If you've had the happy experience lately to visit a familiar house and discover a glorious post-storm renovation -- something beautiful born from the catalyst of catastrophe -- then you already know what it's like to walk into Caf Atchafalaya for the first time since it closed last year.
In this case, though, it wasn't a hurricane or even a levee failure that prompted a major overhaul, but rather a stolen SUV that was rammed through its dining room a few weeks before last year's storm. Repair work revealed that the little rooms of the one-time corner store could be reconfigured as one large room and owner Tim Howard went to work on a meticulously detailed renovation.
Now, subdued, romantic lighting shines on freshly resurfaced woodwork; a patchwork of old window frames divides the large dining room from the newly-built bar; and outside, a frying pan sculpture the size of a satellite dish sits against the earthy patina paintjob of the old building's weatherboards. If the place was not being used as a restaurant, it could easily take up life as an art gallery.
Despite the fancier digs, Caf Atchafalaya retains its long-time place in a tricky local niche. It rises well above neighborhood joint status, but its ambitions seem to reside below the ranks of fine dining. This is not the place for breathtaking cuisine, and at times the comfort food aspect succumbs to sloppiness. But the restaurant's strong suit has always been as a casual caf for generous portions of food more closely associated with the rural South than the city. That's what it still delivers.
Mid-range pricing is also part of Caf Atchafalaya's niche. The only dishes to break the $20 threshold are the veal Oscar and the rib-eye, though neither are the restaurant's best offerings. The veal is a one-dimensional cutlet not helped much by a Hollandaise sauce and a portion of crabmeat. The rib-eye is enormous but was poorly cooked when I had it.
Starting at the other end of the entre price scale brings one of the most interesting dishes, a serving of chicken and dumplings at $13. This is a concoction of stewed chicken in a white gravy sauce with plenty of pepper. What's different about this version is the "dumpling" part -- instead of the usual loose tears of biscuit dough, the stew is thickened with German-style spaetzle, or small, soft nubs of dough. More than just an international affectation, the change adds a nice, smooth mouth feel to this warming and hearty one-dish meal.
The pork chop is another good choice, served as a large cut glazed in a sauce reduced from root beer and seasoned deeply throughout. This is one of only a few dishes the kitchen automatically rounds out with side dishes, but you can bulk up the a la carte entrees from an assortment of homey side dishes. This is where the restaurant is its most Southern with dishes like stewed okra and tomatoes, collard greens and black-eyed peas. The broccoli souffl sounds good but has no flavor beyond wet broccoli. Much better are the baked Vidalia onions, which are tangy sweet, and the corn fritters -- little nuggets of batter with mildly creamy interiors of crisp, sweet corn kernels.
The kitchen has a tendency to overdo its seafood dishes with too many competing flavors. The rainbow trout is heavily battered and fried, which masks the delicacy of the fish, and the same holds for a dish called redfish Louisiana. Both are topped with a rich, cream sauce studded with crabmeat and both are served in very large portions. The grilled fish choices are much better, especially a recent special of a tuna steak lightly marinated and vivid with the golden, meaty flavor of the rare fish.
The most appealing appetizer here is called nutty shrimp, which are large fried shrimp given a boost of crunch and flavor with pistachios minced into the batter. These are arrayed around a bowl of sweet-spicy jalapeno pepper jelly sauce that works perfectly with the flavor of the shrimp. When served with fried chicken livers, the same sauce does a good job of cutting through the intense liver flavor.
The amazing hearts of palm salad was recently rotated off the menu, but certainly order it if it reappears. The best parts of it turn up in its replacement -- a shrimp salad made with the same white, zesty French-style remoulade drenching nicely peppered chunks of cut-up shrimp over crisp butter lettuce.
The laid-back vibe of Caf Atchafalaya works well at brunch and walking to the restaurant past the columns of oak trees and colorful old houses along this stretch of Louisiana Avenue on a sunny day is a particular delight. A few of the dinner entrees show up on the brunch menu -- like the quail and the soft shell crab -- but the best bets come with the breakfast fare. While the "Decatur sauce" ladled over a collection of butterflied shrimp with grits was undercut by an oddly fermented aftertaste, the Creole crab cakes were spot-on with a high proportion of crabmeat under a crunchy, fried crust, each one topped with a poached egg and Hollandaise spiked with Creole mustard. Also very good is the pain perdu, here stuffed with blueberries and just enough brie to temper the very sweet Chambord syrup liberally applied over it.
A year into New Orleans' sometimes frustratingly slow recovery, it's helpful to remember the silver linings of all the improvements being made around town. Caf Atchafalaya shows that sometimes even a careening SUV can have a silver lining.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Chef John Calon cooks inventive Southern cuisine at the renovated Caf Atchafalaya.