Bayou Barataria is not the wild beyond you might imagine when you think egrets, swamp tours and pick-up trucks with sparkling, cherry-red fishing boats in tow. Sure it's a drive, but during a season when salvation seems to depend upon eating as much seafood as you can muster, a drive is small beans. Once you've crossed the Crescent City Connection, you whiz by the gridlock shoving its way to the Marts and Clubs of Manhattan Boulevard. You cross the Intercoastal Waterway, slide down to Barataria Boulevard and careen past fuel pumps and pharmacies until you see a sign summoning you to Lafitte.
After dark, Highway 45 (a.k.a. Jean Lafitte Boulevard) feels like any windy, two-lane highway along which you pull to the side when cars made before 1980 approach from the other direction. You hurtle over short bridges and pass a bar called Pirogues and Gators, but when Boutte's red-letter sign shines at the distant end of a gravel driveway, you actually wonder where the water is. The route is different in daylight: houses on hills reveal themselves to be A-frames on stilts; soccer-field expanses beside the road become lawns manicured around statuettes of the Virgin Mary; some carports are actually boat ports, the water rippling right under the houses of committed fishermen. And in the light of afternoon, Boutte's cuddles up to the bayou.
From the outside, the wooden building looks like a house where Laura Ingalls Wilder would have lived had she journeyed south from the prairie. The consoling smell of a three-decade-old seafood house hits you immediately inside the door -- cleaning solution, cigarettes, fried seafood and spilt Tabasco. It swells in the wood paneling and buries deep into the indoor-outdoor carpeting. It's the kind of smell that makes you wonder who on earth orders the broiled chicken. There's a bar in one corner where the favorite mixer seems to be Jolly Good fruit punch; a slender staircase in the opposite corner leads up to a dining room overlooking the bayou. Despite employees who insist that guests from the city take in the vista at all hours, there is no vista at night; dinnertimes are cozier downstairs where locals eat with their families.
I'm aware that reporting on fresh seafood in a fishing village is like saying you'll find a few potato fields in Russia. Nevertheless, my first fried shrimp at Boutte's goes down as the single best fried shrimp that I've put in my mouth. The rigid flesh seemed to be still seething with a salty-sweet life force, as if intent on making its last performance one for the record books; tartar sauce and hot sauce were out of the question. As with Boutte's other fried seafood, the shrimp was battered with a heavy, peppery coating that stuck to it like a second skin. In other restaurants similarly hearty batters mask fishy odors and hide freezer burn; here, shrimp, oysters and catfish were more outstanding because of the strapping batter: their ripe flavors pulsed through it like the bass drum in a brass band. All three stay in the fryer just long enough to cook through, and platters are so generous that you won't be bothered that the soggy crinkled fries aren't worth the calories.
A spicy, soup-thin seafood gumbo crowded with shrimp, rice and a whole crab claw marked that first visit, as did dinner salads of shredded iceberg served with packets of whatever dressing you want, and appetizer shrimp so smothered by creamy orange remoulade that not even their figures were visible. A waitress in a two-piece, green uniform asked questions about city life with a removed curiosity that divulged her love affair with Lafitte, and she insisted we return for the stuffed flounder.
The gigantic flounder proved itself on the next visit with dark, broiled meat and a dollop of rich crabmeat stuffing. While other tourists (Metairie natives) sat outside on the deck, the upper room filled with so much sunlight that I needed sunglasses to appreciate it. My party shared the room with a table of golden girls who seemed settled in with a deck of cards and discussed the perils of fallen arches while rotating seats every few hands.
Though nothing but turtle soup went terribly awry (think weak coffee flavored with lemon rind), you'll fare best at Boutte's if you follow the straight fried seafood course. The crab stuffing made a fine garnish for the flounder, but depending upon it exclusively for personality made for monochromatic stuffed shrimp and crab claws; chicken-andouille gumbo boasted two tender drumsticks, but the seafood gumbo was much better; under-seasoned fried crawfish tails were just OK, and cocktail sauce was piquant but mealy.
Since the Lenten duty to eat seafood in these parts takes about as much resolve as giving up mountain climbing in Nebraska or subsisting on gelato for 40 days in Rome, it might behoove you to put forth some effort for your supper -- to break from the ease of your favorite oyster bar, to add a few extra miles on the odometer and to seek out a shrimp at its source.
- Cheryl Gerber
- BOUTTE'S BAYOU RESTAURANT owner Catherine Arenas, cook Nyree Bouisse and waitress Shirley Perrin offer a great view of the bayou while dining on their reliable seafood dishes.