It's been nearly 12 years since Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures forced Celestine Dunbar to close her beloved restaurant on Freret Street. Though she never stopped cooking — she showed up at festivals and took over a spot at the Loyola Law School cafeteria — it's taken time to find a permanent location, a place Dunbar and her loyal regulars could call home.
That home became a reality earlier this year, when Dunbar's Creole Cuisine finally opened. The restaurant occupies a large warehouse-style brick building on Earhart Boulevard. Walls adorned with a television screen and a few framed photographs give way to tall ceilings with steel rafters — a bare setting that doesn't do justice to the food coming from the kitchen. But what the restaurant lacks in atmosphere, it makes up for with the comforts of its down-home Creole cooking.
Meals begin with sweet wedges of flaky cornbread, a light and feathery cake-like version of the Southern standard that crumbles at the touch of a fork.
Dishes that have been in Dunbar's repertoire for years, like her crispy fried chicken, have found their way back to the table and are reason enough to visit. Red beans are particularly good — an impossibly creamy combination studded with smoky sausage bits — as is the gumbo, a swampy elixir that arrives chock full of crab claws, chicken bits still clinging to bone and plump shrimp bobbing at the surface. A dark roux lends the broth an almost muddy appearance, while the abundance of seafood makes for a delicious salinity.
Barbecued ribs are literally finger-licking good. The soft, fatty ribs are served dripping with a sweet glaze that pools on the bottom of the plate, sticks to your fingers and gives the meaty treat an almost candy-like appeal (just one napkin won't suffice).
While not overly exciting, seafood platters will scratch a fried seafood itch and fall within the industry standard, with shrimp and oysters encased in a thin batter that crisps but isn't weighed down by excess breading or oil.
There are dishes that feel less at home here than others, like a creamed spinach dip, a cheesy and tasty starter that's fine on its own but unfortunately was framed by stale tortilla chips way past their prime on one visit.
Sides make a welcome return to the familiar: Creamy pasta arrives under a blanket of melted cheese, a thick nest of mustard greens carries the smoke and essence of a meaty potlikker and a cooling potato salad is flecked with tiny bits of pickle and egg with a hint of brine.
It's hard to find room for more at the end of a meal here, but if there is, a piece of warm classic bread pudding summons instant old New Orleans nostalgia. Like everything that finds its way to the table at Dunbar's Creole Cuisine, its powerful transportive qualities serve as a homecoming.