Let's Get Ready to Gumbo

I'm homesick for New Orleans, though I've never actually lived there. Moist breezes blowing into sudden summer pyrotechnics. Distinctive architecture housing distinctive modern-art galleries. Tugboats guiding cargo ships up and down the muddy river. Dialects and accents blending as if in a Cuisinart switched on high. And over it all, the smell of hurricanes A a potent rum-based fruit punch -- practically drifting from the bars and clubs lining the streets.

Wait a second. New Orleans is starting to sound a lot like Miami, where I do live. We have skin-wringing humidity, thunder and lightning, pretty (old) buildings. We have what some people call art. We have tugboats on a river afloat with dead manatees and enough foreign languages to support a Berlitz school on every corner. And yes, we have hurricanes that can blow your mind -- away. No need to wax nostalgic.

So maybe all I've been missing is the food. I'm a sucker for the stuff. Sexy, spicy Cajun and Creole fare, the real passionate thing. But in spite of regional similarities that are impossible to overlook, Miami has never embraced the food that makes New Orleans a hot ticket on the national dining scene. Perhaps it's because we have New World, our own brand of fusion cookery. Or because we don't have Cajuns here and no one ever knew (or cared to know) how to grill a catfish fillet to a sweet and piquant finale, or how to steam a mean plate of crawfish. But most likely it's because the main ingredients needed are nonindigenous, necessitating compromises on the part of diner and restaurateur alike. The first is required to forgive small lapses; the other requires forgiveness.

Washington Avenue's newest and only New Orleans-style eatery, Petunias Restaurant, delivers what South Beach lacks -- jambalaya and shrimp Creole, blackened steak and stuffed crpes. Their dishes aren't the stuff celeb-chef Emeril Lagasse's dreams are made of, but they are the solid, workingperson's lunch or dinner, courtesy of the only city in the country that can match us table for open-air-cafe table.

Ron Studdard and David Osborn opened Petunias, sister to the St. Louis Street Petunias in New Orleans, a couple of months ago; I heard about it from a colleague of my husband's who was afraid it would go out of business without some help spreading the word. No wonder. Even for a local, it's a hard find A the 30-seat storefront is a narrow little niche, the name on the plate-glass window overshadowed by an awning. Inside, Petunias is an instant respite from the grit of Washington Avenue. Walls are sponge-painted varying shades of yellow, and bricks peek through at intervals, as if an older faaade lies underneath. (It doesn't.) Forest green N'Awlins streetlamps and framed Carnival prints accent the walls. A green-painted floor reflects the marble tables, some of which are covered by green cloths. Luxurious plants sprawl everywhere, giving the illusion of space.

Doubling as waiters, the partners hang around to chat and answer questions, fulfilling their menu-engraved promise of "sincere service." Seeing as how I've made a huge stink about the rotten treatment diners get on South Beach, I can't effuse enough about the royal treatment every customer is deemed worthy of here. Whether they be window-shopping foot traffic, potential customers peeping in or reading the specials board, or patrons who have come to stay, everyone gets a hearty hello.

Petunias's list of appetizers is limited -- too limited. We passed up fruit cup, shrimp remoulade, and shrimp cocktail and ordered the only hot starter available, a blackened Cajun crabcake ($7.95). This large flat circle, encrusted with spices and griddled, was mostly moistened breadcrumbs, interspersed with some lump crabmeat and some fake crabmeat, which the management concedes is used as a supplement (and which I generally despise). The flavor was like Cajun stuffing from a New Orleans Thanksgiving turkey. A zesty Creole tomato sauce, puddled on the plate along with rings of sauteed white onions and red and green bell pepper, helped. But only real crabmeat, and more of it, would earn my forgiveness here.

Main courses are more plentiful, both in terms of variety and portion size. Tossing a three-sided coin to choose among jambalaya, shrimp Creole, and crawfish etouffee, we wound up winning with the crawfish. The kitchen gets these crustaceans frozen, and steams them briefly before pulling the meat from the tails. About a half-dozen of the sweet, tender morsels were scattered on top of a bell pepper-tomato sauce, as if they'd been added at the last minute; this method prevented them from drying out. The spicy Cajun sauce, a little tame for those who seek fire, was a bit too salty but had great presence, served over perfectly cooked long grain rice. A crawfish head garnished the dish ($17.95).

If rice-based mixtures aren't to your taste, crà#pes might be. In a slightly muddled nod to New Orleans's French influence, Petunias offers three, each named after a different saint: Edith (cheddar, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, and chicken with hollandaise), Michael (broccoli, beef, and cheddar), and James (shrimp, crabmeat, onions, bell peppers, and cheese sauce). You don't need to martyr your appetite to enjoy one. Though we're used to crà#pes being fluffy little fold-overs with a thin smear of filling, the St. Michael was more like an overstuffed burrito, its flour shell encasing strips of tender steak and florets of broccoli smothered in a cheese sauce ($12.95). All the major food groups represented in one tasty swoop.

Catfish was a lighter meal, if you don't count the broccoli (unfortunately soggy) and grilled tomato with lemony hollandaise sauce that accompanied it. The fillet was dusted with Cajun blackening spices but grilled rather than pan-fried, leaving the fish moist and succulent instead of oily and crisp on the outside. The generous fillet was delicious, a real Deep South treat not often seen in these saltwater parts.

A nicety on South Beach, all entrees are accompanied by a wonderfully fresh house salad. The assortment of mixed greens, ranging from radicchio to dandelion, also featured tomato, cucumber, and crisp, garlicky croutons. We found a balsamic vinaigrette nicely balanced, but a blue cheese dressing had a commercial, tinny taste. (Only the house dressing, a creamy Parmesan-peppercorn, is mixed on the premises.) Though the salads are hefty enough to suffice as starters, we couldn't resist a cup of gumbo, which added only $1.95 to the price of an entree. The bargain wasn't the only pleasure: A rich broth, which tasted a bit like sausage and had a hot peppery finish, was rife with tomatoes and okra, with an occasional shrimp. White rice thickened the soup to a stew.

The great debate at lunchtime consists of which po' boy to order. We ordered the fried-oyster variety, buttery shellfish cloaked in a seasoned batter, then layered on a French baguette with lettuce, juicy tomatoes, and mayonnaise. The muffuletta was a cold-cut sandwich, mild salami, boiled ham, and provolone stacked on the bread with lettuce and tomato. An olive relish spread that had been cured in oil accented the meats with more garlic than olive flavor, it seemed. Powerful stuff. All po' boys come with a bonus, a side of red beans and rice. Kidney beans, plump from the outrage of boiling and zingy from a good dose of Cajun seasoning, crown the ubiquitous white rice. This can also be ordered as a whole meal, as can lunch-priced portions of jambalaya, shrimp Creole, or etouffee. Also, the same bread-and-crab stuff (mostly bread) that was fashioned into crabcakes at dinner is offered as fritters for lunch. The half-dozen golf-ball-size nuggets were deep-fried, crunchy on the outside and soft inside. We liked the tangy red pepper remoulade that came along as a dip, though the thin consistency and sharp taste of vinegar made it seem like a salad dressing. (Next time I'll get that for my greens.)

Petunias has the requisite bananas Foster A but frozen rather than flaming. A crà#pe large enough to serve three was filled with vanilla ice cream, then covered with warm caramelized bananas. The soft fruit was a choice, mellow contrast to the ice cream. But the caramel sauce, comprising rum, brown sugar, and vanilla, was grainy from too much sugar ($8.00).

Petunias lacks hurricanes (beer and a short wine list suffice). I can forgive that, too. We don't need to drink 'em. The rainy season's just about here, and we'll be tracking 'em soon enough.

Petunias Restaurant
1321 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 534-6883. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. until 11:00 p.m.

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