a.k.a. my way) and the wrong way (the way all those other chuckleheads make it). That's why I was scared for Suzanne and Roger Perry (Datz, Dough) earlier this year when they announced they were turning the defunct Wimauma space on MacDill Avenue into the Creole/Cajun-inspired Roux. I was hoping refrains of "that's not Grandma's etouffee" wouldn't make them rue their decision.
Their vision coalesced in a space that lacked pizzazz in a shopping center that has felt tired for ages. Not surprisingly, it has been a long slog — with permitting and equipment, with bringing in decor elements like a gleaming pressed-tin ceiling and loads of wrought iron, even with gussying up the shopping center exterior — getting it in shape. In part because of Datz's signature social media full-court press, South Tampa has eagerly watched it all unfold. And now they are hungry for Roux.
Make a reservation, folks, or you're likely to be disappointed. (Lunch will be added soon, with a quick in-and-out gumbos and po' boys menu that will probably be less mobby.) On our two visits, even having reservations had little sway over when we were seated.
On our first foray, we cooled our jets for 45 minutes in the bar, watching nattily clad bartenders riff swiftly through French 75s (Bombay, lemon, champagne and lemon zest; $10), Vieux Carres (Michter's Rye, cognac, sweet vermouth, Benedictine, creole bitters and housemade cherry; $10) and what ended up being the showstopper, the New York sour, a foamy concoction of scotch, egg white, lemon and a floater of cabernet making the whole thing fascinating and not too sweet ($10).
The house Bloody is a keeper, too, a flaming orange crawfish giving you the eyeball from the top of the glass of Hangar One chipotle, a yellow-orange tomato jam, Tabasco and a big hit of citrus, along with sneaky Cajun spices ($12). The wine list is a work in progress. The beer lineup hits some good local crafts and Louisiana nods like Abita, but the cocktails deserve the lion's share of your attention.
The food is a collaboration: The Perrys consulted with folks in Louisiana and did some major dine-arounds, ex-Rococo chef Richard Potts was brought on as the launch chef, and Dazzle (that's Datz's catering arm) chef Laura Schmalhorst has played a major role in getting the doors open at Roux. It's a tight, one-page menu that splits between straight-up New Orleans standards and some more whimsical interpolations of the glories of the Big Easy.
In that latter category, dishes like quail and waffles charm ($30): Two moist, crisp-skinned birds recline against fluffy sweet-but-not-too-sweet sweet potato waffles, spicy praline pecans and a puddle of what was advertised as a Barq's root beer reduction (I didn't really taste the root beer, but it read like an intriguing syrup). And in the former category, there are oyster options that would be right at home at Acme or one of the other NOLA biggies: Hay-smoked oysters (six for $14) are tender and just-smoky with a subtle Provencal butter; the chargrilled (six for $14) get a sumptuously rich cap of Romano, Parmesan and a bit of herbed butter.
Two textbook gumbos should silence any authenticity grumblers. A smoked duck and Andouille version ($11) is deeply savory, textural interest introduced by duck cracklings and sturdy grilled rusks of Leidenheimer (a fabled 105-year-old bakery in New Orleans) French bread brought in to serve a number of functions (the least effective of which is a tough bread pudding that lacks the pudding part). The other gumbo ($14) is a more demurely flavored melange of seafood, from Florida brown shrimp to fluffs of blue crab, trout and redfish, a scoop of wild rice imparting a toothsome nuttiness.
In recent months I've reviewed a spate of exciting new restaurants, and nearly every time, my biggest beef has been with pacing. Roux certainly suffers from pacing problems, both on the service side and in the kitchen, but management is clearly trying to remedy these bobbles. Still, I'm concerned that servers consistently fail to remember who ordered what and the young hostesses lack the necessary graciousness to gently break the news that the wait might be a doozy.
Once details of that sort get ironed out, this glamorous newcomer will be another feather in the Perrys' cap and a strong addition to South Tampa in a cuisine that is underrepresented. A Sazerac and an order of crab beignets? Let the good times roll.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.