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Cuisine art // All in New Orleans' proud tradition

Lots of inedible reasons make a restaurant critic want to like a place: People seem genuinely nice or make a valiant effort, or the restaurant is in an unlikely spot, especially a downtown, or it brings a rare cuisine to an area.

I should like La Cuisine Louisianaise for all those reasons. A hardworking bunch of entrepreneurs created an affordable, full-service restaurant, and most remarkably it extends St. Petersburg's dining renaissance by a giant step across abandoned territory.

Trouble is, you can't eat "should's," and the Nibbler's goal is edible pleasure.

So it is with extra satisfaction that I report that La Cuisine not only should succeed, it will, because it has good food _ as well as good people and ideas.

You want to taste authentic gumbo? Have a bowl of La Cuisine's seafood gumbo, and order it spicy. It's dark brown, a little slippery and full of fire and goodies, including a crab claw floating on top. (The chicken-and-sausage version was too tame for me.) Likewise, fried green tomatoes here are the real thing, peppery and surprisingly flavorful things made from one of the most humble and tasteless foodstuffs.

While good Southern food may not be rare, authentic examples of Louisiana cuisine are. The current rage for Cajun has produced more bad than good. Just adding lots of pepper to disguise bad or bland food went out with the Middle Ages _ or should have.

However, La Cuisine is serious, even a bit pretentious, about the food it calls Louisianaise. Owners Donald and Lou Jean Green are big fans of New Orleans food, and both chef Angelo Jackson and manager Nash Lee, who doubles as a debonair maitre d', are natives of the Crescent City. They know its food has more shades than red-hot and blackened.

The secret, of course, is in the spectrum of sauces, roux and stocks that combine French tradition with American and African spices.

The signature dish, for example, is fish with a tart, rich sauce of artichokes, oysters and wine, a great combination. At my dinner, the fish was a broiled trout (which I would have enjoyed fried, as well, judging from a trout po' boy I saw at another table). And at Sunday brunch, you might find Oysters Rockefeller, grillades and other favorites from New Orleans' elegant side.

There's plenty of country cooking, like a pork chop smothered in brown gravy (too thick for me), but the best tastes come from Louisiana, like a po' boy of lightly fried oysters and shrimp creole. The latter may seem a simple standard, shrimp in tomato sauce, but here it's rendered with a fresh tomato sauce and a spicy tang.

Plenty of crawfish, too. There's a mayo-remoulade salad and an even better deep, dark etouffe, a sauce so rich it's almost caramelized.

Even better, there's a slew of vegetables and side dishes, from 75 cents to $2.25, to use as appetizers or to get a broader taste of Louisiana: great collard greens, mashed potatoes, red beans and rice, flaky, batter-fried onion rings, okra and even a hefty little crab cake. The only loser in the Nibbler's bunch was hush puppies that seemed hard and mass-produced.

Add some bread pudding with pineapple and raisins, and you've got a good taste of New Orleans. Feels right, too; Mardi Gras colors of green, purple and gold are always boisterous, but the sounds of the small jazz combo are soothing compensation.

It's a good start for a young restaurant and calls for a good follow through. I'd like to see the salad bar replaced with classier stuff, more vegetables (stewed okra, eggplant and stuffed mirleton, maybe?) and a good wine selection. And the kitchen must keep up the finesse to juggle all those sauce pots.

The decor is clean and simple but too plain inside and out. And while Bananas Foster might be a stretch, how about some beignets to go with chicory coffee? Presentation also must be prettied up; some plates had whole crawfish for a garnish, but others, especially side dishes, looked bare.

I have no doubt these corrections and other expansions and improvements will be made. On all my visits, the inedibles that impressed me most were the diligence of the service and management and the modernity of the operation (comment cards on the table, uniforms on the staff and a fax for take-out orders). The extensive training and supervision of the service staff was obvious: My servers were especially bright in food knowledge and tableside palaver and everyone seemed proud of the place.

They should be; thet'a the true spirit of New Orleans. It may call itself The City That Care Forgot, but the good times roll only because people there really care about food and service. They do at La Cuisine too.

WEEKEND NIBBLER

La Cuisine Louisianaise

1101 First Ave. N

St. Petersburg

821-0087

Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday-Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Reservations: Yes

Credit cards: AE, MC, V

Full bar

No smoking area provided

Access: Street-level entry; restrooms adapted.

Prices: $4 to $11.95

Other features: Children's menu, take-out, private room.

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