By Victoria Pesce Elliott
It was after midnight when I got home from Christabelle's Quarter on a recent Saturday night. But still, I powered up the computer -- not to download my notes but to scope out housing and school prospects in Seattle. How could I stay in a city where this is what passes for fine dining?
The sad part is I had harbored high hopes for the Katrina refugee, though trusted New Orleanians had told me chef Alex Patout's Crescent City restaurant had been a tourist trap.
Still, I've concluded it is worth a visit just to see the three-story wedding cake of a restaurant, opened in summer 2007. It's stunning in an over-the-top, Vegas bordello way, with soaring ceilings, layers of intricate stained glass, ornate chandeliers, lacy ironwork and oil-burning lamps illuminating authentic-looking cobblestone streets.
A well-oiled jazz trio is hidden away in a corner of the second floor, but the music was mostly drowned out by a crowd that overflowed like so many of the women from their too-tight blouses.
The bartenders were overwhelmed and the waiters shell-shocked. Ours kept her head down trying to satisfy a herd of drunk bachelors. Still, the wine list is eclectic and thoughtfully selected, with a bottle of elegantly complex Spanish Marques de Grinon Summa Rioja value-priced at $42, a mere 50 percent markup from retail.
Tempting though it may be, don't bother ordering the sampler platter, a heap of fried gunk including eggplant sticks, stuffed mushrooms, crawfish tails and crab fingers plus oysters Alexandre and en brochette, crabmeat maison and a bland shrimp rémoulade. Only the creamy scoop of lump crabmeat with specks of mustard grains was worth eating.
With few exceptions, the fare can be categorized as bland and greasy or salty and sludgy. Missing in nearly all cases are the hearty and spicy flavors that have come to define classic Creole cuisine and its scrappier cousin, Cajun.
An overly thick roux base, for example, ruined an otherwise satisfying crawfish étouffée that on a later visit morphed into a slightly better Maine lobster étouffée. But both were so pasty it would be hard to stomach a whole bowl.
Doughy crab cakes soaked in oil and piled high with dusty bread crumbs have nothing going for them. Neither does a gummy bowl of linguine with baby shrimp and scrawny crawfish in a leaden cream sauce.
"In New Orleans we know this stuff isn't good for you, " said my friend Lynda, a Katrina refugee herself, as she swallowed a bite of messy eggplant pirogue. "But at least there it tastes good going down."
The few bright spots included smooth and spicy chicken and andouille gumbo, creamy crawfish bisque, snappy pork sausage and fresh oysters from the Gulf. Tough to screw those up. A perfectly tender and juicy whole rabbit, a Cajun classic cooked in a velvety, taupe-colored sauce dotted with green pepper, was a winner, too.
A second visit on a quieter Tuesday didn't improve matters, though a third and final attempt unearthed a great bread pudding with bourbon sauce and perhaps the best pecan pie I have ever tasted.
Its sweet, buttery crust encased a warm, quivery filling that tasted like a cross between maple custard and cinnamon French toast and was crowned with plump, sugar-glazed pecans. It could only have been better if served à la mode. Or, perhaps, if it had followed a good meal.
Christabelle's Quarter, 3157 Commodore Plaza, Coconut Grove; 786-517-5299, christabellesquarter.com.
Rating: ** (OK)
Hours: Tasting menu available 1- 5 p.m. daily. Dinner 6-10 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, 6-11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday.
Prices: Starters $8-$12, entrees $19-$32, dessert $6.
FYI: Reservations suggested. Full bar; corkage fee $15. Metered street parking; $8 valet service available after 6 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. AX, DS, MC, VS.
Christabelle's Quarter brings real New Orleans ambiance to Miami. Unfortunately, you can't eat the decor. Photo: Nury Vallbona