The weekend before revelers descended on the streets of Soulard for Mardi Gras, I was warm and cozy, Hurricane in hand, at Evangeline's Bistro and Music House in the Central West End. Everyone was fully clothed and there was nary a bead in sight. Dixieland was in the air, and Abita flowed from the tap — it was more of an homage and less of a cliché than the wan and debauched imitation of New Orleans culture about to be peddled down the road.
Evangeline's, the brainchild of Illinois-based restaurateur Don Bailey, inhabits the Central West End corner formerly occupied by Coco Louco Brasil. Bailey and his team subtly transformed the place, opting for neutral banquettes, white tablecloths and dark wood. Floor-to-ceiling windows line two sides of the restaurant and bar area, bathing the space in a warm glow. There's not a stitch of NOLA kitsch in the place; instead, Evangeline's has the simple elegance of a boutique hotel lobby. Although Bailey has yet to put in a stage for live music, musicians currently perform in a nook at the front of the restaurant.
This is not Bailey's first foray into Cajun cuisine. His Millstadt restaurant, EurOrleans Bistro, also has a New Orleans flair, giving Bailey a place to perfect his recipes before bringing them to this side of the river. This experience is evident in the food. The "Crawfish Carolyn," a molten dip of crawfish tails simmered in a brandy cream sauce and topped with Parmesan, bubbles over its serving dish. To call it rich is an understatement — it's positively shameful. Our server wisely suggested that we choose the shrimp remoulade to counteract the heaviness of the Carolyn; the plump, well-cooked shrimp were chilled and tossed in tangy sauce. Evangeline's remoulade is a touch thinner than others I have tried, but it was pleasantly piquant. The shrimp were served with a spinach salad, (slightly over-) dressed with Vidalia onion vinaigrette, and romaine leaves drizzled with remoulade. Our server encouraged us to wrap the shrimp in the romaine, which added a cooling crunch.
The Tabasco shrimp was less impressive. If Evangeline's was going for a take on barbecue shrimp, this was a lesser version of the classic. While the sauce had a sharp, spicy flavor, it was too watery to stick to the shrimp. The marinated feta, on the other hand, was sensational. The salty cheese was treated with lemon, garlic and spicy Cajun seasonings then heaped on crusty French bread. Evangeline's served a generous portion, and I devoured every last piece.
Evangeline's hits the mark with its New Orleans classics. The blue-crab étouffeé was thick and rich, but white wine and some firm peppers, onions and celery balanced the dish with acidity and texture. The gumbo was tasty and respectable with a few caveats. The chunks of chicken were overcooked and tough, and it was a little looser and less spicy than other gumbos I have had. Still, it was chock-full of crawfish, shrimp, Andouille sausage and thyme for a warm and satisfying treat.
Bailey claims he was given Louis Armstrong's recipe for red beans and rice when he cooked for Hurricane Katrina victims in Baton Rouge. If this is the case, the jazz great's cooking is as good as his musical ability. The beans were perfect — soft enough, but still firm on the outside — and stewed with chunks of Andouille sausage and steak that added heartiness to an already filling dish. The beans were infused with smoky heat that was so subtle I didn't notice it until after I had swallowed a bite.
Evangeline's Andouille muffaletta po' boy seemed like a hodgepodge of a concept, but it worked really well. Thick chunks of Andouille sausage were stuffed into a soft French bread roll. The tangy olive salad, chunkier than the traditional muffuletta accoutrement, was more like giardiniera; its spice served double duty — it cut through the fattiness of the sausage and soaked into the soft bread like a sauce.
One cannot cap off a New Orleans-inspired evening without a Hurricane, and Evangeline's delivers a strong and tart version of the classic drink. Bailey admitted that the thought of buying a premade mix crossed his mind, but he quickly realized that a New Orleans establishment had to make its own. The effort pays off.
Mardi Gras may have come and gone, but the New Orleans spirit is alive all year at Evangeline's.