My wife and I were graced with a special dinner guest when we dined at the grandiose new Christabelle's Quarter in Coconut Grove: Bozhan Arizankovski, our 17-year-old summer visitor from Sköpje, Macedonia, whom we have known since he was a wee lad. He is an extremely smart young man; exhibits polite, Old World manners; and loves hip-hop. (When he told me this, I was luckily able to think quickly on my feet and apologize for our stereo being broken.) Bozhan had never been outside his country before, and was just two hours removed from his first intercontinental flight, so I figured a gargantuan restaurant specializing in unique American regional cuisines (Cajun/Creole), with unique American regional music (live Dixieland jazz), would be a splendid way to instantly introduce him to our unique (and oversize) American quality of life. On this Friday evening, however, Christabelle's was more madhouse than restaurant — and I'm not even referring to O.J. Simpson holding court in the third-floor lounge.
You've heard of the Big Easy? This is the Very Big Easy — three sprawling floors accessed by a grand staircase (and elevator). Owners John El-Masry and Kim Koch commissioned architect Carlos Perez da Costa to whimsically re-create the Bourbon Street style of French Louisiana architecture — inside and out. He has done so magnificently, achieving a N'awlins courtyard ambiance by way of a brick wall façade broken up by wood shutters on faux windows, and ornate wrought-iron railings ringing the perimeter. Diners peering down from those railings are privy to a bird's-eye view of the foyer below, which is filled with tables and a 1200-gallon exotic fish tank. The rest of the rollicking décor is a gaudy gumbo of flickering gas streetlights, stained glass ceiling domes, murals, tapestries, 40 chandeliers, a fireplace, and three 60-foot-long antique mahogany bars (one per floor). There is an outdoor patio on the top level.
We had tried making reservations a few days earlier, but because the restaurant was booked solid, we went with the back-up option: appetizers at the second-floor bar, which placed us amid a mash of club thumps from the upstairs lounge and live jazz from the other end of the room. It's difficult to say if the mix worked, for the cacophonous din of the crowd pretty much drowned it out. The place was as loud as Friday-afternoon happy hour at Mardi Gras, and even as loud as restaurant/bar neighbor Mr. Moe's, which is owned by the same folks as Christabelle's.
Our first plate contained a three-pound mound of steamed Louisiana crawfish culled from the Mississippi basin. They emitted a scintillating scent of cloves and Old Bay seasoning, but the bodies, which have to be sucked from the shell, were puny — not the sweet, meaty morsels one would hope for. Bozhan seemed less than enthralled with what he described as "thumb-size lobsters." A piquant chicken and andouille gumbo was much better; its deep, beefy base was enlivened through onions, celery, garlic, and peppers. Duck and oyster gumbo was good, too, although the unusual pairing might put off unfamiliarized palates. I wonder why they don't serve rice with this.
Christabelle's combo starter platter resembled the sort of slapdash smattering of mostly fried foods you'd expect to be served if Mr. Moe's ever held "Bayou Party Night." Crunchily fried eggplant sticks, a clump of lumps of crabmeat imperial tossed with mustard dressing, and spicy shrimp rémoulade would have composed a satisfactory trio, but a baked oyster Alexander was suffocated in a sludgy heap of shrimp/oyster/parmesan mix, crawfish remained scrawny in a fried guise, and soggily fried catfish tasted as if it were suffering from jet lag. Pretty glum gastronomy to be sure, but impressions left by starters eaten at a packed bar, in a recently opened restaurant, offer only the limited perspective of a dazed tourist's snapshot. We'd return at a saner time for a fuller picture. And when Bozhan was a little more awake.
The second visit brought double reservations — meaning we had booked in advance and were slightly skeptical of the food to come. We were seated downstairs instead of at an empty four-top that was seemingly available on the more intimate second level, where tables are clothed in white linen. A clumsy explanation ensued, but the manager treated us to a round of drinks, which was a correct and graceful way to handle things. It seemed, to Bozhan and my wife, that perhaps our waiter had been treated to a round of drinks as well. I preferred to attribute his erratic behavior to quirky personality traits. He was, in his own way, a personable fellow, and wasn't half bad at service — more like quarter bad, because he was overly chatty, brought us the check after we had asked for the dessert menu, and relied on irony to a far greater extent than any waiter should. His über-quirky moment came as he informed me, in absolute terms, I was not going to like the crawfish etouffée I had just ordered.
"How come?" I asked.
"I'm not at liberty to say," he replied in an ominously lowered tone of voice that a spy in imminent danger might use. I went with the "Cajun smothered roasted duck" instead.
I didn't like the duck. At least not the skin, which was squishy, nor the smothering, which was really just a dull brown sauce. The bird was tender, though, and imbued with full, unsmothered duck taste. Entrées come à la carte, so we ordered a couple of the family-size sides: a smoky white bean casserole tastefully tinged with tasso ham; and candied, bourbon-infused, pecan-studded sweet potato casserole, which will thrill those who crave sweetness during the main course. Others should consider it for dessert. Seriously. It's a little like Louisiana sweet potato pecan pie, but with fewer nuts and no crust.
A blackened drum fish, which is the new blackened redfish (a drum relative), arrived thick, moist, and with requisite heat inspired by white/black/red peppers and spices. But it was limply sautéed, not sizzlingly seared, and more accurately would have been called a beiged drum fish. We poured our choice of distinctive seafood side sauces, crab fat with vanilla bean, over just about everything. It is, as you might imagine, extremely rich — and as you might not imagine, very delicious.
Other fish selections come grilled, broiled, blackened, or fried, and specialties of the house include oysters flown in daily from New Orleans and dry-aged steaks and chops. Bozhan was given "Veal Louisiana." (I'm not heartless; I checked with him first to make sure he was all right with my choice.) What did he think of the willowy veal cutlets, thinly breaded and capped with a toothsome tangle of crawfish, shrimp, and crabmeat? "On a scale of one to ten, I'd give it an eight."
There is no rice, beans, and andouille sausage dish on the menu. No dirty rice, jambalaya, crawfish pie, me-oh-my-oh. Not even a decent biscuit or cornbread stick to start the meal, but rather stiff white or wheat rolls (though the gutsy garlic-cayenne butter was almost good enough to rescue both). At meal's end, a silver dessert tray brought to our table contained three tired specimens, each looking like the pastry equivalent of a used car. We selected bourbon bread pudding, which was nothing to get drunk over. Better to accomplish that by way of an excellent and extensive wine list of vintage bottles at a reasonable markup.
Christabelle's executive chef, Alex Patout, left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina with little to his name, but before that, he helmed an eponymous restaurant in the French Quarter, to great acclaim, for sixteen years. He is too talented for the food to be this blasé. One problem, but not the only one, is that an operation this large and ambitious requires more time to find its footing than does a smaller venue. In the near future, a lunch and weekend jazz brunch will follow, as well as evening concerts featuring jazz, R&B, gospel, and Cajun music — a means of Patout helping his musician friends get back on their feet.
I'll give Christabelle's plenty of time before I return to investigate lunch and brunch — and to finally try the crawfish etouffée. Bozhan sadly will be gone by then, and I expect that our stereo will have begun to work again.
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